In 2016 Damien Leith had a limited run of shows performing some of Roy Orbison’s best-known songs – and the response was so good that he’s now taking that show to many and varied parts of Australia. I spoke to Damien about the genesis of the show and the importance of Roy’s music, amongst other things. Tour dates at the end of the post, or visit damienleith.com.au.
How did your tour last year go?
It was brilliant. It was big, though – it went on for a long time. I think in the end we did about forty-five shows. So it was non-stop.
I remember when I interviewed you about that tour you said you like to run when you go to towns and that’s also a way of keeping fit for the tour. Did you manage to keep yourself fit and healthy?
No [laughs]. There’s no point in lying. I started off with the best of intentions and then I think I got a little bit lazy as time went on. But this year has started well. I’ve kicked in this whole fitness scheme, so I’ve got a good feeling about it.
And it’s good for your lung capacity, of course, to keep yourself fit.
It’s good for everything. There’s no excuse not to be doing it. I just got lazy, that was really it [laughs].
The nature of travelling from town to town can sometimes be an enemy of the sort of routine that you need for fitness.
That’s right. Sometimes you’ll get off a plane or you’ll drive for five hours and actually the last thing you want to do is run, even though you know you’ll feel better for it. Like I said – laziness, that’s all it was.
Looking at your upcoming tour schedule, I don’t know that ‘lazy’ is a word we’d apply to you. I’ll start to ask you about this tour by asking you when you first heard the music of Roy Orbison.
It was years ago. It was when I was a kid. I come from a pretty musical family. In particular, on my mother’s side they’re all singers, and my aunties used to sing Roy Orbison. Then years later my next-door neighbour actually was an incredible Roy Orbison impersonator. He didn’t do live on stage but he sounded exactly like him. His party piece was always to get up and do ‘In Dreams’, no matter where it was he’d get up and sing [that]. I suppose growing up in a musical family with a lot of musical aunts, that’s really what exposed me to Roy Orbison. Then as the years went on I got more into music and I started to get more interested in singing his songs and singing along to him and it just went from there.
It’s one thing to sing along to him and quite another to conceptualise a whole show, so what was the process of putting this together?
It started about six years ago. I recorded an album of Roy Orbison songs and it’s a different sort of album. I did it with Barbara Orbison [Roy’s widow]. I flew over to Nashville and I worked with her on the album, and the whole idea of it was to celebrate his music but not necessarily copy his music. I kind of put my own stamp on some of his songs – purely as a fan. It’s my fan’s view on these incredible songs. So that album did really well and [the show is] really on the back of that album. It’s been requested so many times and we toured it once many years ago and then we never toured it again, we went quiet on it, just because other things came my way. But we did six shows last August and the response was so good that we thought, Let’s take this out – let’s go regional. Let’s head out away from the capital cities and try to bring it around the country. So that’s where it all came from.
You said the album was to celebrate and not copy what he did, but was it hard to not fall into mimicry or did you have a really clear sense of how you were going to interpret his music?
Oh no, there was a really fine line because there’s also that whole thing of if you go too far away from a song or if you go a little bit too interpretive with the song you can actually alienate the audience. At the end of the day these are real classic songs. I think the main thing for me when I was recording the album was that I wanted to be true to the songs but I just wanted to make sure I sang them with my own voice, that was probably the most important. A lot of people would say that I have a similar sort of voice to Roy’s but in many ways we’re very different as well. He had a humungous range, he really did. I couldn’t get to some of the notes that he could hit. And the tones were different. Even if we get the structure of the songs the same, even if we went to the same places, it was more to have very clearly my sound on there. I wasn’t trying to copy his tone of voice. I think that was probably the most important thing.
I know you’ve had the same band for a very long time – when you take this show on the road, is it your band?
It is. It’s the same guys – my Chilean contingency. Well, half the band are Chilean. They call themselves The Chilettes. I didn’t call them that – they came up with that themselves. They do incredible harmonies. They’re extremely musical. Two of them are brothers and they come from a really musical family and play everything, but their harmonies are amazing. There’s a couple of the Roy Orbison songs, like ‘Leah’, where we’ve got this all a capella version and with their harmonies – every time we do it in the shows people stand up afterwards. And it’s down to The Chilettes, I have to say.
Humans do respond very well to harmonies – there was some science done on that a while ago and it explains the popularity of ABBA, amongst other things. But they don’t happen that often in shows – there aren’t a lot of bands that do them. For audiences it’s such a treat when there’s beautiful harmonies.
Even the way we structure the show, it’s got the big songs and it’s got the rocking shows, but we definitely have a section in there – and it’s very much my sort of style – that is very stripped back, because that’s what I prefer to do always, and we do ‘In Dreams’, ‘Leah’ and a few other ones where we all come to the front of the stage, it’s very acoustic, it has all the harmonies in there and it’s a cool moment in the show.
A few years ago I saw one of the very first shows that Troy Cassar-Daley and Adam Harvey did together, ahead of recording the Songbook, and I remember thinking that they looked like they were having more fun than I’d ever seen them have playing their own stuff, and I think it was because the pressure was off – they were playing other people’s songs. Do you feel like that singing Roy’s songs or do you actually feel more pressure because of the legacy of his music?
It’s a bit of both. There’s certain songs in the set where I can just sit back and love it and get into it and have fun. There a couple of key songs in there that are difficult – they start low and they end high. There’s always a couple of songs in the set where I’ve got to be really on the ball and be in the right zone to sing it properly and deliver it the way it has to be delivered. But I have to say this show over the last couple of years, it’s probably one of the most fun shows we have because of the material, really. The songs are great. They’re good fun. The likes of ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘Ooby Dooby’ – they’re great songs to play.
It’s not like you’re a slouch with your own vocals in your own songs, but I would imagine Roy’s songs are a big vocal challenge – do you have to do particular things for your voice throughout the tour?
I do a lot of vocal exercises for this tour, and I don’t drink and all the rest of it. This sort of tour I definitely try to watch what I’m doing. Make sure I get enough rest. But scales and things – I do a lot of that. It really helps an awful lot. When you go to see a Roy Orbison show, the one thing you do want to hear is some big notes. I make sure the voice is always ready to deliver.
The big notes probably have to come from a big well of emotion, too – it’s not just the voice, it’s keeping yourself in the right frame of mind.
Oh yeah, especially with Roy’s songs. I write with Joe Melson – Joe wrote ‘Crying’, ‘Blue Bayou’, ‘Running Scared’, ‘Only the Lonely’. He wrote all those songs with Roy, and I’ve been writing with Joe now for three years – actually, we have an album coming out this year. He told me some of the stories surrounding ‘Crying’ and ‘Blue Bayou’ and how they got to those lyrics. If you didn’t sing them with a lot of emotion, you’re kind of doing them a disservice because there was blood, sweat and tears gone into some of those songs.
Apart from you writing with Joe, has Roy been otherwise influential on your own music?
He has and he hasn’t. Some of the songs I’ve written over the years, you can hear I was definitely in a Roy headspace when I wrote them and you can hear the difference – it’s the structure of them. But I’ve been writing with a lot of other people as well, and whenever I’m writing with them I think it takes me away from there and I get more into whatever area they’re trying to write their songs from. I do loads of co-writes with lots and lots of different people so I think that keeps a good balance in the songwriting.
Some songwriters might like to keep everything to themselves but it seems to me that you’re someone who’s always curious, so you’re well suited to co-writes because you like that spark of creativity to come in conjunction with other people.
It’s fantastic – it really makes such a difference. Last year was a good year for me songwriting with other people. Me and a co-writer won Apple Song of the Year for the Australian songwriter awards. It’s not even a song that I’ve released. It’s things like that where if you can do them on the side it’s great because you’re working in a different head zone, you get to experiment, you don’t know what you’re going to write and before you know it you walk out with a song and sometimes it’s a nice surprise.
The tour you did last year was extensive and I’m looking at the list of shows you have for this tour and I’m wondering: when this tour is over, will there be anywhere left in Australia that you haven’t played?
[Laughs] I know. The good thing is that you can play in a lot of different places, you can even return to them, once you’re doing something different. I keep trying to give the audience a different show so if they’re going to come again they’ll kind of get what they got before but they’ll get something different. That definitely helps to keep on the road and keep moving around.
Do you have a sense that the audience that comes to this Roy show is your audience or it’s a Roy audience – or a mixture of both?
It’s definitely a mixture of both. There’s Roy Orbison fans out there who want to hear the songs and they’re looking out for shows like this, and then there’s some of my own audience, which is great. It’s brilliant for me – there’s a nice crossover and I get to perform in front of new people as well, and hopefully convince them to follow me on to the next thing.
I’m sure the Roy audience comes with very particular expectations.
For us the really important thing with the show is to make sure that we’re really true to the songs – we give the audience what they want but we also give them something a little bit more or something so that when they leave they say, ‘I like the way that was done’. When we did the six shows last year, that’s the response we got. The shows went down a bomb – they were just fantastic.
After all these years, what do you think audiences still respond to in Roy’s music?
It’s the uniqueness of the songs, I think. The songs that he and Joe, and everybody that he wrote with, created are unique – there really wasn’t anyone like them. It wasn’t just vocally – it’s the structure of the songs. ‘Blue Angel’, for instance – that’s a very strange structure. For what was regarded as a pop song, the chord changes are odd – they’re not where you’d hear anyone going. You certainly wouldn’t hear anything on the radio now with that sort of structure. There’s a lot of craft in the songs and I think it’s because of that they’ve really stood the test of time. New audiences, even new musicians, have come along and gone back to listen to that as a reference and said, ‘Oh okay, I’ve never tried that.’
You saying that makes me think that there’s a lot of music that doesn’t get played on the radio these days that would have been played then, music that served to educate listeners about music in a way because they had unusual chord structures or time signatures. I wonder if that’s a bit lost now.
It’s still out there. I have people come into my studio with all sorts of incredible songs and you do worry because a lot of what you hear – and it’s not bagging it, because there’s a lot of good stuff as well – but there’s a leaning towards songs sounding very similar. The unique songs you don’t hear all of them coming through as you did years ago. Now you can see similar structures and similar productions where you hear it and think, They’re going to do this. You know already that there’s going to be a drum swell. Whereas some of that older stuff had a couple of surprises, which is really cool. But like I say, it’s still out there – there’s a million musicians all over the place who are doing all that sort of stuff and trying to break through, and hopefully they do. And there’s some good stuff on the radio. My three kids listen to popular music so I’m listening to it all the time, and there is stuff sneaking in there, and some great stuff roaming around.
For my last question: I’m curious to know if there’s another artist you might take on in this way or feel as strongly about?
The only other one I’m going to approach – and it’s actually this year, in August – I’m doing one show of Elvis gospel songs. It’s on the anniversary of his death, because it’s forty years this year. So it’s one show, in Melbourne. I’ve always loved those songs. They’re soulful and they really speak to me, so I decided as a very special thing we’ll do a one-off and have a gospel choir and the whole lot.
Friday 17th February 2017
Capitol Theatre, TAMWORTH NSW
Saturday 18th February 2017
Laycock Street Theatre, GOSFORD NSW
Friday 24th February 2017
Traralgon Town Hall, TRARALGON NSW
(02) 5176 3333
Saturday 25th February 2017
Karralyka Theatre, RINGWOOD VIC
Friday 3rd March 2017
Wesley Performing Arts Centre, HORSHAM VIC
Saturday 4th March 2017
Westside Performing Arts Centre, SHEPPARTON VIC
Friday 10th March 2017
Orange Civic Theatre, ORANGE NSW
(02) 6393 8112
Saturday 11th March 2017
Blue Mountains Theatre & Community Hub, SPRINGWOOD NSW
Friday 17th March 2017
Pilbeam Theatre, ROCKHAMPTON QLD
Saturday 18th March 2017
Moncrieff Entertainment Centre, BUNDABERG QLD
Saturday 8th April 2017
Park Lane Theatre, LENNOX HEAD NSW
Sunday 9th April 2017
The Jetty Theatre, COFFS HARBOUR NSW
Friday 21st April 2017
Colac Otway Entertainment Centre, COLAC VIC
Saturday 22nd April 2017
Wyndham Cultural Centre, WERRIBEE VIC
Friday 12th May 2017
Redlands Performing Arts Centre, CLEVELAND QLD
Saturday 13th May 2017
Caloundra Events Centre Playhouse, CALOUNDRA QLD
Friday 23rd June 2017
Wonthaggi Arts Centre, WONTHAGGI VIC
(03) 5672 1083
Saturday 24th June 2017
Kyneton Arts Centre, KYNETON VIC
1300 888 802
Saturday 1st July 2017
The Glasshouse, PORT MACQUARIE NSW
Thursday 6th July 2017
Keith Michell Theatre, PORT PIRIE SA
(08) 8586 8500
Friday 7th July 2017
Chaffey Theatre, REMARK SA
(08) 8586 1800
Saturday 8th July 2017
Barossa Arts & Convention Centre, BAROSSA SA
Friday 14th July 2017
Forge Theatre, BAIRNSDALE VIC
(03) 5152 1482
Saturday 15th July 2017
Drum Theatre, DANDENONG VIC
Sunday 16th July 2017
Swan Hill Town Hall, SWAN HILL VIC