For rising country music star, Sarah Head, singing is like breathing but, as she tells JEN COWLEY, she’s fast getting used to the idea of adding song-writing to her title.
It’s Friday night after a long week at work. There’s an early autumn chill in the air, but inside the front bar of the iconic old Dubbo pub, the small but cheery crowd is beginning to heat up. It’s nine o’clock and they’re well on their way to feeling no pain.
The barmaid is handing ‘round leftover cake from a birthday bash earlier in the evening, and there’s a couple in the corner who really should be heading for the privacy of home by now.
No-one’s taking much notice as a pretty brunette steps up to a microphone set up in the corner. She doesn’t care. She’s right where she wants to be – singing and playing her guitar.
“Thanks for coming out tonight,” she says almost gently, and proceeds to belt out a country rock song with the kind of gusto that turns every head in the room.
You don’t ignore Sarah Head.
It’s been a stellar, pinch-yourself kind of year for Head – a Narromine born and Dubbo raised singer songwriter who divides her time between her home town and Queensland’s Gold Coast.
The upper reaches of the country music industry are beginning to discover what fans back home in the Central West of NSW have known for years – the girl can sing.
Her voice is sensational – a combination of smoky soul and ballsy grit – and her stage presence is engaging.
But it’s her increasingly acknowledged skill as a songwriter that is really making the industry – and fans of the genre – sit up and take notice of this unpretentious 27 year old.
Last weekend in her hometown of Dubbo, Head performed as one of the finalists in the inaugural My Song Contest, which drew entries from all over the eastern seaboard.
While the ultimate gong went to a young Melbourne pianist and songwriter, Head – perhaps the most experienced of the finalists – is thrilled with having been included in the line-up.
“One of the great things about it was the diversity of the singer-songwriters,” she says of a cohort that covered the spectrum of genres. “It must have made it hard for the judges, because all six of us were from different backgrounds and experiences and genres.”
Her entry – a song called Anywhere but Here, about domestic violence – struck hard on the audience’s chord, particularly the women in the crowd. It was the first public airing of the song, and Head is pleased but perhaps not surprised that both the lyrics and the ballad’s gentle delivery touched people.
“Every time I songwrite, I try to tell a story. Whether it’s my story, or the story of someone I know, or even about an issue in society – which was the case with this song. The idea of being trapped – physically and emotionally – by domestic violence is something that I imagine would make a woman, or a man for that matter, want to be anywhere but in that situation – hence, Anywhere but Here.
“This woman feels she can’t leave but she knows she has to, particularly for her baby’s sake. For me, that’s the story of domestic violence and it’s the reality of some people’s lives.”
It’s that connection to real life that Head aspires to maintain through her songs, and her credo is to always try to reflect reality. It’s a smart goal, given that success in any field comes through pressing an audience – or customer – touch point.
“Well, exactly,” she smiles. “The point is that everybody has a story. And in the case of Anywhere but Here, that story isn’t a happy one. I guess the point is about not judging people until you know their story.
“In this song, I was just trying to shed light on that.”
Sarah Head performing at the My Song Award in Dubbo last weekend. Photo: Dubbo Weekender/Hayley Ferris
The most important element of a song, says Head – whose first EP, Girl Like Me, has been a happily surprising success with her single Nothing Left to Play having reached CMC’s (Country Music Channel) top 50 – is the lyric.
“So I try really hard to not make it cliché – I try to think outside the square and delve to a bit deeper level than just the surface of an initial idea.”
It’s a question people often ask, apparently, but Head says the old ‘chicken and egg’ thing – music or lyric? – depends on the individual.
“People who are maybe stronger musically, or on the guitar, for instance, would probably write a melody first. I generally write the lyrics first, then put down a melody and then rework them.
“But then, with Anywhere but Here, I came up with a line, then put a melody to it, then came up with another line and then reworked the melody so it was a bit of an mix. I just take each song as it comes. I don’t know if there is a set formula really – I think it’s what works for you.”
Songwriting, she says, is an evolutionary – and sometimes protracted and frustrating – process. How long does it take to write a song? That’s like asking how long is a piece of string, apparently.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to force creativity. Some days I’m in the zone and I can sit there and write a song within an hour or two. Other times I might come up with an idea and I might be working on it for a few weeks, or I might even put it away and come back to it months down the track. The main thing with songwriting is you never throw any ideas out. You can trial them and sometimes they don’t resurface ever,” she laughs heartily.
Sometimes it takes a real life experience to trigger the eventual birth of a long gestated song.
“You’ll go, oh okay – that can work now. I know where that can go – and I have the authority to write about that now,” she says, adding that credibility is vital.
If it’s credibility she’s looking for, being one of only four finalists in the famed country music festival’s Star Maker quest this year won’t hurt. It’s a gong she’s added to an already groaning mantelpiece that also holds a top five finalist award for the Australian People’s Choice Awards’ Most Promising Future Star of 2013, and the 2012 Star Maker finalist award.
With a talent that’s all but God-given, Head is “basically” self-taught – having learned most of the trade through hard earned experience. She’s a graduate of the 2007 Australian College of Country Music (a professional development initiative of the industry) and she has “a great guitar teacher, Stephen Carter” on the Gold Coast, but her skills have been otherwise honed through a love of her music, and a determination to make a career of it.
Sitting alongside her music industry awards is a Bachelor of Arts (in communication – media arts and production) and a Master’s Degree in Digital Media.
“I also did a Graduate Certificate in Business at the same time, during my masters, just because I could,” she deadpans, then roars laughing when the cheeky admission raises my eyebrows.
In her increasingly scant spare time, Head is an accomplished graphic designer and while she’s good at and enjoys her freelance work in the publishing industry, music is her real passion.
Winning that finalist’s berth at this year’s Star Maker quest has given her the final confidence boost she needed to really chase down her dream – which will this week take her to country music’s Mecca, Nashville in the US.
There, she’ll be teaming up with American singer songwriter Chase Allan, who sought her out after hearing her music and with whom she’s hoping to collaborate on a songwriting project.
Nashville, she says, is the pinnacle.
“Particularly songwriting. The best in the business all live in Nashville. It’s the place to go for co-writing experience.”
Head takes a deep breath and doesn’t answer for a long moment when I ask if she’d rather be known as a singer or as a songwriter – and she finally goes for an each way bet.
“I would probably have said as a singer because that’s what I’ve known the whole time I’ve been doing this. But the more I do songwriting the more I’m starting to get it. So now I’m, like, well maybe I’ll start calling myself a singer/songwriter...”
As rewarding as the year has been, Head knows there’s a long road stretched out in front of her.
“But you have to have the courage to take that first step and really push yourself. Maybe that’s the difference between whether people make it or not. I mean, you have to have a work ethic, a passion, a relentless drive.
“But you need to have your head screwed on too,” she shrugs. “You need to have access to a reality check every now and then. That’s why I went to uni to get a degree – that’s my foundation.”
Music industry heavyweights have been known to chide aspiring artists for having “a back-up plan”, but for Head, it’s just a matter of being realistic.
“You have to pay the bills on the way up.”
Sarah Head’s music, like others of the genre who are achieving success with a more diverse fan base, straddles the divide between pop/rock and country – to the extent that she describes herself as “modern contemporary cool country”.
“That’s the beauty of country music now. There’s a lot of blurring of the lines and there’s that chance to reach such a diverse range of people because of that blurred line. It’s not just ‘country and western’ any more – no one who sings country ever calls it that,” she grins.
By 11 o’clock, Head’s crowd at the pub’s front bar is growing – in size and enthusiasm.
There’s a group of hard core fans she says shows up to every one of her local gigs, and they’re clearly relishing the opportunity to get up close and personal with their idol – dancing, singing along and brandishing her poster.
She good naturedly stops mid-song to pose for a photo with one of her ‘groupies’ and laughs when they ask her to sign her poster... which they’ve handed over upside down.
She’s so natural it’s not hard to see why she has a loyal and growing fan base – and it’s equally easy to imagine that she won’t be singing covers for long.
More and more people are requesting her own songs during live gigs – and Head admits it’s an unequalled thrill.
“It’s probably the coolest thing ever. Particularly songs you’ve recorded or written. For people to be dancing around in the bar, first of all yelling out for your song as opposed to a cover, then proudly standing there screaming the words louder than you over the microphone... like, it’s a really cool thing,” she laughs.
It’s equally cool, she says, when she hears herself on the radio or sees her film clip on the Country Music Channel.
“One day I was doing work and I had CMC going in the background. Then I heard the start of the song and I thought yeah, I know this one...then I realised it was my song! I just went, oh my God! That was a surreal moment,” she laughs again.
I remark that she’s clearly having fun. That she obviously loves singing.
“I do – absolutely. It’s just like breathing, I guess.”
Scroll down to see Sarah Head's performance at My Song
Disclosure: Sarah Head is a graphic designer for Panscott Media – publishers of Dubbo Weekender.