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INTERVIEW: Catherine Britt

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THE ROCKY ROAD TO HARMONY

A caravan snakes its way across the Nullarbor; singer-songwriter, husband, toddler and Rascal the dog ensconced within as dust billows into the late afternoon air and a burning sun casts a warm glow over their travels. That’s the scene as Catherine Britt heads out on another adventure, just one of many she’s had in a storied career now bookmarked by her new album Catherine Britt & The Cold Cold Hearts.

“We’ve been traveling in a caravan for three years and having the best life. It’s such a simple and great way to live!” Britt enthuses. “A lot of the songs are about living every day like it’s your last and just enjoying it. We’ve seen amazing places and met wonderful people and there’s still so much more to see. These songs were all about what I was seeing and feeling and wrapping it up in an album.”

This is Britt’s first album since being diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago and though the subsequent and successful treatment was a highly personal experience, she chose to tackle it head on and with the support of family and friends.

“I didn’t really do any songwriting, I just wanted to get through it and get better. Everybody deals with it in different ways. Some want to be alone and do it privately but that’s not my style. I felt it was an opportunity to do something and make something of it,” says Britt proudly. “It’s very rare to get cancer at the age of 30, certainly breast cancer, so I wanted to build social awareness around it. We did some some shows around Australia on the ‘FU Cancer’ tour and got some famous friends to come along and sing with me and raise money. That’s just the way I went about it. I really turned to music and friends within the music industry. Their support blew me away. My sickness made me realise how real some of my friends are. That and family got me through it,” reflects Britt.

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In order to follow-up 2015’s successful Boneshaker album, Britt decided that she wanted to record it locally, in a familiar environment with musician friends playing integral roles in the recording of the songs. “I came up with this idea three years ago on our honeymoon while we were traveling in our camper in WA. I didn’t know what to do next after Boneshaker,” confesses Britt. “I knew I didn’t want to do the overseas thing again and I did want to do something more organic and at home. We built a studio in our backyard and called it the Beverly Hillbilly Studios. My album was the first project we did in there. It was produced by us – the band. We also had the engineer Jeff McCormack who I knew would get great sounds and we could just focus on recording the songs. The studio was just a room we built and chucked in a bunch of blankets and made it the best we could, and it ended up sounding really great!”

“I’ve always wanted to do one of those ‘artist and a band’ project like Ryan Adams & The Cardinals and Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band. It’s still the artist but they have this band of mates behind them. I wanted something that was really harmony based – old-timey harmonies and lots of them. That was a big thing for me,” Britt emphasises. “I wanted to be really comfortable with them in the music. It’s very country and organic, probably one of the most country albums I’ve ever done.” states Britt, before heaping praise on the musicians who helped bring the songs to life. “Michael Muchow and Andy Tombs have been playing with me for a long time and Michael and I work on a lot of projects – we produced his wife, Melody’s record. He’s an amazing musician, he blows my mind and comes up with stuff that I’ve never heard any other Australian musician do!” Britt marvels. “ He’s knows just what to play and he’s one of my best mates. When you’re making a record and going out on the road it’s really important that there’s a good vibe and you’re all on the same page. We had some elements that we missed with just the three of us so we had Bill Chambers come and guest on all the tracks too. I’ve been playing with Bill forever so it made sense to get him in to play on the record.”

Casting her mind back to the writing of the songs that comprise the new album, Britt says she “didn’t do anything different in terms of the songwriting process”. Instead she embraced her tried and true method of letting inspiration reveal itself and guide the writing of the songs. “When I’m working on an album I get inspired, it flicks on this creative switch in my brain that I can turn off when I’m on tour or going through a different mode. The ideas start coming and slowly over six months I have a record,” Britt explains. “There’s not a lot of co-writing on this record, I did a lot of writing on my own. I’ve been through so many things since Boneshaker that have shaped this record and that I’d never have written before. Life experience, recording it while I was pregnant and having gone through all the sickness stuff as well. I was in a much more secure place when I was writing these songs but I personally feel like they’re from a totally different place than anything else and more honest and real than I’ve ever been before. I’ve always been a very honest songwriter, sometimes to my detriment!” she says laughing. “This album even more so. It feels like you’re reading my diary when you’re listening to it.”

One song on the album, ‘I’m Not Ready’,  is both heartbreaking and inspiring as she stares down any possibility of dying and pays tribute to her husband James. “I’d wanted to write that song for a long time and I’d wanted to say it but say it in a way that wasn’t too obvious. I think the hardest part was that last verse which I wrote for my husband. That was an emotional thing for me to watch him go through that. That hurt me more than anything else,” Britt says, her voice wavering slightly. “When someone is going through some kind of medical thing they are getting all the care and attention and the partner has to sit back and watch and feel helpless. It was hard to watch my husband go through that. To get through it and out the other side, as we have, was so inspiring. I really wanted to write that and say thank you.”

Britt’s recording career first began as a teenager nearly two decades ago and through the personal and professional peaks and valleys, her ambitions and perspective on life and career have understandably changed. 

“Over the years it has meant different things to me and I’ve had different goals. My goal from when I was a young girl was to make money from music which I’ve been able to do and I’m really proud of. At different points of my life I’ve felt the pull of wanting to be famous and chasing that dream, living in Nashville and realising that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. It’s constantly changing but my ultimate goal has been fulfilled and I can never see me not making music.” she says with conviction. “It’s what I’ve always done and it comes naturally to me and I feel like it’s what I’m meant to do – that and being a mum. Those are my two goals. I was only 14 when I made my first EP and then went on the road with Kasey Chambers when I was 16. I feel really grateful for everything that’s happened!”

Chris Familton

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