Shane Nicholson is known as a songwriter and singer with many exceptional albums to his credit; over the past few years he’s also established himself as a producer in great demand, and as a mentor of up-and-coming country music talent. He is a fixture at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, appearing on the following dates:
Monday 20 January – Friends of Goonga’s Girls – West Tamworth Leagues Club
Wednesday 22 January – The Pub
Thursday 23 January – The Press (Dwayne Picklegun Show)
Friday 24 January – RUOK Show – West Tamworth Leagues Club
Ahead of the festival he released a new single, ‘The High Price of Surviving’, co-written with young Queensland songwriter Leyon Milner. It’s another great song amongst many in his catalogue, which begs the question: is he capable of writing a bad song?
‘Well, I’ve certainly written a couple,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I try and hide them as much as possible and don’t let other people hear them. I certainly wouldn’t try and record them. There are always bad songs. What I’ve learned though is that the more time goes on, the more songs I write, the more albums I make, I don’t actually finish the bad ones any more. I used to. You’d have a pile of songs and then decide your favourite or the best ones for a record. It doesn’t really get to that point now. So if the song’s not working or if it’s not going to be great, I can seem to identify it earlier. And I don’t bother finishing it. So the last few records I’ve made, the only songs that are written and finished are the ones that actually are on the record.’
‘The High Price of Surviving’ was written in 2018 at the DAG Sheep Station in Nundle, New South Wales, where both Nicholson and Milner were in attendance.
‘Leyon is fairly young,’ says Nicholson, ‘but he’s an incredible writer and an incredible singer. We didn’t know each other, but basically at the DAG I’m there in more of a tutor’s role and he was there as an attendee. So the dynamic is a little bit different than a normal co-write because it’s kind of like teacher and student. But that’s not really how we wrote at all. It’s really cold there too at that time of year so we just went and hung out in my warm room and we just wrote that song in no time.
‘I think we were finished before lunch, so we just moved on and didn’t really think much about it. I thought, Yeah, that’s okay. And then it wasn’t till later when I got home and I was going through all the songs from the DAG and that one really stuck out. And he also sang it at the deck at one of the open mic nights. To hear him sing it was pretty cool as well. I thought, Maybe there is something in that song. You write a lot of songs at the DAG. You’re writing two or three a day with different people, for a week, so sometimes it takes a little bit of time away for the cream to rise. That one just never went away. And it’s actually morphed over time.
‘So that song’s interestingly being strangely prophetic in a lot of ways. It was just written as a song. There wasn’t really any point behind it that we discussed. We just wrote a song and there was no real agenda that we had with it. But then the song took on a whole new meaning just after I recorded it. When [musician and producer] Glen Hannah passed away, that whole song just changed meaning for me and we were just about to release it then. So it all felt a little bit weird to me. So we delayed it a little. And now it’s taken on a whole other new meaning as well. Hopefully that’s a sign of a good song and it’s just a universal in that way.’
Hannah took his life last year; his wife, beloved country music artist Felicity Urquhart, has spoken about the circumstances of his death. Nicholson says that while the song was written before Hannah’s death, ‘It did become about him in a lot of ways. I tied myself up in knots not wondering whether I’d ever do the song or not, after he died, because it just seemed so close to home. I sent it out to every one of our mutual friends, gauging their vibe on it – “Is this tacky?” or something. In the end you always just have to go with your gut as an artist and a little bit of time has made me feel a bit more cool about that aspect of the song.
‘But now with all this other shit going on [this interview was conducted while there were bushfires raging in New South Wales] – this poor little song’s just struggling to survive,’ he says with a rueful laugh. ‘There’s a whole bunch of crazy world stuff going on around it, putting pressure on it. But to me, it’s essentially just a little song that I wrote with a really cool guy that I met that morning. Funnily enough, that’s just reminded me that the last show I ever played with Glen, with my band, was at Winton [in Queensland], we travelled out to the festival, and Leyon was in the crowd as a punter … So I called him up on stage because I spotted him and we sang that song together. And that was the last Glen shows played with us. So that’s weird. But we’d actually sung it together on stage before hand.’
The first show Nicholson will take part in at the Tamworth Country Music Festival is for ‘Goonga’s Girls’ – Hannah and Urquhart’s daughters.
‘I was just asked to be part of it,’ says Nicholson, ‘I was very lucky. But there’s a whole bunch of people behind the scenes working to pull that together. There’s a few events that I”m part of that are specifically Glen-related things in Tamworth with this year. But that one is the ultimate star-studded cast. Just about everybody in town will be there at some point singing. They struggled to put a show together because there were just too many people who wanted to come and sing and be part of it. So I think it’s going to be pretty cool. And it’s obviously a great way to remember him, but also to raise money for the girls. But also just for them to be part of it.
‘Obviously Tamworth is going to be interesting this time because it’s the first one I’ve ever done without him. For a lot of people it will be the same. It’ll be the first time that my band has gone back on stage since he died, you know, so that’s going to be weird too. Everyone will have their weird moments, but I’m looking at it like – the same as Felicity and the girls – it’s all these firsts that have to get out of the way. The first Father’s Day, the first Christmas, the first Tamworth, the first birthday. So this is one of the firsts to rule out of the way and maybe it will be a little bit easier to ocus on moving forward. But I’ve been completely inspired by Fliss and how she just moves her train forward. It’s incredible. We’re quite good friends and we hang out a lot with the kids, because we live fairly close to each other. She’s just really inspiring. Quite incredible. It’s really a humbling thing to watch when something is so big and can take over the universe so much and it makes you realise that your problems are quite small in comparison, and there’s a whole lot of perspectives to be gained in that. As far as the song goes, obviously it was written well before any of this happened, but I’m glad that it kind of seems to have a tip of the hat to him in a way. If it makes people talk then all the better.’
Songs – like books and films – can give some people the permission to talk about things that they otherwise might not discuss, but which they know they need to. Where songs can be particularly effective is that they provide a succinct structure for that discussion – and, too, the songwriter is often right there for the audience to interact with, as Nicholson has discovered.
‘I noticed something really different happened after I released the “Secondhand Man” song and “Single Fathers” as well,’ he says. ‘For the first time in my life I’d be at a merch stand and have grown men in boots and hats, almost in tears coming up and telling me their story. And that just never happens. When does some big, burly guy just walk up to you after a gig and tell you his story? Telling you about his divorce or his separation from his kids or whatever. And that stuff just started coming out. So it was like that song was some kind of invitation or opening for them to come and say it. And it was quite confronting at first. I thought, Wow, this is a little overwhelming, there’s so many stories. But then it became kind of heartwarming in a way – Oh well, that’s cool. He probably hasn’t told anybody that story in the last month, been sitting at home. But that he told me at the merch stand.‘
Part of the power of Nicholson’s songwriting comes from his ability to be concise – almost ruthless – in his writing. He has to be honest with himself, and his work. His work as a producer has partly influenced this.
‘I think it’s actually through producing that I’ve honed that skill more,’ he says, ‘because the producer is kind of always in the objective position, they’re not the one that’s connected emotionally to that song because they didn’t write it, you know? So, as a producer, a big part of that role is being objective and being able to pull the song apart without emotion clouding your judgement. But as the writer that’s very difficult. I think it’s really working as a producer for the last decade or so has helped me kind of figure out how to step outside the song and self-edit. But I’ve always been pretty hard on myself. I think most creative people are. I mean, you have to be, you have to be your harshest critic to make sure that you’re making your best work.
‘So production definitely helps that and then it feeds back into itself. When I’m producing I can kind of understand where the singer or the writer is because I feel that as well. It becomes really a game of psychology when you’re producing, more than anything else. Understanding how they feel about a song or the trepidation they have with someone pulling it apart in front of them, I do understand that. So it helps with the way you go about it [laughs]. Because you’re really trying to get the best out of a song and the artist. It’s about navigating those difficult conversations and making them feel like we’re all here for the greater good. So let’s pull this song apart and put it back together.’
Not that Nicholson feels he always has to be completely concise with his songs, as he is on the 2008 release Familiar Ghosts, for example. He says that ‘it’s still fun to jam out and drag a song out for 10 minutes and play guitar like Neil Young. But primarily my song writing ethic, I guess, comes from listening to folk music as I grew up, and that’s really what Familiar Ghosts is. It was supposed to be a folk record and those songs are really just musically there to support a lyric and you get in there, you tell the story and then you leave, you know, and that’s kind of how those songs work. It’s a really good, strong folk tradition.
‘I’m a big lover of short songs. I always have been. I am pretty ruthless and I’ll pull anything out that is dead wood in a song, and if it’s not serving a purpose to propel us forward to the next bit of the song then it doesn’t need to be there. I often end up with shorter songs, but I really like them. A lot of my favourite Beatles songs are the ones that run half as long as any others. It’s also a big punk thing that comes from when I was teenager playing punk music. They were all very short songs. Plus they’re just easier to remember. The longer you make a song, the harder is to remember, especially 20 years later when you’re trying to,’ he says with a laugh.
With such an extensive catalogue of songs, he can hardly be expected to remember everything he’s written, especially when an audience member calls out a request.
‘I’m finding that now,’ he says. ‘I’m really struggling with some of the older ones that I don’t play regularly. And if they get requested at a show, I’m always happy to have a crack at it. But it does come with the disclaimer that this could be a train wreck because I really struggle at the best of times with my memory and playing songs that you wrote 20 years ago or 15 years ago, it just gets really difficult to remember them. Sometimes if you played them a lot back in the day, it’s like muscle memory and it’ll come back. But if they’re album cuts that you’ve never played live, it’s just so foreign. It’s like playing a cover. I just wouldn’t remember.
‘You get so inside a song when you’re doing it,’ he continues, ‘and then it’s such a cathartic process that when it’s over you sometimes just breathe a big sigh of relief and let it go. I’ve just done that with some songs and never thought twice about them again.
‘Interestingly, last year I recorded a live show that was purely by request and everyone sent in the votes for whatever songs and we only did songs that had never been recorded live before. They weren’t on the last live album. It tossed up a whole lot of crazy, crazy ideas and songs that I’d never played live even once, and from records back in the early 2000s. I actually had to sit and learn songs and go over them again, songs that I haven’t listened to for a lifetime, and I had to relearn them so that I could do them at the show, and it was actually kind of fun. It was an interesting process. I would never have done that otherwise, sat there and gone through all that stuff and gotten inside those old songs again. But it’s funny how much they connect you to the time, and what you were doing and the touring you were doing then and where you were, and it all comes flooding back.
‘I guess I appreciate the story that you’re creating by making records constantly and I’m starting to be aware of that now after this amount of time doing it – you’re actually creating a story there.’
It seems that Nicholson is not just creating songs under his own cover, either – a Tamworth show has been announced for a certain Dwayne Picklegun, who had a debut appearance at last year’s festival. When asked what sort of fellow Picklegun is, Nicholson says, ‘He’s a bit of a bastard. He’s a prickly kind of anti-establishment, anti-industry guy. But I don’t know him that well,’ he says, laughing. ‘He played one show last year. That was his first show and it seemed to go okay. It actually went really well, so I’m pretty sure he’s ego been blown up a lot since then. I’m not sure what’s going to happen this year. But it’s a fun way to play something different and not be Shane Nicholson. He’s even got some originals but I don’t even know if they’ll be ready in time. But it’s just something for fun.
‘I guess there’s a bit of a tradition of that too in country music, even in Australia. We’ve got Tex Dubbo [Troy Cassar-Daley’s alter ego]. I like it. I enjoy it. Weve also got a show on the Friday … it’s actually Glen’s band that he formed with Steve Fearnley, Matt Fell and Jeremy Edwards. The four of them formed this band and they were working on a record and he passed away before they finished it. So they’ve pulled together a whole bunch of us and we’ve all finished this record, and it’s being released in Tamworth and we’re doing a show up there. It was weird at rehearsal the other night because I was filling in for Glen, but it felt really cool to be putting this record out that he had laboured on and was a massive part of. It was really his idea. So for them to see it to fruition is pretty cool. I think the album’s called The Goonga Project. So that’ll be full of guests, everyone who sang on it, so I think that’ll be a pretty special show.’
Speaking of Matt Fell: like Nicholson, he’s very much in demand as a producer for Australia’s country music artists. But when Nicholson is asked if he happens to be taking any business away from Fell, he laughs and says, ‘I don’t think there’s any danger of that. He’s got more than he can keep up with. We are best mates, so we talk every day, about work or whatever we’re doing. We often end up quoting on the same jobs. There’s only a limited number of producers around, especially if you’re in the world of music Matt and I are in. We’re always quoting on the same jobs and then poking fun at the other one for not getting it. But no one’s taking work off him. He’s drowning in work at the moment and he’s doing all great stuff. So my hope is that he’s going to take on so much work that the quality’s going to go so far down that then I can sweep in and take off of work.’
Although at the moment, as Nicholson says, ‘It’s pretty much the Golden Matt Fell Awards now. He has like 12 or 15 nominations every year.’ There are no hard feelings about that, though, as Nicholson says, ‘I love having such a close mate doing what I do. We work together a lot and we do everything we can to kind of make each other’s projects better when we both work on each other’s productions as well, not just my records. It’s a really nice, small, tight-knit community of producers in the country industry.’
In Tamworth, amidst other ensemble shows, Nicholson will be playing his usual headline show, at The Pub.
‘It’s changing a little bit this year,’ he says. ‘We usually have a lot of guests and that kind of thing. But poor Jeremy [Edwards], who’s replacing Glen in the band, has been thrown in the deep end. He’s got a lot of songs to learn. We’ve got a few more people in the band this year too, and we’ve got another permanent member.
‘We were originally going to do a Bad Machines 10th anniversary. We planned it all, did a set list, everything, worked it out, had some artwork done. Then we realised that we’d miscounted and it’s only 9 years,’ he says with a laugh. ‘So, back to the drawing board.’
He says that the usual fixture ‘song bingo’ will be back, and, ‘There’ll be some guests. But we’re going to streamline the show this year and play longer. And that’s why we never have a support act. We’d just prefer to play a much longer show than normal. We just start early, have no support act and play too late. That’s what we’d love to do. I think that’s what I would want to see if I go to show – I want to see as much music as I can see.
For fans who are hoping to hear album tracks as well as the singles, Nicholson says, ‘That’s why the Tamworth show’s so great – we can cover a lot of ground at that show. And it’s always a good vibe and it’s always packed. It’s always got a really good atmosphere and a good feeling. That’s the highlight of the year for touring because that’s the one night I get my entire band on stage at the same time. They’re very hard people to get on the road. They’re all record producers and they’re all very busy with music in their own worlds. So actually getting us on the road together is a rare thing. But Tamworth’s was always a staple. Everyone’s just perpetually rebooked every year.
‘We always look forward to it because it’s our chance to jam. We don’t ever play together or rehearse unless we’re at gigs. It’s not like we sit around in the garage with beers and run songs or anything like that. So getting up on stage is our rehearsal, performance, fun, everything rolled into one.’
Those heading to their first Shane Nicholson Tamworth show are in for a treat – and that’s something that returning fans already know they’ll get. For those missing out, the release of the new single suggests that more new music is in the works, with perhaps some other shows ahead – and all of it coming with the guarantee that it will be excellent.