“I was Country Spice”
As her breakthrough album The Captain turns 20, Kasey Chambers considers how it changed the course of Australian country music – and explains why she will never get tired of singing its songs
As her breakthrough album turns 20, Kasey Chambers contemplates how it changed the Aussie music landscape.
“And you thought that Shania Twain was bad.”
Kasey Chambers erupts in laughter as she recalls the very ﬁrst review she received as a solo artist, a street press takedown of her 1999 debut single ‘Cry Like A Baby’.
She promptly had the above Shaniasledge framed. “It was the ﬁrst time I had ever seen a review with my own name on it,” says Chambers, who is celebrating the 20th anniversary of that song – and the groundbreaking debut album on which it featured, The Captain. “So I got it framed. I remember at the time, the record label were trying to hide it from me. It went on to say something like, ‘Please make it stop… as the men in white coats come to cart you away.’ I didn’t care; it had my name on it!”
In hindsight, that review had it all wrong anyway – The Captain changed Australian country music forever. Chambers looked more like a gothic punk than Dolly Parton, and her music aligned more closely with the emerging Americana genre than the bush ballads that had long deﬁned the category’s national sound. She was a charismatic and wholly original rebel who shockingly didn’t alienate the establishment even as she sported a nose ring, posed nude for a magazine or dressed like a Spice Girl at the annual festival in Tamworth. “I was Country Spice, of course,” she tells Stellar.
“I recall feeling really sure of myself about certain things”
She hadn’t planned to go it alone. With her dad Bill, mum Diane and brother Nash, Chambers had been performing in the family’s Dead Ringer Band from the age of
11. She wrote songs she knew didn’t work for the band, but also had no clue what to do with them. “I think I would have kept going in that band forever, tagging along like a teenager happy to be getting out of school,” she says. It was only when her parents split after 25 years of marriage
that a solo career seemed inevitable.
At that stage, Chambers and her mum had been living on Norfolk Island, making extra money with a “little cleaning business” for the local hotels. The 20-yearold had already penned The Captain and had a clutch of other works in progress when Diane informed her daughter she was going to Africa on a holiday. That trip started a lifelong love affair with the continent for Chambers, offering not just a fertile environment for songwriting, but an opportunity to contribute to its orphanages and education programs.
“Mum wanted to do something different after the divorce and I told her she wasn’t going to Africa on her own,” says Chambers. “So we saved up for a year and booked a low-budget safari tour through about six countries. It was a life-changing time, and I’ve felt connected
there ever since.”
When the Dead Ringer Band was put into mothballs, Nash decided to channel his talents into producing, and suggested he and his sister could work together as a team. They shopped the demos and eventually signed with EMI, whose then-managing director Tony Harlow told Chambers she should just do her, and that he would ﬁnd her an audience, no matter how long
it took. “We were all feeling our way and none of us really knew what we were doing,” she tells Stellar. “Back then, the term Americana wasn’t really being used, and in Australia, you didn’t even have that rootsy, singer/songwriter sound on the radio. People weren’t making songs like Missy Higgins or Pete Murray yet – let alone the alternative country music stuff I do.”
She recalls that one of her ﬁrst meetings with the team from her new label set a precedent for her entire career: she would pick her battles, and they knew not to try to make her sway course. “Someone asked what I was going to call the album,” she says. “I said, ‘It’s called The Captain.’ They said, ‘Oh yeah, great. We will put that on the list and come up with a few more suggestions.’ I told them again it was going to be called The Captain. I remember feeling really sure of myself about certain things. As soon as I wrote that song, I knew my ﬁrst solo album would be called The Captain.”
Her instincts paid off. The album peaked at no. 11, went double platinum and won Chambers the ﬁrst two of her career’s 14 ARIA Awards. (She was inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame last year.) The title track featured on an episode of The Sopranos, and the album as a whole inspired Jessica and Lisa Origliasso, now The Veronicas, to pick up acoustic guitars and become performers. They were in the front row of her ﬁrst Brisbane concert in 1999 in support of the record, and joined her onstage last month at Byron Bay Bluesfest’s 30th anniversary celebrations to perform ‘The Captain’.
It also inspired a 15-year-old Renee Ross to hold up a sign that blared “You be the captain” during Chambers’s very ﬁrst solo performance at that iconic festival the same year. Today the two are friends and business partners who design pieces for their Poetry By Kasey And Renee clothing line. “Our motto for the clothing line is Be Your Own Captain,” says Chambers. “For so many people that song has said, she can be who she wants to be and she doesn’t have to conform. They can be themselves.”
‘The Captain’ has secured its place as her signature song, and Chambers, now 42, says she will never take it off her set list. Audiences can expect to hear it on an upcoming tour to mark her musical milestone, which is set to feature the original band that played on the album.
“Whatever I am playing, a festival or my own show, I feel real comfort in that song,” says Chambers. “Because it usually comes after ‘Ain’t No Little Girl’ [from her 2016 EP of the same name]. That is such a strong, powerful moment and I go into this other world, I don’t even know where it is. And
I know ‘The Captain’ will bring me back and ground me after I have scared myself.”
The Captain Deluxe Edition is out on Friday; for tickets to The Captain
20th Anniversary Tour 2019, visit kaseychambers.com.
KASEY WEARS Camilla skirt, au.camilla.com; her own top; (opposite) Lover the Label dress, loverthelabel.com Female Artist; Chambers with her then-husband Shane Nicholson at the 2009 Golden
(from top) Kasey Chambers with her children
(from left) Arlo, Talon and Poet at last year’s ARIA Awards; with her 2000 ARIA for Best