Fine Folks, Part II: Kasey Chambers Goes Under the Covers

One of Australia's most popular and celebrated singer-songwriters enjoys touring America. Even if she isn't known on a first-name basis in this country like fellow Aussies who simply can go by Olivia, Kylie, Keith and Nicole.

Maybe Kasey Chambers, who wraps up a short tour in the States with an appearance at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival on August 18, needs a nickname to get noticed here. Since she recently released an album of songs written by some of her favorite roots artists like Gram Parsons, Gillian Welch and Paul Kelly, what about Down Under-Cover Angel? OK, to most of us in the U.S., that's about as tasteful as a Vegemite sandwich.

With all her credentials, from multi-platinum-selling records to a mantel-full of awards from the Australian Recording Industry Association and Australasian Performing Right Association, just let the sweet-bird-of-youth voice that belongs to Chambers speak for itself.

If some Americans don't have a clue about her musical stylings, which remain under the strong influences of authentic country artists from Hank Williams to the Carter Family, Chambers said she still feels "an instant connection" to those audiences that do, "even though we have probably lived lives that are worlds apart."

"I grew up on mostly American country music," explained Chambers over the phone, the day before she was embarking on a 14-hour plane ride to the U.S. with her third child (and first girl), 9-month-old Poet Poppin, who will turn 1 in October.

This essentially is Chambers' own family tour. Her brother Nash is her manager and sound technician on the road. Her mom Diane handles Kasey's merchandise sales as she always does, and her dad Bill, who was raised by religious parents drawn to gospel-style music, sings while playing dobro, lap steel and mandolin in her band.

"So it's good," Chambers said. "I have two babysitters on the road."

Her husband, Shane Nicholson, didn't make this trip, staying home with their boys in the little beach town about two hours north of Sydney called Copacabana. "It's not quite as exotic as it sounds," Chambers said. "It's a really nice, kind of lazy town."

She'll probably return to the States at some point with Nicholson to promote their next album, Wreck & Ruin, which will be released here in October (Sugar Hill), a month after coming out in Australia.

This time around, she could focus on numbers from last year's Little Bird and a wide range of songs from Storybook, the album of covers that became available in the U.S. and the rest of the world through Amazon on July 30.

With the grueling task of narrowing down the field to 15 selections ("I think one day I might have to make a Storybook II," she said), Chambers picked personal favorites, some of which she had previously recorded, along with "songs by artists that have had a huge influence on me."

Among the best are Lucinda Williams' "Happy Woman Blues," Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You," John Prine's spunky "Leave the Lights On" and a live version of Patty Griffin's "Top of the World."

"I really could have picked any of 20 Lucinda songs and they all would have been fine in my head," Chambers said. "It was really more about representing Lucinda as an artist. ... So I just ended up picking the first Lucinda song that I ever sang."

Chambers said she was in "the right place at the right time" when her career in Australia "snowballed" with her second solo album, 2001's Barricades & Brickwalls, particularly after the single "Not Pretty Enough" went to No. 1 on the pop charts.

"Look, I'd like to think it's because I was so talented, but I know how the industry works," she joked, with a hearty cackle that sounds like a mash-up of Keith Richards and Sharon Osbourne rather than her own youthful singing voice. "So I'm not gonna kid myself about that.

"All the stuff that was on the charts at the time in Australia was Britney Spears and Shakira. ... All this kind of very shallow-type music. Then I brought out this song called 'Not Pretty Enough.' And I just think all these young girls kind of related to this song automatically and it was just lucky enough to get picked up on the radio. All these girls wanted to be Britney Spears but they actually felt more like Kasey Chambers. (laughs) They actually felt real and not quite as pretty as all these people they were seeing on television. And it really struck a chord here in Australia."

Yet, she said achieving worldwide popularity never was on her agenda. "You know, the thought of that sort of success in America freaks me out. It seems like a whole other pressure."

Enduring that sort of stress led to discussing Missy Higgins, an Australian pop star who joined Chambers on "Beautiful Mess" from Little Bird.

At last year's Folks Festival, Higgins mentioned going through an "existential crisis" three years earlier, and contemplated never making music again.

"She's certainly someone I admire and it's great that she's doing so well," Chambers said. "It's great that she's back in music. But I totally get where she's coming from, you know."

The introspective nature of the craft, Chambers added, can eventually take you into this gray area about why you're writing songs and "it's easy to sort of end up in a place where you kind of question all of that. But it's good that you do as well. ... (Higgins) was really successful here at the time and could have easily just rode that wave. It takes a lot of courage to step away from that and find yourself again, I guess."

Chambers went through a rough patch a few years ago, too, but her eating disorder involved more than soul-searching. She provided details of that ordeal in her recently released autobiography, A Little Bird Told Me.

The revelation surprised a lot of people in her homeland, Chambers said, adding, "It was very much a private thing that went on that nobody apart from my immediate family really knew about."

The physical anguish was rough enough, but it also affected one of her most enduring relationships.

"I ended up just really hating music," Chambers said. "I just went through this time where I didn't want anything to do with music. I just hated music around me and hated the thought of doing gigs and hated the idea of writing songs. It was really awful.

"The thing that sort of drew me back to the love of music and I guess pulled me out of this dark time was I started this little band, which is weird when you're going through this time of hating music. I started this little band with my husband and my dad, just little local gigs under a different name (called the Lost Dogs after the John Prine album Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings) where we just played all of our favorite cover songs (many of which landed on Storybook). ... Playing music and getting back to loving music again."

Chambers said, "I came back with a new appreciation for music as well as rediscovering the old love for music, too, which was really great. Since then, I feel like I've gotten back on track."

The birth of her youngest son (named after Arlo Guthrie) and Poet followed. And while Chambers might be able to hide her age with her appearance and her voice, that laugh gives it away when asked if she feels as young as she sounds.

"Depends on what day you ask me. Depends on what sort of day I've had with my kids," she said, followed by an infectious blast reverberating all the way from Copacabana. "Some days I feel 30 years older than I am."

Hopefully, the rest of America will discover the Down Under Wonder Woman before three more decades pass. Even then, expect her to keep humming like a little bird.

Publicity photo courtesy of Sugar Hill Records.

Next in the series: Folking around onstage with Kasey Chambers.

See the video of Adam & Eve from the upcoming album Wreck & Ruin by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson: