At the height of a career that has produced a dozen albums and scores of accolades and awards, for Kasey Chambers, the memory of a mulgawood campfire still flickers vividly across time.
“‘The Campfire Song’ feels like a song that’s been in my heart for my whole life, but it’s only just surfaced now,” Kasey says of the title track to masterful 12th studio album Campfire. “I feel like I can almost remember sitting around the campfire and playing that song when I was a kid. I feel like that song has been around forever.”
Setting a clear tone for the album to which it lends its name, ‘The Campfire Song’ is a soft, earthy western sway, in which embers turn to ashes, ashes turn to dust, and the dingo howls from the inky dark beyond the embers’ glow.
Campfire arrives at a particularly prolific time for Chambers, coming a little over a year after 2017’s expansive double-LP Dragonfly.
“The inspiration’s coming,” Kasey says. “I might turn around one day and not be able to write a song, and think, f—, what if I go, like, 10 years and no songs come out?!”
Campfire is, above all, a window on the internationally celebrated singer-songwriter’s storied personal history – a story that began with an unconventional upbringing on the Nullarbor Plain. For years, Kasey, brother Nash and mum Di drove the length and breadth of the Nullarbor while dad Bill hunted feral foxes for a living. In the years since, Kasey has called many places home, from Norfolk Island to the Central Coast of NSW; toured extensively in the United States, and made repeat visits to Africa, including a recent safari-style tour, and outreach work in Zambia. But, as Kasey relates, it all comes back to a campfire surrounded by the endless expanse of the South Australian desert.
“All of these songs were written especially for this record,” Kasey relates. “I think, subconsciously, I’ve been writing this album for a long time. Because I’ve known forever that I wanted to make an album based around a campfire. I think this album was just more about my life and more from a childhood point of view. Even in terms of sounds. Because it’s acoustic – you’re meant to be sitting around a campfire, and you don’t have drums surrounding a campfire. It sounds quite different to my last record – it’s probably as different a record as I’ve ever made. But I still feel like this is as me as I ever get. It’s just getting back to a lot of the original sounds that I grew up listening to.”
Aside from the familiar, comforting strains of dad Bill’s acoustic guitar, the sounds that scored Kasey’s unique childhood still resonate.
“Dad would obviously play tapes on the tape-deck in the car,” Kasey recalls of the family’s endless journeys through the desert. “Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Amazing Rhythm Aces, Don Williams, Hank Williams. I still find it crazy when I talk about it, but I thought everyone lived like that. This was 6 to 8 months of the year. And then we’d go back to where my dad’s family are from, a little town called Southend, South Australia – which has only got about 200 people anyway!”
More than any song on the album, ‘The Campfire Song’ sweeps away the red sand of time, depositing us in the centre of the Nullarbor before the flickering flames of a crackling fire.
“It sounds really obvious to say, but it’s definitely a campfire,” Kasey says of her most vivid childhood recollection. “That was the centre point of our existence on the Nullarbor, because it took on so many different facets. It was part of our survival. For us to cook food, it was our only option – unless we wanted to eat raw meat, which I didn’t like very much! My mum would make damper on the fire, and even [drinking] water out there, you’d have to boil it first. And then it became the centre point of our schooling – we’d sit around the fire and do our schooling, as well.”
Beyond the dancing firelight and slow-turning wreathes of smoke, a young Kasey discovered a world of both constancy and immensity.
“I think, because we didn’t have TV and all of those sorts of things, it was really the hub of everything we did. We’d sit around and play music, or we’d tell stories. To always have your clothes smelling like smoke was just a normal thing. Most of the time, our light was from the fire. And this is hundreds of miles from any civilization at all for most of the time. Every now and then, you’d come across another camp of hunters or something, Aboriginal missions at times, and also the railway sidings. We’d always call into them to get our supplies from the tea and sugar train. My dad obviously knew where all these railway sidings were.”
…read the rest in Issue 89.