With her latest release, Campfire, Kasey Chambers draws a tight circle around the music, landscape, people, and stories that have shaped her and her work most profoundly. In doing so she invites all those who may feel lost in a cold, cultural wasteland of acidic art and warring tribes to gather and warm themselves.
When Chambers first appeared on the music scene back in the late 1990s, it was after years of seasoning in the backwoods of Australia’s Nullarbor Plain. She and her brother spent their childhood living out of a car as their father hunted foxes and lived off the land. For them, the campfire was no special occasion. It was a nightly affair, the heat on which they cooked their meals and the light around which they gathered. On her recent Campfire Tour, which I was fortunate to see on its final night at Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley club, Chambers shared stories and photos from this amazing time in her life. In the middle of the stage a small pile of boards was stacked around an electric light. “Sorry about the lame campfire,” she teased at one point. “It’s the only fire Qantas would allow us to bring. I promise you the real thing was much bigger!”
Before she had a television or a computer or any real sense of what was going on in the rest of the world, Chambers had music. Her family listened to cassettes of the artists their father liked, which included Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Merle Haggard. They sat around the fire every night and sang songs. This album and tour was a longtime dream of hers. With her bandmates, The Fireside Disciples, sitting alongside her armed only with acoustic instruments, they replicated what it would have sounded like to sit around one of those fires and share songs. The old family photos projected onto a large screen behind them were the extent of the special effects. The evening was about intimacy, candor, and transparency.
Her set included several songs from the new album, but generously dipped into her significant catalog as well. She gushed about her excitement to be playing at 3rd and Lindsley, the place where she originally met her hero and musical influence, Lucinda Williams, some 20 years earlier. Her wide smile rarely left her face the whole night, even during the times she was wiping away tears. The unplugged treatment lacked for nothing. Chambers’ voice has grown only more powerful over the years, as has her songcraft.
The evening was about intimacy, candor, and transparency.
There was a time when Kasey Chambers was considered to be the next big thing in country music—not only in Australia, but in America too. Buddy and Julie Miller, who were already regarded as vanguards of the emerging Americana scene in the United States, contributed guitar and vocal parts to four songs on her debut, which won a slew of awards in Australia and was eventually released by a major label internationally. Her song “The Captain” turned heads when it was used in an episode of The Sopranos, ironically entitled “He Is Risen” and aired on Easter Sunday, 2001. Chambers found herself opening for her heroes Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris as critics raved about this new singer-songwriter from Down Under. But despite her mad skills as a songwriter and her increasingly powerful voice, mainstream success never materialized.
Her 2001 song “Not Pretty Enough,” which may be asking a question of a lover or an industry, really captures the essence of Chambers’ wistful appeal. “Am I not pretty enough?” she asks, with a voice that’s just imperfect enough to sound human. “Is my heart too broken? Do I cry too much? Am I too outspoken? Don’t I make you laugh? Should I try it harder? Why do you see right through me?” From deeply personal reflections like that to more biblically anchored ruminations on the implications of sin, the guiding principle behind all of her songs is brutal honesty told with grace.
In her memoir, A Little Bird Told Me, Chambers revealed details of an eating disorder, a miscarriage, failed relationships, and a nervous breakdown. With a level of bravery that is increasingly rare in modern music, Chambers allows her wounds to inform her art in the most vulnerable ways. She throws the shutters open and allows light into the darkest places, and then tells us all how it feels. Instead of wallowing, her art brings her comfort and creates community with her listeners. These are the trials that turn to gold when we allow them to. In Chambers’ fractured voice, expletives and all, her biblical references and personal confessions sound more like genuine prophetic utterances than mere platitudes. This is the kind of music songwriters and pilgrims should be setting their compasses to.
In The Shaping of Things To Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church, co-author Michael Frost describes the way Australian ranchers keep their cattle from wandering away. The ranches in Australia, he explains, are so big that if fences were built, the first section would already be collapsing by the time the entire project was finished. Instead of focusing on barriers, he says, Australian ranchers provide good water. The animals will not wander too far from where they can get a drink.
Chambers’ Campfire is that kind of gathering place. True stories, sometimes told irreverently, other times with a sense of lament, are shared through lyric and music that acknowledge the broken places without surrendering to them. As Leonard Cohen sang, it’s those broken places that let the light in, after all.
In Luke 11:33-36, Jesus says the eye is the lamp of the body. When your eye is clear, the whole body is full of light, but when the eyes go dark, the whole body is full of darkness. The struggles Kasey Chambers has faced seem only to have opened her eyes to her own demons and the universal struggles of humanity. That wisdom has birthed the good water and warm fire of compassion, humor, and resolve. It might be a little light, but she lets it shine.
You can listen to a career-spanning Spotify playlist of Kasey Chambers’ music here. / Photo above by John J. Thompson.