When you look at modern country music you can identify a diverse range of styles that have evolved from the traditional roots form. From pop country to bush ballads, acoustic folk-leaning songs to rousing country rock and the polymorphic blend of Americana. One Australian artist that can lay claim to all of these strains is Catherine Britt, a songwriter who has already packed a respected and highly acclaimed career into her first two decades as a recording artist. Now, in 2018, a new chapter begins with the release of her seventh studio album, Catherine Britt & The Cold Cold Hearts.
“It’s very country and organic, probably one of the most country albums I’ve ever done.”
From Newcastle to Nashville, Catherine made the move to the home of country music at just 17 years old. It proved to be a brave decision that gave her immeasurable experience as a musician, insight into the machinations of the industry and a contract with the legendary RCA Records. Upon returning to Australia in 2009, Catherine set about recording her debut full length album Dusty Smiles and Heartbreak Cures, the first of five consecutive albums nominated for Album Of The Year at the CMAA (Country Music Awards of Australia). The accolades didn’t stop there. Along the way she has received five Golden Guitar Awards, the CMA Global Artist Of The Year award in 2010 and six ARIA Award nominations for Best Country Album.
The critical acclaim for her albums and reputation as a performer has seen Catherine tour and perform with some of the biggest names in music, including Sir Elton John, Don McLean, Kasey Chambers, Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, Kenny Chesney, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Chris Isaak and Keith Urban.
Not content with just carving out an enviable career as a songwriter, performer and recording artist, Catherine has also been involved in the wider country music community as a radio broadcaster on ABC’s Saturday Night Country show, TV host on CMC’s Alt Country program and most recently as the editor and owner of Rhythms, Australia’s premiere roots music magazine.
Life has a way of throwing curveballs, both good and bad, and the last three years have seen Catherine fight and win a battle with breast cancer, marry her husband James and most recently, give birth to their first child. Out of those highs and lows comes Catherine Britt & The Cold Cold Hearts, an album that rattles and rolls with life, energy and honest, autobiographical songwriting.
“Since Boneshaker, I’ve been through so many things that have shaped this record and that I’d never have written before. Life experience, recording it while I was pregnant and having gone through all the sickness stuff as well. I personally feel like these songs are from a totally different place than anything else and even more honest and real than I’ve been before. It feels like you’re reading my diary when you’re listening to it.”
The album was recorded in Catherine’s own studio, built in her backyard and dubbed the Beverley Hillbilly Studios. With engineer Jeff McCormack behind the desk, Catherine and The Cold Cold Hearts (Michael Muchow & Andy Toombs) self-produced the album with Bill Chambers guesting on all the tracks. “I came up with this idea three years ago on our honeymoon while we were traveling in our camper in WA. I didn’t know what to do next after Boneshaker but I knew I didn’t want to do the overseas thing again and that I wanted to do something more organic and at home. I thought of building the studio and doing it ourselves. I’ve always wanted to do one of those ‘artist and a band’ projects like Ryan Adams & The Cardinals and Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band. It’s still the artist but they have this band of mates behind them. When I was writing the album I was going back to when I was a kid and rediscovering that music that I grew up on. I thought about who would get that and pull it off and these guys were perfect. When you’re making a record and going out on the road it’s really important that there’s a good vibe and you’re all on the same page.”
“These songs were all about what I was seeing and feeling and wrapping it up in an album.”
Catherine Britt & The Cold Cold Hearts conjures up vibrant Australian imagery, from the bush to the coal mines via the white lines of the coastal and desert open roads; the beauty and scale of the landscape juxtaposed with songs of personal challenge and the power of love and family.
The first single,’Red Dirt’, opens the album on a sprightly percussive banjo note. It’s an ode to driving toward the outback skies, leaving the city in the rear view mirror. As Catherine explains, it sums up one of the core themes of the album, “A lot of the songs are about living every day like it’s your last and just enjoying it.” The upbeat nature of the song is quickly tempered with the heavy-hearted double shot of ‘Too Hot To Just Quit’ and ‘Met My Match’. They are tales of the redemptive nature of finding one’s soulmate, the yin to one’s yang. The latter is a great example of the depth of soul that Catherine has always been able to convey with her voice, and proof that she’s never sounded finer than she does on this record. On the chain gang call-and-response of ‘Where You Gonna Go?’ she takes a swing at the temporary world of fame and delivers a mesmerising gospel/blues holler, again showcasing her rich and soulful vocal diversity.
It takes a masterful songwriter to be able to craft a tale of intertwined and codependent love between a river and a gum tree but over fingerpicked guitar and mandolin Catherine cuts right to the heart of it on ‘The River And The Gum’. The quick-stepping ‘Troubled Kind’ again makes reference to escaping into the great wide open and following ones heart, reinforcing the recurring theme of the modern gypsy and restorative powers of being at one with nature.
‘I’m Not Ready’ references the fears and hopes surrounding Catherine’s breast cancer. It’s a devastatingly direct and honest song, defiant and strong in the face of such a frightening experience and both a heartbreaking and inspiring centrepiece to the album. “I’d wanted to write that song for a long time but say it in a way that wasn’t too obvious. I think the hardest part was that last verse which I wrote for my husband. When someone is going through some kind of medical situation they are getting all the care and attention and the partner has to sit back and watch and feel helpless and it was hard to watch my husband go through that. That hurt me more than anything else. To get through it and out the other side, as we have, was so inspiring. I really wanted to write that and say thank you.”
Traditional country music sits at the root of what Catherine does and she goes old school and authentic with the pedal steel-led ‘Young In All The Wrong Ways’. Country mainstays of drinking and loneliness are name-checked in the tale of balancing the joys of living and the wisdom of learning before ‘Coalmine’ leaves the listener with the story of a soul trapped in a preordained life, highlighting the theme of following one’s dreams. Live your own life with open eyes and a full heart because you never know what’s around the next bend in the trail. Catherine has done just that throughout her professional career and through her love of music and dedication to her craft she’ll continue to do for many years to come.
“Over the years being an artist has meant different things to me and I’ve had different goals. My goal from when I was a young girl was to make money from music which I’ve been able to do and I’m really proud of. At different points of my life I’ve felt the pull of wanting to be famous and chasing that dream, living in Nashville and then realising that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. It’s constantly changing but my ultimate goal has been fulfilled and I can never see myself not making music. It’s what I’ve always done and it comes naturally to me and I feel like it’s what I’m meant to do, that and being a mum.”