A little over two years ago, Aussie alt.country thrush Kasey Chambers sat in the wings of her San Francisco venue, looking slightly pale and very much six months pregnant. Despite her condition, she’d undertaken a quick two-week tour of the States to tout her sophomore Warner Brothers set, Barricades & Brickwalls, but the only inconvenience she grumbled about was the way being pregnant forced her to wield her acoustic guitar in concert. “It’s a little uncomfortable, I’ve gotta tell ya,” she chuckled, leaning back in her chair until she found a relaxing angle. “I’ve been holding it out to the side and sometimes it comes down on top of me, so it’s a little weird. And,” she patted her rotund belly for emphasis, “it’s only been getting worse, as you can see.”
A few hours later—when Chambers took the stage with her guitarist father, Bill—things did get worse. Seated on a barstool, she began introducing her third number, a beautiful ballad called “Nullarbor Song” that detailed her vagabond childhood gathering fox and rabbit pelts with her parents and brother, Nash, on the Outback’s remote Nullarbor plain. As she strummed the first chord, it happened: Stress, the hot stage lights and the pell-mell road pace finally took their toll.
The expectant mother slumped over the mic, then slid from her stool, unconscious. The crowd gasped in horror. Bill Chambers tossed his six-string aside and raced to his daughter’s side. After several hushed minutes, she came to, and fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. Helped to her feet, she was escorted to her waiting tour bus, which raced into the night to reach her physician in Los Angeles. Needless to say, the show—and one the following night in Hollywood—were hastily cancelled.
It was frightening to behold—the hale Chambers, who grew up warbling Nashville country around the dingo-shadowed campfire with her family (who later recorded as the Dead Ringer Band), collapsed into an out-cold heap, unable to be revived for what seemed like an eternity. If there had been a clock on the wall that night, the audience could’ve heard every single second tick painfully by until Chambers finally sat up and groggily rubbed her forehead.
The incident, however, proved a turning point for the once wholly carefree Chambers. Today, she can’t help but laugh when she looks back on that fateful evening. “I didn’t think much about it when it was happening,” she giggles, as her third effort, Wayward Angel, is readied for American release after topping the charts in her homeland. “I didn’t really know what was happening, so it didn’t totally freak me out as much as it did other people. I started feeling a little bit faint, then I fainted, and it was very strange. I don’t even know how long I was lying there for.” She even entertained the notion of finishing the S.F. show. “When we got on the bus, I was like, ‘Ya know, I’m really feeling good now!’ And everyone was like, ‘No, you’re not—you just think you are, so don’t move!’“
Chambers did as she was told. “I went and had an ultrasound the next day, and everything was absolutely fine,” she recalls. “But the doctor said ‘Look, it’s really normal for pregnant women to feel like that, to feel dizzy and everything. But it’s just not normal for a pregnant woman to be standing onstage, playing music. You need a bit of rest—go home and be a normal pregnant woman for a while, and stop going out thinking you can do all of this.’”
Now 28, Chambers is the proud parent of a son, Talon, who just turned two. The banjo-plucked Wayward Angel’s title track is dedicated to him. And no, she laughs, she didn’t find his curious moniker in a Farscape episode (although she now watches the sci-fi TV series just to catch references to the Talon leviathan). Her significant other, Cori Hopper, stumbled across the name in a fantasy book. “And it was the only one we both agreed on,” the singer explains. “And when he was born, it was that name or nothing.” The childbirth, she adds, was a four-hour breeze. “I took the drugs they gave me, and it was the best move I made.”
When Talon—who’s already toured extensively with his reinvigorated mother—finally spoke his first word, it wasn’t “amplifier,” as you’d expect. “It was ‘Mom!’” Chambers says, beaming. “It was ‘Mom’ before ‘Dad,’ and I was very happy about that. But we haven’t toured here since last September, and it’s the longest amount of time I’ve ever had off from touring, so I’m getting really itchy feet.” A lengthy summer tour is on the horizon, she says. “And Talon’s gonna come with me. Which is gonna be really interesting, because he’s now two, and he’s running around and on the go all the time. So it’s gonna be … interesting.”
Indeed. But not as curious as the subtle changes coloring Chambers’ music since motherhood—and that scary night in the Bay Area. In her tinny, Dolly Parton-timbred trill, the artist sticks to the twang/blues/ballad schematic that made her 2000 debut, The Captain, an award-winning, multi-platinum smash Down Under. But what she’s warbling is drastically different. Defiantly, she announces her newfound confidence in “Stronger,” asserts that she’s actually much “More Than Ordinary,” and—in the gently plucked “Saturated” —humbly declares that she “never wanted anything but a record and a band / I never wanted anything I didn’t understand … I shoulda known better.” Cynically, she examines “Hollywood,” slashes her wish list down to a solitary “Pony,” and examines her existence with keen sagacity in “For Sale”: “If I fall any harder this time / If I dig any deeper, Lord, what will I find … not everything about me is for sale.” And, of course, there are a few hoedown foot-stompers “Bluebird” and “Follow You Home” added for good traditional measure.
Is the “falling harder” line a reference to what we think it is? Chambers can’t stifle a snicker. “Hey, that’s funny! I actually hadn’t thought about it like that. But yeah, maybe I should use that the next time someone asks me about it—‘In San Francisco, I fell really hard!’” And yes, she continues, she did pause long enough to reassess things. “And I honestly don’t think I would’ve done that if I hadn’t had Talon. This may sound terrible, but I find it easier to be more selfish now, where I’m like, ‘No, I can’t go out on the road because I need time with my family.’ And I don’t ever feel guilty about it. Because this is the real world, here where Talon calls me Mom. That’s what it’s all about, and it’s made me kinda stop and enjoy life a little bit more.”
So it was no surprise that the Nash-produced Wayward Angel turned out to be half joyful celebration, half self-affirmation. “And I felt like that when it was finished,” Chambers says. “Even though there are more ballads on this album than I’ve had on any other, I think there’s a bit more confidence there. It’s a lot less desperate-sounding.”
And though Antipodean country legend Slim Dusty passed away this year, Chambers happily reports that the twang scene is booming at home. She reveals that “a lot of my friends are in country music, and they actually tour and make a living off that, and it’s getting better all the time. There’s a lot more rootsier stuff getting on mainstream radio nowadays.” Which isn’t exactly where she’s coming from, she cautions. “I guess a lot of my favorite songwriters have been through the really, really hard life, with drugs and alcoholism, in and out of jail, lots of marriages.” Which pretty much describes Steve Earle alone. “Yeah!” Chambers exclaims. “But that sorta adds to [his music]—just living your life, and living a lot. I mean, I haven’t gone through my life having lots of tragedy. I’ve had hard times, of course, like everybody does. But I feel like I’ve lived quite a full life for somebody my age, and I guess that adds to my songwriting.”
Not long ago, when Talon was only a few months old, Bill Chambers dropped by his daughter’s digs in New South Wales and told her she’d been the same tender age when the family pulled up stakes and went fur-trapper mobile, roughing it in the wild for years and getting their supplies from passing trains. But one thing’s for certain: Kasey Chambers may have minor mishaps here and there along the touring trail, but she’ll never, ever have to shoot and skin her own supper again. “And I’m quite happy about that,” she says decisively. “Everyone’s always saying ‘Oh, it must’ve been really cool to live like that!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it was. For then.’ But there is no way I could do that now. I’ve gotten a little too accustomed to my hot shower every day.” When her dad rhapsodized about days spent living out of their car on the Nullarbor, not seeing another living soul for weeks on end, she says, “The funny thing was, I kept thinking ‘Oh, my God! I hardly even wanna leave the house anymore!’”