The writer first encountered the songs of Grafton sisters The McClymonts in 2010, approaching the group exactly as might be expected of a 23-year old punk fan having–at that stage–little more than a passing interest in country music. But something shifted in my outlook a couple of tracks into Chaos & Bright Lights that I could not ascribe simply to a half bottle of wine and the enthusiasm of my girlfriend and her aunt. Perhaps I admired the band’s unvarnished sense of fun, the playfulness and self-possession that lay at the heart of the album’s more bawdy tracks (‘Favourite Boyfriend of the Year’ being an early example). Perhaps I simply couldn’t find anything not to like in an album of fulsome, hook-laden pop and sweet ballads piloted throughout by exquisite three-part harmony. In the ensuing years, one thing has always distinguished The McClymonts in my mind: they are consistently, relentlessly enjoyable to hear – both live and on tape.
The so-called “girl group” phenomena (anachronistic and backhanded though the term now seems) has an enviable pedigree in any genre – stemming right back to the golden age of swing, doo wop, soul, boogie, and pure pop. The face of contemporary music would be inestimably plainer without the legacy of vocal groups such as The Ronettes, The Andrews Sisters, Martha and the Vandellas, The Dixie Chicks, and The Supremes. Brooke, Mollie and Sam McClymont, then, are in exceptional company. The close harmonies of artists of this ilk are hard to beat for soulfulness and pure pop joy.
On that score, The McClymonts are among the best in the world today: their pop chops are unmatched in any genre – a quality that has been borne out consistently across their output from the self-titled debut EP to LPs Chaos and Bright Lights (2007), Wrapped Up Good (2010) and Two Worlds Collide (2012). They’ve earned their stripes at every step.
Following her winning the Gympie Muster Talent Search in 1997, elder sister Brooke was signed to Universal as a solo artist. It was not until 2006 that the label added The McClymonts proper to their roster. Since then, the trio has scored multiple No. 1 singles at home, two Top 30 singles in the US, and repeat appearances on the Grand Ol’ Opry. The band took out the ARIA for Best Country Album in 2010 for Wrapped Up Good, and repeated the achievement in 2012 with Two Worlds Collide. Not to mention the eight Golden Guitars and an APRA award adorning the mantlepiece.
It’s been a hard road at many points – one that’s sometimes seen the band touring compulsively in the US behind one record, while interspersing that tour with Australian dates in support of a different, newer record. As Brooke McClymont tells me on an autumnal Thursday morning, the American touring circuit was punishing, but ultimately worthwhile.
‘We basically lived on the bus for months on end,’ Brooke recalls. ‘We were playing so many county fairs that we had to live on the road, sleeping while we were travelling at night. Americans just get so into their county fairs! We were gigging six nights a week, getting our music out there and just experiencing pretty much the whole Midwest. It was one big party, really!’
Interestingly, while each of the band’s three LPs to date was primarily written and recorded in Nashville–frequently with the input of impressive US talent, including Eric Silver (Dixie Chicks), Monty Powell (Keith Urban), and producer Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift), as well as Australians including Rod McCormack and Shane Nicholson–Here’s To You & I is the band’s first album to be written and recorded almost exclusively on Australian soil. It seems the making of the record was a remarkably relaxed labour.
‘We’d never actually done a record in Australia,’ Brooke explains. ‘It’s been two years since Two Worlds Collide. We took some time off. I had a baby [Tiggy Heart Eckersley]. It just made sense to record here. I didn’t want to be away from home for too long. We actually recorded the majority of the material in our “shed” studio on the Central Coast. These days you can take your computer with you anywhere, and record anywhere. Where we live it’s just such a relaxing vibe, so chilled out. Everything about this record was like that. We wrote the majority of the album, except for one song, with Australian writers. The only American writer is Andy Dodd (Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff) [sixth track, ‘Who Said It’]. That was an exciting thing for us: to use all locals. Lindsay Rimes produced, and we wrote a lot with him, as well as with Danielle Blakey, who’s an up-and-coming singer-songwriter, and Stuart Crichton – he’s awesome, a real bundle of energy. It’s really nice to work with people who are open-minded and willing to just “see what happens”.’
How has the arrival of baby Tiggy impacted The McClymonts? I ask Brooke – has there been a re-shuffling of roles and responsibilities within the band, perhaps?
‘No!’ Brooke laughs. ‘My sisters are amazing, though. They give me a lot of leeway having Tiggs. But we all know what we have to do, we all help each other out. We’re lucky we’ve got great family between Adam’s folks and my mum and dad. Sam and Mollie do so much for the band. They’re the engine room, really, of The McClymonts.’
Brooke is remarkably chipper as we chat, considering the band has, just hours earlier, completed a late night film-clip shoot for the title track and lead single of the new record, ‘Here’s To You & I’. The song itself is a little left-of-centre for The McClymonts. From its opening bars – a low down, cinematic guitar part straight out of the sepia-age of the classic Western – it seems clear that The McClymonts mean to air some new ideas on this release. Enter the harmony of the first chorus, followed by driving bass, banjo roll, and harmonica, and an instantly winning single is born:
..we’re lining up the bottles just to shoot them down/ when the morning shows its face you’ll wish we never came to town..
As I discover, ‘Here’s To You & I’ is emblematic of a newfound creative freedom for The McClymonts.
‘For this record, we started writing with so many different people from the rock world, the pop world, the country world, and we just started mucking around with different sounds and styles,’ Brooke says. ‘When ‘Here’s To You & I’ came around we thought, “this is such a fun thing for us, it’s new, it’s a bit edgy, it’s got this pop-Western thing happening.” We just wanted to try something different! We had no limitations or restrictions on this album.’
Similarly edgy is twelfth and closing cut, ‘Lay Some Love’, which was co-written with Brooke’s husband, Adam Eckersley. An abundantly soulful number, ‘Lay Some Love’ combines palm-muted guitar, organ, and smouldering vocal lines:
..aint no time for you to be shy, I’m gonna take over your body, control everything in your mind..
For all that, Here’s To You & I is an instantly recognisable McClymonts release. There are rollicking, tongue-in-cheek cuts: pub rocker ‘Same Kind’ gives thanks for womankinds’ generally divergent taste in men
..if we liked the same type we’d all be knockin’ on the same door, drivin’ the same car, honkin’ the same horn..
The track drives home its message with guitar effects, mouth organ, banjo, and a throwback guitar solo. Sweet, pop-centred love songs also abound, including winning second track ‘Going Under (Didn’t Have To)’. There are ballads, from ‘Forever Begins Tonight’ (the album’s “wedding song”, as Brooke explains), to affecting break-up song ‘Heart Breaks’, in which Mollie’s lead vocal and mandolin give voice to her own recent heartache. Then there are feel-good driving songs, comprising the keening banjo and pop textures of ‘Lifelines & Superheroes’, and the very radio-friendly ‘Top Rolled Down’.
Much of the album considers those things that are closest to the McClymont sisters’ hearts: family, sticks and stones, love and loss. Third track ‘Blood Is Thicker Than Water’ is testament to the ties that bind:
..raised in a quiet jacaranda town/
our folks worked hard till the sun went down
Grew up fast and drove real far/
singing our songs on our cheap guitars.
We can cry, we can fight, not talk for a while/
but we’re still our mother’s daughters.
There’s also a small-town focus in ‘Better At My Worst,’ introduced by ukulele and pedal steel, which decries the mean-spiritedness of the gossiping small town bully, and glories in finding the resolve needed to rise above it. Seventh track ‘Alone’ is a great indie-pop moment, opening with chimes and crisp guitars, and iterates that there are worse things in life than to be alone from time to time.
With another magnificent record in the can, I ask Brooke what lies ahead for The McClymonts. It seems there’s no rest for the wicked, or the talented.
‘The album is released on 4 July,’ Brooke tells me. ‘We’ll pretty much be on the road from then until the end of the year!’
The band will appear at the Gympie Muster in August and, touring aside, the next big thing on the horizon is the impending marriage of Sam and long-time partner Ben. It’s full steam ahead, as ever.
‘Right now, we’re just flying high!’ Brooke laughs. ‘We’ll never put an end to doing what we want to do. We just take every day, every year as it comes, and we’re going to ride it until the end, until someone says “we don’t want to back you anymore”!’