Catherine Britt is one of the most accomplished artists working in Australian music, with seven albums behind her and another one ahead, as well as running tours and festivals and a studio. Yet she is, like so many others, taking her work life one day at a time at the moment, watching for borders opening and closing as she takes her Bush Pubs Tour on the road. Currently in South Australia, in the last few days she has had to postpone the New South Wales dates due to the difficulties of moving around states. That means she won’t yet be heading to the town of Silverton, where she used to run the Silverton Sunsets festival.
‘It was two years that we had it,’ says Britt, ‘and we were going for a third but our funding got pulled, so that was very sad. I loved doing that, it was very special and a really unique little festival. Artists loved playing. It was a real artists’ festivals, about the singers and the songwriters. The audience was really appreciative and quiet … But these things happen and I’m sure down the track I’ll end up doing something else in that vein. I’m pretty into that whole idea of putting together a curated event that I get to curate. I really enjoyed it.’
Given Britt’s many roles – even without the festival to run – a lot of time management is required.
‘I kind of mesh it all in together because there’s no other way to make it all work,’ she says. ‘I don’t think you can say Mondays are for booking in the tour and Tuesdays are for invoicing and Wednesdays are for emails. It doesn’t quite work that way even though I am a pretty organised person. So I just try to stay on top of everything all at once.
‘And I have two little kids too, so that’s a nice little spanner in the works,’ she says with a laugh. ‘Makes it just that little bit harder. I’m better when I’m busy – I’m more organised, more together, better at my job, better at everything if I’ve got more going on. So for me COVID was a real struggle because I wasn’t used to not being busy. And that’s why I threw myself into a record because I thought, Well, I’ve got to do something to focus on or I will go insane. I can’t just stay at home and cook dinner for when [husband] James comes home and mum all day. That’s not who I am. I love being a mum – it’s the best thing I’ve ever done – but it’s not only who I am.’
For several weeks earlier this year Britt was live-streaming shows from her home studio, Beverley Hillbilly, often fitting in a daytime show that worked for nighttime in the USA, where she has many fans, and a Friday night show for Australians.
‘I thought it would be really not the same as a live gig,’ she says of playing live online. ‘I thought I would feel like I wasn’t filling the void that I was feeling. But the rush of being live and interacting with people on the spot and seeing them comment and even request songs – it’s such a different vibe to a live gig but it’s that same rush that you get from playing a show. I loved it so much. I only stopped because I needed to concentrate on writing an album and finish it before we headed out on the road again. I’ll definitely do more of that. I thought it was so much fun. I got so much out of it.’
The sessions featured Britt alone with her guitar, and it was obvious from the first night that she was not holding back as a singer, despite the unusual set-up – which could have been a challenge.
‘I get really vulnerable when it comes to just me and my guitar,’ she says, ‘which is funny – i shouldn’t feel that way. I started out with me and a guitar, I don’t know where I got lost in hiding behind musicians and harmonies. I think you just do that overtime – you get really comfortable with having a set harmony singer who rides with you on the choruses and all that stuff. Then when it gets taken away you think, Oh my god, it’s just me, and you almost want to apologise for it – “This is not how it sounds on the record. There are harmonies and a great guitar solo. There’s beautiful pedal steel in this part!” And people don’t care, you know. That’s the artist getting in their own head and thinking all this crap. I love hearing my favourite artist play acoustically. I don’t care that the electric guitar solo that I heard on the record’s not there.
‘But it is a very vulnerable situation, definitely, and I felt that. But I also felt like everyone watching was on that ride with me, because it was a really vulnerable time for everyone and I think everyone felt really lonely at times and really jived by this new world of people opening themselves up and bringing fans into their homes and talking with them – this is something that’s never happened before and it felt exciting. I was watching heaps of lives with my friends and it was fun. I’d sit there and bug them writing stuff underneath. So I can imagine what that would feel like if you’re a fan of somebody’s music and watching – it would be really cool.’
The sessions were called ‘Songs and Stories’ and Britt says, ‘I really enjoyed going through my whole history with people again. Delving into my 20 years [in the industry] and funny stories and all that sort of stuff … It made me think I need to look at doing something down the track like a book.
‘I got all these boxes from my mum and dad’s – they did a cleanout in COVID. So I got all my boxes of stuff from all the years, that they’ve collected, and started going through it. And I thought, There’s such a story here. I don’t feel my story is like anybody else’s. Even the music side. The personal side – everything that’s happened in my life to 35, I just don’t know anybody else that’s lived that life or had the career I’ve had.
‘I’d love to share that story one day. Just for something else to do,’ she says, laughing. ‘I’m working towards that as well now. Maybe I do a book and a box set of everything I’ve released. I’m trying to be independent now and buy everything back. I’ve bought all my publishing back so my kids own everything. It’s been epic – I’ve gone through all these lawyer things, figured out where all my stuff is, so now I own all my publishing and I now know where all my records are and what I can own and what I can’t. I’m fully aware of where I stand and it’s a good position to be in, because I now know what I can do moving forward, for my kids to own my music, basically. Which was my whole goal of the crowdfunding independent thing: I want my boys to have something to look at when I’m gone that’s there. Something that I’ve worked towards my whole life, for them.’
Britt has also produced music for other Australian artists, and says she loves doing that, and she also mentors at the CMAA Academy in Tamworth, which runs before each festival.
‘I’m one of the tutors there alongside Lachlan Bryan and Kevin Bennett. So that’s a lot of fun and I get to work with a lot of people for two weeks. Get to teach them what I know. And I love it. Because I would be nowhere near where I am today, I wouldn’t have a career, if it wasn’t for people giving me advice and helping me out in the early days and believing in my music. I understand the power of that and how much it can change somebody’s life.’
Throughout her career Britt has released consistently great songs, although she admits that it’s really hard to keep being consistent. I think my thing is always trying to do a different album every time, with the underlying Catherine Britt sound. And that’s always a risk. But I really enjoy that. And this [new] album’s different again. I’d say it’s a mix between Too Far Gone and Little Wildflower almost. Its 90s Dixie Chicks, maybe, if you want to think that world. Nineties country. A totally different step to [previous album] Cold, Cold Hearts, which was an album I really needed to make after that cancer diagnosis and Bone-shaker. I really needed to go back to my roots and make an acoustic band record with my friends. So I’m back into a different world now of wanting to be full band and “let’s go!”’
‘I’m sure every artist says this but I’m pretty sure it’s my best album I’ve ever made,’ she says with a laughs.
The new album is called Home Truths, which she began writing late last year.
‘I started doing some co-writes and stuff,’ she says. ‘I went in after Tamworth, in early Feb, to record four tracks I had. That included the first single, “I am a Country Song”. Then during COVID I wrote all the rest of them and got in and recorded, and they’re all getting harmonies and mixed and mastered now.’
Britt recorded some of the album at her home studio but explains, ‘I can’t track in my studio – I don’t have a drum room – that’s why Cold, Cold Hearts was so easy to make there because there were no drums. But we did all the other stuff in there and a bit at Michael Muchow’s studio in Brisbane. But I had to go to Simon Johnson’s studio, which is not far from mine, to do all the tracking with the band.’
The first single from the album is ‘I am a Country Song’ – which may sound as if it’s about Britt, given that she’s been in the country music industry since her teens, but the inspiration was, in fact, someone else.
‘I have this best mate in Nashville,’ she says. ‘She was like a mother to me when I moved to Nashville. She’s not that much older than me – maybe 10 years older. She’s this gorgeous southern belle from Mississippi, the best accent ever, and I love her. I adore her. Whenever I go to Nashville I stay with her.
‘Last record we went over and played at Americanafest. Her husband died two days before we left [Australia] so I was so glad we were getting there right as it was all going down for her, to be there with her. She’s sort of had this tough life. This was her third husband. The first one was young love and he was a bit of a douchebag and treated her really badly. The second one was abusive and beat her a little bit and a bit of an alcoholic. The third one was, again, an alcoholic and he was out foxhunting and drinking and the horse reared up and threw him off the back, then rolled on him twice. So he was in a coma for a year, on and off, and came out then eventually passed away. He had his issues but he was a lovely man.
‘So she’s had a tough life but she’s just the most beautiful person and the most inspiring person. She’s always happy and positive. It’s just a horrible story. When I arrived in Nashville I got in the car – and I always do this, because I was such a part of that scene for so long and I feel disconnected, so when I go back I grill her: “Who’s cool on the radio? What’s going on? What’s happening in Nashville these days?”
‘She turned to me and said, “Oh girl, I don’t need the radio. I am a country song.” I thought, That is the best line I’ve ever heard, so I wrote it down in my phone. I sorta forgot about it then when it came to this record I took it to a friend I wrote with, a Newcastle musician, and pulled it out and said, “What do you think?”
‘There are parts that are about her and parts that are made up about people I’ve met on the road, and of course there are parts of me in it as well.’
Britt has always been wiling to dig deep into herself for her songs – when asked if she ever feels like there’s pressure to reveal a lot of herself when perhaps she doesn’t want to, she laughs and says, ‘I don’t ever feel like I don’t want to, though. Maybe that’s my problem. I’m a very honest, upfront person. I don’t really have any secrets and I don’t hide anything. I think that’s how I was brought up and my folks were like that. I really like being open and honest and real with people. I think that just comes across naturally in my music Because that’s how I am in life so it’s how I would be in my art. I like that honesty. I think it hits you right between the eyes and I love when artists do that. All my favourite artists do that.’
As with ‘I am a Country Song’, she is also highly adept at writing other people’s stories. She says she is always alert to inspiration for songs.
‘I’m inspired by everything in life, really, not just music,’ she says. ‘I try to listen to people’s stories and write other people’s stories. I do find one of my big faults is that I write a lot about myself. I’m a very self-absorbed songwriter, very selfish. And not everyone can get on board with that. If you’re not a Catherine Britt fan per se, you can hear some of my songs and there’s a disconnect – they don’t really understand because they don’t know my story.
‘I try, especially with this new album, to be more general and make it more like people could listen to it and think, That’s my story – that’s my song. I really wanted to do that a little bit more on this record, to do other people’s stories but more general as well – more an “everyone sing along now” vibe! Which I’ve never done before, so I really enjoyed getting in that frame of mind and writing from a different place.
‘As a songwriter you’ve got to try to always challenge yourself and try new things. It’s a really interesting thing as you’re literally pulling something from nothing, from thin air you’re creating something. So you always have to try different things to keep yourself inspired and motivated to keep writing songs, because it is really tough to come up with something and for it to be good.’
Britt’s fans know to expect that there will always be something not just good but great on her albums. She has shown, on album after album, that she is dedicated to creating songs that are meaningful as well as entertaining – now we wait impatiently to find out what’s on Home Truths.