By Jim Schutze
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Now that she's back to being a musician again, those feelings are bound to show up in her songs. Chambers has never masked the sorrow in her songs--"I don't hide my pain to save my reputation," she sang on "Cry Like a Baby," from The Captain--and it's unlikely she'll spare the happiness either. That openness is the main reason Chambers has become a critical success in her home country (both of her albums have sold more than a million copies) and a critical favorite in this one. More often than not, when listening to The Captain or Barricades, you're not hearing a songwriter, but rather a real person who happens to write songs. One who isn't afraid to let everyone see her cry "A Million Tears" (as she does on Barricades) or too proud to refuse a tissue when the song is over. One who knows that "When hearts are breaking/There's not enough rain to carry/All the tears away" ("On a Bad Day," which wasn't so bad for Chambers, since her hero, Lucinda Williams, sings along). One who lives and breathes and hurts and bleeds, not just someone who talks about other people who do.
Which is fine when Chambers is pouring her heart out onto a page. Not so much if you replace "page" with "stage."
"It's never as bad when you're singing it in the studio, because you've only got the producer and the engineer sitting there in the room," she says. "But when you get out there onstage...I always find it a little intimidating playing 'A Million Tears' in front of an audience, just because it's such an honest, putting-my-heart-on-my-sleeve kind of song. And there's lines in there that I think, 'Oh my God--I hope they don't really know what that's about.'" She laughs. "It's embarrassing. But, yeah, I think that's also probably some of the appeal with my music. People like that it's honest. I like that at the end of a gig, someone in the audience can feel like they know me as a person a little better, not just as an artist.
"It's funny--here in Australia, things have changed a lot over the last year," she continues. "My profile has lifted a whole lot. You've got to keep as many things private when you're in the public eye as you possibly can. And I'm writing songs and putting my heart on my sleeve, and I can't really keep it private. That's what my success has come from. So I've just got to get used to the fact that people are going to know a little more about me than maybe I want them to."
Yet even if listeners know nothing of what Chambers does behind closed doors, it matters little. While her honesty is indeed some of the appeal of Chambers' albums, it's not all of it. Just as important as what she says is how she says it. When she insists that "barricades and brickwalls won't keep me from you," the only thing more powerful than Chambers' resolve is her voice, strong as a diamond. When she whispers that "she's been crushed like paper" on "Falling Into You," that voice is reduced to rubble, but it's still a beautiful mess. That's why Steve Earle has called her "the best female hillbilly singer I've heard in a long, long time" and Williams signed on to sing with Chambers on Barricades.
About that last part: None of Chambers' success has changed that she considers herself a fan of people like Williams and Earle instead of a colleague. That will likely never happen. They remain the stars she sails her ship by.
"I still pinch myself, you know, when somebody says something about Steve Earle saying something nice about me," Chambers says. "I can't believe it. I mean, these are people that I've looked up to my whole life. Not only looked up to, but they've always been really big stars in my eyes. The first time I saw Steve Earle--well, every time that I ever see Steve Earle or Lucinda or anyone like that, I still can't get over the fact that they're who they are." She laughs. "I remember being in the studio with Lucinda when she was singing on the album, and I'm sort of sitting there and I'm saying to myself, 'Just be cool and act like this happens all the time.'" She laughs again. "But inside, I'm going, 'Oh my God, there's Lucinda Williams singing along with my voice.' It's really weird. It's amazing getting to know the people behind the music that I've been so influenced by over the years."
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