By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Here's the most significant way having a baby has changed Kasey Chambers' life: "I used to, as soon as I walked off stage, I would go straight to the back room and have a cigarette. And soon as I got pregnant, I gave up smoking. And now, I walk straight off stage and breast-feed my baby." She laughs, which she does often. "It's a little bit different."
You can occasionally hear the cause of that difference, her 8-month-old son, Talon, in the background as she speaks. Chambers' mom is looking after him while she does a few interviews from her home in Australia, about two hours north of Sydney. It's a week before Chambers is set to come to the United States for a five-week tour supporting her latest album, last year's Barricades & Brickwalls, and she's more than a little excited: "I'm like a little kid waiting for Christmas," she says and, of course, laughs. Touring is something she hasn't been able to do much since the record was released, because Talon was released not long after. She's ready to give her "itchy feet" a good scratch.
She won't be alone. Not like Chambers ever really has been. Well, OK, she was when she was growing up, when she was listening to her sacred country albums while her friends got their teen-age kicks with rock and roll. "I'm not much like my generation," Chambers sang on her debut, 2000's The Captain. "Their music only hurts my ears."
But hitting the road has always been a family affair for the Chambers clan, at least since 1986 when Kasey, her brother Nash and their parents, Bill and Diane, began playing together as the Dead Ringer Band. (The country group earned a pair of ARIAs, the Australian version of a Grammy, in the 1990s.) Now, Bill plays guitar in her touring band, Nash runs sound and produces her albums, and Diane sells merchandise, as well as helping with the baby-sitting. And there'll be plenty of that on this trip, considering Talon and Nash's 7-week-old son will be tagging along.
"It's seemed to work pretty well so far," Chambers says. "It'll be the longest tour he's done, and we get to go in a tour bus. Because we don't do that over there. We don't have tour buses in Australia. You're just in cars and vans or something. We just stay in hotel rooms every night. So it's kind of nice. We get to, like, set up our little house, you know, in the bus. We've got two buses this time: We've got one that's the rock-and-roll bus and the other one that's the baby bus." She laughs. "It's going to be fun."
Chambers wasn't sure it would be when she and her partner, Cori, found out they were going to be parents. Don't take that the wrong way: She was happy to be a mother, oh yeah. That probably doesn't even begin to describe it. But Chambers thought she'd have to give up a little more of her life, spend much more time playing with her son than she did playing her songs. But Talon, as it turns out, was born ready to hit the lost highway.
"I think I was sort of under the impression that--you know, everybody says, 'Oh, a baby will completely change your life,'" Chambers says. "And it does as far as your priorities and what's important to you. Things like that change. But I don't think it actually has to change your lifestyle. He's just fit in to what I do. He comes on the road with us. I mean, I'm lucky to have all of my family on the road to help me out. And I've got a partner who's just fantastic. He's got a job, too, where he can take time off and come on the road with me. It's working really, really well. I haven't had to change too much of my lifestyle."
That said, Chambers did give up music for a spell when she was pregnant. She didn't write one song; as she says now, she just wasn't interested. Barricades & Brickwalls was finished (it actually hit stores in Australia in October 2001) and she had already moved onto her next project. Her guitar gathered dust in the corner while she scribbled lists of baby names instead of lyrics. But when Talon was born, so were plenty of ideas for songs. And no, she says with a laugh, "not all of the songs are about dirty diapers."
"I just find that when I'm going through something emotional in my life, whether it be negative or positive, that seems to bring out a lot of inspirations as far as the creative side of my life goes," Chambers says. "I mean, I wrote The Captain--most of those songs were written after my mom and dad had broken up. Even though there weren't really songs about that on there, it just sort of sparks a whole lot of new feelings, which comes out in the creative side. And I think that's happening again now. You know, having a baby is obviously one of the biggest things that'll ever happen in my life, so it's definitely having some sort of effect, and it's bringing out a whole lot of new feelings that I've never felt before."
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."