The Famine & The Feast (out 16 January 2015) is the third towering studio release from Australian husband and wife duo, O’Shea – severally Mark and Jay. In a world in which the recording artist must live or die by the single, O’Shea have arrived at a simple though exacting modus operandi: stack each album, top-to-bottom, with hits. No mean feat, when you throw two small children, aged 1 and 3 respectively, into the equation. Jay and Mark spoke with the writer from their home in Nashville (liaising simultaneously with a new babysitter).
I ask the duo if the decision to base themselves in Music City – where they have lived since 2007 – has allowed them to reach for the sound that underwrites their success.
“The short answer is yes!” Mark tells me. “As a musical community, Nashville is quite remarkable. Amazing singer-songwriters and musicians from all different genres and from all over the world just sort of converge on this one city. It’s great to be inspired by being here – and it also, kind of, kicks you in the pants, a bit!”
“It’s given us a good kick in the pants!’ Jay laughs, ‘that’s what everybody needs these days!”
Mark and Jay have dealt a few swift kicks themselves in recent years. Debut Mr. and Mrs. (2011) yielded four consecutive No. 1 singles on the CMC Charts – setting a new precedent for an Australian act on debut. The album featured infectious radio favourites ‘Same Old Brand New’ and ‘Smash’, alongside soulful love songs piloted by Jay’s stunning vocal, including ‘Back to Me’ and ‘Lay Your Love on Me’. Sophomore long player One + One (2013) landed at the No. 3 spot on the ARIA Country Charts, broke into the Top 30 All Music Chart, and also yielded multiple No. 1 singles. On the back of this success, O’Shea took out the Golden Guitar for Best Group or Duo at the 2014 CMAA Awards. As with Mr. and Mrs, One + One was spearheaded by Jay’s captivating soul and Gospel-blues drenched vocals (see ‘Empty’, and the snarling ‘Wish You the Worst’), and included feel-good hit ‘This Could Be Our Year’, as well as soaring country-rock heartbreaker ‘Be With You Tonight’. Radio-favourite ‘Thank You Angels’ was inspired by Mark’s experiences with heart surgery in 2010. Rounding out One + One was an infectious cover of Loudon Wainwright’s strange but wonderful hymn to summer, ‘The Swimming Song’.
Hailing from Dalby, QLD, Mark is a former Gympie Muster Talent Competition winner. Earning his first record deal at the age of 17, he took out Golden Guitars for Best New Talent of the Year in 1996 and Best Video in 1997. With a background in dance, Jay signed a music publishing deal with Warner Chappell London in 2003.
Forming as a duo in 2007, O’Shea snapped up the Golden Guitar for New Talent of The Year in 2012.
A marquee signing to Sony Music Australia’s country roster, O’Shea’s empire extends beyond the bounds of stage and studio. Mark and Jay’s O’Shea USA program is now into its fourth season on CMC, and the pair were finalists on US country music reality show You Can Duet. Mark and Jay also host QANTAS’ Big Country in-flight country music radio program, and have served as ambassadors for both Tourism Australia and World Vision. Whether severally or as a duo, Jay and Mark have performed with Keith Urban, INXS, John Farnham and, most recently, accompanied Sir Cliff Richard on his sold out 2013 tour of Australia. Happily, 2014 saw Mark and Jay return to the studio with a band of their own in tow.
The Famine & The Feast is a concept album of sorts. That said, Mark and Jay have elected here to tackle a concept of immense breadth: love.
“After two albums as a married couple, you really want to dig a little deeper, to get really raw and real with the emotion,” Jay explains.
“The whole sentiment of ‘the famine and the feast’ is to delve into the two extremes of love,” Mark seconds. “We are in love, we are very positive. But as with any marriage, any relationship there’s always a darker side.”
Topics touching on the broad theme of love O’Shea consider here range from heartbreak and loss (‘I Get Through’, ‘Have That Again’, ‘Right Where You Left It’), to loneliness (‘Alone’: ‘seven years old with an old rag doll, sittin’ in a room with pale grey walls and a dozen beds, where eleven other girls lay their heads. Just last week a married couple came in, she was sure this time she’d be leavin’ with them, but instead, they chose someone younger, again’), to betrayal (‘Sorry I Was Right’), to family (‘Family Is Everything’), and the sustaining power of enduring passion, as in the affecting ‘One Sure Thing’, and ‘Here I Am’.
As with earlier releases, The Famine & The Feast makes full use of Nashville’s abundant bounty. Songwriting partners here include the legendary Steve Wariner (Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, Kenny Rogers) – who guests on freewheeling lead single ‘Bad Day Good’ – Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift), Billy Burnette (Willie Nelson, Gretchen Wilson, George Strait), and Tim Nichols (Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson). The album was co-produced by Mark and Jay, Mark Moffatt and acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Ilya Toshinksy (Dolly Parton, Toby Keith, Kacey Musgraves).
The Famine & The Feast also gives expression to some new musical ideas for the duo, with Mark trying his hand at instruments such as six-string banjo and mandolin for the first time in the studio. It must have been a tad daunting, I remark, with Ilya Toshinsky, guru of all things stringed, co-producing.
“I wouldn’t even put myself in the same sentence as Ilya!” Mark says. “You’ve gotta be careful in Nashville – I wouldn’t go around saying ‘I’m a mandolin player’ or ‘I’m a banjo player!’”
New sounds are part of what makes The Famine & The Feast a truly memorable outing. Opener ‘Parade’, for example, is a wildly enjoyable foray into a fresh new style.
‘Let the beads and the streamers fly, let confetti fill the sky, let the marching band play and join my parade,’ Jay urges, against a celebratory backdrop of carnival horns, infectious keys, and marching band drumbeat. The track was written with Nashville hit-maker Shaye Smith (Martina McBride, Trace Adkins).
“Shaye told us a story about a documentary she’d seen on Discovery Channel, about New Orleans,” Mark recalls. “Apparently, you can just go into the county clerk’s office on Bourbon Street, and you can buy your own parade.”
There’s no mistaking Jay’s enthusiasm for the idea behind the song.
“You get a permit for about $250.00, and you get a band!” she tells me. “So you can just go down Bourbon Street with your own marching band. We just said, ‘that is the best thing we’ve ever heard!’”
The trademark brass part that is at the heart of ‘Parade’ comes courtesy of Keith Smith, of Jack White’s band.
Eighth track ‘The Truth Walks Slowly (In the Countryside)’ – a co-write and vocal collaboration with Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil fame – is another highlight.
“We’re huge Midnight Oil fans,” Mark explains. “Rob’s a prolific writer, and we’ve crossed paths in the past. Bones Hillman, the bass player from Midnight Oil, actually lives in Nashville. So we’re very fortunate not just to have Rob play on the track, but also Bones. We’ve got a bit of a Midnight Oil rhythm section going on there – it was a sort of ‘mutual admiration society’!”
The track documents the far-too-frequently-familiar picture of an Australian farmer facing down the unwelcome advances of a mining company, as he seeks to preserve the family property, and his special corner of the world:
‘Six generations call it home and this is where he’ll rest his bones, beyond the dam out by the old pine tree.’
The theme of the song, as Mark and Jay explain, has resonance on both sides of the Pacific, with American fracking companies encroaching more and more aggressively on the holdings of US farmers.
“Thoughts like this are universal,” Mark says. “The same emotions are conjured up with this kind of issue – having to do with family history, and trying to keep the wheels on, when there is this opportunity to make a quick buck. I think it’s an issue farmers struggle with across the globe.”
As well as Rob and Bones, Mark and Jay enlisted the help of another talented Aussie in the recording of ‘The Truth Walks Slowly’ – as Jay relates.
“The beautiful, haunting fiddle line is the work of Pete Denahy. We were lucky enough that he just happened to be in Nashville, so we nabbed him to come and play the fiddle part.”
Both Jay and Mark agree that Pete’s involvement imparted something special to the track.
“I think he has a uniquely Australian approach to fiddle,” Mark tells me.
The Famine & The Feast has its official launch at Tamworth’s Capitol Theatre on 23 January 2015, following which Mark and Jay will showcase the album across several Australian dates. With three stellar albums now to draw upon, O’Shea promise to deliver an unforgettable set-list.