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Troy Cassar-Daley on not playing it safe, turning tragedy into song and 'The World Today'

17 March 2021 | 5:37 pm | Mallory Arbour

Troy Cassar-Daley discusses his the release of his eleventh studio album, The World Today and how hitting rock bottom inspired its lyrics and sound.

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If you’re a fan of country music, then you’re probably familiar with Troy Cassar-Daley. He’s released a total of eleven studio albums, achieved a staggering 32 number one chart singles, and been awarded numerous accolades including 37 Golden Guitars, 4 ARIA Awards, 3 APRA Song of the Year Awards, 9 Deadlys (Australian Indigenous Artist Awards), 4 CMAA Entertainer of the Year Awards plus 2 NIMAs (National Indigenous Music Awards).

Troy is set to release The World Today - his most personal album to date on March 19th. Produced by Matt Fell, the album tackles themes of grief, sadness, anger, love, passion, and acceptance, while finding a will to grow stronger and move forward. The lyrics touch on the tragic loss of his father and friend both to suicide in 2019, and troubles in his 25-year marriage, as well as being unable to tour and provide for his family during the pandemic, which left him feeling lost, alone, and hopeless. Trust me when I say, it is bound to surprise people!

We spoke to Troy to find out how some of the most trying times in his life inspired the latest record.

Your eleventh studio album, The World Today is due for release this Friday. I’ve been a listener of your music for quite some time, but overall I found the album to be surprising with unexpected hints of Americana, outlaw kind of sounds and profanity. Was the overall sound and themes of the record a conscious decision, an experimentation or something that happened organically?

It was something that happened organically. I didn't want to make the same record I've made the last three records. I think it was time to wake up and make something quite different. I wanted to make more of an Americana record. I'd written a couple of songs for [lead vocalist of the rock band, Cold Chisel] Jimmy Barnes on his last record, and that had an influence on me. It inspired me to explore a little bit more of the rock side of what we do. Because I think sometimes you have to actually go there and stop being safe. And I wanted to make an album that wasn't safe.

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Even with [rock musician] Ian Moss, the day we wrote the song South. To use a swear word in a song was something I haven't done much of. But, I'm a normal bloke. I do swear – and you ask my kids, I'm probably the best swearer in the family! But when it comes to putting it in a song that needs to be conversational. I said to Ian that “it just fits there and I'm going to leave it” … even though I threw him under the bus, and he sang it [laughs]!

The album tackles themes of grief, sadness and anger, so I certainly wouldn't describe it as being "safe" …

[laughs] I don't know if a lot of people are going to be scared of this record and I understand fully, but I think the good thing is that, if they read the bio and understand the frame of mind I was in and the things that I was going through, they'll fully understand what the themes of this record are all about.

It’s interesting ... I was talking to [musician and songwriter] Don Walker and he said, “The biggest skill as a songwriter is being able to tell other people's stories as good as you can tell your own.” I went through a dark time when I lost my dad. I’ve had troubles in my marriage. Some of my first cousins have been incarcerated, so there were some really interesting subject matters to explore.

Absolutely. It’s interesting too because during my first listen to the album, at the beginning you get those familiar Troy Cassar-Daley hallmarks but then you get to track 3, Parole and it just kicks into another gear! I’ve read your 2016 autobiography, Things I Carry Around and I couldn’t recall a criminal past, so I thought maybe a mid-life crisis or thinking about your misspent youth [laughs]. It wasn’t until I read the stories behind the songs where I really understood where you were coming from and your intent with the lyrics.

Absolutely. I'm sure this record is going to take people a couple of listens to understand where it's going. At that stage when COVID hit, I had The World Today, Be A Man and Doin’ Time. They were the three songs that were the conjugate and started the whole ball rolling. But then, I did go back to looking back into my life and looking into my family's life as well, in a little bit more detail. And being able to write about it, it was the only place I feel comfortable. When I got into the middle of COVID and had no shows, I had all this time, and all these emotions that are going on inside me that had to come out on this record.

But I think that those sorts of songs come out when you doubt yourself and you doubt what's going on with your life. I think this record was inspired by those times – and they are quite depressing at times – but I wanted to make sure I painted enough light to get people out as well. Because when you make it to the other end, you can put your arms in the air and go, “I've got here!” We've all had our battles, and it’s a privilege as a songwriter to be able to articulate it in music. It’s probably the only way I can really let people know how I feel. I can't really articulate that a lot. I think that’s probably normal, and the only way to bring things back in to my heart was to write about it.

The record was produced by award-winner, Matt Fell from Love Hz Studios – what was the experience like working with him?

Making it with Matt was a really a great experience. I normally have been producing records myself and because the content of this record was a little bit more dark, it needed a little bit more help. It reminded me on my youth a bit, and it's good you picked that up. I think it took me back to days where all I had was a car, a couple of guitars and a duffel bag full of clothes. And the simple times are the ones that you sometimes reflect on when you're reaching out for some help.

When Matt agreed to do it, and writing for Jimmy Barnes, was really what got this album up and running. I had 25 songs to record and I had to get it down to 14. And I had an instrumental on there – and it's probably been my second one in my whole career.

The song in which you speak of is Drive In The Dark (Be A Man) which, at seven minutes long, has a three and a half minute electric guitar instrumental introduction. Which again, is unexpected – and actually my favourite on the record. Where did the idea for the song come from?

Well, a friend of mine took his own life – he was a great guitar player – it was for him. I know he'll probably be up there looking down going, “I'm so glad you did it!” because we both love that style of playing. The friend didn't tell anyone obviously what he was doing, and everyone was driving around in the dark looking for him – and that was where the title came from – Jimmy Barnes’ first book is the second half of that song.

When I first read Jimmy’s book Working Class Boy, I was gobsmacked at how someone can get through a childhood like that and have some sort of normality in their life. When you look at abuse, like Jimmy talked about candidly in his book, it was the sort of thing where you go, “I'll try and write a song about that.” I wrote three songs with him, and two of them made it on his record and one of them I didn't finish. This was the one I didn't finish. I thought out of respect for Jim, I'd like to finish the song.

We, as people, sometimes instinctively internalise when dealing with feelings and/or emotions which are overwhelming to us. I’ve spoken to many musicians who have said that they use songwriting as almost like a therapy. However, it’s one thing to write about and another to keep having to talk about it at shows and sing in songs. How difficult is to relive those moments?  

It is hard to relive. Writing a song, your hearts always out on display. I've never written a song where I haven't put my heart and soul into it. These stories are personal, and they were hard to write. People are in for a wild ride on this record, and I want to make sure they at least give it a couple of listens, so it embeds into their brain and heart, because it's not what's expected. But that's what I love about it!

I could have gone and made a safe record that was just like the last three that I've made, or I could venture off, get a producer, and write what's in my heart and in my mind right now. COVID helped a lot of that. Losing my dad helped a lot. Losing my friend, who was one of my best friends and guitar players did a lot for that as well. But also, the struggle in our marriage. There are so many times where people paint the rosiest of pictures on Instagram and Facebook and everyone thinks their life is perfect, but it's far from perfect as you can get, and a lot people cover up a lot of shit. And to me, it's important to be honest and I've been honest with the release.

That's shocked a lot of people, even the closest friends of mine, they say, “Are you sure you want to put this stuff out there?” And I am. I'm absolutely comfortable with it. I am at peace with it. I'm on the other end of it. But if you use music as your absolute brain saver and therapy, I'm totally good with it. If it's affected you in certain ways, and there's things that have happened in your personal life that you may be able to draw a comparison from, then you've done what you're supposed to do as a songwriter anyway. I'm really glad it's resonating.

And with helping yourself by writing these songs you’re probably unintentionally helping others too, which is always a great thing. But given the overall vibe of The World Today, do you think you’ll experiment with these heavier and darker themes moving forward? Is this album just a stepping stone into – as you say – more of a full Americana release?

Well, you know how I love to play live? I think part and parcel of playing live is to make sure that you're playing stuff that has some energy – whether it's a dark energy or whatever it is. Sometimes when you're playing live you need some songs that are great to play and have a strong message. Back On Country, for instance, is a very positive song about unity and I wanted something like that to be the flagship of the record to start it off and people on the journey of what this record is about.

The live show is going to really represent a lot of things that come from this record and it could be a step in a certain direction too. I've always been a mad guitar fan and it's me playing most of the guitars on just about the whole record. And I think it's time to probably explore that as well.

I've never explored it. I've let Brent Mason, people in Nashville and my friends here in Australia take the guitar parts, but I'd play them live. But this time, I wanted to record them in the studio and make sure I was a proper part of the production and that means being the guitar player in the band. It's a way to express yourself and if there's more of that to come on future records, then I'm in – I loved it!

In some of the songs, you almost have like a rough and grungy kind of texture in your voice that I haven’t heard you do before, but which I think works really well and are worth exploring.

The singing part of it was the most emotional record I've made. There were times where I had to stop the track and collect myself, because where it's an emotional thing to sing, was very upsetting. I'm not afraid to say I broke down in some of the vocals. Some of the cracks and hisses you're probably hearing in those vocals are probably me trying to get my shit together [laughs]. And vocally, it was just all me. There's no trickery. I wanted to make sure that the centre of the whole record was the fact that it can be just honest. If you hear the honesty in there, I take that as a huge compliment.

Lastly, you released your debut album Beyond The Dancing in 1995, however, your 1997 follow-up, True Believer is referred to as your breakthrough, given how it charted and received an ARIA nomination for ‘Best Country Album’. Considering how music has changed over the past couple of decades, how do you think True Believer would fair in today’s modern country music market?

I don't know how it would go in this market, because this market’s quite poppy now as far as country, but there are still a lot of artists that love more on the lines of that hardcore country. I look back and I'm a little bit cringey on some of the songs. It was some of the first real songs I'd ever written. Everything before that, on the first record was a little bit green and inexperienced. And that's what life's all about – You've got to start somewhere.

I reckon out of that record; I probably sing two or three of the songs off it. Ladies In My Life, we get requests for all the time, and Bar Room Roses – which is a real hardcore country song – is asked for at nearly every gig, which is the strangest thing because you'd think there are still traditionalist out there that love traditional country music. I love it as well and singing The World Today is as traditional as I get on this record.

But I think people will understand that there are many, many sides to musicians and it's just so nice to be able to share the other sides with everyone. It's quiet a journey from that record to this one, I'm going to tell you [laughs]. I did learn a lot on the second record, and I think I've learned a lot on this record. So, isn’t it nice to get to this stage of the career where you can still say you're learning stuff?

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