Everything was on track for Sydney singer-songwriter Amber Lawrence and her touring schedule this year. She and Newcastle artist Catherine Britt were on tour together, with dates extending into the second half of the year. Then Sydney went into lockdown, followed by Newcastle, and just as their livelihoods were taken away last year, so were they this year. And Lawrence knew that she was about to release a single that addressed exactly that situation.
‘I wrote “Bring it Back” in February this year with Melanie Dyer and when I recorded it I loved the way it turned out and thought, I’ve got to release this as a single, however, it’s just out of date, it’s not relevant any more. We’re back working. It’s great. I thought, I’m going to release in July – it might still be slightly relevant. Let’s put it down for release. And then of course we get to the end of June and my release is locked in, it’s been ready to go for three months. And then we got into lockdown. I thought, all right, well, the song is still relevant. Sadly. Very sadly.
‘I wrote this as a person in the audience rather than the person on stage,’ she goes on. ‘And there’s no better feeling than when you’re holding a drink, standing in twilight and your favourite artist is about to walk on stage and the sun’s about to set, and I feel like that’s the vision we captured.’
The song certainly captures the joy of being at a show, and also the frustration of not being able to feel it. It’s a companion piece, in some ways, to ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, the single Lawrence released last year with the Davisson Brothers, which she takes as a positive from last year. That song now opens her live set (when she’s playing live, of course) and it was one of several projects Lawrence worked on last year. One of the others was a recording of the John Williamson song ‘True Blue’ with Dianna Corcoran, Aleyce Simmonds and Kirsty Lee Akers.
‘Dianna Corcoran actually picked the song,’ says Lawrence, ‘which was really great, and once we released the first version of it, which was just that bootleg Facebook version of it, after that we were all very invested in making sure we went to the next level. The first version was that four-screen Zoom thing, which I edited on my computer with editing software. And I had so many messages from people saying, “How did you get Zoom to work so you could sing in time?” People actually thought we’d been able to sing in time together on Zoom. I didn’t tell them the secret …
‘One of the things I love about that song is that that was such an example of 2020 for all of us. We filmed in separate studios, harmonising with each other separately and editing afterwards hoping for the best, and then filmed all that video parts separately and four of us with different opinions and different artistic directions were able to agree on this final video. Dianna Corcoran had a lot to do with filming some of the footage on that video and she was actually in Parkes [NSW] at the time and she had to fly back to America. Kirsty Lee Akers’s husband also filmed some of the videos and edited it for us. It was such a team effort. We didn’t even see each other until we got to the Golden Guitar awards and we won an award for that song.’
Part of the motivation for the output, Lawrence explains, comes from ‘losing all that work that you booked in, that you’d budgeted for, that you thought, okay, well, this is what’s going to pay these bills and this is what kind of goes towards this and this is how I’m going to pay for the next project. That was one of the hardest parts about lockdown, the cancellation of everything. We don’t have that back-up plan like an employee does, you know. A lot of people were still working last year, even though their circumstances changed, whereas musicians just couldn’t, there was no chance and people said, “Oh, can you do online stuff”, and we can, but it’s not the same.’
While there is no back-up plan for a touring musician, Lawrence does have a range of skills she’s put to use over the past few months. But, she says, ‘I think the best skill you can have now as an artist is acceptance. We can’t fight it and if you don’t accept it you’re going to be really angry. And yes, my organisational skills have been good in that I can get the artwork turned around and go again. But if in your mind you’re not really saying, Well, it is what it is, it’s going to be hard … I think I’m at that stage. I’m excited to work again, but I’ll just have to wait.’
Still, she says, ‘there were still lots of positives’, from 2020 including those collaborations. And another of Lawrence’s 2020 releases was the children’s album The Kid’s Gone Country II.
‘I recorded it partly in lockdown when restrictions kind of lifted and you could get to the studio,’ she says, ‘about June, July, last year, and then released it in November. That project was quite slow in the end. And I think the fact that lockdown and gigs cancelled meant that it actually came out – I don’t think I would’ve had time to finish that album and record it if touring and everything had progressed as normal.’
In normal times Lawrence plays shows for children and, she says, ‘I love performing for kids. I find it really fun. I know a lot of people say, “It’s hard performing for kids – they’re so honest.” I’ve just found it fun. I think the only complication is if you invite the children up on stage you’re going to be at risk of someone pulling out some cord that’s really important [laughs]. So that’s my only concern but I do love having them on stage because I know as a parent, it’s such a special moment when you see your kid up on stage singing along with someone. So I do want to get kids up on stage so they can have that little moment.’
Not as much fun were the online shows that she put on last year, as so many other artists did.
‘I actually found those Facebook lives and all those kinds of things so exhausting, to be honest. It was even more tiring to perform to a computer screen than an actual proper show. I don’t know why – you’re just using this extra level of energy to try to get through that screen to people and you don’t get that response of applause back, I don’t think you get any vibe coming back. So you finish those lives and it could’ve been like a half-hour kids show or something and I’d say, “Oh my god, I’m puffed out and I need to have a sleep!” So they’re actually quite exhausting and I do love connecting with people, but it’s not just a matter of turning the computer on.’
What’s missing, of course, is the wave of energy that comes from the audience during a live performance – exactly the sort of energy she captures in ‘Bring it Back’.
‘And you just don’t get it when you’re not out there doing a live performance,’ she says. ‘I mean, I’m not a junkie for it. I’m not thinking, Oh my god, I’m going to have to do this for the rest of my life because I can’t live without people applauding me [laughs]. I don’t mind the fact that I’m in lockdown and I don’t get my weekly applause session. There’s more to it than that.
‘I actually love making people happy, to be honest. That’s why I do music and I love performing and seeing that smile on people’s faces and you can see that back through the computer screen in a way, via comments. So it kind of works out.’
Although it turns out there are pitfalls when trying to read comments while performing: ‘I keep making mistakes and I try and read comments while I’m singing. I sing the wrong lyrics. So I can’t multitask like that.
‘When you’re on stage normally – I don’t know if other artists would agree with me – there’s a million things going through my mind. I could be working out what I’m going to have the breakfast the next day on tour and what coffee shop we’re going to, or how many people are in the audience or “Hold on a minute, I forgot to set up my merch”. These are the things that you can think about while you’re singing, but you can’t read and sing, I’ve worked out [laughs].’
When asked how she’s able to perform while also having different things running through her mind, Lawrence says, ‘It’s the muscle memory, for sure. And I certainly always rely on that whenever I can’t hear myself, there’s bad sound on stage, I just rely on the fact that my vocal cords and, and my throat know what the notes are meant to sound like or feel like even if I can’t hear it. And the same when I sing the anthem, I think, Oh my god, I don’t know the words, I don’t know the words, I don’t know the words … Oh hang on, I know the words, it’s okay!‘
Lawrence will return to performing – that is sure, even if no one can predict when – and she’ll go back on tour with Catherine Britt. The decision to tour together was, she says, ‘the best option, because coming out of lockdown and putting everything financial on the line after losing money for eight months, it was a big, daunting task to do by yourself. So the fact that we did it together was really great because when we won, we both won, and if we had a night that wasn’t so great, it was halved …
‘But I have done a lot of collaborating over the last 18 months and it has been purely because opportunities came. It’s been great and it’s been enjoyable, but it’s definitely time for me to do the solo music again. When you love someone’s music you sometimes want them to just release a song by themselves. I have had that from lots of fans saying, “Come on, when’s your new music coming?” So that’s for right now. And the new album does have a couple of collaborations on it but that’s not going to come out until next year. So, so for the rest of this year it’s going to be all solo tracks and more upbeat material because I love singing it. I just want to release really happy and vibrant songs.’
After a hard year – almost two years – It is completely understandable that Lawrence would want to release upbeat songs, but there is also the fact that her 2020 was even harder than it was for most people. She lost her second child, Woody, with fans only later finding out when she made the brave decision to post about it on social media so that other people who have had the same experience would feel less alone. In listening to her new song, ‘Bring it Back’, it’s possible to hear a change in Lawrence’s voice. It’s always been a versatile instrument, but now there is a different tone. When asked if grief has brought any changes to her voice she says, ‘I definitely think that my voice changed to having my first child, Ike. I think pregnancy, childbirth, then hormones do change your voice.
‘With grief … my dad died in 2008 so I’ve had grief in my life, and last year losing Woody when he was 21 weeks, it was a very different kind of loss. I suppose your outlook slightly changes but we still do go back to that old way even though we’ve learnt and we’ve lost and we think that we’re going to have this profoundness, we still go back to saying, right. I’m going to do 10 gigs in one weekend!
‘But maybe I’ve dropped a bit of … the wrong word would be caring so much because I still care a lot, but not caring as much what anyone thinks of me. Like this song – it’s a different song for me. It’s a little bit pushing the boundaries of country versus beats and all that kind of stuff. And I thought, I don’t care. I love this song. I want to sing it. So I think that’s definitely coming out through my sound as well as that kind of, You know what? Do what makes you happy because definitely life is short.’
‘Bring it Back’ has already been added to Apple Music’s Amber Lawrence Essentials playlist. When asked if she thinks it’s strange to have someone else deciding what her essential songs are and if she agrees with the selection, Lawrence says that she actually hasn’t seen that playlist yet.
‘I know that it exists. I’ve seen it there, I just haven’t really looked at all the tracks. I made my own essential Spotify playlist and I put every single song I’ve ever released into it – six hours of music, that’s essential for anyone,’ she says, laughing. ‘So I thought it was nice that someone had gone to the trouble to really narrow it down. I mean, honestly it’s like flattering to think that someone that Apple Music make a playlist called Amber Lawrence Essentials,that’s awesome. So now I’m going to see what songs are in it and if there’s a key one missing, I’ll just have to make a complaint!’
One thing is for sure: Lawrence is an absolutely essential part of Australian country and contemporary music. Her boundless creativity and passion for her work have won her many fans, all of whom will be waiting for her to bring us back to live shows when the time is right. Meanwhile we can listen to the song, and dream a while, and also look forward to her new album next year.