Queensland singer-songwriter Graeme Connors has a new album, from the backcountry, which is a superb addition to his extensive catalogue that includes North, and the 2016 compilation 60 Summers: The Ultimate Collection, which reached #1 on the ARIA Country Album Chart. While from the backcountry is his first album of new songs in seven years, when I spoke to him recently it became clear that he has been busy in the interim. It’s also clear that he is as articulate in an interview as he is in his lyrics: a natural storyteller who has a talent for, and has worked hard at, connecting with his audience.
You’ve just released your first album in seven years – how long have you been writing for it?
To be honest, I only started seriously writing in February this year, after Tamworth. There had obviously been an accumulation of ideas over that seven-year period. I’m the sort of person that jots stuff down if there’s an idea or whatever it happens to be. But I just got a bit sidetracked in that period with so many other projects. We did Kindred Spirit, which was the tribute album to other Australian songwriters. Then we did North 25 Years On, which was a remix and remaster. Then we did the double DVD Concert to Camera, which reflected the touring band and the touring that I’d been doing. And then, of course, it came round to 60 Summers [a double CD collection]. So there was almost one a year in that gap between. And I got to January this year and did Tamworth, and there were a couple of things impacting on me. I got a little bit of a negative attitude towards the way the industry had been heading, in terms of streaming and the disappearance of the CD and all that sort of stuff, and I think that coloured my thinking a bit. I grew up in a time when music was like a book on the shelf: you’d go up to it and take it out of its cover and play it, and it just seemed to me that we’d gone down a path where music only exists on the internet, and I didn’t like that idea. And I felt also too that the compensation for writers and artists – and I still do feel – is unfair considering the investment that the companies involved are putting in. I have a very strong view on that. Then I just made a decision that I’m getting back in the saddle – there’s no point being a grumpy old man. Enjoy what you do. So that’s where this album came from.
A big part of why I do what I do is that I’d like to help people discover music. I’m really conscious that with so much being available online, discovering people is much, much harder. I suppose I’m curating, to an extent.
You’re curating by your personal taste and I think it’s a really essential role, bearing in mind a lot of my demographic have travelled with me down the years and this whole digitisation of music is a bit of a new thing. They are always still writing, contacting me, saying, ‘I want the CD. I’ll download it as well but I want a CD so I can have that possession in my hand and listen to it whenever I want to.’
I think the CD takes on the form of a memento of a show. They might come and see you perform and they want to take something away with them. Whether or not you sign it, it’s that reminder that they’ve seen you.
We’ve just done the opening show for this album and tour, and the CD sales were just amazing. So it’s quite clear that the CD is definitely not a dead medium. Specifically, the people who are also interested in songwriting – they like to get the words on a piece of paper so they can read them. The digital delivery systems, I don’t believe, are providing that and they really should start thinking about it if they want to compete.
You mention a few places in the songs on this album, such as the Kimberley frontier – how important is landscape to you?
I think it’s pretty vital. As time has gone on my references are clearly the landscapes that I’m familiar with, and they’re primarily Australian and they’ve changed over a long period of my history. And yet there are areas I’m still discovering. ‘Kimberley Frontier’ only came about because of my friendship with Alan Pigram. We spent a week together over there, just mates hanging out. They [The Pigram Brothers] had a gig up at Derby and I travelled with them. It was just such a joyous occasion – people celebrating their music – that somehow I just had to document that, even just for myself. But obviously it is further reaching that that. It’s a song about the moment and how all these things coalesce to make it a special moment. ‘Black Mountain’ – a real place 20 kilometres or so south of Cooktown [in Queensland]. My first encounter – Don Walker and I were travelling and a few minutes prior to seeing the mountain we were both commenting on how weird we felt, like there was something odd about it. Then we rounded the corner and there’s Black Mountain. After research we found that this is a very, very strong taboo area for Indigenous cultures over many years. It alters compasses on planes and everything. Nothing grows on that mountain. There’s just these massive black boulders and there have been stories of disappearances and various other things. So the mystery of landscape comes in at that level as well. I think in some ways ‘Stay Where You Are’ is a bit about my life – that sense of really knowing a community at a depth and at a level that can only come about by being in that community for a long period of time.
Do you have a favourite part of Australia that you like to travel to for yourself or to play in?
Everywhere. It seems cruel to isolate. I love the different regions. Tasmania is very different to the tropics, where I live. Out west – at the moment it’s dry as hell and we all know these things, but it’s wide open spaces, it’s starry nights, it’s the difference that I enjoy. The tropical Kakadu landscape. The richness and the variety. Australia has so much to offer in terms of images. We can never wear ourselves out exploring it – there’s always something around the next corner.
On the song ‘One Life’ you say, ‘Paths I could have taken are mostly overgrown’, and I wonder if there are any paths you regret not taking, musically speaking?
I have a sort of fatalistic view in many ways. When I was a kid I was into BB King, I was into The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I could have focused on any of those directions. I bought the guitars and I learnt to play. However, Kris Kristofferson really spoke to me in a really different way. The beauty and simplicity of his lyrics, as opposed to musical grooves, just reached out to the young Graeme Connors. That became, by default, the path, because I ended up touring as an opening artist for him and he, in his inimitable generous spirit, produced four songs for the first album. So that pushed me down the path of country. It’s the respect for the lyric that has mean I’ve found a home in country. Same with musical theatre as well – I love Broadway. Each word is absolutely essential to the last to create this wonderful moving picture, and I treat my songwriting with the same degree of exactitude. Trying to make sure that the ambiguity, if I choose to have it in the song, is purposeful, and normally I don’t. Normally I’m trying to get this as clear as possible. So that’s the country-ness of my work.
You mentioning musical theatre makes sense to me – when I listened to your album I thought about how the pieces all fit together. That idea that every word serves the next, it all becomes an overall narrative.
‘The Ringer and the Princess’ is a story song that almost acts out on the stage in people’s heads, and that’s the writing I love. I don’t force myself to do it, that’s what it is. And off this album, ‘Stay Where You Are – I’ve long harboured the desire to put together a stage musical, and between about 2006 and 2010 I was collating materials to do that but couldn’t find the key for the book of the play. And ‘Stay Where You Are’ was the theme of this unwritten play that to do this day I am still hopeful a flash will come to me and this will be how it all comes together.
Thinking about Kris Kristofferson supporting you and being in your lineage, are there other artists you feel you have a relationship with who carry on in your lineage?
That’s a really hard question. I listen to as much as I can, in terms of the new writers. I feel a little like the next generation are too heavily processed on an international view and are abdicating their role as image keepers of our culture. Any new writer where I get a place name or anything at all I’m immediately drawn like a compass to their work, to see if there’s something I can do to enhance that or send their way. Brad Butcher is one artist that we have that language. He’s obviously more steeped in Americana than I could ever be, because that has been his reference point, but I do like the fact that there has been other imagery coming through that is uniquely Australian. I’m on the lookout all the time and I think it’s a baton that one would love to pass on, and that is a love and expression of the Australian-ness of country music without it being rinky-tink. We’re an incredible culture and we need to pass that on.
I think what you’re talking about is that the specific can be universal, with is a truth of storytelling, and you and Brad both understand that really well. You tell stories with a lot of detail that are not trying to be general, they’re not trying to appeal to an overseas audience, they are telling Australian stories, but in doing that they become universal.
I hope so, because Mark Twain was the master of that – I could read Life on the Mississippi but it was like me on the Pioneer River as a kid [laughs].
from the backcountry is out now from ABC Music.