Interview: Liam Kennedy-Clark checks in ahead of this weekend’s Tamworth Country Music Festival

At the tender age of 20 years old, Liam Kennedy-Clark is already an accomplished singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. He’s toured with some of Australia’s biggest acts, released four records and is set to perform at the 46th Tamworth Country Music Festival this January.

Born in Ashburton, New Zealand, his love of music started young during long car rides with his grandparents. Performing at local theatre companies and in school musicals followed (Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver! – for example), before learning the trumpet and piano at eight years old and guitar at ten.

“I played every sort of sport under the sun when I was younger, forced into it in a way, and that didn’t work out at all. I spent every minute in breaks at school and coming home from school trying to fit in as much music as I could – I found I had way more interest in [music] than I [did] running around a football field,” he said.

Although not from an overly musical family (his grandpa sings and grandma used to play piano and violin), he later self-taught himself to play the mandolin, banjo, organ, piano accordion, harmonica, ukulele, dobro and drums.

“Every minute of the day, I’d try to find a new instrument, have a go at it and see what could happen. I always wanted to be a musician full time. I thought, I’m going to have not so much luck trying to do anything else, might as well pursue what I’m enjoying, which is where I’m left today: doing what I can, but not knowing how to do anything else, gives me the encouragement to not quit.”

From his grandparent’s love of traditional country on one side and Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Handel on the other; to his step-father’s collection of everything from Pink Floyd through to Enya; and his father’s interest in heavy rock – he was exposed to many genres of music growing up.

“I’ve played everything – in jazz bands and blues groups – but I keep going back to country; I guess that’s where I first fell in love with music as an art form. I love the stories and the music. It’s something I keep finding myself latching on to no matter where I go. Country music often tells a story, and the story gets developed through performance, meeting people, travelling and the realism of life.”

From age ten, he began performing at local country music clubs, and paid gigs followed in his early teens. In 2013, he made the Top 24 on New Zealand X-Factor, which led to his crowd-funded debut album, The Road Out. He later released Duo, alongside Cassi Hilbers (under the name Liam and Cassi) and EP Better Times.

“In New Zealand, with it being such a small industry, I got to a point where I knew everyone. I was doing the same gigs every weekend; I wasn’t really going anywhere. There’s a bigger market in Australia, there’s an industry who understand what country music is. I’d say that’s the start of working as a professional musician and having a crack at it.

For now, I’m focusing on staying alive and working in the Australian industry, but I’d definitely love to go to Nashville. It’s been a dream of mine for quite a few years now. Singing, maybe even recording there, one day, would be a great goal to try and accomplish. Hopefully in the not to distant future I may get over there.”

He moved across the Tasman Sea in early 2015, where, by chance, three time ARIA-Award-Winner Adam Harvey needed a piano player for a gig after his regular player Vaughan Jones was unavailable, that it all began. After touring with Harvey on his 2016 Backyard Bar tour, he was invited last year to play piano and guitar (and occasionally open) on Lee Kernaghan’s 25th Anniversary Tour, alongside the Wolfe Brothers, James Blundell and Tania Kernaghan.

“The thing I learnt from the artists is staying humble and knowing who you are at the end of the day; both, who you are musically and who you are as a person. Lee Kernaghan, for example, when you’ve got crowds of a thousand or more singing back lyrics to songs that you made famous and you helped write, it would be extremely easy to get lost in that, have it go to head and so forth. But when you actually talk, meet and hang out with him, he’s quite the opposite. He’s constantly thinking about his crowd and how he can put on the best show. And no matter who he’s talking to, he is still himself and he gives everybody the time of day, which is the most important thing about performing, when you’re at that level, keeping true to yourself.”

Last year, Kennedy-Clark released the EP, Travelling Lines, featuring five tracks, including the lead single “Smile Like That”. The title of the EP comes from an unfinished song co-written with Matt Scullion. Although he states it’s not an overly personal album compared to previous releases, he expresses the importance of meaningful song-writing country music is known for.

“The key to a lot of songs, and how musicians or songwriters relieve stress or whatever’s in their minds, they write it down and get it out. More often than not I’ll start off with the lyric. [“No One’s There”] I wrote quite a number of years ago. I still love the song, I haven’t sung it in recent times, but I might dig it up again. The song was essentially a metaphor, and what it was a metaphor for all depended on what you were thinking about at the time. There is nothing literal within the song and it could be perceived any way, which is interesting to know, as a songwriter you can connect that many people, about so many different things, in the course of four minutes.

It’s an extremely cool thing to be able to talk to the audience and tell your stories through the songs. I have a song I wrote; I haven’t recorded it yet, about this war memorial in New Zealand. It’s essentially a bottle of beer at a pub which a soldier bought before he went to war. He said, “Keep it ’til I get home” and he never came home. I had a guy come up to me in the break of my performance, crying because his son’s serving in Afghanistan at the moment. That’s a pretty moving thing to have your songs reach people like that.”

He will take his Travelling Lines tour to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Tamworth and all over Queensland, and continue touring with Kernaghan throughout the year. He currently resides in Tamworth, teaching at the CMAA Senior Academy of Country Music and filming a new music video, before the iconic festival kicks off on the 19th.

“I will be debuting some new songs in Tamworth. I’ve got quite a list of songs written that are on the cards to do as singles for the next album, so chances are I’ll be throwing a lot of those out at the festival, seeing how the crowds react and what the people think. All up, I’ve got 16-17 gigs. Half of them is me singing and the other half is me playing. I’m really fortunate this year; they’re all good people to be playing with.”

Liam Kennedy-Clark performs at Tamworth Country Music Festival (January 19-28). For more information on the festival, visit www.tcmf.com.au.

LIAM KENNEDY-CLARK TOUR DATES

January 20th
11am – Country Music Cocktails, SS BBQ Barns Steakhouse
12pm – West Diggers Courtyard

January 21st
9.30am – Fanzone Stage
12pm – Yamaha Stage, Pig & Tinder Box
4.30pm – Storytellers at Tamworth Golf Course

January 23rd
12pm – Yamaha Stage, Pig & Tinder Box
8pm – Pure Country Spectacular, Capitol Theatre

January 24th 
2.30pm – Shine Showcase, Capitol Theatre

January 25th
12pm – Yamaha Stage, Pig & Tinder Box
3.30pm – Academy Reunion Show, West Diggers

January 26th
11am – Yamaha Stage, Pig & Tinder Box