Amber Lawrence is one of the bright lights of Australian country music, winning the 2015 Golden Guitar for Female Artist of the Year. Late last year she released a new album, Happy Ever After, and since then she’s written and recorded Our Backyard, an EP with fellow Golden Guitar winner Travis Collins, ahead of their tour starting this week. She’s packed in more this year besides – as I found out when I spoke to her recently about what’s behind and what’s ahead, including the Gympie Music Muster.
There never seems to be a dull moment in your life or career, so since Happy Ever After was released, what have been the highlights?
Since Happy Ever After, which was only September last year, the biggest highlight has been … well, there’s two now since [In Our Backyard] has been going so great. But singing in America, in New York, on the USS Intrepid in May, a song that I wrote called ‘100 Year Handshake’, and the guests of honour being [US President] Donald Trump, [Australian prime minister] Malcolm Turnbull and surviving Coral Sea Battle veterans. It was just me and my guitar standing on a stage in a silent room of 800 people, singing a song that I’d written specifically for the night. So that was kind of validation that, ‘Hey, maybe I’m okay at this job’ [laughs].
You often play with a band, but of course you are used to playing on your own with a guitar – was it really nerve wracking to be out there on your own?
The whole event was just so grand. The President of the United States was there so the Secret Service was everywhere, security – we obviously had to get cleared before it to even be able to go to it. Metal detectors, all that kind of stuff. Very important people in the room – in addition to that there was Rupert Murdoch, Greg Norman and John Travolta. Endless lists of people. So I actually didn’t get nervous. Because it was silent and they were all looking at me, I thought, You cannot get nervous right now. You cannot stuff this up. Sing it properly! It was like this reverse psychology: You have no option now – do it properly. I don’t know if I could bottle that advice or nerve cure but it kind of worked for me in the moment. Beccy Cole was there too and she said, ‘Are you nervous?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And it was weird because I was nervous in the days leading up to it but when I got there just the huge momentousness of it made me think, You’ve just got to be good at this.
Writing a song specifically for that event, do you find it’s really helpful to have that sort of targeted project to do – does it help you channel your creativity? Or is it trickier because you have those constraints?
For me, it was easier. I really loved the challenge of that, actually, and I’ve been doing a lot of that lately – writing school theme songs, songs for tourism, songs for Western Sydney campaign, and then this one came along. I just find it really interesting because this one being a song about Australia and America’s friendship, I was nervous about writing it because it’s a big thing to write. The climate – with a new president and the prime minister and all that – I had to be writing it for the right reasons otherwise people are going to say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So I did a lot of research, and my partner, he’s a bit of a history buff so he helped research with me and helped come up with some of the angles for the song. So we just took it to a personal place. Rather than saying this big, grand statement about American and Australian friendship, we looked at what are the things that have shown that. One of them was a man called Leslie Allen, a 26-year-old in 1943, who saved or carried twelve wounded American solders off Mount Tambu. He just kept running back into battle, dragging them out, and saved their lives. He got a Silver Star for it. He was Australian and they were American, and I thought, There’s my first example of Australian-American friendship. Then I thought about Apollo 11 and how Australia was pretty instrumental in getting the pictures to the rest of the world, out at Honeysuckle Creek, and Parkes obviously. And then the war brides were another example. I didn’t delve into really big things like ‘we’ve stood by each other in war’. That’s not who I am. I don’t make grand political statements, I make smaller statements that symbolise. It was really fun to write and send up the chain and get approval for it. [There was] ‘could you just change this word’ or ‘maybe that thing’, but on the whole the song was really embraced by the important people in America. It’s recorded now and you can buy it on iTunes or hard copy. So that’s been the highlight out of everything, but now this new project with Travis is becoming my new highlight.
You were talking about not making the big statements and making smaller statements, but I think it’s also the case that when you make a personal statement, even when it’s someone else’s story, if you’re telling it authentically and with emotion, that makes it more likely that everyone will relate than if you were making a big statement. So leading into the song with Travis and the EP, listening to that song, that’s cataloguing a whole lot of experiences that people can relate to. You’ve known Travis for a while, but how did this collaboration start?
We have been good friends for thirteen years now – we met in 2004. When I was deciding last year what to do this year for touring, I planned the tour with Catherine Britt and then thought, well, there’s going to be some time left in the year. We revisited the idea of touring with Travis, because we did it eight years ago. My manager and Travis’s manager are good friends, and they got on the phone and discussed us touring later this year. And I think just as a throwaway they said, ‘They should release an album together.’ They came back to us with the idea and both Travis and I said, ‘Yeah, why not? But here’s the thing: we’re not singing covers. We’re not singing songs other people have written. We’re writing the songs.’ So we basically arrived home from Tamworth in February this year and we had about eight co-writing sessions. We were both exhausted from a huge festival, and Travis won all those awards. So it was possible at that point that we’d say, ‘We’re too tired to write this, let’s not worry about recording.’ But we were both really determined. We wrote five songs together, and then two of the other songs on the EP are one that I’d written by myself and one that he’d written by himself. But this song, ‘Our Backyard’, came about because I went to Silverton in mid-Feb this year to go and visit Catherine Britt. And, of course, the thing you do is go and visit the Silverton sunset. We drove to the highest point in Silverton and watched the sunset, and there is nothing like it, so I wrote that down in my songwriting book. And then when [Travis and I] sat down together to write the song, I said, ‘What about this idea?’ I live in a beautiful part of the world – I live near the beach – and every time I go walking, I think, If I was overseas and I saw this, I’d say, ‘This is amazing’, but because it’s in our own backyard we just neglect to think it’s any good.Same with the Silverton sunset. We both travel so much in Australia – as well as overseas – that it was a song that was really easy to identify with. We put all those experiences overseas in and most of them I’ve done, most of them Travis has done, so together we’ve done them all, but there’s nothing like being home.
It’s a really terrific song, and apart from the lyrics being spot on it’s got a great, catchy sound
to it. So I’m sure it will do very well – it sounds like it is already. But touring the EP – I do love that you said you looked at the second half of the year and thought, I could fit in something there, when a lot of people might have thought they could fit in a rest. So to tour – when you go to plan something like that, how do you pick your venues?
We get that question all the time because people say to us, ‘Why don’t you come to our town? I can’t believe you went to the town an hour up the road when this town was better.’ We don’t really pick them. It’s a juggling act of time – we might have wanted to go to Albury on the Saturday night but they had someone else already booked so we had to go to Corowa an hour down the road. And then we’ll get everyone online saying, ‘Why did you pick that town?’ It’s because it’s really hard to fit timing, and who wants the show. It’s not just a matter of us wanting to do a show there but the venue and the town have to want us as well.
You had the writing process together and then you had the recording process – was there any argy-bargy about who got to sing lead on songs?
[Laughs] No, not really. We were both juggling different touring schedules so we weren’t in the studio the whole time together. I’d say, ‘I’ll leave that for Travis to do and I’ll be back tomorrow. He’ll finish it tonight.’ So no arguments – we left all the hard decisions up to the producer.
When I saw the announcement about the EP I thought, That is a great idea, those two working together. I imagine you’ll have people turning up to your shows also thinking it’s a great idea.
It’s great because we have really different fans as well, so it will be great crossing them over. Some of Travis’s fans have never heard of me and vice versa, and those who know us both can think, Great, two for the price of one!
Will you do a set each and then some songs together, or will the whole set be together?
I think we’ll do a set each and then the whole EP, seven tracks of the EP together, and probably finish on ‘Our Backyard’ – it seems like it’s a bit of a finale song.
And that’s a good evening’s entertainment, I have to say, to get that much music.
[Laughs] Be prepared to have a late night.
Of course, you are also heading to the Gympie Muster and I notice that you were put on the bill first for your normal show and then your kids show was added – what prompted you to add it?
I suggested it to the Muster a long time ago, that I’d be happy to do a kids show while I was there. There are families there and I think in the morning the kids are up – they’ve been up for hours – and what’s to do? The music’s not starting. Some of the singer-songwriter tents maybe the kids are a bit bored. So I thought let’s do a kids show. The Kid’s Gone Country is interactive – they learn to dance, they sing along, we learn their names, get them up on stage. But adults are allowed to come as well.
Are there any technical considerations for you in terms of your voice? If you’re used to singing later in the day, sometimes voices take a while to warm up – so for a morning show, is there anything you have to do?
Yes, you probably should prepare – not like a hard rocker, don’t stay up till 2 a.m. drinking whisky if you’re going to do a kids show. But my voice works pretty well in the morning – it’s fairly match fit, I would call it. It doesn’t need too much to get fired up.
I imagine you’ve done a few Gympies now – what are you looking forward to about the Muster?
What I’m looking forward to is always the same: genuine country fans who just get out in the dust or the mud – whichever one it is, and it’s always one of them – and they sing along to your songs, and you get to meet them. And it’s historic for me, too, because it’s one of the first festivals I ever went to. They had me on back in 2005. I was pretty lucky as a young artist, just with an EP out, that they took me on. So it’s always been one of three or four favourites that I have. I love it. I just love the dust, the dirt, and it brings out your best performance when you’re out in the sticks. You’re out in the country and you’re a country singer, so it feels good.
I guess it’s a different energy to Tamworth, too, because in Tamworth you have these confined venues – you’re inside for a lot of it – whereas at Gympie everything’s outside. I imagine that wave of energy that would come from having a massive outside crowd would be different.
Definitely. I think I’ve played there maybe five or six times – every second or third year. I’ve played in the rain. I’ve been freezing. I’ve been sunburnt. I’ve been muddy. I’ve been rained out. I’ve been every single option. So every other festival where you’re inside, it’s nice and comfortable but you don’t get that kind of raw response from the crowd that you do at Gympie. I really don’t wish for rain, though – I wish for sun and dust. That’s the best option.
You do other sorts of work – you work with RSL Defence Care and Special Olympics, and you’re a Fight Stroke Advocate. My impression of your working life is that you have a lot of different things going on and you obviously manage your time very well, but these causes are close to you because you’ve been involved for a while. How did you get involved with each of those?
Fight Stroke – my dad had a stroke when he was forty. When I wrote the song ‘Lifesaver’, which is about that, I actually sent it to Stroke Foundation and said, ‘I have a really good reason to want to help you guys out.’ If Dad had had, I guess, what they had now – that’s thirty years ago nearly that he had a stroke – he wouldn’t have been left disabled the way he was, because they would have been able to get him to hospital and change things. He would have known to check his blood pressure. But he didn’t know any of that. So my reason for doing work with the Stroke Foundation is to help prevent via awareness. I do help raise money at times, but more spread the word. Get your blood pressure tested – that’s one of the highest-risk signs of it. One family might benefit from me saying, ‘Going get your blood pressure tested’, and find out that their dad or their mum was on the verge of having stroke and avoid what our family went through, which was really tough.
Defence Care asked me after I wrote a song called ‘The Man Across the Street’ to help spread the word and, again, it’s not so much raising funds for them as awareness. They do need some money, but they also need veterans – young veterans. You say the word ‘veteran’ and you’re thinking of sixty-, seventy-year-old men, but we’re talking about thirty-year-old men here, and women. For them to know that when they come home from war or the theatre, that there is someone to help them when they don’t know why they’re not feeling that great. No physical scars but ‘I can’t really get my life back on track’ or ‘my word has fallen apart’. There are organisations out there to call, and Defence Care is one of them.
And the Special Olympics?
I’ve been helping them for a long time, and that is more about fundraising. Just performing at their events. Those Special Olympics kids are Down syndrome and autistic young people who just absolutely have the most vigour and zest for life. I love performing with them – they all get up and dance with me. It’s awesome.
Looking ahead – you’ve packed a lot into this year already, and Tamworth will be upon us before we know it, so what are your Tamworth plans, and I would imagine you’re already looking to another album.
Yes, you’re right. This year is going to be taken up with Travis and I, and then I’ll do my show on Australia Day in January. I’m not sure about touring – I might have been everywhere. I might just have a little bit of time off [laughs] … Nah, I’m sure I won’t. I think I’ll work on another kids album as well as another adults album, but it’s still early days for [Happy Ever After] so I’ll probably go the kids album next, I think.
How do you organise your time with songwriting? Do you allocate time to write or just do it when you can?
I have to allocate time. I’m certainly not a ‘oh, inspiration’s just hit me, drop everything, I’ve got to write a song’. I write a song if I put it in my diary to write a song.
Amber Lawrence will be performing at Gympie Music Muster which is held 24 to 27 August at Amamoor Creek State Forest. For further info visit www.muster.com.au
Happy Ever After is out now.