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CELEBRITY / Jun ‘2014

A Life Less Ordinary

Kasey-chambers
CELEBRITY / JUN ‘2014

A Life Less Ordinary

Kasey Chambers is a rare creature, appearing to maintain normalcy in a life that is anything but and, in the true mark of a professional, she makes it look easy.

Words ARI CHÁVEZ

Kasey Chambers’ daughter, Poet Poppin Nicholson, is at the local park and she’s protesting.

“Hello possum,” Kasey croons. “What’s the matter, Poss? Did you hurt yourself? Here, I’ll fix it.” There’s the sound of an affectionate kiss and cuddle down the phone line, and Poet toddles off happy again.

“I love it that she’s still at that age where she thinks my kisses are totally magical and they fix everything,” Kasey says.

“I actually think she’s really hurt, like something’s fallen on her or something, but then I kiss her and she switches it off and, ‘oh, we’re all better now!'” She laughs, “my elder ones are a bit wise to it now, and it does just fix everything but the little one is still there so it’s nice.”

Kasey Chambers, multi-award winning artist, is wandering around a playground with her mobile phone jammed to her ear, keeping an eye on her active two and a half year old as she explores the slide and the sandpit, whilst simultaneously conducting this interview.

“I brought her down to the playground so she was amused while I did the interview,” Kasey explains. “My eldest ones [Talon, 12 and Arlo, 6] are in school, so they’re well taken care of right now, but Poet’s the one that, well, as soon as I get on the phone she all of a sudden wants my attention, and knows that she doesn’t have it, so I thought if I take her to the playground she’s bound to be amused for a little while.”

It seems a typically low-key approach for the singer/songwriter, beloved for both her unique musical talent and her unassuming demeanour. Kasey Chambers is a rare creature, appearing to maintain normalcy in a life that is anything but and, in the true mark of a professional, she makes it look easy.

In fact, it’s rarely been easy. Surprisingly for one with such a sunny presence, there have been devastating lows, relationship breakdowns and personal demons that have, at times, brought her undone. But all of that came later. Before the record deals and awards, the tours and photo shoots, and all the buzz and chaos that accompanies a high-profile music career, there was just Kasey and her family and the vast, empty stillness of the Nullabor.

In 1976, just three weeks after Kasey was born, her parents Bill and Diane, took her, and her brother Nash, to the Nullarbor to live. It was their home for eight months a year for the next decade. The family, Seventh Day Adventists at the time, lived off the land, eating meat they could catch and earning cash from selling the pelts of the foxes they hunted. In her autobiography, A Little Bird Told Me, Kasey describes the nightly expeditions.

“For Dad, the working days went late. Once he’d worked out where the foxes were – and they could be anywhere in the area from Roxbury Downs to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia – he would hunt all night. That meant driving the old car with all of us inside, in hot pursuit over saltbush and sand with the suspension crashing up and down, the constant firing of guns, spotlights flashing on and off. Amazingly, Nash and I, who went to bed an hour or two into the night, slept through the tremendous nightly racket, tucked up in our bunks.”

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"When you're growing up you don't really have anything to compare it to, except what you're living at the time."

It was a childhood characterised by close family bonds, few material comforts and the great freedom of not being tethered a suburban life, and all its preoccupations. Kasey recalls it with a mixture of affection and amazement at her parents’ chutzpah.

“When I first had Talon, I remember that going to the grocery store was the biggest outing…I just remember thinking it was really daunting and overwhelming and thinking that my parents were out on the Nullarbor hunting their own food [when they had me] and it was a really strange thing to comprehend.

It was different times. Even now, in general, the things that we can have and do for our children when they’re little, and when they’re getting bigger, it’s very different than when I was a child…At the time it was much more of, ‘do what you can and make the best of what you have,’ and there also wasn’t all the advice readily available from other people…there’s so much information now and we just kind of get bombarded with it.”

In her autobiography, Kasey describes the Nullarbor as her own personal playground. She spent her days roaming the red dirt, making cubbies with her brother Nash and climbing trees when she could find them. She was able to buy a toy occasionally from The Special Train, which periodically sped through the Nullarbor, a much anticipated event, and still has a precious childhood truck today. It’s a far cry from the upbringing her own children enjoy.

“When you’re growing up you don’t really have anything to compare it to, except what you’re living at the time,” she muses.

“I certainly didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. When I talk to my kids about it, and my kids ask questions about it all the time, and I mention, ‘oh well we didn’t have iPads and no iPods and no playing games,’ and they think, ‘yeah, okay, that would suck,’ but for the most part they listen to those stories and think, ‘wow, you’re so lucky Mum that you had that.’ It just goes to show that kids maybe don’t need those material things as much as society has convinced us that they do.”

Unsurprisingly, music was a constant in Kasey’s childhood. At night, Bill Chambers would pull out his guitar and the family would have singsongs around the campfire. When the Chambers clan decided to return to the big smoke in 1986, with the goal that Bill and Diane would rekindle neglected music careers, Kasey and Nash joined the band. The family toured city and country venues as the Dead Ringer Band, with Kasey out front as lead singer. They released seven CDs, and won two ARIAs and seven Golden Guitars at the annual Australian Country Music Awards in Tamworth. It was gratifying for Kasey to be recognised for her obvious talent, however she was also struggling alone with a debilitating secret.

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"It just goes to show that kids maybe don't need those material things as much as society has convinced us that they do."

One night, aged eleven, Kasey was having a sleepover at a friend’s house. Fast asleep in her bed, she woke to find a relative of her friend trying to molest her. Her innocence was shattered and there would be long lasting repercussions. At the time a confused and anxious Kasey told no one, but the traumatic incident led to many years of night terrors, which she would wake from screaming with fear.

“The feeling I had, that I can recall, was even scarier than the experience itself,” she writes in her autobiography. “It was pure, primal fear, as if I knew someone had broken into the house and was coming to kill me. It was a feeling without real definition – part of the trouble is that in the mornings after I’d had one of these attacks, I would wake up feeling that something was off, but I had no memory of what. But for the people who were awake it was completely unnerving; I’d get out of bed and run around the house, just screaming. I’d even be scared of my parents; I’d look at them, apparently, but not see them.”

Kasey later suffered from sleep walking, and still experiences night terrors periodically. “The question which still haunts me is, of course, why did this happen?” she writes. “Did it have anything to do with what had happened at my girlfriend’s place? I’m not a psychologist – watching a lot of Oprah and Dr Phil doesn’t give you a qualification – but in my head one was a trigger for the other.”

For many years Kasey managed to “shelve” her frightening experience of sexual abuse, however she became increasingly troubled throughout her teenage years, wagging school, attempting suicide and running away from home, all the while bolstered by her bewildered, family who tried, simply, to show her that they loved her no matter what. The constant in her life was music. The Chambers’ band was enjoying its success and the family maintained their close bond, touring and singing together for years.

In 1998, Kasey’s life changed dramatically when her parents split up, and eventually divorced, and the Dead Ringer Band imploded. Kasey moved to Norfolk Island with her mother, where they ran a small cleaning business, and soon took her first tentative steps towards becoming a solo artist. She recorded her first album The Captain and, in true Chambers style, her father played guitar on the record while her brother Nash produced it. Despite her parents’ divorce, Kasey’s family remained close and, even today, her parents and brother work with her on her career.

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"I was just like, 'I have to have everything together and I have to be Supermum,' to the point where I just felt like I fell apart."

The Captain won an ARIA for Best Country Album in 1999 and another award in 2000 for Best Female Artist. The record also gained buzz in the United States, where she toured with Lucinda Williams. Kasey was on a new trajectory. She released her second album, Barricades & Brick Walls in 2001, and the lead single, Not Pretty Enough, went to number one on the Arias singles charts, gaining her a swathe of fans not typically interested in country music.

During the next decade, Kasey went on to release a further six albums and work on a number of side projects. She also gave birth to her first child, Talon Jordi Hopper, in 2002, whose father Cori Hopper she later amicably split from. In 2005, she married fellow musician Shane Nicholson, and went on to have two children with him, Arlo Ray Nicholson in 2007 and, most recently, Poet Poppin Nicholson in 2011.

Despite her sunny nature and gentle ease with people, there is a fragility about Kasey Chambers. In 2006, in the midst of continued success, Kasey began to struggle with feelings of powerlessness and a lack of control. Her anxiety about being in control of all aspects of her life manifested as a full blown eating disorder, her weight plummeting to 44 kilograms as she worked on her fourth album Carnival.

“I went through this whole year where it felt like my world was falling apart,” Kasey says. “I think I had this thing in my head where I felt like, ‘I can’t control what’s going on in my life…I will control what food I put in my mouth,’ to the point where I ended up not putting anything in my mouth for quite a while.

I went through different stages where I wouldn’t eat for quite a while, and then I went through stages where I would binge eat in between that, and go between the two all the time. It was a scary time and I think a lot of that was just feeling like I had to have everything just so sorted, that I just never allowed myself to have a bad day, or a bit of a cry, or a bit of a whinge. I was just like, ‘I have to have everything together and I have to be Supermum,’ to the point where I just felt like I fell apart.”

Kasey also exercised obsessively, pushing her increasingly frail frame through physical acts of endurance while she monitored everything she ate. Her anxiety extended to her music, which had always been her refuge and solace, and some days she couldn’t bear to play or listen to anything. Her husband, Shane, and her family stood by helplessly until, finally, she broke down in front of her mother and acknowledged that she needed help.

“It was a good year of feeling that and coming undone. And then it was a whole lot of therapy, a whole lot of going to psychologists and then another half a year to get myself back on track. And then I figured out where this problem was actually coming from, and it had absolutely nothing to do with food, weight or image at all. I think a lot of people think having an eating disorder is all about image or, you know, wanting to be thin, but it wasn’t really like that for me. I just wanted to have some sort of control, ridiculous control, over some part of my life.

It was a pretty awful time in my life but I think I’m a better person now, having gone through it, because I had to hit rock bottom to realise, ‘hang on, you don’t have the priorities of how you feel in the right places.'”

Part of the pressure Kasey felt was the culturally popular, but unrealistic, expectation that motherhood is always joyous and fulfilling. She found the reality was very different, and the shock was jarring.

“[When you have a child] you go through so many highs and lows and I wasn’t allowing myself to feel anything in between. And there absolutely is a middle ground. I was going, ‘okay, I am so in love with my child, he makes me beam more than anybody else in the whole wide world,’ and then I just absolutely fell apart and hit rock bottom.

I think a lot of mums think, ‘oh, if I feel like that, I must be the worst mother.’ And I think society tells you that as well, that you must be the worst mum in the world if you have a day where you want to cry at the end of the day. Well no, that’s life.

We all know we love our children and they do make you smile more than anybody in the world, and they do all these things, but that doesn’t mean that, at the end of the day, after having three kids on your own all day, that you’re not going to go, ‘Fuck, I’m glad they’re in bed now.’ And that is totally okay to be that person.”

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"I say, 'you know what, that's okay. You've had a shit few days and things aren't going your way. You can't control everything. Let's wake up tomorrow and start again. You can only do what you can do.' Without a doubt, I still mess up."

Kasey has come a long way since those dark days in 2006, when she ate nothing and exercised obsessively, or binged on the contents of the fridge and purged the food from her body shortly after. Finding and maintaining balance is a work in progress, however.

“I still have times when I’m out of balance. I’d like to say, ‘I’ve got it all sorted now,’ but it might be a few days of thinking, ‘okay, everything is so overwhelming. I can’t stay on top of it,’ but then I’ve taught myself how to balance it. I say, ‘you know what, that’s okay. You’ve had a shit few days and things aren’t going your way. You can’t control everything. Let’s wake up tomorrow and start again. You can only do what you can do.’ Without a doubt, I still mess up.”

Throughout her personal challenges, and the joys and tribulations of parenting three children, Kasey continued to write and record critically and commercially acclaimed music, including Rattlin’ Bones and Wreck & Ruin with her husband, Shane. The pressures of working together put unbearable stress on their relationship, however, and in 2013 they decided to separate.

At the time, Kasey stated publicly that juggling their musical careers, particularly touring, had placed too much strain on the talented couple’s relationship.

“We don’t always manage it that well to be honest and like any married couple we have our moments,” she said.

“The problems are not the creative side but more on tour going from hotel to hotel with the kids, at sound checks and on planes. It’s a lot of together.” Kasey and Shane have since stated that they co-parent their children amicably, and have refused to be drawn on further details of their split.

In 2014, it appears that, creatively, Kasey has emerged from something of a wilderness. She has been working on music with her family band, Kasey Chambers, Poppa Bill and the Little Hillbillies, and the second children’s book in her Little Kasey Chambers series. She has also just finished recording her first solo album of material in four years, which is slated for release in August this year.

“I’ve just been listening to the final mixes,” she says excitedly. “It’s sort of at the stage now where, if you want something changed, do it right now otherwise that’s how it is, which I’m really happy with.

We recorded up in Byron a few weeks ago. We just went in for over a week in the studio, recorded the whole thing live with a bunch of new musos and a new producer, which I’ve never used before, so that was exciting just in itself, using a bunch of new people. Yeah, it was unreal. I had an absolute blast and I just can’t wait to get it out!”

After a tumultuous few years, Kasey Chambers is brimming with enthusiasm about writing and recording music again, and sharing her unique gift with her fans. And Poet, who has periodically, and charmingly, piped up during this interview with requests to be manoeuvred up or down the slide, or have her sandy feet attended to, is happy being pushed on the swing by her devoted mother. Wonderful stuff.

 

"I say, 'you know what, that's okay. You've had a shit few days and things aren't going your way. You can't control everything. Let's wake up tomorrow and start again. You can only do what you can do.' Without a doubt, I still mess up."
ARI CHÁVEZ

Ari has had work published in Australia, England, Japan and Singapore. She has a delightful toddler, Gabriel, who was born with coffee in his veins. She is currently completing her first novel as part of a PhD project.

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