KEEPING THE APPOINTMENT: GRAEME CONNORS
There are few artists in this great southern land who are “bigger” than Graeme Connors in country music. The benchmark for the industry is arguably the Golden Guitar Awards, held annually during Tamworth’s Country Music Festival. Graeme has won 14 of those little statues, sitting around 5th or 6th on the list of all-time winners.
There are two things to say about that. Firstly, it is an extraordinary achievement given that for the great majority of his stellar career, Graeme has been an independent artist. And secondly, whilst he absolutely gratefully acknowledges those awards, they are not what define him. He is, first and foremost, a songwriter. He’d be writing songs whether or not the Golden Guitars were sitting on his desk.
To say that Graeme has always done things differently is a bit of an understatement. Originally signed to a major label, several decades ago he made the decision to become totally independent, releasing albums without the support of a major, organising his own shows and tours. Has it worked for him? Well, he’s 19 albums down, and still in the ring swinging hard.
Nineteen albums. You have to take a breath and sit back and think about that for a moment. There aren’t that many artists globally who can lay claim to such an incredible body of work.
Another thing that defines his independence, is his choice of location. He is a born and bred boy from the north, living his entire life in Mackay, hardly recognised as a music mecca. Yet he has produced world class material on a regular basis, over a long period of time, driving through the cane fields of the tropics, finding songs, and an extraordinarily loyal audience.
But my job is to talk about songwriting, the influences, the inspiration, the process. When I call Graeme, he is just walking in the front door of his house, having come back from picking up a piece of vintage equipment, which he is planning to use in the making of album number 20. Stay tuned….
ST: Graeme, you’ve just been sourcing some vintage equipment. Have you got a studio at home?
GC: Yes, but it was built in the 90s. It has a Revox 8 track, so we are talking that sort of technology, but all still functions perfectly. When I make music with (producer) Matt Fell, everything is Pro Tools. But part of my next project, my 20th album, has the fundamental premise “no digital equipment was used in the making of this recording….!”
ST: So are you going to record that album basically at home?
GC: Yes, and probably turn it out on vinyl, as my first album was a vinyl record, so it will be basically closing the circle, and that will sort of become the demo album before I get together with a production team to work on the same songs. Anyway, that’s roughly the plan – we’ll see if the money runs out….
ST: I like to ask this question of all writers I talk to. What was the very first thing you heard that made you want to turn to music?
GC: I have to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Louis Armstrong. Louis and Bing Crosby who were in a musical film called “High Society”, and I must have been seven or eight years old, and I think maybe Grace Kelly was in it, and Louis Armstrong played that trumpet, and had that permanent smile, and Bing Crosby crooned his way into the heart of the girls. I was watching it on an old black and white TV with bad reception, but I kept thinking, that’s the sort of life you want, isn’t it? So, inspired by Louis, my first instrument was actually the cornet, and the bandmaster of the Mackay City Band lived down the road from us, so I started playing with them.
ST: In relation to song-writing, what was it that made you think to yourself “that’s what I want to do, I want to write a song like that”? What was the turning point that made you want to actually be a writer?
GC: Television was a new thing when I was a kid, and there were many musical variety programs, like the Val Doonican or the Johnny Cash show, and songs just really spoke to me. I found their power in the combination of melody and words utterly enchanting. So this was just bubbling away, and every time a song came on, I would just stop and listen, no matter what it was – the radio, my dad’s old records, I’d listen to everything. Kris Kristofferson was a turning point for me, because when I was around thirteen years old, I heard ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and ‘For The Good Times’, and it seemed like a contemporary conversational style that I hadn’t come across previously. Everything prior to that was a bit theatrical, and this to me was like these simple, humble words that were incredibly powerful. It wouldn’t have hurt also that at the time, I was getting interested in girls, and these songs were like, wow, so that’s what love is. So around that time, in fact for my 13thbirthday in April that year, I asked my parents for a guitar, and they bought one for me. And that was the beginning of a lifelong love affair.
ST: Do you play any other instruments, like keys, piano?
GC: I play piano, in fact, most of my repertoire has been written at the piano, rather than at the guitar. Early in the piece I wrote on guitar, and if I showed you those songs now you would pick them straight away, they have a sort of cross-picking style. But eventually I got to the point with songwriting, where I would get up at 5.30 in the morning, without an instrument because the children would still be asleep, and I would basically write the song in my head, so, the melody and the lyrics and the general feeling. And I found that really liberating, because once you know a bit about an instrument, you have a tendency to wander around the same progressions, and it’s so much nicer if you are going from a position of trying to work out what you are hearing, than sitting down at an instrument and trying to create something. But that’s my perspective.
ST: I can really relate to that, but I’ve rarely heard that from other writers.
GC: Well, whenever I am experiencing a block, I generally get in the car and go for a drive, and essentially it opens the windows somehow. You’re doing something with your hands, your mind is obviously alert and you aware of your surroundings, but somehow the sub-conscious starts to work. A good 90 minute drive will sometimes give me a pretty solid outline for a song. It means that you use your memory a lot more than people realise, which is something I say to up and coming writers – do not have an iPad on a stand to read the words of your song. If you haven’t committed your song to memory, as far as I’m concerned, the song doesn’t mean enough to you.
ST: I so agree with that – I hate that look on stage!
GC: Yeah it doesn’t do it for me, mind you, I’m getting to an age where I might need an autocue – but not yet!
ST: Graeme, taking that one step further, once you’ve been through that process and you have these melodies and lyrics and ideas buzzing in your head, do you have a routine with writing? I love asking this question of writers, and that is, could you work like in the old Brill Building days, as in get up in the morning, have a coffee and breakfast, and go to work to write songs 9 to 5?
GC: Absolutely. I think that’s the best possible way to maintain your creativity over a long period of time. I keep saying, you’ve got to keep the appointment. And if you are reliant on some sort of dazzling inspiration, you either have to live such a chaotic life that it will wear you out, or you will have such long gaps between what you produce and the quality of your work will be haphazard. All my favourite writers, like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, or John Prine, these guys hopefully write a song a week. They throw them out, they put them aside, they bring them out again, but they are doing the job. If you are a songwriter, you’ve got to write songs, you can’t be calling yourself a songwriter and not doing the job.
ST: That’s fascinating. So many writers I talk to and work with only write when they get inspired about something…..
GC: I understand that, and I’m sure there have been some fantastic songs written that way, but there’s also been a lot of one-hit wonders, and I look at it like this – just because you keep the appointment, doesn’t mean you are some sort of machine, it just means that you are there listening, you’ve got your pad and pencil, your instrument, and even if what you come up with on the day is absolute rubbish, you have learnt something. You have learnt never to write that piece of rubbish again!
ST: With Kris Kristofferson being one of your major influences, it must have been an amazing experience to open for him on his first tour of Australia. He produced your first album, is that right, in 1976?
GC: He produced four tracks on that album. And yes, it was incredible experience to be picked up as the support for him on that tour. He would get me out at the end of his show to play ‘Rock & Roll Time’ with him and his band. He was a very generous man, and he ensured that for the entire tour, I travelled with him and his entourage. Wherever they went, I went too. Anyhow, Billy Swan, who was his rhythm guitarist at the time, as a casual side remark after one show, said “we should help Graeme record a version of ‘Rock & Roll Time’”, you know as a bit of a keepsake for what happened on the tour. Kris said, “yeah, let me look into it”, and it transpired that Festival Records paid for them all to stay over, provided the studio. It was really the efforts of Kris and Allan Healy, the head of Festival at the time, and a real music person, and when he saw an opportunity like that, he just grabbed it. And it rolled on into Kris producing those four tracks for my album.
ST: Have you kept in touch with Kris?
GC: We’ve caught up a few times, but not on his most recent tour. I’ve heard that he hasn’t been in the best of health lately but hopefully that is only temporary - he is a remarkable man and a powerful spirit.
ST: Have you done the Nashville thing at all Graeme, recorded or done any writing over there?
GC: I’ve recorded three albums in Nashville. Thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and made really good friends, guys like Bruce Bouton who plays pedal steel for Garth Brooks and Reba McIntire.
ST: The other thing I really wanted to ask you is, how important has it been for you, or how beneficial has it been to your writing, to be based where you are? I mean, Mackay is not thought of as a music town per se, it’s not a capital city with all those perceived advantages. How has it impacted on your writing?
GC: For the writing process, absolutely beneficial, because I made the realisation around 1987 or 1988, that up until that time, I’d been trying to chase the hits. Whatever was a hit, I’d be trying to dismember it and put it back together a different way, to try and get a ‘hit’ record. And let’s be frank, that can be a great thing to do to learn about the nuts and bolts of writing a powerful song. But nothing beats intimate knowledge and emotional investment in a subject, and I had both – intimate knowledge of the tropics where I grew up, and a vested interest, because when I made the album ‘North’, I was actually looking at retiring from the music industry. I thought it was going to be my last word, and I specifically wrote it filled with localities, because I wanted my sons to know a bit about what I did, and where I came from and all those sorts of things. We had four boys at that point in time. And lo and behold, what I thought was going to be the full stop to my career, turned out to be the capital letter.
ST: That was the album that really changed things for you, wasn’t it?
GC: Absolutely. And no one at that time had really explored tropical Australia as an inspiration. But that wasn’t why I made it, it was made as a deeply personal experience, and with each one of those songs, I can take you to a place, or I can tell you the story behind it. And that continues.
ST: When I look at your catalogue, I see these themes that run through your writing – family, love (obviously), travel, and real people, real characters. Do you write much from a fictional perspective, do you think?
GC: There’s a lot of made-up threads that hold songs together, but the core is real experience. That’s the best way I can explain it. As I said, I can take you to various places that have inspired songs or stories, but I’m a creative person, I’m not just relating a news story. I’m looking for archetypes, I’m looking for a result from the experience, so that the audience can maybe find that classic “a-ha” moment where it all comes together. Then there are other songs where it’s just trying to describe as well as possible an event or something that’s happened with people. I don’t know, I mean it’s a risky thing, I’m not a journalist. And as such, there’s going to be a bit made up as much as there is absolutely concrete.
ST: I know you have done your most recent album back with ABC Music, but for the majority of your career, you have pretty much been an independent artist. And that’s pretty unusual for someone with the degree of success you have had. I mean, most of the very successful people in country music in Australia are still signed to big labels. Do you think remaining independent has helped with the creative process, not having to bow to record company pressure?
GC: Absolutely, having total control over the process… I mean, without being critical, record companies have many artists to work with and essentially need to work to a schedule, with releases one and a half years apart or whatever it might be. But there is nothing like having a vested interest in the whole process, where you’ve spent your money, and you are looking to get the return as quickly as possible. Having said that, it’s getting increasingly difficult in this era of streaming - the returns are minuscule and song rather than album driven. I’m not a fan of what has happened to the music industry, and record companies have bought into the process so there’s no going back. Up until recent times, if I have been able to make a good living out of releasing 19 albums both independently and through major record companies, the process was going well, it wasn’t my talent alone.
I also had the privilege of working as a professional manager for a music publishing company called Rondor Music for several years in the early to mid ’80’s - being on the other side of the desk for a while was a real education. Sometimes as artists we forget that there is a whole team of equally talented people who are trying to market what we do - not every artist is destined to be a worldwide household name and there are smaller but viable ways to do what we do.
ST: All the shows you are doing these days, do you still control all that yourself?
GC: Totally. I have lived through this industry, and plan to do what I do until I drop. I know what works for me, and I wish for every artist to have a sense of creative freedom. It’s the best food for the creative process. At the heart of it, that’s what it’s all about…..