The look of stunned amazement written on Taasha Coates’s face when her band accepted their second ARIA Award last month spoke volumes. The Best Blues and Roots Album category was loaded with hugely respected bands and artists, and having won that same award for their debut album in 2006, taking it out again with the Difficult Second Album may well have seemed like an impossibility.
But When The Flood Comes mines a unique corner of that broad category in a way that seems to fascinate those who connect with it. It’s neither blues nor roots, really – or even, for that matter, country – but rather a melting pot of bits of all of those, seasoned with the unexpected and fused into a cohesive whole that sounds so effortless it’s like a genre of its own making. And that sort of thing gets attention.
“It was such a tough field,” recalls Coates. “I was genuinely shocked. And when we watched it back, I saw that I walked up to Mikey, our violin player, while he was talking and gave him a big kiss on the cheek because I was just so excited. I totally forgot that he was making a speech.” But what of the category itself – do The Audreys really fit into what misleadingly sounds like a neatly described sub-genre? “It’s pretty vague, really. Blues and roots, what does that actually mean anyway? It’s like Adult Contemporary – that could be anything. There’s no defining exactly what fits in and what doesn’t with blues and roots, I think. But it’s certainly where we’re coming from. If we were an American band we’d definitely be classed as Alternative Country. I quite like that term, I think it’s kind of hip – but if you say it to people in Australia, well, just the use of the word ‘country’ and their pupils start to dilate and they start looking around the room for easy ways to get out of the conversation.”
It was a fitting honour regardless – especially given the amount of pressure Coates had found herself under after the success of the debut album and its exposure to an even wider audience through the extensive use of its songs as the soundtrack to the ABC’s TV series Rain Shadow (“I thought they did a great job of putting the songs into the action, I thought it suited it really well.”) The cliché of the Difficult Second Album was, in this case, absolute truth.
“Yeah, I found the second one really difficult. It was hard, personally and emotionally. I just didn’t want to stuff it up. I wanted to get it right. I wanted to be able to have this as a career and to keep going. There are so many bands that just crash and burn on their second record. I didn’t want to be one of those bands.” And much of the time the thing that trips bands up is that unlike the first record with all those songs tested and perfected over a long period, this one has to be written from scratch.”Yeah, and often in a short space of time. Writing for the second record, knowing people were going to be hearing it, I found really different to just writing because we had a gig on Friday and 30 people were going to be there. Actually writing a song and knowing that people who had already seen our band, heard our first record, were going to go out and buy it with expectations… I found that really strange.”
But there would be no chance of Coates referring back to the debut record and trying to recreate its winning formula. Because this is not one of those people that keep their own album within easy reach of the CD player in case the urge arises to admire (or pick holes in) their work. “Oh, no,” she says unhesitatingly. “No. I don’t even go back and listen to the second album. I would probably find it easier to listen to the first one now. I’m so self-critical. You have to be.” Does that extend to avoiding reviews of the records? “Lots of bad stuff gets printed about anyone in the public eye on the internet, so I tend to try and avoid bloggers and all that shit. But most of our reviews have been good. I’ve been a bit spoilt.”
The reluctance to revisit past recordings could just as easily be due to a lack of listening time, though. Referring often to other artists and their records during the conversation, it’s clear that Taasha Coates is a voracious consumer of music; so just what, then, does she listen to when not being an Audrey? “I’ve got lots of CDs. Heaps. I love buying CDs. Let me walk over to my CD player and I’ll tell you what’s here. Right at the top, because this is all the stuff I’ve been listening to recently. I just bought both Damian Rice records recently, the new Jolie Holland, the new Springsteen – I love Springsteen, love love love – Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Tim Williams, Tom Petty… ooh, that’s not mine! Nick Cave’s Dig Lazarus Dig, Iron And Wine, Paul Kelly, three Cat Power records, The Wilson Pickers who we’re touring with, Conor Oberst, Kasey Chambers, Bob Evans, Neil Young’s Harvest Moon is sitting here, the new Martha Wainwright record… see, lots of things.”
The inclusion of Nick cave in the above list is telling; there are tracks on When The Flood Comes that seem to have soaked up some of the late-night menace and understated grandeur of Cave’s recent work, after all. And late in the album, the astonishing Songbird fully embraces the sense of space and theatricality of Cave’s Berlin-era work, then takes it somewhere else entirely. “I’m obsessed with Nick Cave,” Coates admits. “Songbird was definitely an ode to him. When we did that live on our last tour I would dedicate the song to him. I’d say ‘this song is for my dream boyfriend Nick Cave,’ and then sort of snigger. Because he would be the most dreadful boyfriend!”
With the officially difficult one conquered successfully, work on songs for album number three is underway, and this time around, says Coates, it’s going to be different. “We’ve started writing already. I’m kind of excited about it, whereas with the second one I just felt… scared. I was scared putting it out, even. When it got released I sort of hid under the doona for two days. I really thought people might not like it.” And you’re ready to put yourself through all that again? “You know what? I’m just going to follow my instincts and just do whatever I want to do on the third record. I’m just not going to think about all that stuff, I’m really not. I’m going to do my best not to, anyway. I’m feeling really good about the third one, I really am. I just hope that doesn’t change.”
At least there’s not the pressure of writing radio-pleasing singles to deal with; while perfectly capable of coming up with songs that stand out on the radio (the latest single grab from the album, Lay Me Down, is one of ’em) there’s no pressure from the label to create airplay fodder. “I think they know they can’t get away with that stuff with us. They’ve got enough bands that do that. I think they see us more as an album band, a career band that’s going to keep making records.” But then, there are those who argue that the album is a dying format and it’s individual songs that sell… “Oh, that just depresses me. Because what else is there? Musicians can’t make a living out of selling one song. But then, vinyl’s been making a bit of a comeback, so maybe it’s a ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’ sort of thing.”
One thing musicians can make a living out that iTunes can’t change is touring, and the quick three-state run which saw The Audreys playing Northcote Social Club, a jazz club in a converted Castlemaine theatre and the Queenscliff Music Festival on three consecutive days gives them the chance to approach the same songs in diverse ways.”It’s fun for us as performers. If we’re playing a festival or something you’ve got quick breaks between songs, a big stage to cover, you’ve got to keep it up. But if you’re doing a show where people have paid to see you and they’re sitting down and know your music, it’s such a different vibe. They both have things going for them, but they’re very different.”
A few weeks later, the sold-out Northcote Social Club show (where people were standing up and knew the music) gives, perhaps, some clues as to where The Audreys are taking their music next. Songs from Flood get gently pushed in subtle new directions (the title track, for example, heads into a searing guitar-powered instrumental coda) while some from the debut are more markedly changing – Nothing Wrong With Me in particular, now a blazingly intense out-there experience rather than just a song. The audience is enraptured, the show is luminous, and by the end, somehow, it feels like Melbourne’s claimed a little bit of The Audreys for itself.
But this is, says Coates, a band that’s deliberately from Adelaide (something which may or may not be a first). “I lived in Melbourne for about four years – we came back to Adelaide when we started the band, because we wanted to use Adelaide musicians, first of all, and also we wanted to be an Adelaide band, because that was home. There is something nice about being in your home town, being known as a band from your home town. I wouldn’t want to be known as a Melbourne band, because I grew up in Adelaide. Although I think about moving sometimes.”
© Anthony Horan 2008
Expanded from an article originally published in Inpress Magazine issue 1047, 26th November 2008