JoKeria are a Western Australia duo, with members Kendall Smith on vocals and guitar and Josh Philpot on drums. Their new album, Red Country, has its lineage in traditional country music yet it is distinct and unique. It has a way of hooking itself under your skin, and a lot of that is to do with Kendall Smith’s lyrics and voice. He delivers his stories directly to the listener, and he puts his heart and mind on the line. Therefore, I looked forward to speaking to him recently and I discovered a thoughtful, pragmatic and passionate artist.
Often when I talk to people for the first time, I like to find out about their musical background, what music you grew up listening to. So I’d like to start with that if I could.
Music I grew up listening to, I would have to say real country music. I grew up listening to Randy Travis. A lot of Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn. A lot of Slim Dusty. Australian country music. Joy McKean. The seekers. So this is a lot of influences from a lot of older people from when I was a lot younger. After primary school I used to have to go back to stay at my grandmother’s for the afternoons until my father finished work at about four, four-thirty in the afternoon so that we could then be picked up and then head back out to our Aboriginal community that I grew up living on. And in that time I’d be giving my grandmother a hand with whatever she needed and there’d always be music playing in the background. So that was my first real, focused exposure of country music. And I just started to catch onto the tunes. You start singing along and then got to a point where I try to start mimicking the artists that I was listening to.
Was your grandmother musical?
Musical in the traditional sense, most definitely. In the Aboriginal culture, for sure. She could sing lot of the old traditional songs that had to do with corroboree and ceremony times. But non-indigenously, no, she could not play an instrument or anything like that. But she really enjoyed music. She loved the storytelling side of music.
I guess that’s part of understanding a culture and storytelling and music. We have our western interpretation of what’s musical and just as you said, in the Aboriginal sense, she was musical and it sounds to me very much, the way she brought you up, she wasmusic in a lot of ways.
Pretty much. And sadly she’s been gone about eight years, and in that time period that’s actually when my music has really started to go from just strumming a guitar by myself to now, actually, I’m writing pretty good-quality songs for an amateur in the game and I’m starting to make it a lot of heads turn. So, it’s good that I can still carry on the music even though Grandma is no longer with us. It helps soothe that small amount of pain that I still may have left from losing her, you know?
Of course. Listening to your music, I was thinking, yeah, it’s identifiably country – obviously because, as you said, you’ve grown up listening to real country music. But I hear a lot of Australian country and I actually can’t think of any acts who sound like your band. So you’re traditional but different, if that makes sense.
We competed in the battle of the bands in Tamworth last year, and when we’re asked on those [entry] forms ‘what style of music do you play country wise?’ the only real category that I can myself figure to fit us into is traditional. So if we are creating our own sort of little brand of country music, I think we may actually be on the right track because that’s going to be something that sets us aside from the rest of the pack.
I was reading your track-by-track descriptions and in the description for ‘Back No More’ it says, ‘We gave it a tropicana honky tonk feel for the new album’. I love that idea of tropicana honky tonk.
So think Jimmy Buffet. Everything I say is going to have a lot of country music influence, so you think Jimmy Buffett, Alan Jackson, it’s five o’clock somewhere. Then you’re straightaway going to understand where the influence of the ‘Back No More’ style of music has come from.
When did you start singing and playing guitar?
I actually started musically on the drums at our local church from about the age of eight years old to about thirteen. Learning wise I was pretty well self-taught at drumming, but I did use to get some tips or a little bit of guidance from a guy who was also a drummer at the time, he was probably about five years older than me and had a bit more experience at playing the drums. What led me to play the guitar was I couldn’t actually pick up my drum kit, take it around and go and show all my mates how good I was getting on the drums [laughs]. So in the end I decided, ‘Okay, nuh, guitar’s the way to go’, but I couldn’t have made a better move because starting to learn the guitar is what actually started my creative mind to think about, Okay, how about we look at singing other people’s songs, let’s look at trying to write our own lyrics.And I wrote my first song ever at the age of 13, eight months – so around 14 years old.
Given that you started off on drums, do you ever try to tell Josh how to play the drums?
[Laughs] Definitely not. That wouldn’t go down very well. But Josh is a better drummer than me in a lot of aspects. I can drum quite simply, just enough in practice if he’s never able to make it just so I can fill in the void, but show wise, no, you’ll never, ever see me on that drum kit trying to sling those sticks around, for sure.
It is a bit of a mindset change, I guess, from sitting at the drums and being at the back of a band to being the front man, as you are. And also it’s one thing to be singing and playing at home to then be performing. Has it come naturally to you, to be at the front?
No, it didn’t, I’ll be quite honest with you, it didn’t come naturally at all, and I don’t think that any or many people that you would ask that question to would say, ‘Oh yeah, just came to me naturally.’ Definitely not. I feel that my five years spent in the covers band that I used to play with held me in good stead to now becoming a front man of an original band, because a lot of the stuff I learned about being a front man was from the other gentleman who was the lead singer in that Blackstone Ramblers band. He’s probably 20 years older than I am, really took me under his wing and would always give me advice and tips and feedback on how I could improve myself as a front man. His name was Glenn Toby and he’s still around in Roebourne, our local area. I see him from time to time and I always let him know that I’m very appreciative of what he was able to teach me at a young age to now. It held me in good stead for what’s to come for our future.
So you and Josh were both in that covers band and then you’ve formed your own band. What was the process behind forming your own band?
When we were in the covers band I actually couldn’t play in the band anymore because I was thinking of relocating from the Pilbara up to the Kimberley to live in Fitzroy Crossing. My wife’s from Fitzroy Crossing, and I wanted to go because she came and lived down here with me. I thought I’d return the favour and head up there and go to stay in her part of the region for a couple of years. So I had to put music to the side. That was my commitment that I had to make. Now in that time I’ve sort of fallen away from music. Josh was the one who called me, got me reignited, kept on me to say, ‘Look, if you are wanting to still do music, I’m here. I’m keen, I’m happy to put in the work, but we gotta do this together’. So he started to bring me back to music. And since then the story’s pretty much been telling itself through our music.
Did you move back to Roebourne mainly to pursue music?
Initially no. The main reason that we moved back to the Pilbara was that I got a job working in an iron ore mine. They provided housing. They gave a lot of perks to their workers, so it was quite a hard job to refuse. So we moved to Tom Price, which then was only 300 kilometres away from our band. I made the decision to start reigniting things with the old band members and looking at getting other artists in to come and play alongside us on stage. And then I finished up with the job and decided, ‘Oh well, let’s now take this seriously.’ I moved back to Roebourne beginning of the year and now we’re really starting to amp things up.
I’m smiling at you saying, ‘I was only 300 kilometres away.’ There aren’t many places where ‘only’ and ‘300 kilometres away’ go together.
[Laughs] Considering that Fitzroy Crossing was 1800. Practice sessions were just a little bit too hard to get to on a Friday night.
I was just in the Territory, where it’s 130 ks an hour on the Stuart Highway. If your speed limit is 130 in the Pilbara I guess 300 ks go past quickly.
I wish it was, but no, we’re stuck on 110 here in Western Australia. We don’t get that perk.
And in WA, of course, you are physically separated from most of the music industry. You and Josh drove to Tamworth and that’s a huge undertaking. If you want to connect with the rest of the industry, that’s a literal huge journey to make.
Well, we would never going to enter this game for fun. We were going to come in with the idea of, ‘Okay, let’s look at how an artist has gone into the music industry, become successful and made a living off their music.’ So I started to study a lot of artists like Garth Brooks. A lot of the newer ones that came through like Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, I studied the their careers and I had a look at how they held themselves as front men, their persona, the way that they just carry themselves, the way they treat other people. All that sort of stuff. And I thought, Okay, we need to now incorporate that into our band,because we were writing good songs. We were getting reasonable songs, but the songwriting didn’t change until we actually then jumped into the bus, travelled 5000 kilometres from one coast to the other to get to Tamworth in 2018. And that whole experience changed everything for me. Because we not only drove 5000 ks there, we then had to drive 5000 ks all the way back home. There was plenty of thinking time on the trip back home. A lot of the influences and looking at the different types of country that our great country does have, it just started to really fire a whole new feeling of emotions, which then just took my songwriting to a whole new creative level, which I think that wasn’t a bad thing. But it definitely was gruelling and hard going to get to Tamworth, I can tell you that [laughs].
Out of curiosity … because you’re in the north of WA, did you go across to Katherine and then south?
No, we went down to Kalgoorlie right through the central road of Western Australia, across to Eucla, and then across the Nullarbor, over to Port Augusta. And then from Port Augusta started to head up through Peter burrough and all those sorts of small towns, Broken Hill. And then we came into New South Wales, rolled into Tamworth in a mining thirteen-seater bus [laughs]. It was quite a shock to the rest of Tamworth because we pulled into the camping ground and everyone was listening to us with our reverse alarm, going, ‘What the bloody hell are these people doing?’ [laughs]
And it wasn’t just the drive back that gave you something to think about. You met Bill Chamberson that trip.
Yes, that was actually the first time we met Bill Chambers. It was by luck of the draw that Lucky Oceanshad seen us when we were playing in the covers band prior to becoming JoKeria. He then started to notice our first album’s music that we were putting out as demos. He asked if he was able to jump on the album and play on some tracks. He did steel guitar on four of the tracks for our debut album. He was impressed by the music. Mutual friend connection then to Bill Chambers and he said, ‘Look, you’ve got to get these guys over to the show that you do at the Pub sessions in Tamworth, even if it’s for one or two songs.’ And literally we drove 5000 kilometres just for me to get up on the stage with Bill to sing two songs. So you want to talk about commitment and giving it everything you – JoKeria, we don’t play games. We’re in this for the long haul.
I believe you. And Bill went on to produce the new album, Red Country. And your early recordings were you and Josh in a shed doing it yourself so did it seem strange to have to then hand it over to someone else to do it?
I was actually quite nervous because I’m quite protective of my material when I’m writing new stuff. I don’t allow anyone to see or hear any of it until I’ve actually done the full completion of the writing. So for me, getting those songs together in a short period of time to then send to Bill, I was quite nervous. But knowing Bill’s background and understanding that Kasey was his daughter and he was the guy who actually held her in good stead for the first few years and the first few albums of her career, I then swallowed my pride and elected to trust Bill Chambers with our music and say, ‘No, I think we might be giving our music to Bill for a reason. I think this is all lining up for some greater purpose than we can think of.’ Gave him the music, trusted him, and the product we have, I couldn’t even be happier. It’s taken our simple little demo tracks to something that we, as JoKeria, can be really proud of to say that we created alongside Bill Chambers and all the guys at the studio at the time.
I think so much of it, though, does come back to your songwriting and I’m interested in you saying that on that drive back from Tamworth you had time to think and your songwriting completely changed after that experience, because there’s always that indefinable thing about how someone creates and how your songs are different to someone else’s. Listening to your lyrics, I thought, These are such relatable stories because you’ve made them specific. So the specific is universal. They’re stories from your family and your life, but this they’re told from the heart. I think that’s what I’m hearing, is that it’s so authentic.
Exactly right. People connect to truth, people to connect to things that they feel that they may have experienced themselves. Even if it’s as simple an act as drinking a glass of water. Now, there are millions of people in the world and if you were smart enough to do it you could write a country song about drinking a glass of water, because then you’ve got a great audience of probably everybody in the world who all know what that experience is like. What I try to do when I do my songwriting is think, Okay, what would be something that is quite common in a lot of people’s lives? No matter what walk of life they come from, what would be something that is quite common and they could relate to?So, firstly, death. Death is inevitable for everybody, so singing about losing someone who is close to you is going to resonate with just about everyone who hears the song, because everyone has lost someone that they have loved, you see? So if you look at music in that sense – and this didn’t actually start to click for me, like I said, until after the first experience at Tamworth – all we are as songwriters are storytellers. Now, Aboriginal people have never documented our history, our stories, any of that. Everything that we pass on is from mouth to mouth and through the generational teachings. So songwriting for me came quite naturally because, well, it’s a part of our way of life, of our culture. It’s something that our people have been doing for thousands of years. It’s just taking it from a traditional sense to now incorporating it into something that people see as commercial. Now, we can tell a story through that commercial avenue and we can start to make a living and make some money off them. Quite simple, in my way of thinking, but it took a little while for me to understand that. But now that I see the bigger picture, I think that we as JoKeria are going to take our music a good distance. I reckon we’re going to have a good crack at this one.
Red Country is out now.