“I wasn’t interested in not sounding like me anymore” Kasey Chambers shrugs, wrapping her hands around her coffee cup-the same hands that have received 29 music awards and raised three children. The same hands that pulled crayfish spines from their knuckles on Australia’s southern coast and hunted foxes under the Nullarbor’s endless blue sky.
“The new album was very much the same for me, because I didn’t quite know where it was going to go” she admits. “I had to let go a bit. I’m not good at that.” In 2014, Kasey Chambers is preparing to release her 7th solo album, and enlisted the help of some local luminaries to pull the whole thing off.
Dan Kelly throws guitar in sparkling sheets and howling clouds over the entire record. Gentleman rock and roller Bernard Fanning-originally hired as a rhythm guitarist-reshapes his role to suit his explosive enthusiasm for the project. He transforms at will into guest vocalist and pianist. Matthew Englebrecht spreads his talents between bass and flugal horn, further enriching the album’s breadth and contrast. On drums, Declan Kelly adopts a diffuse array of styles, from rolling Americana to sharp sprays of rock and roll. Along with brand new producer Nick DiDia (whose credits include Pearl Jam, The Wallflowers and Bruce Springsteen to name just a few) Kasey has made what she calls “a massive leap of faith.”
But like all good country records, not everything’s new. The low, haunted voice of Bill Chambers, Kasey’s father and musical mentor, is wrapped lovingly over country gem ‘House on a Hill’, like a talisman from where it all began: their first family band, The Dead Ringer Band. Kasey and Bill’s first collaboration.
Today, after years in the industry, Kasey is nave no more. She’s felt music as both aggressor and healer- grinding and cleansing like some pure, vicious coast. It demands a lot from its maker. But whenever she feels lost, Kasey takes it back to basics. This raw approach helped knit together the loose threads that became the Lost Dogs, a band that healed Kasey, and allowed her to rediscover her love of song. “I’m doing the exact same thing right now with this album” she admits. “The same thing that Lost Dogs did for meI think it’s an ongoing thing”
Now the music of Kasey Chambers seems buried in Australia’s bones. Beyond accolades and album sales, there’s something immutable about Kasey Chambers, something that makes her as vital to this land as the red rock where her music was born.
More so than ever before, Kasey Chambers is writing like a true storyteller. The unrequited, antiquated refrains of ‘Oh Grace’ are sung as a man yearning his one true love. Likewise the broken-hearted nostalgia of ‘Bittersweet’ captures the story of two old lovers from both sides. Even ‘Stalker’ sees Kasey shedding her skin and imagining prowling after the fictional Spencer Reid, the socially-awkward genius from Criminal Minds. “In the show, the characters really have no personal lifeso I kept thinking ‘how would I get the character Spencer Reid to notice me?…What crime am I willing to commit'”
But despite finding new ways to craft her stories, Kasey Chambers is still inimitably her. From the red dust of her nomadic childhood to the surf coast where she’s raised her family, Kasey’s always maintained that her records have been a testament to “who [she] was at the time”. And her newest album is proof that she’s unwilling to settle for anything less.
Parker Millsap didn’t know not to sing like this. Listening to old albums as a kid alone in his room, he didn’t realize howling like a Delta blues ghost readying the world for rock-and-roll isn’t a how skinny white boy from Purcell, Oklahoma usually sounds.
“I was listening to records from the 20s and 40s, and the voices that came out were otherworldly,” Millsap says. “I was really attracted to that. At the same time, I grew up doing congregational singing in church––you know, everybody stands up, grabs a hymnal, turns to number 162, and sings ‘I’ll Fly Away’ at the top of their lungs. I learned to sing in that context, where nobody’s listening to you. We are all just singing.”
New album The Very Last Day (Okrahoma Records/Thirty Tigers) proves an ideal vehicle for Millsap’s message, delivered via gospel-tinged rock-and-roll poetry. In the midst of a world so fond of condemnation as entertainment, Millsap offers open-armed love of people and their stories. Whether he’s singing from the perspective of a young gay man longing for his evangelical father’s acceptance, or as the King of the Underworld wild with passion, his character-driven songs mine deep wells of joy and despair to create gut-punching narratives that are sometimes hellish, sometimes heavenly, and always human.
The Very Last Day is the anticipated follow-up to his 2014 eponymous record, which netted him high-profile praise from NPR, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and others, as well as a nomination for Americana Emerging Artist of the Year. Millsap is young, but he isn’t green. He has been playing in bands since junior high and recording since he was 16. “For a long time, we’d go play gigs around Oklahoma and Texas, and there was not a lot of press,” Millsap says, reflecting on recent accolades. “I just thought, ‘I like doing this more than I like working construction.’” He laughs and pauses. “When people started noticing, there was this new, weird pressure.”
Millsap responded to the pressure by assembling a cast of new and old friends and heading to the studio. “We got to go make a record that I didn’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to make,” he says, before adding with characteristic sincerity, “I got to make a really cool album with my friends. And I’m grateful.”
Produced by Gary Paczosa (Alison Krauss, Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton) and Millsap, and engineered/mixed by Paczosa and Shani Gandhi, The Very Last Day was recorded at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana. Millsap recently moved to Nashville from Guthrie, Oklahoma, but while recording, he lived at the Louisiana studio with musicians including fiddle player Daniel Foulks, drummer Paddy Ryan, and bassist Mike Rose, the latter of whom has been his best friend and bandmate since middle school.
Millsap wrote all but one of the eleven songs on The Very Last Day. The album demands serious solitary listening even as it begs to be the soundtrack for a weekend roadtrip with friends, and clearly delights in having it both ways. The trio of devilish fiddle, poignant acoustic guitar, and thundering upright bass that originally won audiences over is now joined by a chorus of instruments including percussion, piano, and Millsap himself on growling electric guitar that until this record, he’d only dreamed of incorporating. And of course, Millsap’s haunting voice is on magnificent display: it’s wickedly guttural but can turn on a dime to hypnotically soothe listeners like a songbird.
“I was living in Guthrie when I wrote a lot of these songs,” Millsap explains. “Oklahoma in the winter looks post-apocalyptic. We don’t have a lot of evergreen trees, and the grass turns brown to the point of colorlessness. Everything just looks like skeletons and grayness.” He was also reading Stephen King’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while binge watching The Walking Dead. “Some people just want to watch the world burn,” Millsap says. “A lot of the songs I grew up singing in church are about the end of the world, so it wasn’t uncomfortable for me to go there. It’s fun.”
As Millsap sings his stories about lonesomeness and longing, the supernatural and the ordinary, even the saddest portraits become loving odes to everyday humanity. “I’ve learned to trust people before I’ve learned to distrust them, which can be dangerous,” he says. “But yeah. I do like people. I think you have to. What else are you going to like?”