Though she’s still an eagerly decorated newcomer in these parts, Australian singer Kasey Chambers first embraced thinking-girl’s country music at age 10.
Why then, at 28, is this admitted Lucinda Williams disciple getting away with writing such cliche-sprinkled lyrics as the ones that crop up on her otherwise gorgeously realized new album, Wayward Angel?
Inexperience can’t be the answer. As a child growing up in her native country, Chambers led the Dead Ringer Band with her older brother Nash (now her producer) and their record-collecting parents. The couple weaned their kids on Hank Williams, the Stanley Brothers and Emmylou Harris — voices as lonesome and atmospheric as the isolated Nullarbor Plain where they lived.
And so today, appropriately, it is Chambers’ own distinctive voice that lets her pull off the sometimes lyrically dubious, though always fetchingly melodic, roots rockers that make up Angel (Warner Bros., 2004).
Made of gold
In various spots on the new CD, Chambers, veering between baffled sadness and a ringing joie de vivre, goes not only “against the grain” but “against the tide,” as well. She sells her soul “like a sinner” but nevertheless is held “like honey to the bee” in her lover’s arms — and consequently shouts her triumph “down from the mountain.”
Ultimately, despite all the drama, the singer stands — what else? — “the test of time.”
And she will in real life, too — as long as her strange, mesmerizing vocal delivery continues to distract fans from her sometimes corny lyrics, attracting new listeners like, um, bees to … well, you know.
Luxuriant, coyly childlike and a bit nasal to boot — think Lolita with a bad head cold — Chambers’ voice was a gift she had to learn to grow into, the singer revealed in a recent transatlantic phone interview.
“I was afraid to just sound like me when I was younger,” she says in a zestful Aussie accent. “Through my teenage years, I was very influenced by singers and wanted to sound just like them.” (Karmically enough, Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Sr., is co-billed on Chambers’ current tour.)
Now, she says, “obviously I just sort of sing and that’s how it is. I found my voice more and more over the years, and became more comfortable with it.”
Indeed. On Chambers’ last album, 2002’s Barricades & Brickwalls (Warner Bros.), she made her mood known from note one. The record opens with the sexy, grinding title track, wherein the singer informs a reluctant beloved that “iron bars and big old cars won’t run me out of town/ I’ll be damned if you’re not my man before the sun goes down.”
Likewise, Wayward Angel starts strong, with the wonderful “Pony,” a song whose melody line frisks dangerously close to the Peggy Lee version of “Fever.” But as far as delivery goes, “Pony” belongs to Chambers alone: “When I grow up I’ll be a lady/ All my rings will be made of gold/ I’ll put flowers in my room, I’ll wear perfume/ I won’t listen to rock ‘n’ roll,” she drawls spookily, easily trumping all those Baby Jane-in-training girl singers working the same vibe.
But “Pony” is an anomaly — because Kasey Chambers isn’t anything like those ubiquitous kitsch-cabaret acts haunting today’s indie circuit. No — most of Wayward Angel is too smooth, too frankly mainstream, even to warrant the tired alt-country badge that gave Chambers her initial push in America, back when her first record, The Captain (EMI, 2000), was making wavelets on our shores.
Still, unless you read a lot of No Depression magazine, you wouldn’t immediately recognize Chambers on the streets here. In her native country, though, she’s nothing short of a star — partly because commercial music over there is less fragmented.
“We don’t have an alt-country scene here in Australia,” says Chambers. “We have a country-music scene that is quite good, but we don’t have the population to back up [spin-off genres].” Her own brand of roots rock “is thrown in” with everything else.
“I am playing to a lot of mainstream sort of fans who aren’t normally into country,” the singer explains.
In fact, “Not Pretty Enough,” from Barricades & Brickwalls, hit number one on the Australian pop chart.
Released in May there, Wayward Angel has already gone platinum Down Under.
If the new album lacks some of Barricades & Brickwalls‘ edgy roughness, blame (or thank) the newest man in Chambers’ life — her 2-year-old son, with boyfriend Cori Hopper.
“Any mother would tell you it changes your life completely,” the singer comments — and her statement is obligingly verified by the sound of a happy baby chortling in the background.
“He’s always [here] when I do interviews now,” she elaborates with a hearty laugh.
“It just changes your whole priority list around,” Chambers adds. “I probably think about things a little more, in one sense. But another part of … becoming a mother is that little [problems] don’t mean so much anymore. There are bigger things to think about in your life.”
In Wayward Angel‘s “Mother,” Chambers seemingly addresses her own mom, wondering: “Did I cry?/ I only remember the days I was laughing/ When you sang me sweet lullabies.”
The CD’s magisterial title track, in all its layered sophistication, speaks more obliquely to this new depth in the singer’s life. But other songs are as characteristically loopy as Chambers’ decision (according to Australian news source The Age) to name her baby “Talon” in cryptic honor of one of her favorite songwriters, Fred Eaglesmith.
Take the soaring “Bluebird,” for instance — it’s a brilliantly catchy tune. But there go those amusingly childish lyrics again: “If I fall like rain/ Will you still feel the same?” she mews fretfully.
Fans undoubtedly will — because the foolish similes might be forgiven if Chambers keeps on using That Voice to make songs this fresh. Like daisies, really.
Kasey Chambers plays The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave; 225-5851) at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 9, with Holly Williams. Tickets are $16.