While diffuse, creeping despair undeniably pervades much of Catherine Britt’s sixth studio outing Boneshaker, Britt is, by her own admission, a patently happy woman. Recently engaged, the Newcastle local has just marked twelve-months with new label and nascent roots tastemaker Lost Highway Australia. True to form, Britt has elected to celebrate both milestones with a darkly elegant and exquisitely hewn release. Country Update caught up with Catherine in Tamworth to talk love songs, sad songs, and the transition to a new label.
“It’s changed a lot of things,” Catherine says of her signing to Lost Highway. “Lost Highway is such a prestigious label for starters, so to be on that label and to join some of my favourite artists was huge for me. But this isn’t my first rodeo, you know, I’ve been around for a while. So I kind of wanted a bit of a change. They were so excited about what I do, my songwriting, and who I am as an artist. For me it felt really right to go to them. My contract was up with ABC – I’d been with them since day dot, my first album. I still have a great relationship with ABC, they’re wonderful, and so good at what they do, but for me it was about making a bit of a change.”
Happily unchanged, though, is Britt’s trademark sense of style. Across the length and breadth of Boneshaker, the always-expressive singer swoops unerringly between sweetness and menace, thanksgiving and regret, elation and despair. They’re warring moods Catherine manages to impart even to her love songs.
“I struggle to write a happy song – I find it really boring!” Britt jokes. “I mean, there are a couple of tracks on this album, like ‘You And Me Against The World’, which is probably one of the first love songs I’ve ever written. It’s only because I am actually in love for the first time, and engaged! But it still sounds so sad. I just can’t help myself. I’m not a happy songwriter. I just love the dark elements of music. I always love that in the artists I love, in their songs, their albums. I find it more intriguing, more real. Because life is a bit shit sometimes. It’s quite horrific, what we live with. I’m a bit of a realist, I guess. I manage to make love songs sound sad – it’s a miracle!”
One such love song arrives in ninth track, ‘Working Class Man,’ a dedication to Catherine’s fiancé James that celebrates love while paying heed to the precariousness of happiness.
I’m the writer, strum the guitar, and the singer of songs; long-gone rambler, from Steel City, I play all night long; he does somethin’ I don’t get – he works all day long.
With its near-howling backing vocals, a mandolin part that reminds of a tarantella, and something that sounds to this listener very like a “bowed saw”, the track pitches at a very spectral, unearthly sound.
“I wanted to make it sound like that (‘ghostly’) because Newcastle, where I’m from, is Steel City but it’s all gone now. So it’s almost like this haunted steel city that used to exist. So I kind of had that element in mind, but I wrote it about James. I always made a joke when I met him, that, we just make absolutely no sense. The guy before I dated James, we made all the sense on paper. He was an artist, it all made perfect sense. But that didn’t work. And James and I, you look at that on paper and think, ‘this makes absolutely no sense’. But it works. And I just love him to death. Can you tell I’m happy?!”
Though the reader may have gleaned a somewhat different impression by this point, the writer really did find Catherine to be extraordinarily happy. The same cannot be said of the Catherine Britt who narrates album opener, ‘Boneshaker’. It’s a strikingly fractured portrait of anguish and trepidation.
Goodbye my love, adieu my dear, I will be waitin’, in the twilight of the day, by the Penny Saver. Feel the wind flood through my hair, didn’t see it comin’. Horror and pain rattle my brain, I see him runnin … are you listenin’? are you watchin’? I’m tappin’ my fingers…
…. continued in Country Update Issue 77 – out now.