Country music a tough gig but Bendigo-bound Kasey Chambers still on top of her game

The music industry is not known for its kindness to women over 40. 

At the 2015 ARIA Awards, hall of fame inductee Tina Arena demanded commercial radio pay more attention to female singers who passed the milestone age. 

Madonna used her acceptance speech at a Billboard women in music event last year to lambaste those who bullied her for, as she put it, simply “stick(ing) around”.

But age and gender have never felt like hurdles for Kasey Chambers. 

Australia’s undisputed queen of the country music genre has just scored her fifth number one album at 40 with two-disc LP Dragonfly.

She is also on a 10-date tour alongside Powderfinger frontman Bernard Fanning that will stop off in Bendigo later this month.   

The real challenge, she said, was getting country music onto the public’s playlist. 

“It’s probably been harder for me playing the style of music I play than anything to do with being a woman or being over 40,” Chambers said. 

It took breakthrough single Not Pretty Enough, a track about commercial radio’s reluctance to hit play on country music, to win mainstream affection.

But fans of the song have stuck by her ever since.  

“They’ve all grown up with me, a lot of the girls who felt not pretty enough at the time,” she said.

“Now they’re 40-year-old women like me still having days when they feel not pretty enough, like we all do.”

Despite always returning to some of her first and favourite songs – a gig has never gone by without a rendition of The Captain – Chambers believes she is a better songwriter now than ever before.

“Everyone should feel like they're doing their best work at this point in their life,” she said, pointing to album track The Ballad of Henri Young as evidence of her maturing craft. 

The song details the life of a pickpocket sent to Alcatraz, the same story as the 1995 Kevin Bacon film Murder in the First.

Despite seeing the movie as a teenager, it was decades before Chambers felt ready to put the story to music. 

And yet many of her songs simply “fall out”, like lead single Ain’t No Little Girl

“I like to think I have more control over them (the songs) than I do,” she said. 

“But I’m glad some of the songs just write themselves.

“I don’t ever want songwriting to feel like a job.”

While still sounding deeply personal, pop culture references abound on Dragonfly – the autobiographical Talkin’ Baby Blues somehow works Twisted Sister, The Sopranos and Kanye West into five minutes – as do nods to literature and the Bible  

The references are a relic of a childhood spent in a “quite strict” Seventh Day Adventist family whose musical diet was dominated by gospel-tinged country artists.

Today Chambers describes herself as a “believer of stuff” not affiliated with any particular religion. She said the liturgical lyrics were more style than substance. 

“I like the way that language sounds in song, particularly in this style,” she said.

“I pick up a banjo and play it in a minor key and I feel like I just want to use biblical terms."

The upcoming concert series will the be the first time fans hear some of the new songs live, but Chambers also promised audiences they would also witness duets between her and Fanning.

Their first show together was just last week at the Tamworth Country Music Festival but the pair already have a long history of singing on one another’s albums, most notably the title track of Chambers’ 10th studio album, Bittersweet.

She has even released a cover of the Powderfinger hit These Days.

Chambers’ admiration for Fanning boils down to his artistic self-determination. 

“I love Bernard’s approach to music, because he plays music for all the right reasons,” she said. 

“He's not dictated to by anyone else: trends, audiences. 

“He's just him and he owns that.” 

Kasey Chambers and Bernard Fanning bring their Sooner or Later tour to Ulumbarra Theatre on February 18. Limited tickets still available.

This story Kasey fights for right to play country first appeared on Bendigo Advertiser.