Kasey Chambers on the cover of her latest album 'Bittersweet'.
Kasey Chambers lets out a throaty laugh as she talks about the realities of touring with three young children in tow. Warm and disarmingly open, the singer-songwriter's rawness and honesty – both in her music and personality – is what has endeared her to millions of fans since she released her first solo album, The Captain, 15 years ago.
Chambers has never been afraid to keep it real and today is no different. "It can be chaotic," she says of life on the road with family. "You have kids running around motel rooms and you've got to bath them and feed them before the gig. You can be backstage and right before you go on, someone wants to go to the loo! It is definite chaos. But I like that."
The award-winning artist is about to hit the road again to promote her new album, Bittersweet. It's Chambers' first solo record in four years and the first following separation from her husband, fellow country music star Shane Nicholson, in April last year.
Survivor: Kasey Chambers has emerged from a difficult period of her life with a surprisingly upbeat album. Photo: Max Doyle
When we meet at her home in a sleepy town on the NSW central coast, the 38-year-old is down to earth and embracing her new life as a single mother to her three kids, Talon Jordi, 12, Arlo Ray, 7, and Poet Poppin, 2½.
"I feel good!" she says, settling into a seat on a sunny deck overlooking the swimming pool. "Going through a divorce and hard times in general, even though they suck at the time, all help to make you find who you are a little bit more. You go through times when you feel lost, but I don't think that is a bad thing any more. I used to want to be Supermum and Superwife, but if you spend your life trying to do that, you will always be disappointing yourself. Now I go, 'Okay, I'm having a shit day and it's okay if I put the kids to bed and have a little cry in the corner.' That doesn't make me the worst mum in the world."
Much has been written about Chambers' nomadic upbringing on the Nullarbor Plain with her musician parents, Bill and Diane, and older brother, Nash. Chambers recalls going out fox shooting with her dad, days building cubbies in the red dust with Nash, and starry nights spent around campfires singing along to Bill's guitar.
After a decade on the Nullarbor, the family moved back to Southend, a South Australian coastal town, so that Bill and Diane could revive their music careers. In 1987, the family formed a country-rock outfit, the Dead Ringer Band, performing hundreds of gigs until the late 1990s, when her parents' 20-year marriage broke down.
The band's demise forced Chambers to embark on a solo career, but her close-knit family were firmly by her side: Bill played in her band, her mother sold merchandise, and Nash managed her career – as he still does today.
Chambers says her popularity as a solo artist took her by surprise. "I never thought playing the sort of music I do that I would ever have any success," she says. "I'd accepted that my music wasn't the sort people played on the radio, and that was okay. I didn't have stars in my eyes. But then I started getting success and decided I was going to seize every opportunity.
"Even when I became a mum for the first time [with her son Talon, by ex-partner Cori Hopper], I was like, 'Right, we get straight back out there on the road and I will take my kid with me.' For the most part it was great, but the thing I would change is I would allow myself some falling-apart time."
Chambers' unrelenting work ethic and ambition led to one of the darkest periods in her life. With commercial success – her 2001 album, Barricades & Brickwalls, went seven times platinum and its lead single, Not Pretty Enough, shot to No. 1 on the ARIA singles chart – came an overwhelming panic that she was losing control over her life. She developed a well-documented eating disorder, a combination of anorexia and bulimia, which caused her weight to plummet to 44 kilograms.
"I struggled with the pressure of a lot of people counting on me all of the time," says Chambers. "My family work with me, my friends work with me; the record label isn't just a record label to me, they're my friends. I didn't want to let people down. It was pressure I was putting on myself, but I got into this cycle. I was spiralling out of control in all of these aspects of my life, so I went, 'All right, I will control what I put in my mouth and I will control my weight.' I ended up in a really, really bad place."
While Chambers was in a dark place personally, professionally she had just released her Carnival album, which debuted at No. 1 in 2006. Privately, though, she hated music for the first time in her life. She didn't want to play it or hear it and considered quitting the industry. "I wanted to give up music," she admits. "It was just all too much."
Her breakdown occurred in the first year of her marriage to Nicholson, whom she wed barefoot, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, in the backyard of their home in 2005. With his love and support – and that of her family – as well as regular sessions with a psychologist, Chambers slowly began to heal. Music proved to be cathartic during this dark period, just as it has been during her marriage breakdown.
On Nash's insistence, Chambers took a year off work and she, her father and Nicholson started a weekly, unadvertised gig at their local pub, purely for fun. "It changed my life," she says. "I didn't play any of my songs - just covers. I got inspired about why I played music and what I loved about it all over again. It wasn't about a career and selling records. It was just about the music."
During her year off, a re-inspired Chambers and Nicholson wrote an album together, the critically acclaimed Rattlin' Bones, and had their first child, son Arlo. They went on to release another album as a duo, Wreck & Ruin, and Chambers often spoke of the pure joy of writing and performing together.
Then, in April last year, they announced that they were separating after eight years of marriage. Many speculated that the pressures of working and touring together, and raising a young family, had taken their toll on the pair's seemingly perfect partnership.
"Anyone would tell you that partners shouldn't work together," Chambers says. "But really, we only worked together when making records. We would go out and promote them together, but then we did our own stuff. But yeah, there was pressure with the kids. It was full-on. But I have travelled my whole life with my family and friends. It has always been like picking up your household and taking it on the road."
She and Nicholson now share custody of son Arlo and daughter Poet, and live just streets away from each other. They are in the process of a divorce, but are determined to remain a tight unit.
"Shane and I maintained right from the start – and I learnt this from my parents breaking up – that just because a marriage breaks down, it doesn't mean a family has to break down," says Chambers. "My kids still feel like there's a very solid family unit around them and that is all I ever wanted."
She's aware that some fans will be expecting her new record to be a "depressing divorce album", but Bittersweet is anything but. Sure, there are some haunting ballads, but the album also celebrates her inner strength as a woman and signifies an exciting new chapter in her life and career.
The title track – Kasey's personal favourite – is a power duet with former Powderfinger frontman Bernard Fanning, who also provided acoustic guitar, keyboard, piano and background vocals for the album. "I have never witnessed anybody sing with such conviction, soul and control for such a sustained period," says Fanning of the diminutive Chambers. "Some of us have to work on our music, but with Kasey it comes from deep within. It's like breathing for her."
A natural storyteller, Chambers says her new album epitomises where's she's at right now. For the first time in her adult life, she's living on her own – albeit with her kids – and feels totally liberated. "I am enjoying freedom more than anything," she admits. "I don't mean freedom from a marriage, I mean freedom within myself. I feel like I had lost myself a little."
For all her musical success, Chambers says motherhood is her proudest achievement. Like many working mums, she has learnt to be less hard on herself and to embrace the imperfections she used to beat herself up about.
"As a working mum, you can feel like everyone else has it together and you're the one falling apart," she says. "You go down to drop your kids off at school and everyone is on time except you. You look at these mums who are doing everything right, they're fit and look beautiful and all of that, but I am sure they are falling apart some days. There is no perfect mum! I find I am a better mum now that I realise that.
"My kids are good kids. They are normal kids, sometimes annoying and sometimes naughty, but are happy, loved and safe. I am not doing too badly and I get to write a song every now and then. Life is good!"
Kasey Chambers: three facts
Her first album, The Captain, was recorded on Norfolk Island, with backing vocals provided by US musicians Buddy and Julie Miller.
She penned Not Pretty Enough as a protest against the reluctance of commercial radio to play her music.
To write the songs on Bittersweet, she ditched her customary guitar and used a banjo instead.
Styling by Penny McCarthy. Hair by Carl Reeves. Make-up by Naomi McFadden. Top and lead-in image: Kasey wears Lover dress, silver cuff from Four Winds Gallery.