If you like your country bittersweet, be thankful for the predicament that Harmony James finds herself in. The former jillaroo, who has always preferred to drift in lonely outposts, learned her song-writing craft under wide-open skies. Now, thanks to the phenomenal success of her first two albums, she hasn’t been near a horse for years. Small wonder she called her third album Cautionary Tales.
“I’m a city rat now,” she laughs of that sacrifice, “although more accurately it’s the ’burbs of Brisbane. My life has changed massively – and hence I’ve ditched the cowgirl hat because it no longer feels authentic. It’s a bit like, ‘Be careful what you wish for’”.
Harmony’s 2009 debut album, Tailwind, was chased by a slew of accolades: breakthrough awards from VCMA and APRA, Golden Guitar nominations for Best Female Artist and Best Album, eight top ten songs on the National Country Music Charts and first prize in the country division of Nashville’s International Songwriting Competition. The follow-up, 2012’s Handfuls of Sky, was critically acclaimed and produced ‘Pride’ which spent six weeks a top the Country Music airplay charts.
Thankfully, the change of scenery only inspired her songwriting further. Recording Cautionary Tales in Albert Studios and Ramrod in Sydney, she kept on board long-time producer Herm Kovac and her regular band (guitarist Glen Hannah, bassist Jeff McCormack and drummer Steve Fearnley). Tracking live, they played intuitively together, with overdubs of mandolin, fiddle and pedal steel added later. The result is an album that’s all heart.
Harmony deals in honesty and empathy, whether she’s channelling the grief of a family that’s sold out to a fracking company in ‘#CSG’, or imagining the internal lives of stoic old stockmen in ‘Cold Western Wind’. Often her observations are vignettes, with deft little touches such as ‘searching for distractions in the pages of an in-flight magazine’ during a journey of heartache in ‘30,000 Feet’.
The agonising ‘Icebergs (The Day That Never Came)’ is a simple piano piece about the death of a child – and how human interactions continue oblivious to someone’s private turmoil: ‘Somebody asked me how I’d spend the long weekend / Said I’d go hiking in the hills, I try to do it every spring / She laughed and said, well ain’t you fancy-free? … With no idea what’s driving me’.
In ‘Faraway Eyes’, there’s a painful moment of discovery: ‘I found a map he’d been reading with a route marked out in red/ And the road he’d be leading didn’t bring him home again / It was creased and worn like he’d had it long, long time’. It’s inspired by Harmony’s Baptist preacher father back in Victoria. “He’s been a stayer,” she says, “but he has a restless nature. He’s always been hankering for this other world that he didn’t choose.
Even with her craft admired by top songwriters in the field – Don Walker and Bill Chambers among them – Harmony understands there are games one needs to play. “People want me to write peppy up-tempo, but that’s not my natural position,” she admits. ‘There’s usually a sneaky undertone of regret or remorse or guilt. For me to do jazz hands and all that stuff, I really have to push out of myself.”
While this may be true, moments like ‘Skinny Flat White’ (written with Brooke McClymont as an observation of interaction in the city) and the sassy ‘Something Something’ do counterbalance the pathos. It’s Harmony’s hope, though, that her lyrics will trigger cinematic visuals in the listener, just as John Williamson’s songs do for her. Take the epic ‘Pancho’s Boy’, with its mariachi horns, Confederate-style drumming and panoramic structure. It segues into traditional Western melody ‘Red River Valley’ towards the end, and then a single harmonica line, as might be played at a campfire. That couldn’t be more of a Harmony James touch.
“When I was a kid I thought I was a cowboy in the American West,” she confesses. “We didn’t have a TV. We had wall-to-wall bookshelves and I would hide a Western book under my pillow and read it at night with a torch. That’s how I realised I should write songs for a living, because I was so obsessed with that fantasy. I wished I was in 1800s and it strongly influenced the way I sing.”
In that spirit and with an uncanny ability to put herself in other people’s boots, Harmony James has created a beautifully wrought album in Cautionary Tales, shining a light on the human condition.