Harmony James

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Harmony James blew onto the scene in 2006 on a column of hot desert air. Her debut single ‘Tailwind’ took out first prize in the country category of the International Songwriting Competition, winning the singer enduring industry attention in the process. A self-titled EP, hit single ‘Somebody Stole My Horse’, and breathtaking full-length debut Tailwind (2009) followed. Set for release on 13 June (a black Friday), Cautionary Tales is Harmony’s third LP, and follows the runaway success of Handfuls of Sky (2012). Tracked live, Cautionary Tales marks a return to the more distinctly country sound James laid out so eloquently across the eighteen tracks of Tailwind.

James’ long-time producer Herm Kovac has reprised his role here, as have the talented members of Harmony’s regular backing band: Glen Hannah (guitar), Jeff McCormack (bass), and Steve Fearnley (drums).

‘When we got this particular bunch of songs together, and that bunch of guys in the room, it just ended up coming out sounding very country again!’ James says of the record’s earthy sound.

But why “Cautionary Tales”?

‘I think I was kind of poking fun at myself,’ James explains. ‘Even when I write a cheerful, jolly little soft-pop song, there’s still that barb of typical Harmony James in there – some bad undertone or missed opportunity. Whatever you get from me there’s always going to be a little twist!’

Cautionary Tales is a meditation on a life lived in two parts: one half in the remoter regions of Australia’s north, the other in the coastal capitals to the south. James has worked variously as a jillaroo, a welder, an agriculture student, and in a range of other jobs right across Northern Australia, from the cattle stations of the Barkly Tablelands to Cape York, to Tennant Creek. Her earliest gigs were staged in a pub in Goondiwindi. With Cautionary Tales, James attempts to reconcile the often-disparate spheres she now straddles.

‘When I first moved to Brisbane, I took on a job near an airport so I could keep doing music,’ James recounts. ‘I did that for four-and-a-half years, working in the CBD. It was a massive transition. It worked for a while. Eventually, I just felt like I was cheating myself, trying to make it all work. So I took some time off, wrote some songs, went travelling overseas. At the moment I’m studying. In this business, I figured I’d be better off becoming a shrink rather than paying one! So I’m studying psychology and picking up work here and there, doing gigs when I can – I’m being a bit of a free spirit, finally!’

Album opener ‘30,000 Feet’ finds James – dust on her feet – aboard a plane ‘somewhere over Longreach’. Low-down guitars, a gentle fiddle part and sweet pedal steel carry this reflection on the pain of leaving a much-loved part of the world.

‘On every flight back through Southern skies,’ James sings, ‘it feels like I’m losing a friend, and I’m back to the day like I’m leaving all over again.’

The theme continues with ‘Cold Western Wind’, which soundtracks the experiences of cattlemen and women in our most arid regions:

‘all alone, out in the desert sands, desolate open lands, where the August winds blow right on through you, you drift off to sleep to the sound of the windmill wheel,’ James sings. Her vocal is earthy, textured and warm.

Sparse, almost choral backing vocals lend a kind of symphonic quality to several tracks. There are several guests of note across Cautionary Tales, too, including Drew McAlister (McAlister Kemp), Mike Carr, Mark Sholtez, Tim Crouch (Alan Jackson), and Randy Kohrs (Dolly Parton).

Outstanding country moments are many, and include ‘In Another Life’, and the barnstorming fiddle, banjo, thudding bass, noodling guitar and bluegrass affectation of ‘Coming Home Again’. There are ballads of regret and heartache (‘While You Were Sleeping’, ‘Winners In War’), and rock ballad ‘CSG’ – a song about being displaced from the land by the avarice of a fracking company – will undoubtedly resonate with many rural families. James’ narrator dreams of one day handing the family farm over to her children: ‘but I guess that won’t happen now,’ she sings, ‘since someone discovered what lies in the ground, and the dollars it pays are worth more than the life in this place.’

Also affecting is piano ballad ‘Icebergs (The Day That Never Came)’, which tells of the pain of losing a child. ‘Icebergs’, as James explains, is uniquely instructive in the business of songwriting.

‘This track should be an outlier! I find that, when you’ve just written a song, you think it’s great. You’re excited. And then you play it in a few times over the next couple of weeks and then decide whether it’s actually good, or really rubbish. I woke up one morning with this particular bunch of thoughts in my head, and I had to write the song immediately,’ James tells me. ‘We’d already done all the band tracks for the album and picked our shortlist. I had this song, absolutely brand new, and I thought, “while we’ve got the piano out, we should probably just demo it.” It was literally the first take of the song that had ever been done. We recorded it, played it back a couple of times and thought, “you know what – let’s keep it!”’

Ultimately, Cautionary Tales betrays a certain restlessness. The narrator of third track ‘Faraway Eyes’ mourns a restive lover whose heart she has lost to the road: ‘…he’s looking out over my shoulder with those faraway eyes.’ The travelling motif spills over into the acoustic ‘Watcha Gonna Do About Me’ (‘we could ride these rails together’). James’ vocal is at its most expressive here, in a song about making our own way in the world and overcoming the objections of those who would cut us down or hold us back.

Judging by following track, ‘Skinny Flat White’ (with Brooke McClymont), the rails of Harmony’s imagination lead to the inner city. ‘Skinny Flat White’ is an anthem to making the best of city life and the corporate grind, and to facing the working week with good cheer. A pop track with just the right measure of dobro and guitar twang, the song is also a dedication to the simple pleasure of interacting with, inter alia, a regular barista:

‘I’ll have a skinny flat white with two … I’m really paying for a smile from you,’ James sings. Also fun is the Hammond-coloured, adult-oriented rocker ‘Something Something’.

Bookended by mariachi horns and slow-strummed cowboy chords, closer ‘Pancho’s Boy’ is epic in all the right ways. Borrowing from the language and sounds of the Old West, James lays out a tale of longing, forbidden love, and a father’s determination to see his daughter make a better life for herself.

‘On a clear night you could see a match strike from their place to over here,’ our narrator sings, ‘I smelled their pouch tobacco, and I caught those hoofprint trails.’ There are choral backing vocals once again, hummed in a distinctively Western cadence, along with pedal steel and shuffling drums. At around the five-minute mark, a rousing mariachi trumpet rings out, before the track segues into an outro built around harmonica and the classic cowboy melody of ‘Red River Valley’.

‘I take a piece out of my own personal experience,’ Harmony says of her inspiration for the track, ‘and I take a piece out of “fantasy land” –  which for me is still a hangover from reading Western novels as a kid.’

We’d be reading cowboy stories for a long time (or turning over a desert full of stones) before finding more stings-in-the-tail than Harmony James has mustered with Cautionary Tales – or more colour, texture, and light.