I’m not half what I hoped that I’d become
There’s still a long way to go
– Kasey Chambers, “Don’t Talk Back”
Kasey Chambers has traveled a long way in her 23 years. The open road, its heartbreaks and diversions, and a youthful optimism as to where it might lead, winds through the songs on her debut solo album, The Captain. The disc, due out in the U.S. this fall on Asylum Records, was released in 1999 in her native Australia and recently surpassed platinum status there (70,000 sold).
“I’ve been through a lot of different lifestyles in my life, a lot of ups and downs,” says Chambers, “but the road never lets you down. No matter how bad things can get, it just makes everything go away. I always feel good on the road; it’s always been an escape in my life.”
Chambers is now in her fifteenth year of playing music, having grown up living the nomadic life of a traveling country band with her family, the Dead Ringer Band. “For the first ten years of my life, we didn’t have a house,” she recalls. “Our lifestyle was closer to Aboriginal Australia than to civilized white life. If we wanted to eat, we had to go out and shoot a kangaroo.”
The Chambers family lived out on the Nullabor Plain for eight months a year during fox-hunting season, and spent summers and Christmas in southeastern South Australia. “It’s the most barren, remote part of Australia; you can drive hundreds and hundreds of miles and not see any civilization. Growing up, I thought everyone lived out of a car and hunted for food,” she says with a laugh.
Music was an integral part of the Chambers’ peripatetic lifestyle. “I had no radio, no television, so I was only exposed to the music that my dad listened to,” she remembers. “All he listened to was Hank Williams, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.…I’m just glad he didn’t like Neil Diamond!”
The family’s religious practices were steeped in music, too. “My parents were Seventh Day Adventists, and twice a week we would have Bible study. We’d sit around reading passages from the Bible and singing old hymns, the old Carter Family songs, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams — not what you’d call gospel, but very religious.”
While Chambers is “not fanatical” about religion these days, she says that “I consider myself a spiritual person, and a lot of that comes out subtly in my music, because I still very much believe. It doesn’t bother me that other people shy away from spirituality — I don’t preach to people.”
Chambers found kindred spirits in Nashville songwriting couple Buddy and Julie Miller, who contribute vocal harmonies on The Captain (Buddy also plays guitar on a couple of tracks). “Julie is very, very spiritual,” says Chambers. “Not ramming it down your throat, but it shows in her singing and her songs and in her as a person.”
Buddy Miller enlisted Chambers as a backup singer during his 1998 Australian tour after hearing one of the Dead Ringer Band’s albums. Anyone who witnessed Chambers’ duets with Miller and Steve Earle during the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival in Byron Bay that Easter will never forget it. “Just to see that show was amazing,” Chambers enthuses. “But to be up there singing with Buddy and Steve Earle, that was the icing on the cake!”
Chambers recently returned to Nashville to participate in Fan Fair and played a songwriters-circle gig at the Bluebird Cafe with Lucinda Williams, Joy Lynn White and Cindy Bullens. “That was my favorite gig I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “Of course I was freaking out, having to sing after Lucinda for every song. But wow, to play with people like that! And the sort of people who came to see the gigs in Nashville were fantastic; they really appreciate music.”
Nashville was a revelation for Chambers. “You get so clouded in your views of Nashville because of all the crap that comes out of there, but then you discover this great underground scene,” she observes. “I spent most of my time in that alternative scene in Nashville, and it was so encouraging. Even though I appreciate my career in Australia, sometimes you wonder if people really get it,” she adds wryly.
Chambers is not tempted to relocate, however. “I love living in Australia. I’m going to live here for the rest of my life,” she declares.
Of course, the road will continue to beckon. “It’s hard to get the road out of your system,” she says. “Someone might want me to settle down one day, but I don’t know if I will ever be able to.”