Cruisin’ Country 8 is taking place in October this year, and features a cavalcade of Australian country music stars. I was fortunate to be able to interview a few of them, including the always delightful Sara Storer. A favourite with fans as well as other artists, she will no doubt be a popular act on the cruise. We spoke towards the end of June, while she was still on the road with The Sunny Cowgirls.
I’ve noticed, looking on your website, you’re doing quite a bit of touring with The Sunny Cowgirls at the moment. And have you toured with them before?
No touring as such. We have done a show together in Tamworth one year. We combined, and it was great fun then. And I’ve always got along with the Sunnies. We’ve done a duet – I don’t know what you call it – a tri-et – a collaboration, I should say, with the Sunnies. So we just thought it was about time. We both sing about similar things, the love of the land, and just thought it was about time we got together and did some shows together. And it’s been a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, but for me it’s just been wonderful to really sit down and listen to their songs, rather than just rushing through albums. When you hear a song over and over, you realise how some people’s writing – it’s just very, very clever. And that’s what I think I’ve got most out of touring with the Sunnies, so it’s been great.
I think that’s also part of the secret of performing a song over and over again. I know for people who aren’t performers, the idea of performing the same song night after night, year after year – you think, well, how do you do it? But I think it is what you say: when the songwriting is a certain way, there’s a lot to discover in that song any different way you hear it.
Absolutely. And some of their lines, you just go, wow, it’s just so clever. They’re very clever with their writing. And they’re the artists that I sit back and probably go, you know, I couldn’t have done that how they did it. To have written it like that. And it’s good, they’re inspiring. So I come away always inspired from the girls thinking – they write a lot of light-hearted, fun, pub songs, and I think sometimes that’s where I lack. And I try to find that bit of inner youth pub fun time inside me, and it never comes out, I don’t know why.
I guess it’s also, to use a marketing term, it’s not really on brand for you. They started off with some of that in their music, whereas you’ve always had a different direction.
I guess when I was younger I’d probably be a bit on the cheekier side with songs like ‘Mantrap’ and ‘Secretly’ and that, where I’m having a bit of a joke. I guess I find humour behind something that was quite serious. When you’re trying to find a man, humour is always a great thing. But those girls – when they write it you just know it’s real and you know that they really deep down feel it. It’s not just sort of a made-up nonsense song. They do have a love of the land and a passion for that way of life and it comes through in their songs.
As it does in yours. And I’m also interested in the logistics, because the last time I spoke to them, they were living on opposite sides of the country. So getting the three of you together for a tour is quite a feat.
Yeah, there’s planes, there’s boats, there’s cars, there’s everything to get together. But it’s good fun. We actually finish up in July. We’ve got our last couple of shows together and then Soph’s having another baby, so sadly it’s sort of coming to an end. But it’s something we could look at again in the future, hopefully.
You also have a history of collaborations and forming relationships with other artists, particularly female artists. So it’s obviously a part of country music that you enjoy, this opportunity, and I’m heading in a direction also to talk about Cruisin’ Country, because I know there’s a lot of people there too.
I love collaborating on songs. It spices things up a little bit. Isn’t it lovely when you’re listening to a song and then this other voice – I think you’ve got to find a voice too that works well with each other. A collaboration, it’s nice to find two artists that fit really well together. So it’s nice when you put on a track and then another voice comes in and helps you out on the track. It’s always fun too, trying to find someone different to do a duet with. And that’s always been a real highlight in my life where I’ve got to collaborate with some amazing artists. And I just throw it out there and say, well, they can only say no. And most of the times I’ve been successful.
I cannot imagine anyone saying no to you, if you request that.
I don’t know. My next album I’m hoping to do a few duets – just a few surprises. So we’ll soon find out. Because I want to step outside the box a little bit. In the end everything, when it comes down to it, it’s all just music, and I think you can collaborate with anyone, you know?
Yes. So that’s talking about collaborating as a singer. So how do you go collaborating as a songwriter?
That one is a bit scary. That’s out of my comfort zone. It takes me a long time to write a song. Sometimes it’s very easy but I know in my head where a song’s got to go. And when it’s difficult, it’s difficult. And when you’re sitting there writing with someone that can just churn out lines and you’re trying to be a part of it and you’re behind the 8-ball, and then you’re trying to catch up to where they are and get on to that next line before they’ve written it. I find it a really challenging job but that’s why I write with my brother a lot – Greg Storer – because it’s your brother and I can say, ‘Whoa up, slow down. Give this old girl a break.’ And I’m not embarrassed then to write stuff that may sound a bit corny. Or if he writes something and I say, ‘That’s not where I wanted this to head, I wanted it to go this way.’ It’s easy with your brother. But when you’re just randomly [saying], ‘Do you want to do some songwriting?’ It’s really scary. But if you can nail a good song, it’s all worth it.
The way you perform your songs, it seems like they must come to you almost fully formed, in a way. You don’t sound like a songwriter who’s doing a line at a time and trying to figure things out. It sounds like these are whole stories that appear to you. And that wouldn’t really lend itself to collaboration because that’s all in your head.
Well, that’s it. A majority of my songs come from something I’m moved about. I’m not a disciplined writer. I don’t just sit down and go, All right, I’ll look around me now and what can I write about? Look at those green hills. Maybe there’s a bushranger up in there.It’s not like that. It’s like, I’ll be just getting from day to day and I may get emotional about something, a story I’ve seen, or something that’s happened to me, or I’ve met some character and that is why I write. So that’s where, I guess, it’s easy writing with my brother because I can say, ‘No, no, this is the story and here’s how we should write it.’ So they’re kind of fully formed. Yeah, you’re right.
I shall now turn to the purpose of the interview which is Cruisin’ Country. So you finish up with The Sunny Cowgirls in July and you’ve got this cruise later in the year. I’m imaging you’ve done this before, because so many people have done it before.
I have performed on the Cruisin’ Country once before. Babies seem to get in the way of this ship gig. I think I had to cancel one and then cancel another one and I made one because Joe, my youngest, was over six months. So I’m back with a vengeance now and looking forward to it. I’m bringing all the kids. My four boys. So it won’t be as relaxing as last time and there won’t be as many margaritas.
Well, maybe you’ll need them.
I’ll need them. [My husband] Dave and I will have to do a schedule, you know, who’s on and who’s off. Because four little kids on a boat – but looking forward to it. And there’s a great line-up. And I love the fact that there’s a lot of … I’m not going to say oldies, but there’s guys who I’ve been working with for years and years and years are all going to be on there. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Do you prepare for a show like this like a normal show? Like a normal tour? Because in a way your audience is travelling with you. So I would imagine there are some people who are very invested in what your show is going to be. Do you start to think, I have to do the set list a bit differently, or I have to be open to people coming up to me and asking for songs?
Yes, you do. You have to say, Look, this is one show, I’m not touring an album, as such.It’s a show where they will want to hear the old stuff and you’ve got to give them a taste of where you’re at and sing a bit of the new stuff as well. So it will be a real mix. But you just have to sing those songs that people are familiar with. After a show people can [say], ‘You didn’t sing [this song], you didn’t sing [that song].’ And those old songs they just keep plucking their head up and so you say, yeah, I’ve got to make sure I put them back in the set. They’ve had a bit of a spell but – it’s like going and seeing a Paul Kelly concert and he doesn’t sing ‘To Her Door’. You know, everyone’s waiting for those songs. Not that mine are as famous as ‘To Her Door’.
Yours are pretty famous. And, also, you have a lot of songs. So I think it is a real challenge – it’s a lovely challenge to have, but I suppose there’s also got to be the mix of what you as a performer feel you can present as a cohesive set on the night, in addition to what the audience is expecting.
Yes. Sometimes you’ve got to shake it up a little bit. It’s nice to go and sing those songs that the audience may kind of recognise but you haven’t sung for a while, and it revives them a little bit. Or they’ve heard it on the album but they’ve never heard it live. There’s such a difference between hearing a song on an album and then I get up there and I say, ‘Hey, this song came about because of this, and when I wrote it, this happened.’ And then people say, ‘I didn’t know that about that song.’ It’s nice when those times happen. Because they can just get lost in an album. And there’s something special when you’re one-on-one with an audience.
And I think it’s also one of the lovely aspects of country music, that that’s expected in performance. That you tell a story about the song before you sing it and that enhances the audience’s expectation. Having said that, I remember reading a review of a Dolly Parton show a few years ago, where the journalist clearly didn’t understand that and basically said she talked too much. And I felt like emailing him and saying, ‘No, no, that’s what she’s meant to do.’
Well, there’s a fine line. And there’s some where you can skip some patter and just move straight in. And you feel it. But there’s those certain songs that you can stop, have a yarn to the audience, tell them about your song and there’s that nice little moment. And then you can move it along a bit for a few more songs and then you can stop. It’s all part of working up a good set list. That can be another show in itself, trying to write a set list. The amount of energy you’re putting into making sure that it moves like a story board throughout, the people are moved emotionally, you know, and it’s always a challenge. And some nights you will just [think] that just didn’t work or other nights you’ll go that worked, so I’ll move this around here and see if that works better, and all of that.
There is a real art to it. And I would imagine it is a separate skill that you hone over time, just the way you hone your performance and your songwriting skills with time.
Yes. It’s like whether it’s a set list for onstage for live or when you’re doing an album. You’re topping and tailing – listening to all the tops and tails of each song over and over and making sure that they work together well, that you haven’t got two songs in the same key together, that they’re not the same tempo or timing. And then that they just work together as a start and a finish.
Talking about your tempos and keys and things – is that the sort of thing that sometimes doesn’t become apparent until you’re in the studio?
No. Sometimes it becomes apparent – not so much in a studio, because it doesn’t matter. You just record in a studio and then at the end you then have all your songs in front of you and that’s when you organise the final track order. So you muck around at home, you swap them around until you feel like it feels good. But when you’re onstage, sometimes you’ll put songs together and you’ll finish a song and you’ll look down at the next one and it’s in the same key. And you feel that you haven’t moved in the set. So you possibly do a bit of talking there just to separate that song from the next, because if you finish in the same key and then go straight into the same key, well, I just feel there’s not a sense of ending a song properly. You feel like you’re just going back into the same song. So you might want to do a bit of a yarn, make them forget what song they just heard.
This is all fascinating, I’ve got to say, because I’ve never heard anyone speak about it like this before. And it’s great. It’s your work. So to talk about what’s next: you mentioned that you’re hoping to do some more collaborations on your next album. I’m presuming that a next album is in the works and you’ve got some songs written?
Yes, got the songs written. Can always write more. You can never have too many. And I’d love to do some collaborations. I can mention one, which is with my brother. I’d like to do a couple of things with him on the album. Because he’s just an amazingly talented fellow that is just a farmer out at Warren [NSW] who really should be touring and doing what I do, because I just think he’s very good. So I always love working with my brother on that sort of stuff. He loves it too. But just stepping outside of the box – I can’t mention names because nothing’s set in stone yet, but just do some collaborations with some outside of the country music genre and have a bit of fun.
I would imagine that being on the cruise there’ll probably be some spontaneous collaborations for performances. Because it seems to me it’s a bit like Tamworth on the water that way. That people tend to jump up and get involved in each other’s shows, which is a lovely thing for the audience.
It’s wonderful. It’s good fun. It’s a mini Tamworth. We’re all stuck in an RSL club and the doors are locked.
And there’s seasickness involved.
Yeah, you have to pop a couple of pills. But they’re good pills … Apparently you start before you get on the ship. Don’t make the mistake of starting them after the boat’s taken off. I took them. I never felt it. I felt a bit not queasy, but a bit funny at the start, and then I think it just all blends in and you’re right. And off you go.
Cruisin’ Country 8 runs from 9 to 16 October 2018 and departs from Sydney.
Sara Storer’s latest album is Silos.