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Courtney Keil chats production in COVID times

10 September 2020 | 12:02 pm | Mallory Arbour

Courtney Keil chats about her latest single I Just Wanna Hold You and all the wild mishaps around writing, recording and releasing the song.

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Courtney Keil couldn’t have picked a more apt title nor a more unique time in history to release her debut single, I Just Wanna Hold You. This release has been a long time coming, with Courtney winning Song Of The Year in the Pop and Country categories at the 2016 Australian Songwriters Conference.

The sound of the single is a throwback to the greatest ladies of the 90's and was originally intended to be recorded in Nashville, before her trip was cancelled two days prior due to COVID-19, meaning her team had to harness modern technology to keep the project moving forward remotely.

While the session musicians in Nashville jumped in the studio as Rod McCormack, the producer, virtually coordinated the project, Courtney watched on via video and once it was safe for her to travel to Rod’s studio – the Music Cellar – she added her vocals and the project was finally, thankfully, completed.

Last month you released your debut single, I Just Wanna Hold You, which you were originally meant to travel to Nashville to write and record, with the trip being cancelled two days prior to departure because of ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. How many songs did you end up working on remotely and what was the unique experience like not being able to physically be in the studio?

We did three tracks in total – singles that we're going to drip feed out over the next few months – I've got one that's smack bang in the middle, one that's more poppy, and then one that's a little more traditional. I thought I'd cover all bases [laughs]. Initially the plan was to do three or four songs in Nashville, instead we’ve done that all remotely. It was a little different to what I expected, but that’s okay, that can always happen down the track. Having technology at our disposal was such a blessing, considering I was still able to accomplish everything I needed by being on zoom and Skype, and I watched the band in the studio through a video link as well. So, I still got to play it out as if I was there. Obviously, not being in the room, it’s a bit of a shame but it still went smoothly.

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The flip side was I was sitting up at 4AM watching the band in Nashville. Thankfully they couldn't see me. I could only see them. I had a few video Skypes for writing and normally they started around 5AM, so I’d have a big cup of tea, PJs on the bottom and a jumper on top, and I’d quickly chuck a little bit of makeup on to look alive. Business on top. Sleep down the bottom.

I'd love to still be able to go in to the studio in Nashville and do that full experience. I've done a bit of recording in Australia, but it'd be great to do the full experience where you’ve got a whole band in the studio and you're interacting with them and seeing how they work. I think it's definitely something on the cards and because some of those musicians are so incredible, I'd love to work with them again.

At the time of recording this interview, the single has only been out for three days. Although quite early to call, it’s steadily building momentum and gaining traction. What has the reaction been like from the public and how are people taking to it?

It's been positive so far. I've had some lovely feedback and messages from people [and] had a couple of radio stations pick it up now, which is awesome. As a debut artist it's a nerve-wracking thing – “What if no one listens to it?” [laughs] – that's always in the back of your mind. I'm so thankful that everyone got their hands on a copy and it went to number one on the country iTunes charts, which was wild and totally unexpected. I'm very grateful so far and it's nice to now have music out in the world.

Hopefully people listen to it and then can draw some parallels of what they're going through [with covid] as well. I had a beautiful comment on my YouTube channel from a lady, 73 years old, that heard it on 3AW around 2am. She said, “I heard your song and absolutely loved it. It reminded me of my partner. I can’t wait to see him as soon as he can get out of Covid isolation.” I was like “Aw, that hits, that hits.”

You entrusted Rod McCormack – a Gold and Platinum award-winning producer – with production duties, were mentored by Gina Jeffreys, and used some of Nashville’s finest musicians including Shannon Forrest, Brent Mason, Dan Dugmore, Dave Pomeroy and Tim Lauer, who have won too many awards between them to count, on the single.
Many artists release music that essentially goes nowhere as no one ever gets to hear it. Given the early success of your single, do you think part of why it is doing so well is because you worked with many well-established names in the industry?

Yeah. Firstly, working with Rod McCormack as my producer, to have his expertise and mentoring through the process has been awesome. And then his wife, Gina Jeffreys, who is also an absolute country music superstar, has also been mentoring me, so to have the two of them guiding my path has helped immensely, and I do not think I would have been able to get halfway through this process without their direction. But the musicians, that I had on the track, are some of the best in in the world, so to have them involved as well obviously helps. Working with incredible people makes you want to then be better and push as hard as you can because they've all put their names to it.

The sound of the single is a throwback to the great country ladies of the 90s. What is it about 90s country music you’re drawn to and how do you think it differs from country music today?

The biggest thing is country music today, it's got so many different facets to it. Everyone’s doing something different, which is awesome. Some of it is really poppy, some of its very traditional, some of its alternative or rocky. I think 90s country – especially the ones that I love like Trisha Yearwood, Shania Twain and Faith Hill – they were very modern for their time but still have that very underlaying traditional country sound to them and that's something that I like to carry across into my music. I've got the contemporary sound [with a] poppy edge to it, but I've still got pedal steel in there to give it that country flair that made up some of those great records.

As mentioned earlier, you were meant to write and record overseas before Covid-19 hit, but you have visited Nashville twice before. What is it about that city that sees so many Australian country artists and fans alike to flock to it?

It's a unique city and colourful city. The first year I went, the first few days I was a bit of shell shocked because the city literally revolves around music – not just country music – but there's music everywhere you go. Even the trash cans have music playing on the side of the road! Everyone is so talented, like your taxi driver can probably sing and write a song better than you can! [laughs]

It's super strange because every single place you go into is music related nearly, so that was a bit to take in. The first time I was wrapping my head around it and to understand how it all works. Then I started building some friendships, and more of what draws me back there is the amazing people. And you’re in the south, so everyone is very chatty and friendly. But for me, the reason I want to keep going back is being in a place that is literally revolving around music is cool.

Is it intimidating though if even your taxi driver can hold a decent tune?

A little bit. At first, it's like, I'm a very small fish in a very big pond [laughs]. But more than anything, it's inspiring because there's so much music going on around you that it then makes me want to do that or to try that. It encourages you to then be better and keep bettering your craft at the same time.

How did the opportunity to first go to Nashville come about?

It was something I'd been thinking about for a few years because I went to Tamworth for the first time in 2016 and went to the Academy of Country Music. I loved that and I was like, “Is this is my space. I fit in here. I love this stuff. I've done Tamworth, I would love to go to Nashville.”

It took a few years, because I went for the first time in 2018. I was chatting to my Mum. She’s like, “I found online that there's a song writing workshop that you might like to go to and correspond the trip with.” So, I did that with the Nashville Songwriters Association International and that was fantastic. It was a good way to go there without going with nothing to do [and] an awesome way to get an insight into the industry. I decided to go back again last year, did the same conference, but then started writing as well.

So, you go to Nashville and Tamworth which are both country hubs and then you come home feeling upbeat and inspired to create your own music, the only problem is you return to Melbourne where country music isn’t exactly the most widely accepted or liked genre of music, let’s say, especially in the city and suburbia. Is that the vibe you feel too?

Yeah, definitely. I'm like, “If you just listen to it, you'll realise it's not traditional, that a lot of people think of when they think ‘country’.” Mine's a little bit contemporary. I like to keep the classic sounds and instruments, but I want to try and open people's eyes to a new world of country they will actually like.

Growing up in Melbourne, did you feel any prejudice or backlash towards your taste in music?

I grew up going on horse riding camps. I'd go away for a week to a western-style camp during school holidays and that's the music that was playing so there. Then I'd come home and loosely listen to it – I wasn’t as avid a fan as I am now - but it really came out when I was studying music in 2015. I did a Diploma of Music Performance and one of my friends was like, “You sound a little country when you sing. Sing a country song for one of your assignments and see what you think.” And I did and was like, “Yeah, this is where I fit.” I struggled to find what I was and then once I found that I fell into country, I was like, “This is me. I've just gonna own it.” And most people have been encouraging. One of my teachers was very encouraging the whole way through and was like, “Go for it. Do the country thing.” And even some of my friends that say they hate country music will listen to my music, which is nice.

Has a career in music been your main goal and focus since graduating in 2016?

I’ve been pretty focused on music. I worked in motorsport for a couple of years, which is the complete opposite direction to music. But I grew up around the sport [and] my family's always been heavily involved in it so I was like, “I need to get some income behind me so I can afford to do music at the same time” so I went down a motorsport path, worked for a car manufacturer and spend a lot of my weekends at racing events. But I came to the decision [that] I could easily keep doing motorsport, because it's fun and I enjoy it, but music is where my heart truly lies, and I need to take the plunge.

You were born on a working deer farm in South Australia, before moving to Auckland and then returning to Australia. How many years did you spend in South Australia and New Zealand before settling in Melbourne?

Not very long. My parents had have lived in South Australia their entire lives. Once I was born, we were there for a year and then moved to Auckland for another 14 months. I've been in Melbourne since I was about three years old. All my family are in Adelaide, so that's where the roots are more than Auckland. It's a cool city. Every now and then we go over as a family and catch up with friends. I haven't been in probably two years, but I still try and get back – but Adelaide is more the priority.

Has music always been part of your life?

I would go from doing music classes to then a racetrack on weekends. It was very bizarre. I [also] did ballet, jazz, callisthenics and gymnastics as a young girl through most of my childhood, and I did a couple [of musicals] at school. I've done one outside of school, a junior version of Aladdin. I was a very blonde-haired Princess Jasmine, but it was fun, and I'd love to do more theatre somewhere along the path.

Lastly, if you could hold anyone right now who would it be?

Probably my grandparents because they’re living in Adelaide and I haven't been about to see them for quite a while now. They're getting a lot older and I'd love to give them a big hug as soon as possible.

I Just Wanna Hold You is out now.

For more in-depth interviews, check out here.