Some debut albums don’t really deserve that label, not because they’re not first albums but because ‘debut’ sounds a little too soft, almost timid. When a debut album arrives the way White Heat, by Newcastle, NSW/Awabakal singer-songwriter Natalie Henry, does, it should probably be called an ‘announcement album’. Because announce herself Henry does, by giving us 13 songs that the great Beccy Cole might describe as rootin’, tootin’, boot-scootin’ country music, packed full of stories and emotions and experiences. The album is also just a whole lot of fun – that is, for as much as there is seriousness in it, it sounds like Henry and the musicians had a very good time recording it.
‘It was not only fun, but it was just a magic five days in my life,’ says Henry. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to replicate that time. And choosing those musicians not only for their talents, but purely for the fact that they get me and I get them, was a big part of that. You can really hear the joy in the translation of the magic that we made in that room that night and every night. And I feel like that’s exactly why it’s translating so well for everybody, because we really did feel that while we were making the music. It’s the first time I’ve ever done something like that, where it’s completely live and we just do a couple of takes until you get a nice one and there it is, that’s the song. It was just beautiful.
‘And I brought a lot of women into this project … Catherine Britt was a co-producer with Michael Muchow. Melody [Moko], of course, was brought in to do harmonies because we wrote some songs together. The Hussy Hicks – I absolutely love Leesa Gentz’s voice, it’s just stunning. And I really love a harmonica so I got Julz [Parker, also of Hussy Hicks] to play that. Ali Foster was the drummer, another really strong female musician. I just really wanted to surround myself with people who made me feel good and they were those people.
‘I absolutely love the style of Dan Parsons’s guitar playing so I had to have him as the second guitarist – obviously Muchow played a lot on the tracks. Dan has this really gentle way of … it always feels like he’s making love to his guitar,’ Henry says with a laughs.
‘And Muchow suggested we get Ian Perez – he’s not in the country scene at all, he’s actually from Wolfmother. He’s played with people like The Whitlams. He’s a really great bass player and also keys. So he brought something really different, but also he’s just such a gentle guy …
‘So the magic that we made with those people, I think, was because we just appreciated each other’s art and we really gelled. After tracking “Blue” we sort of came together and just all looked at each other. And Ali said, “That was one of the most magical moments of my music career.” She plays drums for absolutely everybody and for her to say that was just really nice, and I was crying … We had Catherine and the Hussy Hicks in there singing the harmonies together. It was really special.
‘The whole whole making of this record was a really magical time. My partner was in the kitchen cooking every night for us. So we’d have meals together, we’d play chess … So I think the joy, and the excitement that you can hear on the record is because we actually lived it.’
Henry explains that the recording was able to take place only because of her Pozible campaign to crowdfund it.
‘I had $15 000 thrown at me from my fans and family and friends, and all the community support was so great,’ she says. ‘I could never have recorded in that studio, at Rockinghorse, with the cost of the accommodation for everybody, the food for everybody. The costs were huge. And to be able to do that and produce that record that way was really special, something I’ll never forget.’
While we now know, of course, that the campaign was successful, when she started it, Henry says, ‘I was anxious and sick. But one of the first people I remember doing Pozible was Fanny Lumsden. And I recall her jumping around like a crazy woman, dancing, doing all these wonderful things. And I thought to myself, She’s absolutely lost it. And, you know, that is exactly probably what happened! It really is a stressful time and you have to come up with new inventions and new ideas and things every day, to try and promote yourself to be worth giving money to before you’ve delivered something. I feel like the fans and the people who are investing in this, they deserve your work.
‘When we began our Pozible campaign, I said to Lyn, my photographer – I often work with her, on loads of projects – “What am I going to do that’s going to be different to anybody else?” And she said, “You need to just be yourself. What do you really love?” And I said, “Fried chicken and evil women – I don’t know!” We based the whole campaign around fried chicken and me eating it.
‘And it worked, you know,’ she says, laughing. ‘I’m really grateful that it came off because not only did that pre-sell all these albums immediately, so you’ve already got your product that you’ve made and you put so much hard work into it – you’ve got it out to 200 people, which is wonderful – but then on top of that, I just got number two on the ARIA chart [in release] week and I don’t think that would have happened without these Pozible campaign pledges. There wouldn’t have been enough numbers. I’m not touring, I’m stuck at home [ed. note: this interview was conducted when New South Wales was still in lockdown]. Imagine if I was touring, doing more pre-sales that way, it would have been a bigger number.
‘So I’m just so proud of where this album’s landed and all these little accolades that have come along … we also got number two on the Australian Independent Records chart. We’ve had so many little things come up that have just been making me feel so tingly and great. It’s a really good feeling, knowing that you’ve got the support out there. It’s almost like when you’re at a live show – because I’m missing this right now – and people are singing your song back to you, they’re screaming “Weed, Wine and Women” – you just tingle over.’
One of the distinctive elements of Henry’s album is that she’s singing about subjects in a way that we usually only hear from male artists – the song ‘Weed, Wine and Women’ being an example.
‘I had a radio presenter say to me about “Wine”, “This sounds like a Willie Nelson song, but you’re a woman”,’ says Henry. ‘Why, yes I am. And I also enjoy weed, wine and women, so I’m singing my truth here. I feel like when I was recording that song especially, it gave me a great sense of pride, not just as a gay woman but as an openly gay woman who’s really fortunate enough not to have any hang-ups about it. I feel fortunate enough not to be ashamed or shy, but I know there are so many others out there who are not feeling the way I feel. So if I can do just this tiny little thing by telling them it’s okay, if that helps one person even, that’s amazing.
‘If it’s the truth you should tell it loud and however you want … I think the best thing to do is just to be who you are and if people don’t like that, they won’t listen. And if they do like it they’ll get the message.’
That strong sense of self is not something that Henry has always had. When asked if it’s taken her a while to become this person, she says, ‘I definitely wouldn’t have been able to write these songs at 20. I think that my age has a big factor in my confidence. I don’t particularly think that at a younger age or as a younger songwriter, I would be able to be so honest or truthful. I think you’re very scared of things when you’re that age. You’re a little bit more apprehensive about telling your truth.
‘But when you’re a 40-year-old woman,’ she says, laughing, ‘there’s not a lot that you can upset people with now. You’ve made all the mistakes and I’ve done all of the drinking, I’ve done all the living. I’ve literally done everything that’s in that record, so there’s no hiding that. I’m not ashamed of that or secretive about that in my personal life or my professional life …
‘I take the sort of Loretta Lynn approach to things. If she hadn’t have written that song “The Pill” or if she hadn’t written about divorce, this style would never be about, you know. This honest, truthful country like this. I had Beccy Cole say to me, “This is real country – what you’ve done here is true country. It’s something that we don’t hear a lot of any more.” And I felt so proud about that, because I really do feel super strong about my music being country. It’s not Americana, it’s not whatever else box you want to put it into – it’s country music and I’m super proud of that.
‘Some people are worried about saying, “Oh, I’m a country singer.” No way! I love it! It’s who I am. I grew up with a man who was a single dad and he was a truck driver. And the only thing I listened to in that truck was The Highwaymen, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash. There was never anything other than country in my ears. So of course I’m going to love it and sing it and, and be such a proud member of the community.’
Since Henry has mentioned Tammy Wynette it seems only appropriate to ask about a song on the album that seems to be a twist on a Wynette them. ‘We Don’t Stand Together’ is about two women not standing together about a man and it is, says Henry, ‘about my ex-husband and his new partner. In the beginning she was threatened by me and I guess being such a loud, confident woman and a singer and all these things, it was a bit much for her. We love each other, we get along really well, this new girlfriend of his and I, but when it comes to talking about him or anything to do with him or the kids, we just do not agree. So that’s how that song came about.
‘Jamie and I are really good friends … She comes over all the time, we drop the kids back and forth and I even do her hair, we’re good friends. She came over and I said, “I want you to listen to this song before it’s released … I don’t want you to be offended.” It’s not at all in a bad way, even though [with] some of the words you might think that we don’t get along about this, but we actually love each other. It’s more about not standing together when it comes to a man. I think so many people can relate to that. It’s about not standing together as women … It was funny, in the studio Catherine Britt actually said to me, “Is this song about me?” Because I often don’t like her boyfriends!’
Britt is another Newcastle artist and, until recently, the Muchows were also in the city. What is it about Newcastle that has led to such a fertile country music scene?
This is one of the best cities to live in,’ says Henry. ‘I really love artsy cities. So Melbourne, Adelaide, Newcastle, where there’s a lot of arts going on. I love going to the museum, I love that you can go to an art gallery – normally – any night of the week. I love that arts brings a certain kind of person into your life who is very articulate, very interesting, really strange to look at sometimes, you know. I love artsy cities and I also love the beach. So this is it for me. We have everything that I would ever need and we have a really great pub – I know that sounds crazy, but The Stag & Hunter is very supportive of country music – and of any music, as a matter of fact, but especially the country music scene. The Stag & Hunter just goes above and beyond. They’re always looking at Great Southern Nights or any program they can run for artists. They hold my Peppertown Jam that I run for everybody to get up and have a sing. It’s a really great place to be if you’re a musician. And because of that, there are so many musicians here.’
Henry was, of course, stuck in Newcastle during lockdown and unable to tour the album, but she is not down about that.
Of course in the beginning, when I found out we were going to be still in lockdown when I released, I was a bit upset, disappointed, all the feelings,’ she says, ‘but the great thing is that I feel like all of the hype is just going to be extended.’
Henry will soon embark on the Bush Pubs Tour with Britt, at the end of October, ‘and we also have the [sold-out] festival with The Wolfe Brothers, Andrew Swift, Catherine Britt, myself, in Tasmania in November … And then I’ve also got two shows of my own coming up, one at the Stag & Hunter and one in January at Tamworth, at the Welder’s Dog. I’ll be doing a whole heap of pop-up shows everywhere.
‘The best thing about the Bush Pubs Tour is that I get to be on the red dirt with Catherine Britt and it is quite a time. It’s a circus at best. There’s always something happening. There’s always a breakdown. There’s always a horse and cart coming by. There is something weird every time – it’s fabulous.’
To catch that fabulousness as it travels to some parts of Australia, you can find tour dates at www.nataliehenry.com.au. And there is, of course, the fabulousness that is White Heat, to listen to at any time.