By the time her debut album, The Captain, was finally released in America last fall, Kasey Chambers was already a veritable superstar in her native Australia. Back home, The Captain was a double-Platinum, Top 10 album that paved Kasey’s way to an armload of industry awards, including two ARIA’s (Australian GRAMMYs): Best Country Album in 1999, and more significantly – indeed, historically – Best Female Artist in 2000. It was the first time an artist like Kasey had ever been nominated in the mainstream pop category, let alone won it. As Kasey said in her acceptance speech, “I never thought people like me ever won awards like this.”
But of course, none of that really mattered a whit when Kasey first arrived on these shores – an unknown, scrappy 24-year-old punk with a ring in her nose and an unlikely rep for being a star in a far away country most Americans knew very little about. To make any inroads into the U.S. market at all, Chambers would have to start from scratch. Armed with nothing but a year-and-a-half-old album of rootsy, melodic, pop songs written during her teens and a fragile, crackling wonder of a voice quite unlike any singer heard in America since Emmylou Harris, Kasey set out.
It was more than enough. Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam and even David Letterman were among the notables quick to publicly praise Chambers. The Captain also racked up rave reviews in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, US Weekly, the Washington Post and scores of other national and regional publications. It eventually finished in the top 100 of the Voice’s year-end “Pazz & Jop Critics Poll” as well as Rolling Stone’s “Top 50 Albums of the Year 2000” and more than 50 other best-of lists. The following spring found her gaining even more momentum after being the talk of Austin’s “South By Southwest” Music Festival, landing an opening slot with Lucinda Williams’ tour and having The Captain’s title track prominently featured in the HBO series The Sopranos. She also became the first non-American act to headline Austin City Limits in the show’s 26-year history, sharing an episode with Steve Earle. Though still not quite the household name she was Down Under, Kasey nonetheless broke a lot of ground in the U.S. in the span of less than a year. Now, with her genre-defying second album, the aptly titled Barricades & Brickwalls, Kasey stands poised to break through to the next level.
Kasey began recording Barricades last fall, right before her debut was even released in America. The bulk of the recording was done at Mangrove Studios in New South Wale’s Central Coast. Additional work was done in Nashville, Melbourne and at her brother (and producer) Nash’s basement studio in Australia’s Avoca Beach – essentially wherever Chambers could find time during breaks on her multiple tours of the U.S. and Australia. “It was kind of a little piecey,” laughs the 25 year-old singer/songwriter. “We didn’t really have enough time off at all last year to go into the studio and put the whole thing down. We did the bulk of the band tracks and my vocals around September and October last year, and then it was just little bits here and there later. I wrote a couple of extra songs, so we had to go back in put them down as well. The mastering was pretty much finished the last time we were in America.”
And not a moment too soon. Although the release of Barricades & Brickwalls comes barely a year after The Captain on these shores, fans in Australia have been clamoring for a new Kasey album for close to three long years. Kasey has done a lot of growing up in that time, and the songs on the new album reflect that. She has won no small amount of acclaim for her formidable songwriting gift, but up until now, nearly everything the world has heard from her was penned before she turned 20 years old. Barricades reveals the first true glimpse of how Chambers has learned to hone her craft as an adult. Whereas she opened The Captain with a buoyant, nostalgic proclamation of innocence, unabashedly proclaiming “I still cry like a baby,” the new album kicks off on an altogether more fearsome and self-assured note. The title track rolls out of the gate with the low, throaty growl of an electric guitar, followed by a single-minded vow of intent and conquest: “Well I’ll be damned if you’re not my man before the sun goes down.”
“I think my songwriting has just changed a lot, obviously, from when I was writing songs when I was 17 or 18 to now, when I’m 25,” says Kasey. “Most of the songs on The Captain were like my first try at songwriting, really, and I think I’ve learned a lot. I’m saying things much more how I want to say them now – instead of just putting a line in because it rhymes. There are songs on this album like ‘A Million Tears,’ ‘This Mountain’ and ‘Ignorance’ that I could never have written back then. The Captain was more about, ‘This is my life up to now – this is the first 21 years of my life,’ whereas this one is, ‘This is who I am right now and this is where I’m going.'”
Of course, those first 21 years of Kasey’s life have a lot to do with where she is now and where she’s going. Although Barricades songs like “This Mountain,” about her struggle to keep a grip on reality in the midst of her sudden fame, and “Falling Into You,” a self-consciously sad song about being happy in the wake of her new romantic relationship (the perfect counterpart to “We’re All Gonna Die Someday,” Chambers’ “upbeat, happy song about death” from the last album) reflect her life today, she looks clear back to her earliest memories with the achingly nostalgic “Nullabor Song.” From the time she was three months old until she was nine, Kasey and her family (father Bill, mother Diane and older brother Nash) spent seven months out of every year traveling the vast, desolate expanse of south-central Australia’s Nullabor Plain. Her parents both had a bit of the gypsy soul in them, driven by a need to live simply and keep moving. They supported the family by hunting fox and rabbits.
“I remember a lot of sitting around and playing songs around the campfire,” recalls Kasey. “We had no entertainment out there – no TV, no radio – so the only form of entertainment we had was Dad playing for us, and Nash and Mom and I singing along.” The songs her father taught the family, and the tapes they listened to in their four-wheel-drive as they crisscrossed the barren wastelands, were almost exclusively by American country artists: Jimmie Rogers, the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. “My dad kind of gave me the impression that everybody listened to that type of music, and he probably thought that too,” Chambers laughs. “He probably didn’t think how weird it was that in the Outback of Australia we’re playing Gram Parsons albums instead of Neil Diamond albums or something. But that was such a big part of my life, and I didn’t realize until years later how much it did influence me.”
The Chambers clan moved back to “civilization” in 1986 so the children could attend school, but they were soon back on the road touring as a the Dead Ringer Band. After three albums together, culminating with 1997’s Living in the Circle, and winning several awards – including an ARIA – the Dead Ringer Band had become one of the most popular country acts in Australia. Kasey’s solo career is still very much a family affair: brother Nash has produced both of her albums, her father is her lead guitarist and her mother accompanies the band on the road, selling merchandise.
“It makes me feel a lot more comfortable having my family so closely related to it,” says Kasey. “It’s kind of my little security blanket, and right now, I still sort of need that. I don’t think there will ever be an album of mine made where they’re not involved in it at some level.” The remarkable story of the Chambers family, along with a wealth of photos, is told in full in the new book, Red Desert Sky: The Amazing Adventures of the Chambers Family, by John Lomax III. The tome will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin this October.
The foreseeable future will be busy for Kasey, as she takes to the road in support of Barricades & Brickwalls and begins building upon the foundation laid across Australia, Europe and the States over the last three years while promoting The Captain. In Australia, the new album is already one of the most anticipated releases in recent memory. Here and around the rest of the world, it will surely be warmly received by her passionate cult of admirers and win her even more fans as she continues to break down the barriers between music genres. Even more so than The Captain, Barricades & Brickwalls transcends easy categorization without giving up an inch of ground in compromise. As Kasey explains it, “When we go grungy, it’s grungier than the last album. But at the same time, I think it’s probably a little rootsier than The Captain because there are a lot of country songs on this album, and they’re a lot more country than the ones on the last album.”
Kasey laughs, knowing it’s a losing battle trying to pin down her sound. Ultimately, she doesn’t care what people call her music, so long as it remains true to herself. “I’m really happy with how the album came out,” she says of Barricades & Brickwalls. “I went through a phase where I felt a little bit of pressure over whether people would like it or not, but I’m pretty happy with it now. If people don’t like it, at least I know I’m doing exactly what I want to do.
“I think I’m at a point now where I know that if my career just folded tomorrow, I could sit back and go, ‘I’ve had a hell of a ride and a lot of fun,’ and then I’ll still sit in my bedroom and write songs,” she continues, musing on the many roads her music has taken her down since those campfire sing-a-longs of her childhood on the Nullabor. Her family was the entire world she knew back then, and it remains the center of her ever-expanding universe today. “I just don’t ever want my career to take over my whole life and become the most important thing I have. I just want it to be a lot of fun.”