Travis Collins kicked off the year with three Golden Guitar wins then followed up with three CMC awards. Now he’s joined his old friend Amber Lawrence on the road, and in the creation of the EP Our Backyard. Travis is a wonderful entertainer, and he’s also committed to the ethos of Australian country music – which includes getting out into the biggest backyard of all, the Australian continent, to play shows and meet people. I spoke to him recently.
What was your main inspiration for the new EP?
It started as a couple of friends just wanting to do something different. We’ve been on the carousel now for so long going make-solo-album/tour, repeat. We finally reached a point in our careers where we thought we could finally do something a little different this time, and we’ve probably got a little more freedom to try it. We toured together many years ago, before we were established, and we had a good time doing that. We thought, Let’s get together and tour again, and that was actually the first seed that the whole thing was based on. It was always a tour first. Then our managers chipped in and said, ‘Why don’t you record some new music around it, just for something different?’ That took it to another level. And we thought if we do it we should write all the songs and make music that people haven’t heard yet – explore some new ground between her sound and mine, and I think we’ve really effectively done it. There’s stuff on this EP that’s not really fair and square in my usual sound and not really fair and square in Amber’s either, but we’ve kind of bridged the gap between the two.
When I first heard the song ‘Our Backyard’ I thought a lot of people would respond to it – have you had a good response to it?
The response has been mind-blowing, actually, especially because we weren’t so sure. We did this [as a] little bit of a self-indulgent project and then we wrote – one of the first songwriting sessions we did we went fishing for ideas and started talking about touring. Organically we got to chatting about how lucky we are to go to some of these places that we’ve got coming up on the tour. The conversation flowed into places we’ve been and seen around Australia through our touring. That’s where the line came up: ‘You don’t need to travel the world to find paradise’. We thought that’s something to build a song around. Amber had just come back from Silverton – she met people out there, on the edge of Broken Hill, who have packed everything up from the city and moved out there just for the sunsets. And I thought if there’s not a basis for a song around that … this’ll be the test, if we can’t write a song about that then we can’t write a song about anything.
You have very successfully written a song about that and other things. In terms of your songwriting and your music in general – I read a line in an article in which you said you had three parents: your mum, your dad and country music. And there were some songs that had raised you. Who have the most influential artists been in your life?
First and foremost my dad – he never had a record deal, he’s just a guy who went out and sang on weekends with the band. He has to be the number one influence because if it wasn’t for him I would never have discovered music and I certainly would never have discovered further influences – stuff that he was listening to that he put me onto. Those were the first seeds I had for music and he was into guys like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson – all of those outlaw honkytonk country artists. But it led me enough into it that I fell in love with it, and eventually when I was older and able enough to seek out my own music – pre-Spotify and all those kinds of things, you literally had to jump on a bus and go to a record shop and wait to see what was new. That led me to guys like Garth Brooks and Vince Gill – those guys were something different to what my dad was listening to and they really switched me on to new country music back then. It’s kind of relic stuff now but back then, as a sixteen-year-old kid picking up that latest Brooks & Dunn record, suddenly I had a bit of a clear idea of music. It wasn’t just something to do – it could actually be someone to be.
I can hear a bit of that in your music but I think you’ve developed your own sound – has that come naturally or have you made an effort to carve out your own sound?
I kind of make small efforts here and there. I’ve never been super focused on developing or designing a sound. I think when the songs come out, they naturally come out in keys and arrangements that feel right to me. I just try to keep that organic feel all the way through. When we go to the studio, the last couple of albums I’ve produced myself, and as far as I know producing a record is picking the musicians and really just throwing all those dominoes in a room and seeing how they fall, and that’s the sound I come up with. I nurse it here or there, or I make decisions in the studio and say, ‘That’s not working or that is’, but I don’t really tailor it as much as some people think. I just really focus on the personalities that are together making it, and just see what really comes together in the blend.
I’m interested in how big a role your guitar playing has in your sound – when you play live it’s clear you love guitar, and it’s obvious you’re very skilled technically but also you really feel it.
It’s huge. Especially in the creating of music. Lately almost everything’s come from a guitar in my hands. I suppose it’s a hippie thing to say but sometimes I feel like I don’t write a song – I just hold the guitar and the song channels through and tells me to write it down. But at the same time I’ve sort of felt a little slack lately, in that when we’re on stage and touring, the guitar has kind of taken a bit of a back seat at gigs. I’m trying to make some changes to get my hands back around the guitar and play it a bit more live, but definitely in a creative space – in a studio, writing, anywhere the creation of music is happening – it’s never far from my hands.
I guess that’s part of the challenge as you become more prominent and you’re seen as a front man, not as a singer-guitarist – being out the front means that the guitar might have to be put aside.
Absolutely, and it’ll come and go but right now I feel a lot more comfortable in my ability to entertain a crowd when I’ve got the guitar sitting in the stand. I still pull it up and play it every now and again. There are certain songs where I just don’t feel right [without it]. That song ‘Call Me Crazy’ from the Golden Guitar awards, that’s a song that it doesn’t feel right without a guitar in my hands. But there are other songs on that record – the more fun and high-energy stuff – I just enjoy the show more when I’m out the front without it. I’m surrounded by guitar players constantly. I’ve got two great guitar players in my band – much better players than I am. These guys are always egging me on to pull my guitar out on stage and play, but I constantly tell the crowd, ‘There’s no point flying the Cessna when you’ve got the jet fighters either side of you.’
I’m sure that’s not true, but they’re your guitarists so I’ll let you say it. To change tack: I’m sure there are artists who’ve played an important role in your life and career.
There’s a handful of people who have all equally influenced me. I really started to pay attention to the music industry, more than just the music itself, around about 2013 when I was really, really fortunate when Adam Brand took me out on the road and gave me my first co-headline tour with him. We forged a great friendship and we’re still the best of mates now. He took a real gamble on me back then. Relatively unknown, out on the road, and he put me up there on the poster and my name was the same size as his. He took me around for twelve months and really showed Australia who I was. I learned a lot about music; I learned a lot about performing. It’s not so ironic that that was around the time I started to put the guitar down a little bit more. Spending time on the road with someone like Brandy, who’s such a macro person – everything that he’s doing on stage is all about the people in front of him, and he’s just responding to them a hundred per cent of the time and not having to worry about what chords are coming up next. I started to see that, and not long after that tour I started dabbling in it myself, and I sort of found this whole new creative licence on stage to not have to stand at the microphone and have your guitar plugged in. You could put it down and wander the whole stage and really get in everyone’s faces, and really make sure everyone’s getting that personal reach-out and slap in their hands, things like that. Making sure that everybody who’s down there, who’s made the effort to be at the front of the stage, is acknowledged.
To circle back to your project with Amber and to ‘Our Backyard’ – it’s a song that’s proud of
Australia and I’m wondering what you love about Australian country music or what you’re proud of in Australian country music.
What I’m most proud of is the sense of community. I don’t know another genre that is so keen to put their hand up when a local kids footy club needs to raise money or someone’s fighting cancer and needs to raise money. It seems to be that the country music community are always there for their community. I’m really, really proud of that. And it doesn’t matter if it’s all the way up the top end – like Lee Kernaghan is probably the biggest star we’ve got here. That guy gives his time up every [Tamworth] festival, in January, to raise money for hay runs and people in hardships in Australia. Troy Cassar-Daley, Adam Brand, and right down to the people we don’t know – the buskers on Peel Street in Tamworth, a lot of them donate their money to charities. That’s probably the most poignant thing about country music: the mateship and the willingness to roll up your sleeves for a stranger, and use your talents and use your time to try make a difference for them.
And the reason why that’s so effective is that you can connect with the audience and bring them into the community. Going out on tour is a big way of doing that – so what are you most looking forward to about your tour?
I’m going back to a few places I haven’t been to in a long, long time – towns like D’Aguilar, Dalby in Queensland. There’s a few places that for whatever reason in the last few years I just haven’t been able to get to. So I’m really looking forward to the energy of those places and measuring ourselves against those crowds again. And, of course, being able to get on the road and play some shows with a good friend. It’s usually the whole responsibility of everything weighs on me when I tour around by myself, but this time it’s going to be good to have a little bit more of a relaxed feeling knowing that I only have to worry about half of it and Amber’s got the other half sorted out. To get out there and have some fun – it’s going to half feel like work when we’re not on stage, but when we’re on stage I just want it to be a hundred per cent fun, and so far that’s what everything about this project has been, from the studio to the writing, we’re just really trying our best to speak honestly and have a good time.
You’ve had a very big year thus far: Golden Guitar wins and CMC awards. How are you going to top it next year?
I have this metaphor called my songwriting antenna, which is something that just goes up and, to put it politely, I sort of eavesdrop a lot more on conversations around me. I’m just now starting to look for things for the next record, and I’ve got a fair idea of where it will go and I will be starting to write that in September. At the moment there’s no real plans – whether it’s going to be 2018 or 2019 – but I do know one thing about the next record: I’ll head to the studio when the songs are ready and we won’t be working to a particular time line and writing songs for the sake of it. When we’ve got the ten best songs that I think I can possibly come up with, then we’ll go into the studio. I’m feeling really good at the moment. I’m feeling like there’s a lot of inspiration in the well to draw from, and I just really want to get out and meet people all over Australia, particularly in regional Australia. I want to sing the stories of these people and I want to give people battling out in the bush a bit more of a voice to mainstream Australia and everyone living on the coast, and tell their stories and get out there and sing country music for country people.
Our Backyard by Travis Collins and Amber Lawrence is out now through ABC Music/Universal.
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Travis and Amber on tour:
Thursday 26 October Warwick RSL Memorial Club
Friday 27 October Dag Pub & Motel – D’Aguilar
Saturday 28 October Hamilton Hotel
Sunday 29 October Mary’s Commercial Hotel – Dalby
Friday 3 November Young Services Club
Sunday 5 November The Oaks Hotel – Illawarra
Friday 24 November Windsor RSL