Last Sunday was a rainy old afternoon in Nashville and I may have been out a little too late honky tonkin’ the night before and I may have been feeling a little muddle-headed and I may or may not have consumed the best part of a tub of salted caramel ice cream for lunch. It was as good a time as any to head to the beautiful Belcourt Theatre and catch the Big Star documentary.
For those unfamiliar with Big Star, the group were a band from Memphis who made a handful of critically acclaimed, commercially unsuccessful records in the 1970s. Some time between 1973 and the 1990s, the band reached cult status and now music nerds everywhere sing their praises and get into passionate twitter discussions about their favourite tunes from the band’s key songwriters: Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. For the uninitiated/ aspiring nerds, here is a selection of golden, power-pop Big Star beauties:
Big Star – The Ballad Of El Goodo
Big Star – I’m In Love With A Girl
Big Star – Watch The Sunrise
For all my love and affection and geeking out over Big Star, I can’t remember when I first heard the band. They snuck up on me some time in the mid-2000s. When I formed my first band with Courtney Botfield towards the later end of that decade, we recorded a version of ‘Thirteen’, a song I never tire of. I’m still in love with this rhyme:
Won’t you tell me
What you’re thinking of?
Would you be
An outlaw for my love?
Here’s our take, circa 2009…
As much as I l have an enduring love for ‘Thirteen’, my current post-documentary jam is Chris Bell’s ‘I Am The Cosmos’. I have been listening to it almost non-stop since just before seeing the film and ever since. According to Nick Hornby’s Songbook, the novelist Dave Eggers believes that those who repeatedly listen to the one song over and over again are trying to get inside it, to understand it, to solve the mystery within it. I read that this morning between sips of tea and bites of a nice sharp Granny Smith, and thought – YES! – that’s exactly where I’m at with ‘Cosmos’ at the moment.
Chris Bell – I Am The Cosmos
Of course, I have done this kind of song infatuation before. Linda Ronstadt’s version of Elvis Costello’s ‘Alison’. David Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’. Lucinda Williams’ ‘Ventura’. Bob Dylan’s ‘Sweetheart Like You’. The Band’s ‘It Makes No Difference’. Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’. But at this moment in time, I’m holding the hand inside ‘I Am The Cosmos’ as though I might never let it go.
Late Afternoon / June 2013
As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away—
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy—
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
The Dusk drew earlier in—
The Morning foreign shone—
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone—
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.
- Emily Dickinson
My Better Half / Sydney, February 2013 - Courtesy of Post To Wire
When I’m in Australia, I sing in a harmony duo called 49 Goodbyes with a beautiful soul named Courtney Botfield. She looks like a cross between Kate Bush and Linda Ronstadt and has the most lovely, fragile soprano voice you ever heard. We are dear friends and musical sisters and when I think about all the joy she’s brought to my life I could melt with happiness.
I sound over the top, I know. But I am over the top. I’m an enthusiast. Besides all that, when you move eight thousand or so miles away from the people you love, you learn how lucky you are. True friends are solid gold.
Courtney and I met on the internet. She had placed an ad on a music website. If I’d known at the time how close we’d become I would have saved it. It went something like this:
Emmylou Looking For Gram
I’m an ethereal choir girl looking for someone to sing harmonies with. I like Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. I play a little bit of guitar and also the piano accordion.
I wrote back immediately.
I’m not Gram Parsons. I love Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. I’m a terrible guitar player but I sing like a very sad, possibly drunk bird. I think this makes me more like Gram than I’d like to admit. Let’s meet up.
We met in a cafe in Sydney’s inner west and clicked immediately. We started singing together. We rehearsed in her apartment in the lovely beachside suburb of Bronte. We sung a thousand Neil Young songs and drank wine and worked up a set-list of the saddest songs we could possibly think of. We collided with undying affection for the slow, melancholy ones and never apologised for it.
In the four or so years since our first email exchange, we have recorded songs, toured Australia, performed on ABC Radio, cried together watching Emmylou Harris at the State Theatre, agreed on the enduring attractiveness of Kris Kristofferson, sung harmonies with Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson (Folk Uke) and worked out a retirement plan that involves matching pastel rinses for our hair, endless cups of tea and ruthless games of Bridge. I like this retirement plan very much.
This past February, when I was back in Australia for a heartbeat, we recorded a new EP at a studio in Melbourne called The Backlot. It’s a collection of covers we both adore. We sung all the songs in one session and did all the vocals as one take wonders. If you’ve ever wondered how to record harmony singing, that’s the best way to do it. There are other ways of course but when you’re bending a note and eyeballing one of your favourite people in the world and knowing that they know exactly where you’re going to wind up, it’s just about the most lovely thing ever.
Because of my wanderlust, we’re not sure when we are going to release this EP and truth be told, we haven’t mastered it yet as there’s talk of adding some extra instruments here and there. Still, we wanted to share a little of what we have so far.
Here’s 49 Goodbyes singing ‘Dreaming My Dreams’, which was written by Roger Miller and has been recorded almost a million times, most famously by Waylon Jennings.
And here’s the 49 Goodbyes version of ‘Please Be With Me’, which is a C. Scott Boyer song. It was recorded by Eric Clapton and that’s how most people know it, however my affections lie with the Cowboy version which came first. And this one of course.
Hearty thanks to Mark D’Angelo from The Backlot in Melbourne and also to guitarist Andrew Wrigglesworth from the fabulous duo The Weeping Willows, who learned all these songs in the studio on the day.
And to Courtney – can’t wait to sing harmonies together again soon. Preferably on a beach somewhere.
Will keep the blog up to date with details about the upcoming duo EP as well as my soon-to-be-recorded solo one, which has no covers, just my songs. In the meantime, the old 49 Goodbyes EP splits the difference and can be downloaded for free here.
I haven’t played many shows in Nashville just yet, so I’m delighted to share that I’m singing old country songs at The 5 Spot this Wednesday with my friend Bob Lanphier. Our set-list isn’t actually that old. It’s just that what counts for country these days… you know what I mean. So we’ll be re-working Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Tom T. Hall, Buddy Holly and Neil Young.
It’s going to be SADCORE. I’m really looking forward to it. Come along if you can! BYO valium, the bar has gin. Trust me, I’ve checked. We play a 30 minute or so set, then the all star line-up afterward includes Robert Ellis, Bobby Bare Jr and Jim Lauderdale.
Did I ever tell you I really love Nashville? Yeah, some days I really love Nashville.
Bobby Bare Jr – Sad Smile (From the acoustic EP A Storm, A Tree)
Robert Ellis – All Men Are Liars (Nick Lowe cover)
Jim Lauderdale – El Dorado (From his collaboration with Robert Hunter, Patchwork River)
“It is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia.”
- Susan Sontag, 1977.
I’m a nostalgic kind of gal. I like old songs and old clothes. I live in record bins and second-hand clothes racks. It’s a throwback to my youth, where I couldn’t really afford anything else. It’s fashionable now of course. Vintage. But I don’t recall it being fashionable when I was growing up.
We lived in a three bedroom house in Wagga Wagga, a time and a place I am not in the least bit nostalgic for. But it comes to mind often enough. There’s something about the South that’s eerily familiar. At least, closer to my upbringing than the years I spent in Sydney. It’s the pace. The politeness. And the feeling of being landlocked. My kingdom for a quick dip in the ocean. Any ocean.
Last week I called a friend of mine in Sydney and I could hear waves in the background. Later, I was watching an interview with The Go-Between’s Robert Forster about the song ‘Dive For Your Memory’. He was very satisfied with the chord progression. Apparently, it came to him while he was staying in an apartment that had views of Bondi Beach.
If the cliffs were any closer
If the water wasn’t so bad
I’d dive for your memory
On the rocks and the sand
I found the Sontag book I’m pictured with – On Photography - in a giant Nashville book supermarket called McKay’s. It was $1.50. Normally, I’d write bookstore but McKay’s is all fluorescent lights and yellowing paperbacks and aisle after aisle of grey linoleum, so it doesn’t exactly evoke the romanticism that bookstore implies. Still, the inside sleeve of the book reads:
From Claire -
- love -
The Go-Betweens – Dive For Your Memory