Perth duo Scarlet’s Way recently released the rock-infused country track ‘Tell Me It’s Over’, into an uncertain environment for Australian country music artists: not only has COVID seen gigs disappear but CMC also vanished, which means it’s harder for artists to connect with an audience.
‘We’ve been waiting for the perfect time,’ says singer Katey Gabel of the single’s release, ‘and then just realised that there’s just no perfect time. So we bit the bullet. It’s just been a nuts world online. It’s hard to break through a lot of the noise.’
‘We’re not saying we timed it perfectly,’ adds guitarist Shayne Savic, ‘but we hoped for the best. In some ways we’ve second guessed ourselves nonstop. People are locked at home, maybe they could do with something to listen to. At the same time there was so much evil stuff going on in the world we didn’t want to see out song get swept up in anything that was going to hide it from anybody. So it was a tough one to make the call on. That’s why we recorded it a year ago and it sat there.’
‘Tell Me It’s Over’ is the first single that wasn’t recorded in the duo’s home studio, where they made their first EP and the single ‘Move Your Body’. The recording happened when they were on tour on the east coast.
‘It was just after Tamworth, I think,’ says Savic, ‘and we were doing a tour with the Linda Ronstadt tribute that was going around Australia. We had a day in Sydney where we had nothing to do. So we contacted Love Hz Studios and went in to see Michael Carpenter, who has mixed a lot of our other stuff. We sat there for a day and we had this song that we’d demo’d at home and we sort of recorded it in a day. I think that was February 2019.’
Savic says that production duties were still on the band, ‘ecause we have such strong visions about what we write … We had ideas of how we wanted the song to sound and work. But it was amazing to have someone else engineer the thing. I’m definitely not saying I’m great at that. I’m a musician, not an engineer. So having someone that knows mic placement, that knows sound and stuff, taking care of all that was awesome. Michael also added some really nice vocal production and harmony ideas and his engineering really gave this track great depth.’
Recording in someone else’s studio also required a different work rhythm: ‘At home we can do a recording for a day, go and have a coffee, come back and listen to it and say, “Yeah, that’s cool. We’ll keep that.” Or, “Now let’s try that again.” And we have all the time in the world. Whereas in a studio you’ve got one day in there, you have to get something out of it. So it’s different disciplines. I’m happy with how the song turned out, though.’
The quality of Scarlet’s Way’s music undoubtedly comes from the duo’s extensive individual musical backgrounds.
‘I feel like I’ve been singing since I was born,’ says Gabel. ‘I did my first competition when I was about three. It was Little Aussie Smilers and I entered with singing and dancing and modelling and things like that. I got told this by my mum – I got up on stage to sing at States and then I ran off crying. So that was a good start! But I was in choirs all through school and then I guess the big turning point was when I went to WAAPA [Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts] a few years ago, when I was 21. And from then I got into Shayne’s band, doing covers around Perth, and then we fell into writing songs together and now we’re here.’
Despite Gabel’s early dislike of performing, she obviously changed her mind – helped by one particular school teacher.
‘The first time I remember really loving it,’ she says, ‘was in Year One when my music teacher auditioned me for the choir and let me in as the youngest person in the school. I’ll always remember Mr Timslin – he was one of my favorite music teachers.’
Gabel’s voice is a powerful instrument, although she says, ‘I look back on videos now and when I started gigging in Shayne’s band and my voice was really high. I didn’t really have the strong, low range that I have right now. I think it’s just been years of gigging – my voice has just kind of worn in. I definitely really worked on different techniques throughout gigging. I’ve noticed how I can unlock different parts of my voice, which has been really, really helpful.’
Savic’s background also involves a lot of performance: ‘I started playing pub gigs when I was really young. I was sort of playing professionally when I was 14. I started trumpet first at school and then went to guitar and piano and drums. I played a few different things. Most of the recordings of us is me playing most of the instruments, except on this new single Michael Carpenter plays drums and Hammond organ. The guitar’s the main instrument for me, though.
‘I [played pubs] for six years. Then I went to WAAPA as well. So I moved up to Perth from a little country town and went to WAAPA for a few years. The way the place works is that you have to make the course a priority, but as long as your gigs don’t get in the way too much, they usually turned a blind eye to it. It was a contemporary and a jazz course that I did. And you had to make the university a priority. So if your gigs started to clash too much they did pull the card of “you’re not allowed to do that sort of thing”.
‘I did three years of performance and then two years of education. The whole time I was doing that I was playing in bands or running bands and stuff. I started my own cover band when I was 20 with some other students that were [at WAAPA] at the time. Then I went out and gigged for a heap of years and ended up cycling back through as a lecturer. So I worked with a heap of students there and that was great. I did that for seven years and got to see some of the new generation coming out .
‘Then I did some auditions and Katey auditioned for the band. And from there on we started writing songs together. We both had really big vinyl collectors and liked a lot of organic rock ‘n’ roll music from way back from the sixties, seventies through to now. So when that show Nashville came out and they were writing Americana-blues-country sort of stuff, we both really loved that, so that’s how we started writing together.’
They’ve now been writing together for a while, but Gabel says, ‘I think we’re still trying to find the rhythm. Most of the time Shayne would like [to do] lyrics first and I would like music first. So sometimes we just sit down and say, “Okay, well, not today then!” But we write all kinds of different ways. Just depends on the day. Sometimes you can write it in 10 minutes and sometimes you need a few seconds.’
I wasn’t really a prolific writer before Katey came along,’ says Savic. ‘I would play lots on the guitar, sit there and improvise a lot when I practise and she’ll walk past and say, ‘Oh, that’s cool.” And she’ll hit record on the phone and grab it and sort of walk off and then come back later with some lyrics and say, “Here, I wrote this for this”, and I think, Oh, I guess I have to keep it now. So a few songs in the early days were born that way. And now it kind of works both ways. If I could see a lyric, I can say, “To me that says this”, and we can go that way. Or if she hears something she likes on the guitar she’ll grab it and go write lyrics.’
If there’s a song that’s proving a little more troublesome, Gabel says, ‘I tend to say, “Let’s leave that one. I’ve got this other idea. Let’s go with that.” And Shayne says, “No, no, let’s sit down and work it out.”‘.
‘I kind of feel like I might be walking away on “Eleanor Rigby”,’ says Savic, laughing, ‘and I can’t live with myself!’
The writing of ‘Tell Me It’s Over’ happened ‘pretty quickly by comparison,’ says Savic. ‘That guitar riff I probably had for a long time. It’s a fun thing to play when you pick up your guitar and tune to drop D. But think I sang a melody or hummed a melody.’
‘I was sitting in the lounge room,’ says Gabel, ‘and Shayne was playing a riff and he sang a melody that I just loved. And I said, “Sing that! Sing that!” And then he said, “Wait – what did I sing?” But he got there eventually. But I recorded that and then I thought, Okay, I really have to write some lyrics to this.’
Given that they write a lot, it’s not surprising to learn that, as Gabel recounts, ‘We made a bit of a goal with COVID to have an album by the end of it. To have something to work towards. We actually have another six tracks that we’ve demo’d so we’re just in the process of recording them now and hopefully we’ll have an album soon. We’re big vinyl collectors. So we definitely want to have an album on vinyl.’
However, whether music is released on vinyl, CD or online, the game has certainly changed in terms of how artists can understand how – or even if – that music is connecting with audiences.
‘I thought being a musician since I was 14 and gigging so solidly for years that I knew a lot about the industry,’ says Savic, ‘but this is a whole new thing … I’ve got heaps of guitar students or people who say to me, “Your songs are great. How are they going?” And we say, “We don’t know. We record them. And we put them in the hands of people that we trust, publicists and people that we like, and say, ‘Please help us with our songs.'” And they go out to the world and all we get is someone messaging us on social media saying, “Oh, that’s a really great song”, or a comment or a like on your video. And it means a lot.
‘So if anyone’s reading this and they are listening to people – I’m not a big liker on Facebook, I’ll watch something and think, Oh, that was cool, and scroll off without hitting the like button. And I’ve changed a lot. I go back and just show my small amount of appreciation every time. So there’s that side of it.
‘When anything leaves the industry like CMC has, it’s always sad because you’ve lost an avenue and a network. I know CMT are coming into the country and we’ve been contacted by distribution saying, “CMT will require all your videos.” So we’ve sent them in and we hope that they take over from where CMC left off and that avenue opens up again. But apart from that, we’e big fans of playing live and trying to win fans that way, which is difficult when you’re in Perth. But I still think that being in a room and playing and trying to capture people that way is the most organic way. You really feel like you’ve made a connection at the end of that gig that I don’t know if you’re ever going to get on the other side of the screen anyway. But we’ll try everything we can.’
Touring Australia, of course, has its challenges for any artist, given the sheer amount of distance to travel, but it’s particularly challenging for artists on the west coast.
‘It’s a long way,’ says Savic. ‘We love touring, we love playing live. So to try and get across to the east coast is something that we’re constantly planning, and for Tamworth next year we’re trying to get the band across like we did to Gympie last year. COVID hasn’t helped, as you’ve got airlines that are in administration and all kinds of weird stuff going on. So we’re trying to look at doing that and it’s an expensive kind of prospect to try and get across there.’
In the meantime there are several venues in their home town.
‘There’s a very strong indie music scene over here,’ says Gabel. ‘That’s all around the Freo [Fremantle] area and things like that. There are a few country music festivals. There’s Boyup Brook and then there’s Nanup, which is a rootsy kind of blues festival. There’s some really cool festivals over here.’
‘We do this for a living as well,’ says Savic, ‘so we’re playing three nights a week trying to earn a wage. So to get Scarlet’s Way out and do an original show over here is a bit more difficult, I find, because our players are also professional musicians who are all working. So when we go on tour, we go to Tamworth or the east coast, we set that time aside and we get to go do our passion project, which we love. And we try to balance that over here with taking the gigs where we can pay the power bill.’
Given that WA has kept its COVID numbers down and itself separated from the rest of Australia, gigs are returning and the band is playing again. No doubt they’ll have some members of the audience asking where their name comes from.
‘We’re trying to come up with a really exciting story behind this,’ says Gabel with a laugh, ‘but really the first word, Scarlet, is from the Australian actress who’s in Nashville [Clare Bowen]. Except we used one T instead of two just to really confuse people!’
‘People think Katey is Scarlet,’ says Savic. ‘She always gets her own way, so there’s that, and her favourite colour is red, so there’s lots of ways we can spin this.’
Given that Gabel is the lead singer, it seems perfectly appropriate that she should get her own way – yet it’s also clear that Scarlet’s Way is a duo of equals, who each bring their passion for music and performance to everything they do. With songs being written for a new album, there should be more evidence of that quite soon.