Interview: Clare Bowen
Having conquered ‘Nashville’, this Australian artist is stepping out from behind her onscreen character and releasing an eponymous debut album
Clare Bowen is one of the stars of Nashville, the much-loved television show which recently came to a close after six series of country capers in Music City. As singer-songwriter Scarlett O’Connor, Bowen’s character led a tumultuous onscreen life, but one in which she was able to showcase her rich and captivating vocals. Blurring the lines between fiction and reality even further was the fact that the cast frequently toured the UK and Ireland together, playing original material alongside fan favourites from the show itself.
With the curtain now closed on that chapter of her career, another has opened for Bowen. Leaving O’Connor behind, she is about to drop the debut album that she’s been working away at over the last few years (when filming schedules permitted). It’s a soulful country effort which proves that the time is very much right for her to go it alone – albeit with the help of co-writers such as husband Brandon Robert Young. An eponymous record, it leaves you in no doubt that what you’re hearing is the real Clare Bowen. That voice is very much at the album’s centre, but so is its empowering message – none more so than on the closing ballad Warrior, a song that will become a source of comfort to all who hear it.
When we’re this taken by a record there’s only one thing to do, have a chat with the person behind it. So that’s exactly what we did with Clare…
Congratulations on your debut album. Does it feel as if your life’s work has led you to this point?
“Yes, up to this point. I’m glad it took so long to write. It was all done between shooting Nashville and shooting Nashville was never just recording – it was also learning instruments and recording songs for the show. I was trying to write the album in-between all of that, but the time that it took really helped me make sure I made an album as me and not as something that other people would try to turn me into. I’m so glad it took the time that it took, because I needed it.”
Do any of the songs predate being in Nashville – both the city and show?
“All of the stories predate Nashville and there’s one song on there, Sweet William, which is an old English folk song. I think most of those songs were ideas that were written down before I moved here that were finished either in Woodstock, where we recorded the first part of the album on the side of a mountain, or Nashville. Woodstock was the most beautiful experience, I had Josh Kaufman the producer and D. James Goodwin the engineer and they took us on this pretty amazing journey to start the thing. We finished it in the city of Nashville in Southern Ground Studios, it was quite the journey getting it done. So yeah, there are stories from all over time on the album.”
You have a ready-made and loyal fan base, is that just a blessing or would you ever find that you would second-guess yourself trying to write songs that they’d like?
“I have been very lucky with our fans. They’ve been vocal about the fact that they like me just the way I am. It’s always been particularly special coming to the UK, there’s something about the fans. They’re so warm and excited and willing to go on that journey with you.
“As an artist you can never just expect that people are going to like what you do. If you think that everybody is going to like you, you’re going to be sorely disappointed because art is so subjective. The heart behind the live shows is that it doesn’t matter where you are, where you’ve come from and what’s happening in your life. If you feel like you don’t belong anywhere, you belong in this room with us and that’s something that I wanted to do with the album. Creating that kind of culture has maybe given a window in. I share a fair bit with my fans and I’m very happy to, hoping that I can tell a story from my life, or the life of somebody that I love, which makes somebody out there feel like they’re not alone. It’s that culture which has maybe made people more willing to go on a journey with me. They’re so sweet and lovely, it helps me keep doing what I’m doing.”
Have the Nashville live shows helped you road test your own compositions to see how they would go down with an audience?
“That’s been a huge blessing. Steve Buchanan, who came up with the idea for the television show and is the president of the Opry, is a dear friend and has always been so encouraging of me and my own music. To get to play our own music out there was a huge privilege. And yes you’re right, it is a great way to test a song. You’ve kind of got to make sure it works before you play it at the O2. My live shows are definitely different to the Nashville shows, they give me room to stretch out and really get into the stories and it’s also just a big love party where everyone ends up dancing.”
Does your songwriting tend to start in the same way or is it different for each track?
“They’re all different and depend on what mood I’m in. Bernie Cahill, one of my team leaders and most influential people in my life, said to me right at the beginning, ‘All you need is an idea. Once you have that idea you can run with it. So just write them down whenever you think of them.’ I’d never really written songs with anybody before, I’d only written by myself before I moved to the city of Nashville and that was one of the most valuable pieces of advice that anyone has ever given to me. So every time something pops into my head I jot it down somewhere. Then I have to find it again, which is a whole other thing. Sometimes it’s just one little line that comes through and it’s important to document them before they disappear into the ether again. Then you can go into a session with your friends and say ‘Hey, I had this idea and I’ve got a line and a melody.’ So sometimes they start like that, but not always…
“We were playing in Dublin one time and I couldn’t go to sleep, it was four o’clock in the morning and I was riled up from the show as it was so much fun. I wrote a song called Who Hid The Whiskey from the top down in that hotel room and it’s become the closer for all of our shows and it’s this really silly drinking song.”
What was it like when you entered that world of co-writing and how do you find it now?
“I just had to not think about it. I knew that I had to write an album that was me. I couldn’t write an album as a character, it had to be me. So I had to go deep. In the beginning I just had to not think about my inhibitions, you can’t. It’s like being an actor, you have to put yourself in a really vulnerable position and be able to access that at all times. I didn’t have the spare time to get self-conscious about it.
“I’ve become friends with all of the writers on my album – Wyatt [Durette] who wrote Let It Rain with us, Amy [Wadge] who wrote Little By Little and Doors & Corridors, and Justin [Halpin] who wrote Warrior with us. I’ve never made an album before but in my head I can see every room that we wrote every song in. Hotel rooms and living rooms, sitting round our kitchen table in Nashville, places all over the world, and I see the faces of the people that we wrote them with.”
In a weird way, it sounds as if your acting abilities helped you be yourself during the writing process…
“I get what you mean. In the beginning you might have to tell yourself that you’re fine but then it becomes, ‘These are my friends and we’re going to sit here and we can talk about anything.’ We don’t just write songs for me, we write songs for them as well. You just get to know each other on an intimate level. I don’t know if it’ll ever be easy because I don’t allow myself to get comfortable, I always have to be doing something to evolve. It’s always a joy even when we’re writing about sad stuff.
“There’s a song called Aves’ Song which is about my best friend. I said to Brandon and Wyatt, my two trusted friends, ‘I have a story that I need to tell about my best friend,’ and I told them that a long time ago somebody made her feel so worthless that she decided she didn’t want to be here anymore but somehow she found a way to love herself enough to recover from that sadness. It’s a story which still makes me tear up, because I don’t know what I would do without Ave, but the more you open up and write about these things the more comfortable you get.”
There are some songs on the album that you didn’t write, how did you choose them?
“Sweet William was something that Josh bought to me which I thought was so beautiful. It’s about love that never stops and never giving up if you have to do something for the person you love. I thought it was so simple and so gorgeous. With Grace Of God & You, Lori McKenna is a hero of mine, she’s amazing. Lori’s one of the most down to earth people, I loved Humble And Kind when Tim McGraw cut it and her version is gorgeous. She writes songs straight from the very fabric of her soul. Because I know her a little and know how wonderful she is, that was a big part of why the song spoke to me. It’s just a beautiful song which reminds me of my parents.”
Warrior struck as a particularly inspiring song, is there a specific story behind it?
“I grew up in the Australian bush and in a children’s hospital, so wasn’t really socialised in a conventional sense. It was more animals than people and then very sick children. I realised I’d never written a song about those children that I grew up with, most of whom didn’t get to grow old because we were in a terminal ward, and their families. I was in a situation whereby somebody passed away literally every day. It leaves something with you having an experience like that. I watched a lot of people fight through stuff that no person should have to fight through and they were so incredibly brave. Watching people find some good in a horrible and harrowing situation was an inspiring thing to see.
“I knew that it was not an easy subject to write about because all of those people are so close to my heart but I said to Brandon and Justin, ‘I have this song that I need to write about the kids,’ and they were like, ‘Oh boy,’ and teared up almost immediately but said they’d write it with me. That’s the thing, I have these wonderful people who will go there with me, even when the stories are hard to tell. We started to write and as we wrote I realised there isn’t a single person out there who hasn’t been through something. I just started to realise how many people out there might be feeling alone.
“Warrior turned into something bigger than what it began as, but it will always be rooted in where it came from originally. Just to be able to reach out to people and say, ‘There’s a whole lot of people out there who are just like you and it’s going to be okay.’ Sometimes just recognising that someone is struggling and validating all of the feelings that they’ve been going through is the best gift that you can give them.”
It’s clear that the relationship with your audience is so important to you…
“Music is what happens when words are not enough to express what you’re feeling and I think because I share a lot of my life, and not just the fun stuff but the hard stuff as well, it makes people more comfortable telling me things. People share their stories and they come and hang out and it’s nice to be able to be human with people, it’s what it’s all about. I think it’s important to include as many people as you can in your thoughts. Everybody knows their own warrior, it might be themselves and that’s okay
“One of the things I love about songwriting and the live shows in particular is saying, ‘You know what, it’s okay to tell people you’re not okay.’ I try to give people a safe place and an outlet. They don’t have to say anything; they can just roll about in the music. I just want to put more good in the world.”
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Clare Bowen’s debut album is out 31 August. For details of her UK tour head to clarebowenofficial.com