Artists often say that they have a lifetime to make their first album. For Kasey Chambers, that's especially true. Though she's just in her mid-'20s, she spent almost half her life recording and traveling around the wilds of Australia with her family in the Dead Ringer Band. By the time she released her solo debut, The Captain, in the U.S., Chambers was a seasoned singer/songwriter and a hit in her native land, where the CD had enjoyed success since 1999. America embraced her, too, as critics likened her to Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams and placed her on their “best of” lists. American audiences got a taste of her music when she toured with Williams, performed on Austin City Limits and had her album's title track featured on the HBO series The Sopranos. And she held on to her family roots, with her father playing guitar in her band, her mother overseeing merchandise, and brother, Nash, working FOH sound and producing her albums.
Before The Captain was available in the U.S., Chambers was already writing for her latest project, Barricades & Brickwalls, which doesn't stray stylistically from the alt-country vibe of her debut. But its story, she says, is different. “The Captain was made over 20 years of life as far as writing, no pressure to bring it out, and it came out sounding like a reflection of those 20 years,” Chambers explains. “This album was three years in the making and says more about who I am and where I'm going. I was lucky not to have too much pressure from my record company to bring out an album.”
Barricades & Brickwalls was recorded primarily at Mangrove Studios in Australia, with additional tracking in Melbourne, Nashville — for guest appearances by Lucinda Williams and Matthew Ryan — and in Nash Chambers' home studio. Working piecemeal wasn't a problem, she says, because the songs were basically cut live. “My voice was recorded at the same time as the drums, bass and guitar. We're not the type of people to go over something 100 times until it's perfect — and it may sound like that. I may go flat a couple of times, but we didn't lose the emotion. The biggest problem was that we were on tour so much that we had to take whatever time we could get. I wasn't looking forward to doing it that way, but in the end we got a lot of moods that we didn't have on the first album.”
In addition to giving her a taste of success at home and in the U.S., Chambers says that The Captain was a valuable lesson in the record-making process. “The biggest thing I learned [from it] was that you don't have to compromise anything,” she says. “You can make the best album you possibly can and not bow to what is being played on the radio or what people tell you to do. And you can still sell a few records along the way. I went in this time to once again make an album that best describes me. One of the major things I learned was that you don't have to spend a lot of money to make a great album. We didn't go overboard with anything. I got a major deal, and we could have used more money than we did, but it's not about how much money or having everything perfect. It's about having something that feels right, and I think we got that on this album.”
She says there was never a question that her brother would assume the role of producer on both albums. A lifetime of working professionally with her family has made them integral to her sound and creativity, and, she remarks, “I would be very lost without them, especially Nash. Without them, these two projects would not have come out sounding this way. They know who I am and what I want to say. I couldn't have a producer I don't know and feel totally relaxed with. Nash lived every one of these songs with me; he knows the type of artist I'm trying to be and the person I want to be, and that makes us the best combination.”
Outside of his work with Kasey, Nash Chambers' productions are best known in Australia. Among the artists he has worked with are vocalist Troy Cassardaly and Screaming Jets vocalist Dave Gelason. Additionally, he has begun a label deal with EMI, Kasey Chambers' label in Australia, which he hopes will lead to some production work in the U.S.
Chambers opened his studio eight years ago and continues to expand. “Like every studio, you keep buying gear,” he says. “I started on ADAT and 32-channel Mackie desks. Now, obviously, I've bought more — a 32-channel Trident desk with an MCI JH-24 machine and a lot of outboard gear: API, Amek, Telefunken, Avalon. One of my favorite compressors is the AWA, an Australian brand, which was made as a broadcast limiter in the 1950s.”
Barricades & Brickwalls was tracked at Mangrove Studio, which is owned by INXS bass player Gary Beers. Overdubs were done at Chambers' studio, and mixing took place at Mangrove using an SSL 4000 G Series. To record Ryan and Williams, Chambers brought the files to Nashville's True Tone studio, “hired in a U67 and LA-2A and a preamp,” and used a Pro Tools system. Mastering was done by George Marino at Sterling Sound in New York. Chambers recorded Kasey's vocals with a Neumann U48 through the AWA compressor and an AMEK 9098 mic pre. “During recording, I brought in API ‘lunchboxes’ and 550s,” he says. “For mixing, I hired in an AMEK 9098 and some Distressors. At Mangrove, they have lots of Neve 1073s, so I used a lot of stuff they had. Drums were recorded with Neumann U67s overhead, 414 room mics, FET 47 for kick drum, and the usual 57s and 421s for toms and snare. Electric guitar was an RE-20 through a V76, bass through a V72 through the Avalon compressor, and for acoustic guitar I used an Audio-Technica 4033 mic through another Amek 9098 preamp. My rack has API pre's, an Avalon 2044 compressor, my own Dynaudio BM6A monitors and a Telefunken B72 preamp. I take that wherever I go. Jeff McCormack [who also plays bass on Kasey's albums] is my main engineer; we engineer together for the band, and I engineer overdubs.”
In addition to producing his sister and running her sound onstage, Chambers also managed her for two years during the release of The Captain. Therefore, he says, it was a natural step for him to oversee the making of her records. He believes that Barricades & Brickwalls is more diverse than its predecessor, something he credits to “traveling the world, and Kasey getting in a different headspace. We approached The Captain as a whole record, start to finish. On this one, we approached each song individually, but there is still a thread running through it as far as diversity — country, blues. A lot depends on the songs Kasey is writing at that period in her life. We wait until she writes a song, and we take it from there.
“The first record was a bit of trial and error, and there are some really cool things on it, because we were learning a lot as we were going along. With the new record, obviously, there was a lot more pressure, things to think about. Because the first record did so well, especially in Australia, we made a conscious effort not to think about it and just make the best record we could. We were a lot more focused, a lot more experienced, and we'd done so much in between records, so we had a bit more direction about where we were going.”
One thing that separates Nash Chambers from the pack is his refusal to do any pre-production. “I'd rather hang around the studio and muck around with it there,” he says. “You often get the best takes that way.
“My job as a producer is to make the best possible recording of the artist, so my exact role depends on the artist I work with. With some, you need to almost rewrite the songs; with others, you just sit back and order pizza. Kasey is a bit of both. She writes great songs, is a great vocalist and makes my job easier. I determine the music and surround her voice and songs with instrumentation. The idea of the studio is to capture that special something, but it can be a stagnant environment. Kasey sings and writes and performs and we try to track everything together, keep takes and not overdo or run through it too many times. You've got to get to a point where you're happy with it, and I'd rather leave the mistakes than get it perfect. That's a lot of the problem with today's music, especially in Nashville: Everything is overdone to the point of having no flaws whatsoever, but those flaws are the character things I like in records.”
Chambers didn't set out to be a producer. He sang and played guitar in Dead Ringer and fell into his current chair by default — which is where he gained his sense of what does and doesn't work in the studio. “When we first started out with our band, early on we were extremely naive,” he says. “We hired top studios here [in Australia] to record our albums and found it extremely frustrating to go in and not get what we wanted. Back then, country music was not taken seriously here, so we'd get a rock 'n' roll engineer who didn't care about what we were doing. We decided to start our own studio and, originally, I did not want to be involved with engineering. I got the gear, and there was nobody there to work it, so I learned through trial and error. Jeff [McCormack] taught me a lot, and I learned by making mistakes. There's no substitute for the life experience of just getting in and doing it.”