El Cosgrove’s first EP, Guitars & Cigars, introduced a great new talent to Australian country music audiences, but as I found out recently when I spoke to El, she was hardly a beginner: she’d already had a lot of experience playing to country audiences, both here and overseas, and from a young age.
How old were you when you first started singing and playing guitar?
I think I was eight when I first got a guitar. I grew up singing for as long as I can remember. I was definitely not a good singer [laughs]. Just had a musical family so some of my first memories were my grandma on the piano and family members with a bunch of different instruments, so you had to get in there and either sing or play the spoons or whatever you could do to make a noise.
What sort of music did you grow up with?
Not really country – my family were more into jazz and big bands, and I started doing eisteddfods, so that was more musical theatrey. I had this cousin, Tom Curtin, who used to come and play his country songs on our verandah when I was a kid. We’d have a big day of mustering and they’d all come back and he’d play his country songs, so I think he was probably the first country influence. Then when I got my guitar I started making up songs about being around the farm and being a country kid, so it comes out sounding pretty country.
You said you couldn’t really sing when you were younger – of course, that’s your assessment and other people might have thought you could sing – so how did you find your voice?
I wouldn’t even call myself a good singer but I think it was [through] listening to a range of different music genres and having a wide variety of influences that I’ve kind of developed my own style. I probably strive to be more unique in my style than an amazing singer. But I love songwriting and I love trying to get a really unique sound into your songs.
When you started to write songs and think more about becoming a performer, at what age did that start to gel?
When I was a kid I just loved being the centre of attention, so I was into the musicals and then I was into the school choirs. During high school I really didn’t do much music at all. It’s just since finishing school I’ve been more determined to write music and get my own songs out there. I’ve been definitely a lot more focused on it as a career.
You’re not that far out of school so that’s a lot to achieve in a short space of time, but it sounds like once you’re focused on something or you’ve made up your mind about something, you can really apply yourself to it.
[Laughs] Yeah, probably. I did finish school and went over to Canada for the year and did a few gigs over there, but mostly went around the rodeos and played at different brandings and parties like that. It gave me a lot of songwriting inspiration as well, so when I came home I pretty much went straight down to Tamworth and did the Academy of Country Music, and since then I was gigging like crazy. That’s where I met Matt Fell, my producer. So then I was pretty determined to make enough money to head back down to Sydney and record with him.
When you arrived in Canada how did you manage to get those shows? That can’t have been easy.
I lived with this really cool rodeo family, it was really great. Scott Schiffner, he’s a Canadian champion bull rider, and his family. It was just going around heaps of rodeo and I met heaps of different people. I ended up playing at the Canadian PBR finals, which was amazing. That’s one of those shows that just really makes you want to go out and play music. So it rolled on from there.
I’ve just worked on a book about PBR Australia so I have a fair idea about what those finals would have been like.
I don’t even know how to explain it, it was just so cool. I was travelling around most of the rodeos for the season and you get to know so many people in the rodeo community, and everyone’s just so friendly, so the big party at the end just wrapped it up and really fun. It made me want to go and play more music.
In your bio it says, ‘She may have a wild streak …’ From what you’ve told me so far you seem quite conscientious. Is the wild streak in your music or elsewhere?
Possibly [laughs]. Possibly a bit of both. You might have to listen to my lyrics a little – it might come through in that.
Which leads me to my next question: why are guitars and cigars a good combination?
Why not, I think. The song is probably more about doing what you want to achieve now and working hard for it so that once you’ve actually got there and achieved your goal you can kick back and have a good time. And having a good time along the way too is pretty important, I think.
In making the decision to record with Matt, and choosing songs for the EP, how did you settle on those songs?
The five songs that I chose probably show who I am as a person and a songwriter more. For my debut EP I wanted people to get a sense of who I am and I think the songs that I chose show that. And they were more recently written, because I’ve been writing for a long time, so you want to use your best work and put it out there. When it came to my first single I was pretty much writing like crazy and wrote over half of it the very night before we recorded it. Matt thought I was crazy and I said, ‘No, I have to record this song – I haven’t actually written it but I’m writing it tonight in the attic of the studio’. Then I punched it out and it ended up being the first single and one my favourites on there. It was a little bit risky but it turned out well.
If inspiration strikes and you’re able to challenge it, why not go with it?
Yeah, just tack it on there last minute. I’m a bit like that sometimes.
Working with Matt – he obviously has a lot of experience, so I would imagine he’s a very good first producer, to set you on a good path. Was it a good experience working with him?
Definitely. It could have been a bit daunting because he has worked with such amazing artists, but as soon as I got into the studio he was really great at explaining everything and all of the musos that came in and worked made it a good experience. We were just there making music, so it was really fun, and he just gets out of your songs, I think, and he understands where you want to take them and what kind of sound you want. I couldn’t have asked for a better first producer.
One of the things I love about Australian country music is that there are a lot of independent artists and being independent frees people up to do what they want to do, and there is no compromise on the quality of anything. It’s a really professional product. And it’s great hearing stories like yours: you saved up the money, you chose your producer, you can set your timetable. It’s a really interesting time in music.
Yes, true. There’s definitely a lot of music out there – it’s so easy for anyone to record and get their music out there. What I try to do is stay true to who I am without sounding clichéd – but all the songs on there are songs that show who I am and I just loved the sound that Matt can bring to them.
So are you not living on the land at the moment but from the sound of the lyrics, life on the land is very much part of you.
Growing up on a farm definitely makes you appreciate rural life and agriculture and it will always be a part of my life.
But I guess as you go further into your music career it’s logistically difficult to travel from rural places if you need to travel a lot.
It’s a long way to travel but I think it’s important to tour out into rural towns and definitely go out west. It’s a good thing to connect with country crowds and take your music to people as well, and that’s where I grew up and I started writing on a farm. I love touring out west. It’s as important as going to the big festivals and the big shows.
In some ways it’s more important, because not only are you telling stories from the land but the performers who go to country towns are often cherished by audiences – if you turn up, they’ll give you the respect of turning up themselves. And it pays forwards through the music next time. It’s this great interaction between country audiences and country music performers that has really shaped what the music is.
And it’s usually always a great bunch of people to be playing for and having a good time with, for sure.
Is there a town in particular you haven’t played at that you’d love to?
I’d like to go around the [Northern] Territory a little bit more. I only played at Katherine last year and that was really, really good. I just want to keep touring – too many places.
And that brings up the question of what’s ahead. So the EP’s out and it sounds like you’d like to tour. Are you thinking ahead to a new EP or album, or will you let this one go for a while?
At the moment I’m planning a tour around south-western Queensland and possibly down into New South Wales a little bit, and the Northern Territory again maybe. Then once I can get that out and about I’ll just keep writing songs and hopefully an album would be next on the cards, but that’s probably a little while into the future.
Are you being your own booking agent for this tour?
Yes. I like doing those things myself. I’ve had a bit of help from a few different agents but most of the shows I’ve just worked on myself.