Interview: Travis Collins and Amber Lawrence on Our Backyard, Gympie Muster and 2017 milestones

 For the first time, country music singer/songwriters Travis Collins and Amber Lawrence have collaborated on their debut seven-track EP, Our Backyard. Friends since 2004, when they met at the College of Country Music (now Academy of Country Music), it’s been eight years since the duo hit the road together. With cemented solo careers and album releases, Amber and Travis agree that now was the best time to combine their talents.

Your collaborative seven-track EP, Our Backyard is out this week. How did the idea for the EP and the tour of the same name come about?

Amber: We’re touring together for the second half of this year [so] it was our manager who said, “Why don’t you guys do an album together to support the tour?”

Travis: Which is kind of backwards from how most people would approach a project like this. We’ve been friends for a long time, so the idea for this originally came from a tour idea. We’ve both established ourselves a lot stronger since last time Amber and I toured together eight years ago, or something like that, [and] maybe we should have another rattle and go on the road again. The more we thought about it, the more it made sense [to collaborate] and that’s when we started talking about writing.

Amber: We thought, ‘Here’s the condition: we’re not doing a covers album.’ We’re not going to do old country songs, old duets, stuff that other people have written. We’re going to write these songs ourselves [and] throw out our catalogue of what we want to say in country music.

Travis: We’ve really taken what I think are the best parts of Amber and what she thought were the best parts of my sounds and thrown them in the middle ground. We’ve got a sound that’s neither hers nor mine; it’s a collective of the two of us. These are songs that, even after this EP and tour is finished, aren’t going to fit in my show and they’re not going to fit in Amber’s show, because they’ll feel out of place. For some reason, when we’re together, they work.

The title track is also the first single, which people are really taking to, celebrates not only the country and the bush, but also the beauty in suburban and city Australia. You both aren’t essentially known for that Australia-pride-themed lyrics and recordings. Is the single a good representation of the rest of the EP?

Travis: When you when you listen to the single, you hear a lot of Australiana in some ways. The only point I don’t think the single was a good representation is the fact that it is the most Australiana track. It’s Australian pride, it’s about home, [but] it’s the only patriotic song on the record. I hope we haven’t painted a false patriot-record image, because the rest of the record does just bridge that middle ground between what Amber does and what I do – and that’s just slightly different ends of the country music spectrum.

Amber: They’re really fun songs: “Millionaire”, “Drink” and a really country song called “Boxes” – something for everyone. It’s not all fun and games on this EP; it takes a bit of thought as well. We got together over a few weeks straight from Tamworth [Country Music Festival]. We wrote six songs and then we each picked a song of our own that we’d already written for another project to put on this EP.

Where did the idea for the track “Our Backyard” come from?

Amber: The song came from the fact that the day that we were writing, I’d just gotten back the day before from Silverton, where I’d gone to do a gig with Catherine Britt. I wrote in my diary: “there’s nothing like a Silverton sunset” because I’d just seen one. I described that to Travis, as like all these things they have in Australia. I live by the beach, I go for a walk and I see stuff that, if I was overseas, I’d be raving about, yet have it in our backyard and tend to forget about it, so that’s where that idea came from. We swapped all these amazing places in Australia we’ve seen as part of our job. We really love that we’re able to put like the Manly Ferry in it because that’s one of the great tourism things you can do in Australia. There’s not much better than that! We’ve been loving the reaction – everyone is really feeling their Australian pride when they hear it.

Travis: Yeah, the reception from country fans has been phenomenal!

Amber: It’s funny, in this last year I released “Big Mack Truck” which has put me into that Australian pride, because it mentions Australia is that song. I wrote the song “100 Year Handshake” in America for Australian/American friendship, which again, is an Australian pride song and now this. I really love that it’s forcing me down that direction as an artist. It’s probably time; because there’s only so long you can be a singer-songwriter [writing about] heartbreak, fun and girl stuff. That part of my life is hopefully in a good spot. I’m really glad that I’m heading towards this more mature songwriting cuff (laughs).

You’re both used to being the front-man, so to speak. How is it going to be to share the stage equally with another person?

Travis: It’s interesting. I go to my band and we play festivals or touring gigs and I’m constantly up front trying to keep the show moving – I guess that’s the front man’s job – but I’m I’m going to have to find that dynamic of learning when to be assertive and when to be passive. There’s quite a lot of this tour that we do together out on stage at the same time, so it’s about me figuring that out again the way I’ve done in the past when I’ve been on stage with other country stars. You know, when to put your foot on the gas and when to take it off is something that you need to keep in mind when you spend your whole life being the only person at the front slamming, slamming, slamming, and keeping it all moving. Suddenly, there’s two of you and then every now and then, one of you has to give way.

You’re both set to play on the iconic stage of Gympie Music Muster (August 24-27th). The 2017 programme will feature hundreds of performances across five stages, covering genres such as country, bluegrass, folk, blues and rockabilly. This year’s line-up is made up of 100% home grown Aussie talent including Jessica Mauboy, Adam Brand and Queensland-duo, Busby Marou. Will you be joining forces on the Gympie stage?

Travis: Yeah, absolutely! Amber is going to come out on my show on the main stage Saturday night. It’s going to be a nice moment actually as the sun’s going down, we get to sing a song like that which is pretty much hand in hand with what that festival is all about as well.

Amber: We’ll probably just do “Our Backyard” at this point, because then we’ve got the tour, where we’ll do all the other songs.

Apart from the duet, what can we expect from your sets?

Travis: We are going to be firing up more cylinders than we’ve ever fired before! I’ve been really lucky, in the space of ten years, I played at it well over half, which I’m really blessed. I’m just hoping the show goes ahead, because there is a little bit of a curse that has dogged me over the years. Every time I was scheduled to play Saturday night on the main stage it either pours rain – to a point that nobody can stand around and cop it – or one year, it actually flooded out so bad that they shut down the main stage. I’m hoping this year we get a nice fine night, everything gets to go ahead and we get to unleash everything we’ve been rehearsing.

Amber: My main stage show, you’ll just get high energy. I want people to have fun, to laugh, sing and dance with me. If you want to get the serious side of me, you’ll see that at my songwriter’s show. Then the fun kids’ country show – that’s a family show obviously geared towards baby-up-to-9-year-olds. We teach them a dance, they become stars of my show, and we learn their names and get them up on stage. If you don’t have kids, it’s still fun to watch because it’s still me doing a kids’ show. I don’t morph into an undercover wiggle. It’s still Amber Lawrence up on stage with my humour and personality singing songs for the kids.

The Gympie Music Muster is one you hear that artists speak very highly of, but I can’t quite put my finger on what makes it so unique. For someone like me who hasn’t had the opportunity to go before, what makes it that special, must-go event?

Travis: Gympie Muster has been, for so long, one of my favourite events of the year! It’s got something no other festival all has. It’s not about better or worse, there are certain festivals that do what they do extremely well. I think what Gympie Muster does, nobody comes close. It’s camping. It’s mate ship. It’s reconnecting with people you haven’t seen in a little while. The location is stunning. I’m really proud of the fact that they always tend to have so much focus on their home-grown Australian artists. For Gympie, it’s all about that opportunity to put up and coming Australian talent right on straight after one of their bigger heroes and that’s certainly happened to me! My first trip to Gympie, I was on straight after John Williamson, and I’m shaking in my boots on the stage trying to trying to keep up with the energy that he’d just put out to the crowd.

Amber: It’s got a lot of history; I love that about it! It’s in a beautiful location and you’re away from the rest of the world; you have to make a big effort to get there, which is great. It means you really want to be there and the fans absorb themselves in the music as a result.

Travis: It’s hard to explain until you actually standing there. Looking at that stage in the middle of the forest and there is a feeling about it. They’ve put nearly 16 million dollars back into community charities over the years they’ve been running, so it’s a special thing that you don’t find anywhere else.

Amber: Gympie, they’re there and they want it soak up every minute. They’ve pitched their tents. They’ve driven from miles to get to the site. I love that! I’ve had everything from mud, rain, sun, dirt, thunder – you get something for everyone (laughs).

Travis: [And] it’s completely volunteer run. There’s a team atmosphere that happens knowing that the people walking around picking up empty cans want to put back into the fabric of Australia through volunteers. From the artists, all the way down to the people working at the bars, to some extent everybody is giving some of their time. The difference it makes to the community is a quintessentially Australian thing and it’s a thrill to be a part of it and see everybody on board on the same page.

You’ve both had an extraordinary year so far! Let’s start with you Amber; 2017 marks ten years since you made your mark in the music industry, what did you do to celebrate the milestone?

Amber: I had a hometown concert back where I used to do my early gigs. I put on a show for all the people who had supported me and my career. It was packed out! It was heaps of fun singing a lot of old songs, as well some of the new songs – it was a dream gig. I was juggling both a full time job and music for quite a number of years when I was starting out. In 2007, I released my first album of The Mile and it got nominated for two Golden Guitars and [had] great reviews. The idea for the next 10 years [is] to keep on doing what I’m doing: to keep loving what I do, but to grow, write better songs, have more people know my music and keep growing the amount of people that want to buy my music and come to the shows.

And onto Travis. In January, you took home three Golden Guitars Awards in Tamworth: Male Artist of the Year, APRA AMCOS Song of the Year “Call Me Crazy” and Single of the Year “Just Another Girl”. Later, three CMC Awards: CMC Australian Artist of the Year, CMC Male Artist of the Year and CMC Australian Video of the Year. As the Golden Guitars were first, how did you celebrate your wins?

Travis: I went to a little club in Tamworth called Moonshiners where my band were working a gig. Nobody works harder for me than my band does, so I felt like we’d all won those awards. I skipped the industry after party, so when I was leaving the entertainment centre at Tamworth, the first place I wanted to go be with my band. I literally walked into their gig holding these three awards. I walked up onstage. I sat one on the drum kit, one on the keyboard and another of the bass amp. And proceeded to play music. Nobody stopped. We didn’t make a big fuss of it. We had these ear to ear smiles, all of us. There was a real sense of achievement [and] respect between each other, because I don’t think they were expecting to see me that night.

Where are your awards now?

Travis: They sit on top of my wife’s grandmother’s piano in the living room of the house. It’s kind of a room with no purpose, but it has a piano and a table in it. Every so often, I’ll sit at the piano and go fishing for a new melody or see if something inspires me, and they’re sitting right there just above my level and now I still look at them and just go, “Wow!” It’s crazy to think you can you can spend 10 years pushing music and releasing five albums and it takes that long, but, all of a sudden, in my case anyway, it baffles me that in the space of three months this year, there were six awards in on top of the piano that didn’t have an award on it for 10 years (laughs).

Which awards surprised you most to take home – the industry-voted Golden Guitars or the fan-voted CMC Awards?

Travis: Equally both, but the real surprise was in light of knowing that both were on board at the same time – that was really, really flattering for me because it was something that hadn’t been done yet. With all respect to the people I work with in this industry, it was the first time that someone had won the Male Artist [Award] at Tamworth and CMC collectively. I thought that was something that probably didn’t happen. I knew I had some really diehard, loyal supporters out there. I don’t have the largest fan base, I know that, but I was so humbled that they got that result for me. I was really surprised by the CMC Awards particularly in that sense, that, for a fan voted award, it wasn’t the person with the largest fan base that won, which really baffled me. It just goes to show the level of commitment that my supporters gave. It was quite a night!

That’s not to say that the Tamworth stuff was any less of a shock. Over the years, I’ve sat there 19 times and been a finalist and never [won] one. Then in the space of a few hours, to pick up three on the night that I get my first award was a real shock! It’s hard to explain. It’s obviously a result of an album that’s come straight from an honest and raw place and it’s connected with people on that level. If I tried to think about it any more than that, I’d probably get further away from being able to do it again. We make music for the sake of music, if the awards come they’re a real thrill and honour to take home, but at the end of the day, if you don’t take one home, that’s no real reason to stop playing music.

The 2016 album-release, Hard Light, in which the awards were won for, was well received. Why do you think it resonated so strongly within the industry and fans-alike?

Travis: Hard Light was something completely different. 95 Percent of that record came from my pen. They were stories of my own life, and some pretty raw and brutal stuff. There were a lot of people hearing personal things about me on that record that had known me for years that were hearing these stories for the first time. That was the risk and something I wanted to approach on a really artistic level, see the reaction to people and to see where it took me. The fact that it connected in the way it did so organically was the payoff. If anything, the awards, reviews and reception of that last record, has, not put more pressure on me, so much, as it has validated me. It’s made me feel it’s okay to be raw, it’s okay to be honest and you don’t have to try to be cool because in a way, coolness is something that just happens by being real.

In the past, all artists have done those albums where you try and manufacture something, you try and make it cool, and make the songs bigger and better than what they actually are. Whereas, if I actually think about my favourite artists and the songs that really move me, they’re always the ones that I feel are true. For the next record, I’m going to keep going down that track – keep digging as deep, and being as real and honest as I can.

You dedicated one of your award-win speeches to your late father-in-law. You’ve been very honest and open about talking about his death-by-suicide, as well as in interviews and in song – the ballad “Call Me Crazy” (co-written with Damien Leith) for example. Can you talk a little about why you decided to become an ambassador for RUOKAY day?  

Travis: It’s the biggest killer of men under the age of 60 in Australia full stop. There’s no extra filters on that. It kills more people than cancer in Australia than anything else. Particularly in regional Australia, which is where my passion for this topic is; we’ve got farmers out there getting no assistance from government who, if they weren’t there, mainstream Australia goes hungry. These people are out there doing it so tough and fighting such battles against weather conditions, against banks, against insurance rising costs and isolation. They’re having to take these extremely sad measures, because they get to a point where they think it’s easier if none of it exists anymore.

I wanted to use that little bit of a platform from “Call Me Crazy” to shine a light on the issue and start blowing away this stigma, that is particularly my rife in the bush. Blokes have been brought up by the last generation of Australians saying that you don’t cry, you don’t talk about feelings, you just roll up your sleeves and get on with the job. I don’t think we’re in that era anymore. I don’t think it’s cool anymore to be a tough guy that doesn’t talk about your feelings. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being able to reach out to a mate and just say, “Mate, I’m not doing so well. Can we talk about it?”

I also think it’s one of the big challenges, we should all be setting ourselves as friends, is to make sure that your friends know, even before they fall on hard times, before they start having those doubts and dark thoughts, it should be all of our responsibility that I as a make, myself Travis, as somebody I want all my mates to know that should those hard times ever come, it goes without saying that you can call me and I’m there. There’s no judgment; there’s nothing but open ears and open arms. I’m really lucky to be an ambassador with RUOK, but one of the things I’ve learned through my work with those guys is we don’t have to wait until we see signs of depression. We don’t have to wait till it gets to the point where you have to say, “Are you okay?” Planting that seed early on in your friends and saying if you ever need to talk about some serious stuff you’ll never get any judgment from me. If our friends know that before our time’s come that’s going to be the big shift to seeing some of those numbers go down.

Our Backyard is out Friday.
Amber and Travis perform at  Gympie Music Muster (August 24-27).

TOUR DATES:
Thursday 3 August – Astor Hotel Motel – Goulburn
Saturday 5 August – Club Sapphire – Merimbula
Friday 11 August – Forbes Services Memorial Club
Saturday 12 August – Club Lithgow
Thursday 26 October – Warwick RSL Memorial Club
Friday 27 October – Dag Pub & Motel – D’Aguilar
Saturday 28 October – Hamilton Hotel
Sunday 29 October – Mary’s Commercial Hotel – Dalby
Friday 3 November – Young Services Club
Sunday 5 November – The Oaks Hotel – Illawarra
Friday 24 November – Windsor RSL