Debbie Kruger
Writer FREELANCE GARTH PORTER Interview transcript
Interview with Garth Porter

21 March 1996
Sydney

© Debbie Kruger

Did you make a conscious decision after Sherbet to move away from "pop"?

Not immediately, and it was never, the assimilation into the country music was never, certainly initially, it wasn't a conscious effort, really. I started writing with a guy called Reece Kirk, who had had some success in America in country music, he was back in Sydney, and I wanted to write with somebody I thought was a really good writer, and his talents impressed me, and we started writing and his forrte was country, and everything we wrote sounded country.

Not a great deal happened with those demos, and eventually I... a number of people got interested in performing them, doing the songs we had written, and I was asked if I would produce it for them, and I thought, oh, sure, and that's really how it began. I didn't set out to be a producer at all.

What was your first thought after the last Sherbet gig on Great Keppel Island, after you got home from that and it was like, Sherbet's dead at last. What did you think you were going to do? What did you set out to do?

Really I wanted to be a writer, and country music wasn't even in the realm of thoughts. I had a vague idea of a solo career, but not really, it was kind of there as an option but nothing that I really pursued, I never did any demos for it or presented my case to a record company or anything like that. And I found it really hard going as a songwriter, just out on your own in the middle of kind of nowhere. And especially the credentials of having been in Sherbet at that time were kind of, it was like having the plague really.

Really?

Yeah, absolutely. So, nothing really happened, and that sort of eventually ended up with me teaming up with Reece Kirk.

Well, interestingly, I looked back over the Sherbet catalogue, and the only hint of country was "Can't Find True Love on the Howzat album. So before you fell into country music, what had been your feelings about the genre?

There's a lot of the corny stuff which I hated then and I hate now. I guess it's difficult to say. I like the disciplines of country music. You must write a good song and it's got to be sound from top to bottom. You can't use studio tricks to make it work, if the arrangement isn't quite right. If a person can't sing it or play it then it's inappropriate, whereas in pop computers can spit out any kind of thing to solve a problem in the way you put a song together. And because of that, the technical side of recording country music, too, is very critical; it might sound very ordinary, but to make without tricks, you see you've got make it sound great without any tricks, and it just comes down to fundamental ability at being very good at recording. I'm lucky to have a guy called Ted Howard, my engineer pretty much all of the way through, and we've kind of pursued this, gone in pursuit of the sonic side of recording country music, the idea being that if somebody plays something great and has got a great instrument, why does it have to sound really shitty when it comes out on a record? And why do Australian country records, or did they, sound particularly bad up against international records? So it was pursuing all of those ideas. I mean it was a whole challenge in front of me really when I sort of looked country music square in the face I realised there was, I felt there was a lot I could contribute to it, areas that really hadn't been pursued in Australia with any kind of aggression or tenacity at all, and they were opportunities begging really for someone I guess like myself to say, well these areas here really haven’t been addressed, and our local product sounds very local, it doesn't have a great quality to it in certain areas.

Did you find yourself staring country music in the face before during or after you started working with James Blundell? Because he was your first major artist, wasn 't he?

The penny never really dropped until... I was just following my nose with James really, I was just trying to make good records with James and trying to bring out the best in his songwriting. But it didn't really have a cause, so to speak at that point.

I've been listening to Hand It Down, and there are a few songs on there that would sound just as normal on a rock station - they're just really good songs.

It’s very easy for country to sound like rock, very easy, as I said it’s this discipline thing, it's so easy to go in there and crank things up. The difference between a country song and a rock song is a very narrow gap. Not in every example of country and every example of rock, but it is narrow, you know, George Harrison plays country guitar; there's no other way to describe his style other than country, if you listen back through the history of the Beatles, it's very obvious that George Harrison is a country picker, he's not a rock guitar player at all. If you listen to it and you listen for it, it is as plain as the nose on your face. Likewise the Stones have always dabbled in country and it doesn't sound, I mean when they're spoofing it it sounds very country, but the difference is actually very close. And the same thing with Springsteen, his thing is very close, and a lot of the country acts now are actually drawing, I mean Lee Kernaghan's "Country Crowd" is that close to a Stones groove. And so that's how close all of these things are. But I suppose when you're working in the studio and you're aware of the limitations you just have to kind of keep a bit of a lid on it in a way, I guess, it's that discipline thing again, you've just got to keep its nose down a little bit so it doesn't pop through into rock. It can very easily.

And I guess sometimes the temptation’s there, particularly if an artist is edgy about maybe crossing over and getting that appreciation from that market that have thus far been resistant?

I don't actually play that cross-over game, I don't think it exists. It happens if it happens, you just can't design it. I guess the nearest artist that I work with to what you would call crossover is Gina, but it's not a contrivance at all, it's just the way she is, it's the way she sees her vocal style, her material, her self-image, it's exactly the way her records come out, so I don't think you can contrive that, I think people who do tend to sort of fall in a hole down the middle and it becomes unacceptable to the other side, whatever you're trying to cross over to, I don't know what you would call that — rock? Mainstream? I don't know. And then it becomes something that isn't country enough for a country fan as well. So it's something I don't think exists. It's never been a design in anything that I've been involved with. It happened to "Way Out West', it's probably the only time that it happened. But that wasn't particularly a country song in the first place, but it wasn't particularly a rock song, either. And then when James Blundell teamed up with James Reyne, James Reyne's sort of acceptability in mainstream sort of dragged it through that direction. But of course it never happened again for James Blundell, he didn't cross over again, so it's like, it kind of happens by accident occasionally; it's happened to Slim, and John Williamson, but they don't become cross-over artists; they do for the duration of the success of that particular song, and then it's back to normal.

Then it's probably more what the audience is perceiving than what the artist is attempting?

Record companies talk about it and managers talk about it because they're after the maximum sales and so on, but I've always said that if that's what your pursuit is I'm probably not the producer that you should be using; I'd rather... my job is to interpret the artist in the best possible way that I can which is true to them, that's the fundamental thing that I'm there for. It' s not my record it's their record, so I have to, I do what I can for the artists, is where my role is.

How did you come to be working with James Blundell?

By default in some ways. Rob Walker couldn't decide whether or not to sign James, and I can remember the first time that Rob spoke to me, he said look, I've got this artist, James Blundell, he's only made one single, I’m thinking of signing him but I can't find a producer. If you want to do it I'll sign him, is what he said to me. And then I had a meeting with James and he was a LOVELY man, really... do you know him, have you met James? Things haven't gone well for him in recent years, but he's a great guy. And I really liked him and he's an incredible lyricist. When he writes about his Australia it's very very real, and he's got an incredible gift with words. Occasionally we've co-written things for one thing and another. And he's like a machine gun going off... I said no, that's not quite right, it's not got the right mood for what the song should be feeling at the moment, and he, immediately another line would come out, and they're all great lines, so you just get an incredible number of options with James, with lyrics, he's just got so much going on in here. He kind of left a little bit of that behind, I think, although his lyrics have always been pretty strong.

Did that coincide with him not being with Jeff Chandler or you any more?

I did his first three albums, up until the time of "Way Out West' I think it would have been, and then he, I guess he felt like it was time for a change and he got an American producer and new management and so on and starting steering further and further away from country.

I've read that you saw Lee Kemaghan playing somewhere; were you out there actively looking for talent by that time?

No, he came here and sang... it happened at the time when I was writing songs with Reece Kirk, and I'm a shocker of a singer, and Reece is not much better, and we needed somebody to sing our demos. And Reece had heard of this guy called Lee Kernaghan and we chased him up and he happened to be in Sydney, so he came to my little demo studio downstairs, and he sang the demo of a song, and I said to Lee at the time, boy, that was great, we should do something together some time.

When was that? Do you remember?

Oh, a year on that? Hell, I don't know...

Are we talking late '80s?

Yes I guess that'd be about it, yeah.

To talk on behalf of the country music novice, to the unfamiliar ear there can be an element of “sameness” in some of the country music you listen to, maybe a twang is a twang. Added to that, you have an extremely close-knit industry where artists are constantly working on each other's projects, and writing with each other, and even belong to the same family. So what distinguishes them, and how big a part do you as producer play in defining each artist's individuality?

Oh the differences are as plain as the nose on your face, really, in terms of, even members of the same family have got different personalities. The first thing that I look for when I get interested in an artist really is I guess do they have talent and are they an interesting person and do I think that I can sort of draw something from the character of that person and their talent and make it their own record. The objective is for me, is to, that an record that I make could only have been made by that artist; there is no-one else in the world that could have made that record. And perhaps if you're not looking into the details perhaps it would all sound a little bit the same. I don't know. I think that the characterless country music, a lot of it that comes out of Nashviile I would describe with those words myself, but I don't think that the records that I've produced for different artists sound like the same.

Oh no, now that I'm listening to them certainly not, but perhaps people who aren't into country music yet, and just hear a smattering here or there...

I guess it depends what they're listening to. If they heard a particular kind of conveyor belt kind of music out of Nashville they could be very much excused for thinking that it was all the same, because I do too.

Well I think that way about 90s pop music...

Yeah, I don't know much of it, I have to confess... I guess we're not teenagers any more.

No... (!!) Is the close-knit, friendly, almost family-like feeling in the country industry part of what keeps you aligned to it? Particularly after the heady days in the pop industry when there was quite a bit of superficiality around?

Oh yes, it's certainly part of it; it's a much more, people are much kind of, in the main there's less pressure on them from record companies, see you're not expected to go out and be a mega-star or an international star, so the pressures on the artist... There are pressures, there certainly are you know with the more successful, the more success the artists have the more pressure they feel on every subsequent album. They find their albums harder to make as their success increases, but in general terms it's a much... they're kind of more friendly, less uptight, less self-conscious people than in the pop and the rock thing, and easier to talk to. I guess in a way it's more of a family environment, where there's not that often that things happen or are said where you wouldn't be happy having your children there with you. In rock it's kind of different from that, it's a bit more outrageous, and people express themselves a bit more demonstratively... [laughs] ... well, I did. When I was in the pop world it was a pretty crazy time.

It's more family, yeah.

Although I do remember... Sherbet being promoted as a big family, the Sherbet Family..

Well I suppose we were, we were a very close knit little community within ourselves, but then there were very very few connections outside of us, we lived in a bit of a bubble, and very solid within it. I guess that sort of promoted our demise because we just became more and more detached with the world and more insular as thing went on. Just happened that way.

Can you talk about the record producer s own artistic style? For instance, Emmylou Harris's latest album Wrecking Ball has been acclaimed not only for her gorgeous interpretations, but for the Daniel Lanois production. Are you conscious of a Garth Porter style?

No. No, people say they can hear it... but I just take it artist by artist. I suppose there's some continuity, there must be. You see I kind of, you see the musicians that you use, I try to give freedom to the musicians on my records, in other words, I don't tell them I want you to play that and that and that. I would choose people because I believe that they would have an instinctive approach to a particular song which would be close to the way I think it would work well. And artists have an input in the selection of musicians on albums and so on. So no, I don't control players. I do only when it's necessary. The first option is when I put a band together to do an album is okay guys, about this tempo, roughly like this. And see what happens. As opposed to here, it's like this, I want the kick drum on this beat, the hard hat... I get involved with all of those details if the first thing isn't working, but the first option is, let's see what the interpretation is like, and then if I believe that that is consistent with what the artist is trying to achieve and at the same time is really good, then I’ll just let it stay.

Yes, 'cause I'm interested in how much a record producer works like a theatre director or a film director, how much of a producer's vision is in there, and is that different from producer to producer?

I think it probably is, I would prefer to think of it as the artist's vision that I'm interpreting, and that's what I try to achieve, try to make the record that the artist wants, or can see but doesn't know how to do.

Just bringing out the best in them?

It's that but it's also getting their style and their character on the record, the things in music that turn them on, make sure that there is large amounts of that on the record, the kind of sounds and songs and moods and images in the music that presses their buttons. I mean, they're the final arbiter really of any record that I produce is the artist. Finally they do have the last word on, I'd have to say everything. If there's a word in there that they're uncomfortable singing, out it goes. If there's a guitar solo that they're uncomfortable with, out it goes, until I find something which I think is appropriate and satisfies them as well as the integrity of the record. So the artist does get the final say. They don't do it, but they do have the final say. You present them with the options I guess. And in some instances the artists are very- centred in what they want and what they don't want — nah, don't want it like that, I want it like this — they're actually the hardest records to make, because they tend to be just a little bit over directed. Whereas I produce with a loose rein — this is in terms of the musicians — a loose rein until it's going wrong. I only fix what needs fixing, I don't direct the traffic until it needs directing. And you kind of get a nicer feel from the musicians, a more involved feel, you get ideas. I mean, if it was up to me to think of every idea on an album, it'd be a pretty two-dimensional record, so when musicians come in with all of their talents and skills and knowledge, say what do you think, you know just play what you think, and see how it goes. And more often than not you get something that is really close to something that is ideal. If you choose the musicians correctly, that's what happens.

And that's I guess that's why you found The Wheel easy to work with.

Well I knew all of those guys very well.

And they knew what they wanted I guess.

I think so. I guess they knew as much as anyone knows. Solo artists initially have the greatest difficulty of what their self-image is I guess because they don't have the musical props with them to create that self image. Bands are different, and there's not that many bands in country, unfortunately. Could do with a few more, but I guess they're coming.

Is The Wheel now a permanent band, because they are basically musos who've played with other people?

Well essentially it was Lee's live band and they just split off from Lee and reconnected with Kim Cheshire who was the singer as the Danglin' Brothers, who had connections with the guys out of Lee's band. It was kind of like Lee's live band with a different singer. But it wasn't, because the style of the music and so on was quite different.

Working with so many top country artists, how do you ensure that you come to each one with a clear head and a total focus on the current artists or project, particularly if maybe you 're mixing one and in pre-production for another? Is it difficult to keep them really separate?

I think if you're at the same point with each artists, I mean if you're trying to record them both at the same time, or sort of in and out day on day off, it'd be really hard. But it actually in some ways, so long as you've got the stamina for it, 'cause the hours are very long recording, it actually helps. It polarises things. If all you are living with is one influence at a particular time then it would become rather... It's easier to see where you are if you know where the other thing is around you, in a way, sort of like driving through in the complete darkness, it's really hard, even though there might be nothing, if you can' t see anything in front of you, it's hard to drive, but as soon as you can spot something, whether it's the lines in the middle of the road or whatever, you know where you are, it gives it purpose and direction and position, and I think the same thing happens with your mental ideas, in a way that, I think artists quite often write their best material perhaps from even awkward situations or difficult situations.

There's one artist I work with who works in a dally to support himself, and he says to me I can't wait to just be a full-time musician, and I said well, boy you're writing great songs, you're doing really good things now, if anything it'll get harder, 'cause you're not flexing against anything any more, you'll be in the flow of the river, not feeling the movement against you. Whereas if you're pushing against the tide there's more things to react to.

So for instance at the moment, you're finishing off Gina's album, and what else is happening?

I'm just sort of working through some material with a singer called Sherry Rich, she's from Melbourne and she's kind cf country but more urban country, and she's very different, she's really opinionated and makes a fairly tough stance in her songs, but a completely different personality of course from Gina, and there's no way you could confuse the two. And a singer will tell you anyway if they're uncomfortable with something. Most of them if they're good enough to get that far, they are — I don't know how you measure intelligence — but they're intelligent people, they know if they're comfortable with something or not. They're not bimbos, they're not just... I would never say to a singer well, it doesn't matter what you think, just sing it, because they can't do it under those circumstances, it'd be meaningless. So I guess it's really not a problem. Most people have very different personalities, as you know. You don't meet two people the same, even in the same family.

So Tania and Lee are very different to work with?

Tania is kind of like a female junior Lee — at the moment — a bit, but she'll find her own way.

You didn't do Fiona 's album, did you?

No.

She seems at pains to point out that she’s not doing a country album.

She's very at pains to point it out.

Yet she 's proud of being from the family; it's almost like she 's in this double bind.

I don't know, I can hear a fair bit of country influence in quite of number of her songs, but I think that what she's found is that thing that I talked to you about, is that if you go part way between two places you fall down the middle, and it's not satisfying to a country audience because of its pop-ness, and because of the country thing that's there it's not satisfying to a pop audience.

Jeff did say to me that you and Lee made a pact that Lee was always to stay true to his roots, and that he would find success going down that road, always being true to his origins.

I think Jeff understands that that’s the way I feel about things, you can't contrive cross-over things. If it's in the artist and it happens naturally, then it's fine. But you can't say this album, we're going to cross this one over. I can't do that. You've just got to make the record that's in the mind of the artist at the time, really.

Jeff says that he would attribute to you almost totally the current renaissance of country music in Australia, and Rob Walker calls you the Jonah Lomu of country music. How big a role do you think you've played in this so-called renaissance?

I suppose I've helped... I don't know, but... really... I just saw a chance that something was missing, and had a go at sort of plugging the gap, I guess.

What was missing?

I felt that counlry music had become irrelevant to the new generation of Australian people, that it was the same ideals and standards and images which were just getting recycled, really, from the '50s. I mean, with exception, but in general terms I felt that it hadn't really, it hadn't been keeping up, it had just fallen by the wayside, and that anyone who had attempted to modernise it had simply gone the American way, in other words, they didn't believe that they could take Australian images and put them in a contemporary musical setting. And what I felt was that the Australian country music tradition has a very rich heritage and should be acknowledged and embraced by anybody going into country music. I don't think that you can walk in there without recognising what it's been, in order to become a traveller on its roads. You've got to know where that road has come from to sort of give you some bearing of where you're headed to. And it seemed to me that it was a very simple thing to embrace the lyrical tradition and even to an extent the musical tradition, but do it so it sounded like it was done this year, instead of something that was a recycled thing from 20 or 30 years ago.

And that was the main thing, and I remember those feelings first becoming apparent about the time when I started working with Lee on what would be his first album, and I remember telling him that he should sack this song and sack this song and sack this song, and he said why? And I said they sound too American, the ideals and what they're about is just... Australians don't think this way, Australians don't have that American ability to be, I don't know, it's kind of, it's just waffle in the songs, it's not really what's happening, you know, where the word love ceases to mean anything at all any more. I mean, some songs have got to be light-hearted and have fun, but I said to him, there's so much about Australia that you can write about, and he thought it was really daggy to write about Australian things at the time. And so I gave him a look at some Henry Lawson poems, and I said look, I don't know about you, but I think this stuff is really potent, it's brilliantly written, it's emotional, it's romantic, and the penny dropped for Lee, and he said, whoa, this is incredible. And I guess that was it, just wanting to make it relevant to a new generation. But not go at it from a completely different angle and be irrelevant to country music. So it was just taking all of the, not that I'm a great student of Australian country music, it was more of an impression of what I understood it to have been, as opposed to naming every song that Slim Dusty had ever recorded or what album it came from or what year it was from, I don't have that kind of background.

But that's probably part of your value, that you came from somewhere else with a fresh attitude.

I guess that was it, I thought that it had become irrelevant to a new young generation, because it was just being remoulded in the same image, you know, recycled in the same image. So that was the big, the driving force. But that was after James, as I said, that was with Lee, it suddenly became very apparent, Lee's influences at that time were all American, and I thought, this is not relevant to here, I mean, how can I expect this to move people or for people to take it into their hearts when it doesn't even sound like it's written for them in a way that Australian people understand their lives and live their lives?

What has been said repeatedly is that your success lies in having an unbelievably good grasp of the fundamentals of country music. So what are the fundamentals of country music?

Oh, I don't know... I don't know. [Struggles] I don't know. I know what it's not, but then, I can't tell you the answer to that specifically either. Really, I haven't a clue.

Well, having grown up in New Zealand, and then lived in Sydney, here in the Eastem Suburbs, how have you developed this amazing affinity with the country spirit and the country culture ?

I was brought up on a farm. I think that's probably the biggest factor of all. And I think that even though the climate and the geography are kind of different between Australia and New Zealand, that the images and the values are very similar. It's like I guess Footrot Flats, you know, you could forgive Australians for believing it was written about an Australian in Australia, where in actual fact as you probably know, it's a New Zealand cartoon strip. But the languages are even the same and the values are the same, so having been brought up in a rural environment on a farm, my father was a farmer, I think that's more than any reason why perhaps there is an affinity with it.

But it's not all kind of rural, you know, I'm just almost finished Gina Jeffrey's new album now, and there's, I'm just trying to think if there's a rural theme, I don't think there's a rural theme in any of the songs, she's kind of different from the Lee Kernaghan style of writing which is very rural, or James, who was very rural.

What's Gina 's new album going to be called?

Up Close.

What about your trip to the Northern Territory? Did that give you lasting impressions, show you something that hadn 't gelled with you yet, something that you hadn't seen before?

I think what I felt coming back from that that the true Australians lived on the land, like real Australians. I think people living in the city now are kind of part of a global village more so than an Australian personality. You can tell by the accents, but it's the same things on tv, the same movies, the same cars, the same values pretty well as any city in the world.

You've never thought about moving out of the city?

Yeah. But it's not possible at the moment.

So it's not incongruous to write country songs from a room at the Watsons Bay Hotel?

No. I mean, wherever you are... In some ways I think it perhaps makes things a little easier, you know, because when you can visualise an image and a personality, it really doesn't matter where it is. See the songs I write aren't about me, they're my interpretations of people and events, but I'm not saying "I" when I write the song, the "I" in the songs I guess is Lee. But there' s a very close affinity that Lee and I have had about what we idealise as being that character that makes somebody special in that traditional country sense.

The Northern Territory trip, the people that were on the station that we stayed at are so proud Territorians, they're so proud, and they're so proud of Australia, and they seem so Australian, and I don't come across that incredible parochialism in Sydney, I don't. Three quarters of the people that I talk to are more likely to have, their references are outside of Australia — Nashville or European or wherever it is, or Japanese, Asian influences — not that I have a problem with that, but I think the true Australian character which is uniquely Australian, that's what I should say, the uniquely Australian charactcr is not in the cities. It's definitely in the bush. The cities do not have the uniquely Australian character anymore, I don't think.

So you're all living here more by force of necessity than by choice?

I do, yeah somebody asked me that and I pondered the notion of why is it that the people that are succeeding the most in country music and in writing or whatever — and Slim's the same, Slim's lived in the city for most of his life — why they're city people. I think it' s because to succeed in country music, you can't just be the local yokel, you have to be a very experienced and talented entertainer as well, you know, it's that, you've got to be really professional now, I think, whatever, however that presents on a stage, I mean it might present as being just a boy next door, a girl next door, but it requires a proficiency that somebody living out in the bush would find it hard to achieve. As soon as they showed the signs of becoming a great artist, then I think they would probably move to the city.

And Tamworth doesn't have the potential to become a Nashville with recording studios and be really a productive centre?

Well I think it is in its own way, but I think that it's down to economics, and there's not that many, I mean country's getting really big, but there's really still not that much money for making records, you know, there's only a few artists that have sizeable budgets. I guess that's why making records is such a physically draining thing, because you just have to work so hard and so constantly to make the most out of the money that you've got, and finding ways to make it stretch and so on, at the end of it all so people don' t ask how much money you had to make the money, it's like, do they like it or not? But having said that I think that the ingredients that make a record whatever it is happen before you start recording. It's the songs, it's the attitude, it's what you're trying to achieve, it's the ideas, the quality of the thing in your mind that make it what it eventually becomes, and then it's not easy but you've just got to follow it through in the studio and make sure things don't go wrong, that you really are getting what you wanted if not something better. And it's a fairly nebulous thing, you just can't, it's not like going in with a computer, programmed with everything, you're going in with musicians who've rehearsed the songs a couple times and then recording it. I suppose in a way it' s a bit hit and miss, but there' s no guarantees of what' s going to happen and how it's going to turn out. So it's a bit like a mystery train, all the way down the line.

Your writing is obviously a big part of what you do, and lyrics are your forte; you've been pretty scathing in things I've read about your lyrics in the Sherbet dlays.. Is it time and maturity that's changed that, or do you think you've been overly critical of your work in the '70s?

Ohh... Look I don't like it much, you know, so... I'm not trying to tell other people what they like or don't like. I don't sort of sit around contemplating anything I've done in the past, really, all of my vision is in the future. I know that I started to get onto the importance of the lyric thing after Sherbet and that was in the Sherbs era, there was two albums that we did asThe Sherbs which were sort of artistically without any doubt at all the most significant records at all that the Sherbet group ever did, but they weren't commercially successful. But artistically a huge jump ahead from the pop group mentality. And so I guess it started then, I can't really tell, I think Bnice Springsteen was perhaps a catalyst in my lyric writing change. See, the Sherbet thing was just going so fast all the time and we'd stop and then have six weeks to write a new album, and so I'd just kind of shut myself off and clutch at straws, and whatever I could to piece together the ingredients for an album, and as soon as that was finished we were on the road again. So there was really no time to think about yourself, or put yourself in any position to recharge the batteries to get re-enthused about anything.

So you felt like a sausage factory band?

Definitely. Except for the last two, cause there was a two year break, and it was over that two years that I started to get far more interested in lyrics, and the power of lyrics and I would sort of go to book shops, and read books of poetry and stuff like that, that I'd never ever done before.

'Cause you hadn't had time.

Well I kind of hardly knew they were there.

Beause you were living in your bubble.

Yeah, exactly.

Yeah, in the tour bus...

[Discussion of old Sherbet material esp “Slippin Away” and playing it on my radio show]

I love vinyl, I'm a very retro person as far as that's concerned, I've got my old electro-static speakers.

I noted that you recorded 1959 with analogue equipment.

Well that was Lee just trumpeting it up, I do all my stuff on analogue... well it sort of went hand in hand with the philosophy of the record to an extent.

Well the frustrations from those Sherbet days have been talked about, but were there any positive things that you've brought with you from that period?

Oh, sure. Recording skills is a very big part of that. Having been through an experience of working for success and finding it, and fairly large scale success, it makes, it gives me a chance to say to artists that I work with, look out when you start thinking these things, be careful of these sort of thoughts, if you da da da, hold on closely to your friends that you had before success, if you find that they don't understand you any more it's probably more your problem than theirs. And just keep the feet on the ground. And different things like that, advice about record deals and publishing deals and managers and touring and stuff like that. I mean, Lee for example is past calling me for advice now, he's got his own plans in place, but at that starting point I think that it helps that I can understand what it is that they're going through, having been through pretty much everything there was to have gone through. If you know what I mean. [laughs]

Do you still keep in touch with the others?

Not on a regular basis. Daryl a couple times a year.

You helped him with the first album with a song or two didn't you?

Yeah he stayed here for months and we did all of his pre-production here, sort of very much got him back on the road again. I wouldn't do it again, though, it was a bit of a thankless exercise as it turned out.

No contact with Tony?

Yeah, but not regularly. He just lives down the road a ways. Sort of plodding on, he's still in music. Harvey lives in Melbourne now and works in a music store, but for obvious reasons I don't see much of Harvey. We were, I don't think any of us could claim that we were best friends; we were business acquaintances. I guess [laughs], I don't know. We got on really, not that there were serious problems there, but without the band as being the reason to be together, we choose other…

Do you still get recognised?

No, if I do I don't know.

That must be very gratifying for you.

It's good, I don't like that too much.

Well, with your huge success in the country area, have pop or rock artists been trying to lure you back to produce in those areas?

No. It still interests me. I've done an album which is outside country just recently, which I really enjoyed doing. But I know the things that interest me, and it's not computer generated music, so it's not the dance music that interests me. So I think perhaps it's the more human-driven music that gets me excited you know, people who play drums as opposed to a drum machine, bass players as opposed to bass synthesisers, so that sort of puts a certain degree of direction to things that I like, so musical styles that come within those boundaries in any shape or form are things that I enjoy listening to and could easily enjoy producing. The Celtic music styles, the folk music styles, I don't know very much about jazz but it would be something that I would enjoy doing, and blues, those sort of things.

Do you take much interest in the marketing, how far is country music from hitting the city market as a mainstream force, and can we do Garth Brooks figures here, do you think? Is that of interest to you?

No. I don't think it's appropriate to the city. The true Australian country music is its own thing and it's fairly rural. There are certain parts of it that might cross over, as you say. But I don't see it as really particularly interesting or relevant really. It doesn't affect the way I look at things at all. If it happens it happens. And I think that those Garth Brooks figures... see we've got John Farnham. They've got Garth Brooks, we've got our big cross over artist, our family entertainer, our kids entertainer, our straight entertainer, our family man. And so while Australia's got John Farnham, and is very lucky to have him, who has that role in the music family, there's no need for artists to come out of country who are the sort of the more family thing. We've got that. I don't think America had it, an equivalent John Famham. Now they have, you know the family man, the god fearing man, you know the straight guy but out there looking like he's a bit of devil but he's really not. You know? So I don't think it'll happen. If there were no John Farnham in Australia it might, but there's no gaps to fill there, they're all filled. So I don't see it as happening, no.

What about Australian country intemationally? Are you going to Nashville with everyone for that showcase thing?

I'm sort of thinking about it but really that sort of doesn't involve me, I'm not too big on the... I just do what I can with the artists and help them make their records, really. That's my thing.

And you 're obviously a lot more comfortable working behind the scenes than being out there — that's really the crux of it for you, isn 't it?

Oh yeah, much happier, the weekends with my family, my kids. The week I devote to my career, and it's very rarely I work a weekend, ‘cause I work so much of the week, I hardly see them. In the middle of an album I don't get home til eleven at night and so I just don't see my family, so there's no time for much else.

© Debbie Kruger
No part of this interview may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
without prior written permission.

Read what Lee Kernaghan, Gina Jeffreys and Rod McCormack had to say about Garth here.


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