By Gareth Hipwell.
Amber Lawrence has taken Spiderman’s measure and found him wanting. Iron Man, too, seems to have developed ‘feet of rust’ in the singer’s estimation. With fourth studio release Superheroes, the Sydney songbird champions more familiar, local brands of hero: from loving parents, to surf lifesavers, to headstrong Aussie teens. Musically, Superheroes is Amber’s most wide-ranging release yet.
“When I hear Superheroes played back, that is how I hear it, as a genre-spanning album,” Amber says, “I didn’t write it like that at all – I just wrote it! But it’s still a country album. It was written over three weeks in Nashville, and represents exactly where I was in my life at the time.”
Amber’s Music City writing blitz was undeniably fertile. Fish tacos and a good, strong macchiato helped apparently – as Amber continues.
“I literally got off the plane and went straight to my first writing session. The first night, of course, you go and eat some Mexican food. Every morning I’d get up, stop by the local coffee shop, and head to the first writing session of the morning. I gave myself a really heavy schedule during the day and often at night as well. So I came come home with 21 good songs and I was happy with all of them. Doing it like that you’re so tired and so emotionally exposed, because every day, for ten hours a day, you’re delving into different things and exploring new ideas. I think it brought out better work.”
Leaving her job as a chartered accountant with Qantas to pursue a career in music in the early 2000s, Amber quickly found a foothold in the industry. She placed second in the 2004 Telstra Road to Tamworth, and was a grand finalist in Toyota Starmaker 2005. She has performed nearly 1,000 live shows since 2005, cut three full-length releases [The Mile (2007), When It All Comes Down (2009), and the aptly-titled 3 (2012)] and took out Album of the Year at the Australian Independent Country Music Awards in 2010. In the same year, Amber snared the Horizon Award at the Golden Guitars. Hit single ‘Try’, from the singer’s most recent album 3, was selected as the Junior Special Olympics’ official anthem in 2012. Amber has served as ambassador for the Leukaemia Foundation’s Walk of Life, and, earlier this year, journeyed to Egypt with Forces Entertainment to perform for Australian troops posted there.
There was considerable momentum, then, behind the making of Superheroes.
Produced by Matt Fell and recorded in Nashville, the album was written with input from an impressive stable of songwriting partners including Clive Young (Adam Brand), Suzy Connolly, Matt Scullion (Lee Kernaghan), and Colin Buchanan.
“Playing on Superheroes was Fred Eltringham, an American drummer (Kacey Musgraves, Sheryl Crow),” Amber tells me. “I wanted him because I love Kacey’s album [Same Trailer, Different Park]. We also had Will Kimbrough on guitar, and some Australians, too: Travis Collins, and Suzy Connolly on backing vocals. We also had a multi-instrumentalist called Ilya Toshinsky (Dolly Parton, Toby Keith, Trace Adkins) – he’s one of Nashville’s gurus of every instrument that has a string! Ilya played on Kacey Musgraves’ record, too. My album really turned out nothing like Kacey’s! But Superheroes keeps its honesty, irreverence, and lets the music go where it needs to go.”
I am not Wonder Woman, invincible or made of steel, face my fears and use my sorrow, stronger than I thought I could, be that better me tomorrow, be my own superhero, Amber sings on the engaging album opener, ‘Superhero’. In similarly personal fourth track, ‘Live to Tell the Tale’, Amber reflects on her decision to take a risk and pursue a life in song.
Given that Superheroes was overwhelmingly penned on US soil, it’s interesting to note that two of the album’s most evocative tracks are rooted–as firmly as can be–in the soft sand of Sydney’s Maroubra Beach. ‘Honeysuckle’ is a reflection on the spirit of potential felt by many school-leavers as they relish that first summer of adulthood, sprawled on the beach with ‘coconut oil and a can of lemonade and a radio in the sand.’ A summer anthem through and through, ‘Honeysuckle’ combines sweet mandolin, soothing backing vocals and gently keening guitar. Standout track ‘Lifesaver’ is Amber’s dedication to her late father. The song is piloted on its gentle course by crisp, ringing guitar tones and simple percussion.
Here’s the story of a 1970s surf lifesaver, the ballad of a man with a moustache, he married Miss Maroubra Beach.
‘“Honeysuckle’ and ‘Lifesaver’ are probably my favourite songs on the album!’ Amber confesses. ‘Maybe the reason they have the most texture is that they are the most real songs. I was speaking with Troy Cassar-Daley last year. I was telling him that I was working on my fourth album, and he said, ‘just think about home, think about what you know – write those songs’. I had this idea that I wanted to write about my dad – I’d look at photos of surf lifesavers back in the 1970s and I thought, ‘this is a story that needs to be told! These men that all had moustaches’ – this was before OH&S, so they’d all be standing on the beach, smoking a cigarette, getting sunburnt.
I performed at a songwriting night, and my mum came with me. I hadn’t mentioned I’d written the song. Afterwards, Mum actually walked up on stage, which is not something she would normally ever do, and gave me a hug. Halfway through the song she’d realised, ‘hang on a minute – this song is about me!’ ‘Honeysuckle’ is about the same beach, Maroubra Beach. I’m just so glad Troy said those words to me, because I’d always thought, as a city girl, I didn’t have anything interesting to tell. But I do. The beach is my home, that’s where I grew up, so I guess I should write about it.’
Amber’s assessment of Superheroes is accurate: it is a familiarly country outing in many respects. Country-roots moments include ‘Let’s Take it Somewhere (In the Middle of Nowhere)’ with its noodling banjo and low-down guitar, the driving country rock of ‘25 Words or Less’, seventh track ‘Feel Like Flying’, which combines low-down guitar, dobro, throbbing percussion, and pedal steel, and the rollicking ‘Cyclone Tracy’. There are richly textured pop cuts, too, from ‘The Love Record’ to the smouldering ‘Little Lazy Little Crazy’. And at the out-and-out pop end of the spectrum lies the Bruno Mars-inspired ‘I Will Love You’ (buzzed up on cheap wine, drunk on your green eyes, and all I can think about baby is kissing you). Reflective, introspective and confessional to the end, the album’s penultimate track ‘These Four Walls’ gives thanks for the safe harbour of the family home: ‘these four walls wrap me up, like two pairs of arms holding love,’ Amber sings.
Superheroes is proof positive that, if it’s a hero you’re after, you needn’t look too far from home. It’s a message Amber Lawrence underlines with generosity and some stellar new sounds.