Riley Catherall has already appeared on this site because of his outstanding singles, ‘Watered Down Man’ and ‘Robin’. He’s an emerging artist who is already a very well-developed musician and songwriter – when we spoke recently I asked about his long musical history and about his introduction to country music. Riley is appearing at the 2019 Tamworth Country Music Festival – dates after the interview.
You started playing guitar at the age of four – did your parents encourage you to start, or was it your own decision?
Dad taught himself guitar. Some of my earliest memories involve him playing guitar for me. Mum was a piano teacher. So I think there was a combination of influences there. Much like a lot of kids get thrown into guitar lessons – and myself being a teacher as well – you see kids who get guitar lessons where their parents have sort of forced them into it, and once they get a little bit of independence they stop doing it. But I was hooked on it enough to continue it. There was definitely good encouragement there with my family, which was fantastic.
Was there a reason why you weren’t put on a piano?
Not really. Because I was the first child I think Dad was super stoked to have a son – ‘This one’s mine, we’re gonna do guitar’ [laughs]. My younger sister plays piano. Maybe Mum got her turn [laughs].
Did you enjoy playing guitar as a child or were there times when you thought, I don’t want to do this – I want to go outside!
From a young age I’d go into show and tell at school and sing a song. I was that kid [laughs]. I always had this entertaining mindset. I went through the stage of learning classical guitar – that’s how I started. Then you discover rock ’n’ roll – you want to be a rock star – and Mum’s getting really worried because I’m playing ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ in my bedroom at eleven years of age. I’m always inspired by new things, with the change of the seasons, so it’s good that [guitar] is such a vast thing that you can be introduced to new things. Nothing really gets stale; nothing really gets repeated. There’s just so many different versions of it.
Can you remember which songs you used to play for show and tell?
I used to play a lot of bush ballads. ‘Tenterfield Saddler’, ‘Redback on the Toilet Seat’. There was a couple of Australian Classics CDs that we’d have in the car on repeat that I’d then go into school and sing. My nana loved Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ so I used to go in and sing all thirty verses of that [laughs].
You studied classical guitar, and studied music throughout high school, then you went on to study jazz at Australian National University. Did you add some instruments to your repertoire?
I played around with a few things. I got really interested in production. [I’d been] playing with a band, and not necessarily having a band around me, I taught myself a little bit of drums and a bit of piano so I could start mapping out how I reckon songs should sound. So when I did have a band I could talk the language, have the vocabulary that they need to do what I want them to do. I’m sort of ‘master of none’ – I’m pretty rubbish at most things [laughs]. But I can do enough to get by.
You sang at school, but when did you start singing to sing your own songs?
I started writing my own songs in my mid-teens, and I always considered myself a serious musician but I don’t think I really found what I was supposed to be doing and found how I like to write songs and how things work until two, three years ago. It’s one of those things where you think, I’m on the right track now, but I really acknowledge that a pivotal point was when I first got introduced to Tamworth and the country music world in Australia. Before that I was playing lots of jazz, lots of blues. I enjoyed playing it but I never really fit into that. I grew up with those Australian CDs in the car but also a lot of James Taylor and Neil Young, things like that which I’d never really considered to be country at the time. But when I first got to Tamworth I was introduced to this concept that country music is pretty vast. So I found my feet in the alt-country/Americana scene.
It was a recommendation from a friend that led you to the CMAA Academy – why did that friend think it was right for you?
She went to it the year before. She’d just moved from Queensland down to Canberra and she was doing all these really cool gigs supporting all these country musicians who I’d never heard of before. I said, ‘How do you know these guys?’ and she said, ‘The country world is such a great community. If you want a good introduction, head up to the academy.’ At that point I was sort of on the edge – ‘I don’t know about country music …’ But I did it and it was probably the best thing I ever did.
While you were there did you get to experience a great variety of country music?
Yes. I was a bit sheltered, in a sense, where I thought that country music was Keith Urban then on the other end of the spectrum it was Slim Dusty. I love both of them but I never really saw myself doing the same sort of music. But once I got in there [to the academy] they were talking about James Taylor and I said, ‘What? I love James Taylor!’ Then I had a think about it and thought that maybe those guys were more country than I’d anticipated. Especially with the bush ballad stuff, at the core of all of that is good songwriting. I pushed away all the overcomplicating natures of playing jazz music and learned to relish and appreciate beautifully crafted, simple songs where you’ve got three and a half minutes to tell a really good story.
With the kind of musical background you have, though – when you’re studying something like jazz, it gives you that great ability to be able to pare back. If you are a beginner and you start simple, it’s not the same as someone who’s seen the breadth of what’s there and written and performed in all sorts of styles of music and then knows what it takes to basically edit your own process.
Totally. It’s just about learning the vocabulary. Jazz has been really good for me to know my theory and know what sounds are produced by what chords or what combination of notes. Then being able to bring it back and make it really concise without overcomplicating it, but still knowing what’s going on at any given time and still know what you can do to further an idea … I definitely love the fact that I did jazz. I’m glad that I got out when I did. Every now and then I play a little bit. I play a bit of session work for a few people where I’ll jump into a trio and play, and it gives me the chance for a little bit of self-indulgence, in a sense [laughs]. But I’ve found a lot more satisfaction in just writing simple songs that work.
Going to the academy, you must have been at a pretty sophisticated stage of your development as a musician and as a songwriter. So I would imagine for you it wasn’t so much about ‘here are some skills I can learn’ as ‘here are some relationships I can make’.
Yes – I think that was the biggest thing that I found. In previous circles I’d been in it felt like there was this big competition – everyone wanted to get to the same place and they wouldn’t care about treading on other people’s toes to get there, whereas the first contact I had with the country world was the likes of Lyn Bowtell and Lachlan Bryan – wonderful people who just want to help. They offer up their advice: ‘I did it this way, maybe you could try that’ or ‘Here’s a person you could talk to’. Everyone goes and sees everyone’s shows and goes and buys CDs. That’s what makes it really special. It is one big family. Everyone wants to write together. It’s really nice.
Lyn and Lachlan are both fantastic artists. When you left the academy did you come out with a ‘listening list’ of people you wanted to check out?
Lachlan gave me a lot of names to listen to. When I met Kasey, she sent me a message: Tell me what your top ten songs are. I sent back a list which I’m pretty embarrassed about now [after] her response to it. She said, okay, you have some learning to do – here’s a list of twenty songs to listen to, to educate yourself. It gave me the foundations of not everybody who’s somebody in the industry but a couple of key figures. And when I was with Bill [Chambers] he introduced me to Jason Isbell, who’s turned out to be one of the biggest influences at the moment. That’s what’s great: people say, ‘You remind me of this – you should go and listen to this record’, and because country music, even though it’s so vast, it is all in the same pen, in a sense. It’s easier to direct people to things. In other genres you might suggest something to somebody and they say, ‘Well, I’m not going for that at all.’
Kasey asked you to be her guitarist for a few shows. Did you enjoy being in a band environment?
That was definitely awesome. I think the best thing I learnt from that was how comfortable she was on stage, and how comfortable it made everybody else on stage. I love playing in a band. I’ve played in a few different bands, and I’ve taken it upon myself to be that person to make people feel more comfortable on stage. I know people who hate performing and get the worst stage fright, and it’s supposed to be fun. I think the other thing I learnt is that everybody puts her up in lights, which she definitely deserves to be but at the core of who she is, she’s a human and she’s a hilarious human. People forget that these people are people and you can have proper conversations with them, and it’s quite incredible once you break that wall down.
You’ve done some writing with her, and with others because of that Academy experience. Did you have to adjust to co-writing? Did you enjoy it?
I’d never really dabbled in co-writing before. But I think once I got it in my head that you put ideas out there and they might get shut down that you don’t take it personally – it’s not about you, it’s about making the song as good as it can be – I actually really enjoyed co-writing. Sometimes my biggest problem is the first step, so when other people have the first line of a song or a chord progression, I’m just away – ‘Cool, awesome, let’s go with that.’ So that’s what’s really cool about it: everyone brings different strengths to the table that can fill in for other people’s weaknesses. I’ve written songs with people where I’ve barely done anything and at the end of the session I’ve said, ‘I’m really sorry, I didn’t really contribute to much.’ It was Mike Carr who said it to me – he said, ‘Don’t worry about it – the song wouldn’t have come to be if you weren’t in the room.’ And I think that’s what’s really special about it. If you had that agreement from the get-go that it’s going to be an equal share, that’s also really important, it’s just about getting the song to where it could potentially be.
And perhaps it’s also about being an editor of the work – you may not think you’re doing much but if you’re acting as an editor of other people’s work, and giving feedback, that is an essential function.
Definitely. There’s a fine line, too. I’ve been with people who might not do much but they feel as though they have to say something. Sometimes the song might be really good and they’ll have an edit, and I’ve done it before. But you’re only really putting your opinion forward because you haven’t had anything previously. I think it’s about putting that production hat on and saying, ‘Do I need to change anything or is this working? Should I just be a fly on the wall for a minute?’
Now that you’re in the country music fold, you are heading to Tamworth. What shows are you doing?
I’m playing at a few songwriter sessions. I’m guest appearing with Bill and with Lachlan Bryan and a few other friends. What I originally thought was going to be a pretty quiet Tamworth has turned into almost a dozen gigs, which is amazing [laughs]. Last time I was only there for four days and I had four shows, and all these other opportunities came up. I thought, I should be sticking around for a lot longer!
Saturday 19 January – Story Tellers @ City Sider Motor Inn – Tamworth, NSW – 11.00am
Sunday 20 January – Tamworth City Bowling Club – Tamworth, NSW – 6.00pm
Sunday 20 January – Storytellers @ City Sider Motor Inn (w/ Hannah Aldridge) – Tamworth, NSW – 8pm
Monday 21 January – Royal Australia Bank Stage – Tamworth, NSW – 2.00pm
Monday 21 January – Welders Dog (w/ Michaela Jenke) – Tamworth, NSW – 8.00pm
Tuesday 22 January – Square Man Inn – Tamworth, NSW – 11.30am
Wednesday 23 January – Welders Dog (w/Lachlan Bryan) – Tamworth, NSW – 7.30pm