South Australian singer-songwriter Bec Willis has a fantastic new album, Other Side of Town, that quickly becomes a treasured friend. She also has a great story, as I discovered when I spoke to her recently, and it’s her story – and her extensive experience as a musician, singer and songwriter – that has resulted in the fine achievement of her latest long player.
Congratulations on your wonderful album, which I’ve loved listening to and getting to know your songs and your story. And you have such a lovely voice, so it’s very, very easy to slip into it. Reading the bio and the track by track, the album seems to have emerged from what sounds like a tumultuous period in your life. There were a lot of changes and not all of them were welcome. So as a songwriter, did you document things as you went along or did you wait to see what emerge as the stories you wanted to tell?
I didn’t document anything. It was still pretty vivid for me at the time and I was too much in it. It was all happening with my mum passing away and moving us home and all that. I joked, ‘Oh, I should get some good songs out of this’, but I just, I wasn’t in that head space at that time to write. And it wasn’t till things have settled down that I said, ‘Ah, I have a bit of a breather’, and they all just came out. I can’t write when I’m stressed. So I sort of waited until things settled a little bit and then it was just all there waiting for me. I write when I’m driving, so they just popped into my head while I was on one of my long drives.
So do you pull over and do a little voice recording or write some notes?
Yes. For any police officers listening, I definitely pull over … [laughs] I do pull over and I get the melody and the words at the same time. So once I’ve got that and I think, This is going to be all right, I’ll pull over and just sing it into my voice memos on my phone. And then just keep coming up with the words and keep singing them. And then when I stop driving and get near a guitar, I put some chords to it. It just comes out of the blue. I can’t actually sit down and write on purpose, you know, it never works out well for me.
I think a lot of writers are like that. It seems that in certain circumstances – like if you’ve booked a co-writing session – then maybe, but usually when I speak to people, even if they’re going into that kind of experience they usually come in with something that’s already arisen the way you’ve described.
Definitely. And I’ve never really co-written before. It’s something that I should probably do it to grow as a writer, but because my songs come out spontaneously, I don’t know how I would go just sitting down and working through it methodically, you know?
Did you have more songs than you needed for an album? And did you then have to go through a lot of things and cut?
I had about eighteen and I wasn’t sure. So I sort of demo-ed them on Garage Band on my computer and some of them just on my phone, and sent them to over to Bill Chambers, who was going to produce [the album]. And when we got in there and I started playing the songs, from number one to number eighteen, it just became apparent which ones just weren’t going to really flow on this album. And some of them were really sad – which is fine, I do have some really sad ones on there – but I thought, I want to play this live, and I wanted it to have a bit of dynamics. Some up songs and some, some happy, hopeful songs, not all just really sad songs because I want people to feel good when they hear my music too.
When you’re writing from a personal place and there are things you want to express, and in country music there’s an audience that loves authenticity, it must be quite hard to get that balance right.
Yes, definitely. I could have recorded a whole album of really sad songs, but there’s part of me that loves the blues and loves to rock a little bit as well. And I was thinking, Well, I have to re-create these live, so how emotionally exhausting is that going to be for me if every song’s really sad? But that’s what I love about country fans, they love the authenticity, which is good because my lyrics are pretty honest. I can’t seem to write any other way. They’re real.
Yes. And you could hear that on the recording. It’s clear that it comes from the heart, and it’s that intangible thing when you’re a singer as well – it’s one thing to write the song, it’s another to express it. So when you’re in that recording process, you have to go back into that emotional well. Is that quite taxing for you?
For ‘Fly’, which is about my kids, got a little bit weepy. I’m pretty good at detaching myself enough just to sing it with enough emotion but not get too lost. But with that one, I just had to have a few gos at it because when I was recording it my boys were not with me and I was missing them. And so I said to Bill, ‘Just give me a minute. I need a cup of tea and a bit of a nap and then I’ll come back in and finish that one.’ So that one and also ‘Dream In My Pocket’, about my mum. Those two were hard to do. They’re probably the two hardest ones I’ve ever had to record because they are so close to my heart. But we got there eventually. It is a fine balance, just having a little bit of detachment, having that performer thing but then putting your heart into it at the same time, like you say.
But it’s also good for you, for your own emotional and energetic levels, as a person and a performer, obviously you want to have that balance for yourself. Otherwise you run yourself down.
Yes, you just get exhausted, and songs on the album like ‘Real Thing’ and ‘All We Need is Love’ are fun, they really lift it for me. So that’s really important in a live set as well.
Writing and singing songs about your own experience can sometimes mean that an artist becomes an expert at creating a persona or a mask, almost like you’re shaping it. But in your case, I think it’s clear that you’re prepared to be vulnerable to your audience. Does it ever feel scary being that vulnerable?
Totally. Especially now when it’s out there in the world and it’s interview time, and I think, Oh my god, now I have to talk about this stuff! When I recorded it, it was ‘I believe in the songs and they’re honest and real and I think people will resonate with the emotion in there because they’ve been through it or they can relate to it.’ But it daunts me quite often, I think, Why do I have to write with all that honesty, why can’t I just be a bit more cryptic in my lyrics? But I just can’t, so I suck it up. And that’s me.
To go back to the authenticity and what the audiences respond to, I think they really honour that and it’s taken on face value in that no one ever thinks it’s cynically done. If you’re being vulnerable and real and open, the audience says, ‘We see you. It’s okay.’
Exactly. I’m not setting out to make people cry or feel bad about things. There was a thing where artists had an invisible cape and we had an image of who they were, but I can’t do that. I come from a family that’s extremely down to earth. So it’s not like I step on stage and become someone else. I’m just me, but probably a better version of me. I’m more courageous on stage.
Well, that’s wonderful and it’s great to be able to channel that. But I’ll move on now to talking about your musical styles. Obviously you range within the country genre, which is a very broad genre, but your songs definitely don’t all sound the same. So I’m curious about your musical lineage, what you grew up listening to and what you listen to now. What influences you now.
Well, it’s good to know that they don’t sound the same. That’s something that I get paranoid about at times. I grew up with my parents’ music, which was Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, Tanya Tucker. So that’s all pretty country stuff. But then I’m the youngest of six, so my brother was listening to the Violent Femmes and my sister loves Fleetwood Mac and, and rock ‘n’ roll music from the 60s like Chuck Berry. So it was a really, really wide range of music that we listened to in our house, but family singalongs always came back to country. And now – I’ve been listening to Tom Petty lately and Steve Earle and Holly Williams and Lucinda Williams. My kids are eight and ten and they play a lot of stuff that’s on the radio now, so we have that in our house. So I have more of a country roots influence, but I will I listen to pretty much anything as long as it’s good.
When you’re a songwriter, and if you’re curious about the world, all those influences are useful because you’re hearing what you’d like and what you don’t like.
Yes, definitely. As a teenager I was fairly obsessed with AC/DC, you know, but none of my songs will really sound like that [laughs]. But I just love playing guitar. I actually love it more than I love singing. I love my electric Gibson SG. I don’t know if that’s because I grew up as a bogan [laughs].
At what age did you start playing guitar?
I was eight and my brother was a shearer and he taught me guitar, because he played and I wanted to be like him. He was my hero. So he’d just call in on his shearing rounds and teach me a new chord every now and then. And then when I was about fourteen and I lived in Ceduna in South Australia I auditioned for an all-boy rock band and they didn’t want girls but they didn’t have a bass player and I thought, Well, that’s ridiculous, you’ve got to have bass. So I auditioned with Johnny B Goode or something and got in and started playing bass with those guys. And I got an electric guitar and that was the start anyway.
Did you play bass before you auditioned?
No. My brother just said, ‘Oh, it’s the top four strings of guitar. You’ll be right.’ And he taught me one-three-five notes and basically said, ‘Apply this to any song and you’ll be right unless it’s a minor’. So I just winged it, pretty much. Clearly I could get away with it, but I do not profess to be a bass player now.
It sounds like guitar is much closer to your heart anyway.
It is. I really should learn mandolin because I’m always playing capo on the tenth fret on my guitar. I really love those sweet sounds of the upper notes. But I love guitar. I love the way the world feels under my fingers and the strings.
So that’s your background as a musician. When did you start singing?
Oh, well, family singalongs in the Willis family, everyone out of tune, Dad playing the spoons and stuff like that. I suppose I was squawking away from about the age of four, in a singalong context. But I think I was about nine when I started making up songs and singing. And then officially in the band, in the all-boy band where I played bass, and the band was called Give Way. I did back-up vocals and then started to sing a bit. I never really thought I’d be a lead singer. I always thought, I’m good at harmonies. I love harmonies. But I never thought that I could be the person mainly singing until probably in my late teens I started to sing anyway, just to get my songs out there because I love songwriting. Then I was in Beccy Cole’s band for four years as a back-up singer and guitarist. And that really honed my craft of harmonies, which I love doing.
I’m sure I would’ve seen you in Beccy’s band because I’ve seen her play so many times. That band seems like it would have been a singular experience in a good way because she’s really great at putting on a show. Obviously she has fantastic songs and she’s a wonderful singer and musician herself, but she really has that stagecraft thing honed very well.
I reckon she’s the best female performer in Australia, for sure. I’ve seen her backstage absolutely buggered, really tired, burnt out, and she’ll just click her fingers, get on stage and do it. She’s pretty amazing. I learned a lot from her.
You must have also played many different parts of Australia. So is there anywhere you played you haven’t played yet that you really want to?
I think the furtherest north we went in Western Australia was Geraldton, but I’d really like to go up that north coast of Western Australia and a little bit more of the Northern Territory as well. We did Alice and Katherine and Darwin. But you fly in and you check into the motel, do the RSL and then leave the next day. So I would like to road-trip it and do some gigs and see the country and meet some people.
If you’re doing that kind of thing – and even the shows you’ll play in support of this album – will it be you and a guitar or do you have a band with your or even other person with you?
It’ll be me and a guitar purely based on budget because I’m a single mum with two kids and I can’t really afford to hire a guitar player. It’s just the way it is, as unglamorous as that sounds. That’s the reality. But I use a stompbox and play harmonica on a brace and play guitar. In the future I’d love to tour with a couple of other musos. But we’ll see what happens down the track. At the moment I’m trying to work out gig dates around the place that fit in with my kids’ schooling and trying to juggle all that sort of thing. But I’m keen to get out and do heaps more shows.
The mythology of the travelling performer for so long has been of a man with an instrument roaming the countryside. And I do so love that when I hear a female artist like you saying, ‘I’ve got the harmonica in a brace, I’m in the car, I’ve got the guitar.’ You just never know which teenage girl, for example, it comes to your show and gets inspiration from that and decides that they can do it as well.
I hope so. I was having this conversation with a friend yesterday – and it’s not a generalisation, but blokes can say, ‘Hey baby, I’m going on tour. See you later.’ And the partner will look after the kids and stay home. But for us girls it’s kids in the car, dogs in the car, everything in the car. And by the way, you’re going to play a gig tonight. It’s so hectic. And people have said, ‘It’s been four years since your last album and you haven’t done 50 million gigs in a year.’ It’s really hard when you’re managing a family to be a mum and try to juggle all of that. I do it, I love it. I’d love to do more of it. But it’s bloody hard.
It’s profoundly hard because it’s not just the children, it’s running the household. And I like to use that term, ‘running a household’, because there’s so much work that goes into that and it’s really at odds with creative work. Because the creative flow, like the arc of writing a song, for example, or nutting out a bridge or something or a melody, that’s a certain amount of time and concentration you need that really gets interrupted if you’ve got to do the dishes.
Totally. Or even in my house, the housework isn’t really a first priority, but you still have to make sure it’s hygienic and cook tea. The other day I thought, Oh, I’ve got an idea, and I was strumming. And my eight-year-old was saying, ‘Mum! Mum! Mum!’ I said, ‘Just hang on a minute!’ And then he’s got a new drum kit so he starts smashing it out. Which is awesome. But as a songwriter it’s a nightmare. The creativity and that hectic, busy life can’t co-exist. So I’ve got to find gaps to try and make that creativity, give it a space for it happen. Otherwise you just go years with not writing anything.
To ask one last question: you’ve released this album and as an independent artist, as many country artists are doing these days. But that involves more types of work that are kind of at odds with the creative process. Do you like the process of being an independent artist and managing all of that?
Oh, life would be easier if I had a label and a manager and an agent. Absolutely. But at this stage I’m independent and, yes, it’s a lot of work and I’ve got a battle with the self-belief thing too. Some days I wake up and think, Right, I’ve got to try and make this, this and this happen. But if I’ve been up with the kids and I’m buggered or I’m just not feeling that much self-belief that day in what I’m doing, it’s hard to get motivated. So any labels or managers or agents out there, give me a call. But otherwise, yes, it’s a big learning curve and it’s a lot of work but a lot of indie artists are doing it these days.
Other Side of Town is out now.