With her warm smile, rich voice, blonde hair and big blue eyes, Beccy Cole is as every bit the ‘Poster Girl’ on Australian country music as you’d imagine. The South Australian-born country singer left high school in the 80s to tour with her mother’s country music band; 20 years later, now one of the country’s most loved female country musicians and with enough Golden Guitar Awards to make Kasey Chambers blush, Cole has finally come into her own. I spoke with Beccy about her latest album Songs & Pictures, her “musical and literal coming out”, and why she’s just started to feel herself at the cusp of turning 40.
Country music seems resilient, it’s always had a strong following and isn’t really affected by downloads or pirating or chasing trends like pop music is.
“The one thing about country music is it’s never bad as people think it’s going to be. A lot of people listen to it and think ‘Oh I thought that was going to be s**t!’ A lot of people come up to me after the show and tell me they’ve been dragged along and ended up having the best night. It’s not all ‘cowboys’ and ‘yeehah’ [laughs], it’s very cool singer-songwriter stuff. That’s definitely helped the acceptance of the genre and helped get it to the cities.”
What is the fan base like here in Adelaide and South Australia?
“Nearly 20 years ago I left Adelaide so that I could pursue this career somewhere else but certainly there are so many people in South Australia that may not have liked country music to start with but now do. I think there’s certainly a following here, as there is with most of the cities in Australia.”
I’ve always known country music to be popular in Australia, how does it compare overseas?
“Obviously the Mecca of country music is Nashville and the US. Our top artists here fill much smaller venues; the 25,000 people they get there for a country artist is more three or four thousand over here. It’s still a popular genre here despite the fact we don’t have mainstream country radio stations like the US does, but it’s a specialist and minority genre – if you like it, you like it. In Australia, there are half a dozen of us, maybe, that make a living out of it. Maybe a few more.”
Such a small number!
“It is a small number and there are a few that certainly make a living out of it, but have to supplement with other things. But really you can just count on one hand… John Williamson, Kasey Chambers, Adam Harvey, Adam Brand… Keith Urban has moved and is making his millions his own way [laughs] but having said that, I don’t complain about it. I run my career like a business. I love the creative side of it, but I am a businesswoman. You have to be savvy because we’re generally not as artists. We’re not as a drunk and out-of-it or as big business imbeciles as we used to be. If we don’t want to give someone else 20% off the top, we need to learn how to do it ourselves. And I love the satisfaction that that gives me. It feels good when I can say ‘This crowd is here because I did the marketing and I booked the TV spots’. When I say I did the marketing, I mean I pay her to do the marketing [points to publicist Deb Edwards]. She’s good! [laughs]”
How long have you been involved in the business side of music?
“It’s progressed to this point. From when I left my mother’s band when I was 18, I’ve had seven managers and it got to a point where I thought ‘Nope, I know enough, I can do this’. I’ve got someone in my office and someone who runs the art side of things, and my band members have all got other roles. My bass player is also my tour manager and my guitar player films and edits my videos. It’s important to have a team. I do put in decent office hours myself! It’s satisfying, because I forget that I’ve spent so long during the week working on the business side of things that when the weekend comes I can enjoy and appreciate it. It makes it very real and It makes the income more satisfying. You’ve got to find a balance and you’ve got to switch off. Because I’m a mother, I’m used to juggling and changing my different ‘hats’, the only thing that really suffers is a social life… or a love life! [laughs]
Obviously doing this for as long as you have has changed the way you write and perform from when you first started?
“I try not to be cynical… it’s easy to be like that in the music industry. Or any industry! At the same time I’m so grateful, I have to take time everyday to count my blessings and think ‘This is what I wanted to do when I was young’. And of course it’s not always like how you thought it would be when you’re younger. You think it’s going to be glamorous… and there’s an element of that, but longevity is what I’m aiming for now.”
I like that you mentioned the ‘glamorous’ side; when I told some friends that I was interviewing you, they said they loved your lips and were super jealous.
“Really? [laughs] Somebody asked me the other day if they were mine… Who else’s would they be? When I was a kid, it was a bit embarrassing to have such big lips. You’ve got great lips! It makes us great kissers.”
You’ve got such a great sense of humour about yourself, and it’s even translated into your music with songs like ‘Lazy Bones’ which was about your short marriage. As well as the more serious singer-songwriter material, is it important to keep a more fun and self-effacing side of music?
“I think you have to be like that. It counts towards your longevity too if you’re able to be self-effacing and have a giggle at yourself and your own experiences. It opens you up to being able to have a laugh at other areas of your life. And other people! [laughs] Dolly Parton was always the best at that. She’s always had a good laugh at herself and I learnt that from her. People love to laugh with you, it’s a huge part of being an entertainer. If you’ve got the audience laughing with you then they’ll won’t worry too much about your more serious or even political material… not that I’m a political artist by any means!”
Do you feel your new album Songs & Pictures is different to your other work?
“Musically it’s a lot more me. I might have been, what I call myself, poor man’s Nashville. By that I mean I was trying to be a lot more commercial than I really am. Being a singer-songwriter, you can still have singles that sound great on the radio, but as much as I love running around the stage and acting like an idiot, I also love songs and lyrics that are very real. Whether they’re real in their humour or hooks, but musically this album a whole lot more me. Maybe also a lot more mellow, but my show is certainly not mellow! In a way… it was my musical ‘coming out’ before my personal coming out. Lyrically, it was very open and honest and it led to the path that I eventually took. Every part of my life marries a little bit more to my music now whereas it didn’t quite before, and the music that I was a fan of wasn’t quite matching the music I was making until now. I think that’s why this album took a little longer too, because I wanted it to be completely me.”
It’s almost life imitating art in a way.
“You’re right! Which is good. It’s as much about hitting that 40 mark, I still have six weeks to go! But there’s something about hitting those milestones that makes you take a good hard long look. It’s like when you turn 30, you think ‘S**t there’s all these things that I haven’t done yet!’ I’m not as anxious at 40 than what I used to be. What I love about it is that in the old days, a woman at 40 in this industry would be completely written off. Gone. I feel like at 40 I’ve just started kicking! It was so funny being nominated for a Golden Guitar this year at Tamworth; out of the top 5 female artists there was myself at 39 and the rest were under 25 [laughs]”
You mentioned this album being your musical coming out; with your personal coming out, were there other factors that made you decide now was the right time?
The episode of Australian Story where you featured was just so incredibly courageous
“I think that Australian Story did a fantastic job. I really got the vibe from them from the very beginning that they were going to do a really good job of it, that they weren’t looking for any kind of sensationalist angle. They were just telling my story and let it unfold. I love that Australian Story doesn’t have narration and that it was just me telling the story. I was petrified; don’t get me wrong… but at the same time, it led to some great stuff with the music side of things. I’ve always been incredibly honest, so keeping that never quite felt right. While you get a lot of straight people saying ‘Why come out? We don’t tell everyone we’re straight’, and I understand and appreciate the acceptance that comes with them saying that, but they don’t understand how important it is. It’s important for our community and it’s important for me because there are a lot of people in parts of regional Australia who like my music or whose parents like my music, and if they think that it’s okay that I’m gay then it will be okay for others.
I’ve had so many heart-wrenching emails and I’m just starting to get through them. There are hundreds and hundreds… just people telling me their stories, because I’ve told mine. I absolutely don’t regret it for a second, and I feel like my son is standing taller because he’s not keeping a secret any longer. I wanted to show him that we live in a society where it’s okay for your mum to be gay and so far, that’s proved to be case. I hadn’t thought of what would happen beyond Australian Story, but I’ve had a lot of requests to be a spokeswoman as such. I’m doing what I can, I mean I’m still a country singer, I’m not going to become lesbian activist Beccy Cole [laughs]. I can only speak from my point of view, but at the same time I do believe we have a duty. I was hugely inspired by Magda [Szubanski] who recently got in touch with me. When she came out I thought that it was such a great thing for her to do. When I was approached by Australian Story I thought that would be the right place to talk about it. I didn’t think for a second they would put a big spin on it. It showed people exactly who I am.
Not that I didn’t cop a bit of flack from Family First… but that’s to be expected, I had to take a deep breath and move on. I don’t read any of that stuff anymore. Each to their own… but I’ve had enough positive support to completely outweigh any of the negative. I’m looking forward to coming back to Adelaide for Feast too!"
It's almost like this is a new and much more real part of your life?
"It really is. People have this perception of how we should look and act, as country singers and ‘dykes’ but at the end of the day, you’re just who you are. And it’s lovely to have an opportunity to change people’s perceptions, that’s the cool thing about it. I didn’t want to come out when I had a brand new album our or a tour to plug. It’s never been about the publicity at all.”
Special thanks to Deb Edwards Publicity