Beccy Cole is a classic, a type of woman who seems uniquely Australian. She projects resilience, and is equipped with a brash and self-deprecating humour her fans have come to expect and relish, contrasted by an access to vulnerability, both hers and her audience’s, that always surprises.
She’s had a long career in the spotlight, and much of the enjoyment of her live shows and her albums is the conversation happening from song to song between these two alter-egos. The woman who gets everybody to like her and thinks the best way to get through life is to have a laugh at yourself and the situation, and the woman who needs everybody to like her and who is capable of being quite serious. Let’s call the first Beccy and the second Rebecca.
“Nobody calls me Rebecca. I’ve never referred to myself as Rebecca and nobody ever calls me that,” this is Beccy Cole talking to Country Update.
Fair enough. So where did the title for her new album, Sweet Rebecca, come from?
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s cut back to the beginning. I’m discussing with Beccy the upcoming release of her memoir Poster Girl and Sweet Rebecca and we start where her process started, first the book.
“It took me eighteen months to write it, off and on. And it’s just about my life. It seemed pretty indulgent at the beginning but it’s been a great process actually. Just being able to go back, starting with my childhood.”
She may have begun there, in a time that she remembers as fun and happy, but she hasn’t just written about the good bits in her life.
“Some days it was really heart wrenching and some days it was really hard to sit down and write things that I didn’t particularly want to go back and revisit. But by doing that I also found that magic word ‘closure’ popped up every now and then – and that was kinda cool. And I feel a better person for it.”
She found some peace in writing and finishing the book, but publishing brings its own form of tension. “I haven’t sugar-coated anything. It’s an interesting read, I think. I’m a little bit nervous about it actually.”
A conversation about her book, it turns out, quite naturally becomes a conversation about the album Sweet Rebecca.
“Through the whole making of the book I just couldn’t wait to write songs because I kept thinking of these ideas. Going back through my life these song titles kept popping up.”
So when it came to writing the album tracks, “They were there! It was the quickest I’ve ever written an album. I went away for a week and came back with all the songs.”
If you’re a Beccy Cole devotee and you want insight into her life, or you’re interested in how a songwriter goes from her initial moment of inspiration to a completed record, you might be best served listening to the album while reading Poster Girl.
“A lot of the new songs can be drawn directly from a chapter in the book. They kind of go hand in hand. I was as honest with my song writing as I was in the book.”
The title track is the most autobiographical song, the most like the book, and it’s a hopeful and confident track. I asked Beccy if that’s how she thought she would feel when she first decided to review and take stock of her life.
“I think so, yeah. I mean you can hope. You hope that you don’t stir up all that stuff and end up rocking back and forth in the corner in a ball,” she jokes.
“That song is directly from the book. Basically it was me looking at a picture of myself. I was just staring at this picture of me at seven years old. Thinking, Wow, the journey that’s ahead of you. You just hold on. It’s going to be a heck of a ride.”
A heck of a ride indeed. More than two decades after storming Australia’s country music scene, the forty-two year old has had to be many things. She’s been a bright young star, a married woman, a divorced woman, a single mum, a collaborator, and a solo act. Through it all she’s put a premium on openness and bravery, which is why in 2012 she told the world she was gay on a highly rated episode of ABC-TV’s Australian Story.
The songs that have captured this experience have also captured her an adoring audience. And though they don’t mean as much as her fans she has the awards too: 9 Golden Guitars, 3 Gold records, 2 Entertainer of The Year awards, 7 song writing awards and 14 No1#s.
“[Sweet Rebecca] is me talking to me. Old me talking to young me. And look. Nobody calls me Rebecca.”
Now we’re here. At this idea of the two Beccys, the poet and the larrikin, the sadness and the sassy smile.
“I’ve never referred to myself as Rebecca and nobody ever calls me that. But it kind of fits. It’s what everybody called me back when I was a kid.”
Some of Beccy Cole’s songs are deliberately silly and exhibit a carefree iconoclasm, she does a version of Dolly Parton’s Jolene that shifts tone, and absurdly imagines the narrator of the song as a woman from Mosman, and then as a woman from Broken Hill. Other songs are emotionally plaintive, like her single about the controversy that surrounded her support of Australian troops in Iraq, and provided the title for her book, Poster Girl. But perhaps her most idiosyncratic songs vacillate between these two voices.
This is the style of the title track to Sweet Rebecca. It’s a one-way conversation between the older Beccy and the young Rebecca that jumps from wry observations to serious thoughts on a dime, riding on a melody that manages to be both light and nostalgic.
I could tell that girl a thing or two / Save about a hundred bad mistakes / I’m staring at Little Miss I-Don’t-Have-A-Clue / So that’s what hearts look like before they break.
The title track of Sweet Rebecca isn’t the only conversation happening on the album.
“I don’t know how many people have songs about conversations they’ve had with their breasts,” Beccy laughs, “but anyway!”
She’s referring to Off My Chest, which might even be funnier than her previous comic standout, the divorce song Lazy Bones. It’s a humorous and cathartic song about a gruelling subject, the experience of a woman who might have to undergo a mastectomy.
And while it may sound risky it’s well handled and already a winner with audiences. During one of her recent Tamworth shows she performed the song and as the last note rang out I looked over and saw two boys, a girl, and an older woman, their mother I thought, gasping for breath between their laughter. “I haven’t breathed in three minutes!” one of them cried.
“Humour has always been a big part of what I do,” Beccy explains, “I love having a laugh and I love providing people with comedy. It was me having a laugh at myself. I’ve been experiencing a few trips to the doctor – I’m absolutely fine,” she emphasised, “But I’ve been having these experiences and I realised that a lot of women have to go through this especially when they hit forty, which I have. So I wanted to write a song that would be therapeutic with humour.”
A different standout from the new album was co-written by Libby O’Donovan. It’s also something of a conversation, this time between an elderly person and their own failing mind.
Songs Remember Me was inspired by an experience Libby had while performing at a nursing home. One of the women there was unresponsive, she never talked to anybody and when people tried to engage her, her expression remained blank. That was until Libby sang her Danny Boy, and the woman broke into tears. After Libby told Beccy the story she knew there was a song in it.
“We’ve both had experiences in performing to people in nursing homes and in high care facilities. Music is great medicine. A lot of these people that you sing to don’t necessarily have a memory of who they are, or who their family is, or what they did for a living, but they will remember the songs from their youth and the lyrics to the songs. I think it’s the most amazing thing that our brains and our hearts can retain that, through this horrible disease of dementia or Alzheimer’s.”
When I asked what the dynamic was between partner Libby and herself as songwriters (Libby also helped write Off My Chest) Beccy laughed, “She’s got a degree in music which a lot of us in country music have never even heard of!”
“She’s an amazing piano player and has incredible chords. She comes from a jazz world and she loves the blues. I love that side of it. She’s got great melody ideas. I’ve always considered myself to be a lyricist before melody. And I think that’s the combination that works. Although she’s a pretty great lyricist too on her own songs.”
2015 is a year where Beccy finds herself reflecting, commenting, and coming to terms with her past. It’s also a year that points toward her future. But if you want to find out more about that, or Beccy, or Rebecca, you know what you have to do.
“Every artist is gonna say this. But this is me at the most me, the most honest,” Beccy laughed, “If anybody wants to know a little bit more about me they’re gonna get it with this whole book, album combo.”