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Kirsty Lee Akers discusses unaired moments on The Block, bucket lists and new single

29 September 2021 | 4:16 pm | Mallory Arbour

We caught up with Kirsty Lee Akers to discuss how she spent her recent birthday, Dolly Parton, The Block, Nashville, her bucket list and her new single.

Kirsty Lee Akers

Kirsty Lee Akers (Kirsty Lee Akers)

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Proud of her Indigenous heritage as a woman of the Wonnarua people (Hunter Valley), Kirsty Lee Akers was born in the small town of Kurri Kurri, NSW. She first performed in public at three-years-old and recorded her first EP at 16. After graduating from the CMAA Academy of Country Music (2004 and 2005), Akers is the only artist in history to have won three of the major prizes in Australian country music – Telstra Road To Discover (2006), Toyota Star Maker (2007) and a Golden Guitar Award (2008).

She had success with her albums Little Things (2007), Better Days (2009), Naked (2011) and Burn Baby Burn (2016), and, in 2018, she released her fifth album, Under My Skin – her most successful album to date. The album, which saw her in the producer’s seat for the first time, landed at #3 on the iTunes Country and ARIA Australian Country Albums chart upon release (as well as #5 ARIA Country Album, #8 ARIA Australian Album, and #29 all-genre ARIA Albums chart).

Earlier this year, Akers took home her second Golden Guitar Award for her ‘Vocal Collaboration of the Year’ rendition of John Williamson’s True Blue with Amber Lawrence, Aleyce Simmonds and Dianna Corcoran. She also formed her own record label, Rider Records and is currently competing on season 17: Fans v Faves of the Logie award-winning renovation reality series, The Block with husband, Jesse.

Her new single, For Love was written in lockdown with Phil Barton and Bruce Wallace, and co-produced by Akers with Paul Bain, Issac Kennedy, and Dan Ebbels at the new Five Town Productions studios in Brisbane. Even though Jesse was the inspiration, the upbeat song tells a story of love in general, and all the things you would do for that “special” person.

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We caught up with Kirsty to discuss how she spent her recent birthday, how Dolly Parton inspires her, competing on The Block, her love of Nashville, crossing items off her bucket list and her latest single, For Love.

You and your husband Jesse are currently competing as one of the five couples on Season 17 (fans vs favourites) of Channel 9’s Logie award-winning renovation reality series. Has appearing on The Block been something you’ve wanted to do for a long time?

We've been big fans of the show for a long time. This year was actually the fourth time we've ended up applying. We first applied back in 2012 and then had a bit of a break, because we opened a cafe and I was travelling back and forth to Nashville, and we couldn't fit it in even if we wanted to do it. Then, the last three years in a row, we applied. Last year, we made the shortlist and almost made it on the show.

It was devastating to get the call to say, “Sorry guys, you haven't made the final cut.” I remember I was at the Tamworth festival in January, and I got this email to say we hadn't made it and I just started crying in Woolies by myself like a loser [laughs]. But we applied again this year and we're lucky to make it on. It's something we've always known would change our lives. We've seen what it's done for other contestants in the past and we're [also] huge fans of renovating! We've renovated a lot over the years and all our friends and family always said, “You guys need to go on The Block” “You'd be perfect for The Block” so that's really why we first applied.

We used to watch at home and think: “That looks pretty easy. I don't know what these contestants are whinging about all the time.” They’ve got tradies and money to do it, but the show doesn't do it justice. It's so much harder when you're doing it! When we watch it, we go, “They make it look bloody easy!”

Despite the series currently being on the air now, you stopped filming the series earlier this year – apart from the all-important auction in November which is filmed live every year. How would you sum up your experience of being on The Block?

Oh my god, it’s the hardest thing we've literally ever done! And, not just physically, but I'm someone who needs 8 hours plus sleep a night, and we were averaging three hours a night. Then, come the weekends, we would wake up on the Friday morning and wouldn't go back to bed again until the Sunday night. We had to have all-nighters to get all the painting done.

You don't see a lot of the work that we do on the show. They show all the drama, especially this year – there’s a lot of drama this year – and that's because during the day we aren't doing so much. Well, Jesse was, but most of my work would be at night time once the cameras left because you can't get in the rooms and paint when it's full of a camera crew. So, most of our actual hard work was in the night time and early hours of the morning when there was no camera so it's easy to see why people some people are watching going, “They don't do any work, it's so easy!”

Even during the day, you try to paint and then you'd get called away for an interview or some drama would go down and you'd have to leave. You’d come back half an hour later and your paint brushes and paint is all dried and you’ve got to sand it back and it's so frustrating [laughs].

Despite averaging three hours of sleep a night, from what I’ve seen on screen, you still look very well put together. Hair done and make-up on. Are you obligated to look perfect for the cameras?

No. Sunday is the only time we got our hair and make-up done. What would happen is, you'd renovate and film all week and then on Sunday at 9am it was tools down, so your room had to be finished. Then they would ship us straight off – we weren't allowed to be there when the judges came and did their judging. We'd go to HQ, which was a studio, and we'd all film our interviews (the stuff you see where we're sitting on the couch talking). That would take a couple of hours and that's the only time we’d get hair and make-up done, but I'm someone who is never going to go on national TV without my hair and make-up done, so if that means I had to get up half an hour early every morning, so be it! [laughs]

It was funny. The crew would film me in the morning doing my hair and make-up at 5am and they’d go, “I bet in a couple of weeks’ time you won’t be doing this.” I said, “You want to bet. We’ll see about that!”

Did you win the bet?

I got every morning and did my hair and make-up. I was like, “What would Dolly do?” I highly doubt Dolly would go on TV in front of a million plus people every night and not look half decent. I just feel better myself when I don't look as tired and haggard as what I was feeling [laughs].

Last year’s winners of The Block, Jimmy and Tam, took home $1,066,000 when their property hit auction – the biggest cash prize in Australian TV – after their home sold for $4,256,000. If you were to win the prize money, what are you planning to spend the money on?

It all depends on how much money we win. Our house right now is in the middle of [renovations]. We literally have got walls ripped out and a pile of gyprock sitting in our lounge room. Right before COVID, we said, “We didn't make it onto The Block the previous year so let's just get stuck in and renovate our place.” Literally, a month later, after as we started renovating, COVID hit, and we lost all our work. Like, “We can't continue to renovate because we need to use this money that we saved for renovations to live off” so literally, we've got so many half-done jobs all around the place. The only room in our house that's done, thankfully, is our bedroom so we can basically live out of our bedroom. The rest of the house is just a shemozzle all waiting to be finished so that'll be the first job we do if we win.

I try not even think about it because you don't want to think in your head “I'm gonna buy this and do that” because then what if you don't win a lot of money? You'll be devastated. All I keep thinking about is, if we win a decent amount, hopefully, let's pay off our mortgage and then that's done and taken care of, and to finish our reno, that'd be amazing. But of course, I want to go back to Nashville so I'm sure there'll be a little bit put aside for flights back to Nashville.

We want to win but most couples come out a winner. I think the ones that came last last year won nearly half a million dollars so you can't really sneeze at that. It does cost you money to do the show because you're away filming for three months and you’ve still got your mortgage and bills at home but you're not working technically. They just pay you a daily food allowance while you're filming the show.

Have you noticed an increase in your social media fan base since appearing on the show?

Oh my gosh, yes! It's funny when different things air. Last night, I had 600 [Instagram followers] in an hour. I can't keep up! It's great that the show's introducing a new audience to my music and especially introducing audiences to country music because, before I was on the show you might have one country music song that would be played when they're taking the piss out of the country bumpkins or whatever [laughs], but now, every single episode, four nights a week in front of over a million people every night, they play multiple country songs. I think it's amazing that audiences are getting introduced to so much more country music than what they would have before.

McDonalds has been one of the long time sponsors of The Block and contestants are regularly seen eating their products and/or drinking their McCoffee. My Mum is huge fan of The Block and, when I told her I was going to be talking to you, she wanted me to ask if you got sick of eating McDonalds all the time?

It's so funny, they haven't shown me eating much McDonald’s, but I literally ate it every second day. I hope they don't it because it’s gonna be embarrassing [laughs]. But it was free too, so you never get sick of free food! If I was a kid and someone told me, “You're gonna have three months where you get unlimited free Maccas, however much of you want”, I'd be like, “Oh my god, this is Christmas!” So luckily, I didn't get sick of it.

There was a whole big cheating scandal that went on at the same time as the episode of my birthday, so they didn't show the footage of my birthday but what happened was, Jesse took me out to McDonald's. Georgia and Mitch, because they know I love chicken nuggets so much, they organised a big nugget tower birthday cake for me. Foreman Dan came out as a butler and served me. They also had a lady playing violin and everyone's staring at us like, What the hell is going on over there?” [laughs]. It was so funny! It was a shame they didn't show it, but there was just too much bloody drama going on with the cheating scandal that week that they couldn't find time to fit it in.

You recently released your new single. Written in lockdown with Phil Barton and Bruce Wallace, and co-produced by Akers with Paul Bain, Issac Kennedy, and Dan Ebbels at the new Five Town Productions studios in Brisbane, For Love is an upbeat ode to your husband Jesse that tells a story of love in general, and all the things you would do for that “special” person. What was it about this song that made you choose to bring it out as your first new music release of 2021?

We were actually going to release an album last year but then COVID hit and I couldn't tour so we put it off for 12 months. Then we got into the studio around Christmas time last year and then after Tamworth, flew back up to Brisbane as well to get back in the studio and record and that's when we got the call to say we've made it on The Block. So, I've been wanting to release new music for a long time now. It's such a relief to finally have new music out.

I was meant to go to Nashville last year for a writing trip for the album but obviously that got cancelled, so the guys that I was going to write with over in Nashville, we decided to get on zoom. I'd never written like that before, and we wrote [For Love] over zoom. This is one that is literally just all about Jesse. I wanted to write a song that represented our love story. We've known each other since we were in primary school. We've been together since we're 16 so literally half of our lives have been together, and he's been such a big supporter and fan of my career and my music. When things don't go right, I get disappointed or opportunities don't end up happening, he's always there encouraging me to keep going and not give up. He's at every gig [either] backstage helping the band or he's selling merch. He doesn't get the recognition that he really deserves. I get all the recognition for my career but it's the team that keep the wheels turning and making things happen and he's a big part of it.

When it came time to choose the first single, this one really stood out to us. I produced the song in the studio with my band, so it was great to take the producer seat again and they also co-produced it with me. I wanted it to sound different than anything I've done before. I really don't like releasing the same thing year after year. I want a progression [while] staying true to my sound but also mixing it up a little.

When you listen to the production of this song, it has more of a 90s pop nostalgia feel to it. A lot of the instruments we use and percussion, it reminds me of Sheryl Crowe. But, when you take all of that away, the song, when I wrote it, was one of the most traditional country songs I've ever written. When I play acoustic, it's a real traditional country song, so it's funny to see how it goes from that to then [when] you step in the studio, experiment and see what you come up with.

How was the experience writing on zoom the first time and would you like to do so again in the future?

It was a good experience. After that first writing session on zoom, we ended up writing every single Tuesday on zoom for a whole year. We've come up with some amazing songs, and it wasn't much different to being over in Nashville. I missed that connection of being in the room together. On zoom, you sit and write the song, and it forces you to be more creative. Whereas, if I was over there writing you might write a verse and you go, “I'm not really feeling it right now. Let's go for lunch and we'll come back.” So, it was a different experience, but I think we managed to write just as many great songs as what I would have if I was over in Nashville. It saved me a lot of money too [laughs].

But in saying that, I love the whole thing of going over to Nashville. You write during the day and at night time, you watch amazing live music by artists I've admired my whole my whole life. I remember being in Nashville at times and you’re sitting around, and you look up what's in town: Brad Paisley is playing at the Nissan Theatre for only 50 bucks a ticket. There's so much amazing live music on every night of the week. So that's what I absolutely love about going over there and writing. I think the next writing trip, I'm really hoping that the borders are open, and I can get back over there in real life.

It's the most amazing place on Earth! I've grown up listening to country music my whole life and I'm totally obsessed. Just getting off the plane at the airport and George Strait is like on the speakers like, “Hey y'all. Welcome to Nashville, It's Georgie Strait.” I can't explain it. It can be 10am on a Monday and there's the most amazing band you've ever heard of playing in a bar for tips. It's just amazing!

It's hard because I love Nashville, but I just love Australia so much. I couldn't live in Nashville full time because I love being with family. I love my niece being able to call me and say, “Can I come and sleep over this weekend?” I would hate to miss out on that if I was over in Nashville full time. It's hard having your heart in two different places. It's gonna be one of those places where we, hopefully, if we're fortunate enough, get to holiday over there every year.

The accompanying music video has received a lot of attention as being a little steamy with scenes between you and your husband, Jesse. What was the idea behind the music video?   

It is a little bit steamy. The music video for this one, I made Jesse be in it because the storyline of it was a couple in love. I was like, “I'm not gonna be doing any of those things with anyone else!” So awkward. I had to force him to be in it. When it came time to make it, everyone else in New South Wales was pretty much in lockdown. We couldn't have any crew help us out like we normally would [and] we couldn't hire actors as extras or anything like that. So, we decided to film it, just he and I. We hired a little cabin in the vineyards about half an hour away from our house and spent the day filming us in loved up situations and a little bit steamy [laughs].

I've never done something like that before. And, of course, I haven't because I'm never gonna do something like that without anyone other than Jesse. I'm glad he agreed to be in it and if I'm being honest, I mean, I've got the total eye candy going for the ladies out there because Jesse's got his shirt off in all the scenes! It's a very nice sight [laughs] I'm doing a favour for all the girls out there watching.

How do you feel about other ladies checking him out?

I don't mind. He's used to it with other guys and me [laughs]. At the end of the day, we know that we're 100% committed to each other and I appreciate other females finding him gorgeous because he is. I've seen a few comments on Instagram where people are like, “Oh my god, Jesse's so hot!” and I'm like, “Hell yeah he is!” I often joke that Jesse wouldn't know what to do [if another woman hit on him] He'd probably say to her, “I'll have to go ask Kirst if it's okay.” We've been together so long it's so funny.

You mentioned earlier that evolution of sound – especially on your fifth album, Under My Skin which saw her in the producer’s seat for the first time. Do you think you would have had the confidence to co-produce your sixth album if not for that freedom of experimentation on Under My Skin?

When you're listening to Under My Skin, you can hear the evolution on that album from previous ones. Under My Skin was the very first album I produced myself and there was a lot of pressure on me at the time to come up with something great and not fail. I wanted to experiment with that one and we did it.

I was thinking about who to produce this next album then I was like, “I really enjoyed doing the last one, so I want to do it again myself.” But this time, I want to bring my band in on it and get them to co-produce with me because they're the ones that know my songs inside out. It was great to have them produce this album with me and it's definitely a progression. It just comes from not wanting to do the same thing twice and wanting to experiment and see how far we can push things without it being totally different genre of music.

I mentioned it in the introduction how Under My Skin is your most successful album to date. The album landed at #3 on the iTunes Country and ARIA Australian Country Albums chart upon release (as well as #5 ARIA Country Album, #8 ARIA Australian Album, and #29 all-genre ARIA Albums chart). Do you think part of the success of that album came down to you being in the producer’s seat and ultimately having more control over the production of it?

I think it definitely came into play. It's been my most successful album to date and I'd like to think that had a bit to play in it. I spent a lot of time writing the songs on that one and picking perfect songs … and same again with this album as well. I hate having to churn music out there really, really fast because you don't get the time to curate the songs that you want to create for the album. I love going into an album, instead of just having 12 songs to work with having at least 50 great songs that you want to record, but then having to cut it down and figure out what the best ones are going to be.

For Love is the first song to be released via your newly established independent record label, Rider Records. Is that correct?

Yeah, it’s exciting. Jesse and I have always wanted to create our own record label. It's been something on our bucket list for a long time now. When it came time for this album, we were discussing, what are we going to do. Are we going to hit up a label? Are we going to stay with the same label to release this one? And we thought, now's the perfect timing to do if we're ever gonna do it now when we have the time being locked down to create this label. And my manager, Perrin, it's always something he'd wanted to do as well so we spoke to him and we all got to talking about joining forces to create this label together. Of course, I'm the first signing of it, but once this new album's out on it, and hopefully it's successful, then we can look at signing other artists in the future.

You have spoken before about wanting to have more control over your career. Now, by having the record label, you’re going to be guiding other artists in their respected careers. If an artist wanted to do something that you felt was completely wrong, how would you try and steer them in a different direction?

I think one of the reasons we named the label Rider Records is because an artist rider is all about meeting the artist needs at shows – having their list of items they need to help them put on a good show. That's what the whole basis of this label. Being an artist myself, I have a different perspective on that. When we do sign new artists in the future, we're going to guide them, of course, and give them advice on what we think they should do but, at the end of the day, we're going to let their preferences come into play and decide as a group, because it has been frustrating – I signed my first record deal at 18 – being young and naive and not knowing the ins and outs of the business, and having decisions made for you that you didn't agree with at the time, but you're just too naive to sort of speak up.

I really hope that artists we sign in the future won't have that and they can feel like they can contribute as much as we do to the decision making. I have been asked a lot if I'd consider mentoring younger artists and this is definitely going to be a great platform to be able to do that.

During the COVID-19 lockdown you filmed a season of The Block, released new music and created your own record label. You sound like you utilized your time better than most others.

I have so much on my bucket list to do. I've also written two children's books that I really want to publish as well, and I've written a script for a TV show that we want to produce in the future. When lockdown first started, I remember I was just devastated because I'm so used to being constantly on the go. Having 101 things going to have everything just come to a halt, the first two weeks I was just walking around the house crying every day [laughs]. It was a real struggle for me.

But at the same time, it was a great time because I got to focus on all the things I've had on my bucket list that I want to do. I thought “hopefully, we're never ever going to have a time like this in our lives again” so you might as well make the most of the time and try and get some of those things ticked off that you've always put on the list of one day. Well, now is the one day basically. Those two children's books, I wrote them in lockdown. I got to write the script for the TV show in lockdown as well. So, fingers crossed, I have enough time in my life to do all them.

Keep up to date with Kirsty Lee Akers on her Facebook page here.

For more in-depth interviews from CountryTown, check out here.

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