I don’t know Kasey Chambers personally, and likely never will.

After I saw the ARIA performance of of Not Pretty Enough/I Ain’t No Little Girl, and her induction to ARIA Hall of Fame, I feel immensely proud. Here’s why.

I first heard Kasey Chambers when I was a shift worker up in the Northern Territory (of Australia). Between 1am and 4am was always the hardest to get through as my body’s circadian rhythms were whispered through every fiber of my body, every pore: ‘sleep, sleep!’ Gah. I’ll never go back to that unless the money is BIG and the contract is short. We had Foxtel at work, and I’d often put it on the CMT (Country Music) channel to pass those slow hours.

On CMT they had nights where played upcoming artists, and that’s where I first heard Kasey sing The Captain. ‘Oh my gosh,’ I thought, ‘She sounds horrible — she can’t sing for nuts!!’ Her voice, which I first would have described as Screechy Nasal seemed to penetrate my ear drums — I used to turn it down when she came on. I wasn’t a fan of the noise she made, but couldn’t help admiring the honesty of her songwriting. I began to think, ‘Actually she’s ok’.

At work Back Then, Up There, I was known for my humour, energy, and outspoken ways. People used to say to me, ‘Where do you get all that energy from?’ I used to look at them sometimes and think ‘Fools: do you not see, or just not care’ — because I felt like I was an empty shell with nothing inside.

The Funny Girl (Ok that’s one of mine)

While the Funny Girl was cool, when the depression became so strong she couldn’t hold the veneer together, the workplace turned on her. She made mistakes she couldn’t remember making; she’d taken to sobbing uncontrollably and seemingly without any reason at work. She found herself with no friends, no support, no understanding: no one wanted to know. Secretly, she lay awake at night wishing she’d just fall asleep and never wake up, but was too scared to do anything to make this happen — she hated herself for this weakness she perceived. No one liked her, and there were a few colleagues who were quite literally out to make her lonely life harder than it already was.

The memory of just how mean people can be still hurts, as it turns out; there are tears in my eyes as I write. I switched to third person just then because it seems to be what I do in hard parts of my own story. From time to time I’ve thought I didn’t even identify with the Funny Girl anymore. Of course I do though. Of course I do; she’s still in there. (She’s much happier these days.)

Not Pretty Enough

Working by myself on nights again in 2001 – that’s when I heard Kasey’s breakthrough single Not Pretty Enough.

“Am I not pretty enough? 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?”

I cried. I sobbed, I couldn’t stop. It seemed like she was able to put into words the sentiments that I, a writer, a diarist, a lounge room poet, just couldn’t. And that was when I fell head over heels in love with Kasey Chambers’ body of work, and her ability to touch people she’s never met.

Thinking back, it seems like I can map out my life’s experience to a sequence of Kasey Chambers songs.

That’s the power of a good songwriter, that’s the power of poetry and music.Chambers’ sad songs which show her vulnerability and tap straight into my own; sad nostalgic ones like Nullabor Song. Songs which critique the world we live in, like Ignorance. And then there’s the happy songs — songs like The Riverin 2004, which reflected the sheer joy and happiness I had started to feel in my own life:

“You make me feel like a river
Like a water overflow
Wanna shout it out from the Mountain
Wanna sing it on the radio
I’ll sell my soul like a sinner
If it means you’ll never go”

I saw her live just once at the Thebarton Theatre with Shane Nicholson for their Rattlin Bones tour in 2008. They separated in 2013 but at the time seemed very much in love. Toward the end of the night, maybe it was an encore, Kasey came and sang The Captain while Nicholson played acoustic piano. It was beautiful — her voice was strong, and I found it hard to believe I’d ever derided it. She’s become one of Australia’s best loved singer-songwriters, has been credited with bringing Country music into Australian mainstream, and as I said at the top, has now been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.

I Ain’t No Little Girl

Kasey Chambers performing I Ain’t No Little Girl 2018 ARIA — photo credit The New Daily

I love her for her rawness, her real-ness. I love the way her face tells her story, but most of all, her unapologetic refusal to be anyone herself. I think her acceptance speech shows why her journey, and her songs show the evolution of my own life:

“The two main things I’ve learnt about how to survive in the music business is to always be true to yourself and to find your tribe…

You honestly don’t have to drag other people down to get to the top…

[B]eing strong doesn’t make you a bitch, and being a bitch doesn’t make you strong….

I don’t think I’m up here because I’m a strong woman. I think I’m standing up here because I’m myself, and that’s all any of us need to be.”

The ARIA performance of Not Pretty Enough/I Ain’t No Little Girl left me in tears. This time for different reasons; sad, yes, but happy too. The strength of Chambers’ performance, and as always, the words — hit me in the heart.

I’m thinking of the many, many lessons I learnt up in the NT, with no one but myself to rely on. It would have been so easy to give in to it all, and there were days I thought I would: I wanted to. But I didn’t. Life is life. I’ll never, ever thank the people up there for the pains they gave me, or those who handed me the deep sorrows I’d been nursing without realising it for years prior. But they are the fabric of my life, they’re my story.

So while I found myself feeling proud of a complete stranger’s (much deserved) accolades and recognition, I’ve realised it’s because at times in my life when I couldn’t find the words, Kasey Chambers’ helped me unpack my feelings and understand my own story.

Because it was Up There, Back Then, that I made a conscious choice to get off the carousel and actively participate in my own life. I strove to do better, love myself more, nurture my body. If I went on hating myself I’d only ever find others who would use me to live out their own hate. Up There, Back Then, where I Iost myself and started to find myself and set myself on the path for being the woman I am today.

If you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, or like me, dismissed Kasey because of her unique voice, it’s not too late. I know I’ll be grabbing her latest album, and trying to see her live again.

And that makes me feel so incredibly proud of myself.

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