Sal Kimber & her band The Rollin' Wheel take us down to the river
ABC Sydney radio announcer Richard Glover said, "Whenever we play her music on ABC radio, it garners an instant response: 'Who is that singer?'" 'That singer' is Sal Kimber who comes from the mountain valleys of rural Victoria, well, rivers, to be more precise - the Hume Dam (formerly the Hume Weir) and the Mitta Mitta River. Her mother and her grandmother grew up by the Murray River which is connected to the Mitta. Her parents now live by the Ovens River. And to listen to her music, the word 'river' perfectly characterised her smooth, calming vocal tone and lightly flowing melodies. In fact, her latest album Southern Light has a track called Burrawang about her connection to the rivers. "You may be far from home, but that river is by your side." Rivers, floods, fires, the human spirit, all themes that are woven through Sal's music, recorded and performed with her band The Rollin' Wheel. The rock/soul/folk/alt-country outfit have produced two cracking albums, the latest of which is called Southern Light.
Sal Kimber has played a gazillion shows here and overseas (including Nashville's iconic Bluebird cafe), and won music awards and hearts with her moving songs and generous soul. She has been the support act for artists like Kasey Chambers and The Waifs. Her voice sounds like love itself (that voice, my goodness), and she plays the guitar and banjo. And she is also a bush dance caller, teaching bush dances around Australia. So meet Sal Kimber, declared by Rolling Stone to be "Australia's next queen of country soul." And please, as you do so, do yourself a favour, and play the video of Stumble in the Dark, placed just below for your listening pleasure).
I read a story from February 2016 in a Fairfax paper that struck me: "I just got an email from someone in Tumut," says Kimber. "'We never have any music here, can you come?' I said 'Well, John and I can get there. Maybe we can't bring the whole band but as long as there's 20 people… that'll cover it."There is such a non-egotistical purity about that sentiment. Any further thoughts on this attitude towards playing in regional Australia?
We truly love playing regional Australia. There is a certain instant connection that happens for us - maybe because all of the band was born in country Victoria and we know the deep importance of live music connecting community and people. But we feel an almost loyalty and dedication to making sure we reach those who want us in country Australia - many of our favourite shows have been in country halls in the middle of nowhere. People dancing their bums off and really truly connecting with us. Maybe it's that thing when you don't have live music in front of you all the time you are less likely to take if for granted and so you will get up and dance if your body tells you to and you will listen and you will embrace the music even if it's not your usual taste. We have had a few people after shows say things like, "We came tonight cause there wasn't anything else on in town and we never have bands come here. Your type of music isn't really usually my thing but I had a great time tonight. Thank you."
Tell us about your time and team in the studio, and your songwriting process
Songwriting is its own beast. It has a life of its own. True and good songs come in the most odd and unlikely places and times for me. If I try to consciously write a song it usually doesn't work, or if I do write with a super conscious goal, the end product is often a bit stale. Instead, I just have to let it be a bit more organic. When inspiration for a song rears its head, I just have to allow space for it to come alive. That can be challenging when you balance a day job, a busy family life and lots of touring. It doesn't leave much time for washing clothes or songwriting. So if I am on a plane or driving or in rehearsal, and a melody comes my way, I make sure I give it all the space I can. I record it on my phone, write as many lyrics as I can in that moment. And give life to the melody as much as I can in that fresh inspirational space - catch it while it's fresh. I then go back and edit in a more conscious way later. But the juiciest and best lyrics come in the inspirational zone.
In regards to recording, I am pretty particular about who I work with. All three albums were recorded with people I admired and felt comfortable with. Feeling safe and unguarded with an engineer and producer is vital for me. It allows me to be fully true and present for the songs to come alive, and for the vocals to portray the raw emotion of the songs, whether it be sad or uplifting. Our last two albums were recorded with Shane O'mara. I didn't know him from a bar of soap before we started recording the first album. I admired his work but had never met him, but I heard he was a genuine and no bull kind of guy. I called him to see if he wanted to work with us and from that first phone call I instantly knew I would feel comfortable with him. I was trying to chose between a few producers in that chapter, and I could just tell that after he heard our demos, he really believed in me and the band and the songs. I trusted he would bring the best out in all of us. Two albums later and he is now one of my favourite friends. Recording is a very intimate thing. The more relaxed, the more joy, the more magic.
What was your favourite gig?
Oh gawd, such a big question. There have been so many favourites - that's what keeps me playing live so much. Not all feel great of course, but many are enjoyable. I love playing with my full band The Rollin' Wheel at festivals.- Too many to count now but the Blue Mountains and Mullumbimby festivals have been some of my faves. My favourite solo tour was opening for The Waifs on their Western Australia album tour in 2016 - getting to travel and hang out and make music with that mob was very special for me.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
My fave lady in music is probably my drummer and booker Cat Leahy. She makes playing live a total joy. I have never seen anyone else play music live with such presence and joy. I feel very blessed every time I step on stage with her. She holds me every show :)
And I do love Liz Stringer! One of Australia's greatest songwriters, and truly one of the most powerful unfiltered female vocalists. I find her live shows to be mesmerising.
Say anything you want when you hear the words alt-country, and Americana
Alt-country: Hmmm. We were first described as alt-country about six years ago when people couldn't describe what our sound was. There is lots of that going on now which is great for the music scene, but I guess we have strayed a little from the genre. We like to keep things a bit edgy. I think we are mix of rock and soul and folk and alt-country.
Americana: If I was to be honest, that word does grate me, it's fine to describe those who sing with an American accent and imitate Gillian Welsh and want to end up in Nashville as Americana, but there is a whole scene here in Australia that uses an Australian sense of place, with Australian accents and influences - that to me is Australiana.
Any significant stories from tour?
There are many funny and frustrating stories. Maybe I can share something Buffy said the other night. Buffy is my sister and band mate. We have played in a band together for ten years now, and have been on such a huge ride together, but we are always very tight and sweet with each other. Just the other night at the Maldon Folk Festival, we were having a late night wine at our tent after a show (I was having a peppermint tea cause I been sick and coming down from a Cold and Flu Sudafed buzz that got me through the gig). We were looking up at the big stars and Buff said, "This is such an odd thing that we do. Most of our weekends are spent in this little travelling-like circus bubble. And it's a whacky thing but it is pretty beautiful. It's my home, this band is my home, playing music with you is my home..." We both had a little tear.
What is a favourite song that you’ve written?
Possibly Stumble in the Dark from our latest album. It came to life in a little beach shack with my sister, Buffy. She started playing the opening piano line and then it all just grew from there. When we took it to the band they added their magic. Every time we play it live I feel like it twists and turns and is never the same.
Where was the music video for Stumble in the Dark made?
We made that not far from where we wrote the song. Down near Point Addis on the Great Ocean Road. It was a super fun video to make. The videographer got a little bit of vertigo when we were scaling some of the cliffs to get a good camera angle.
What is the first memory that comes to mind about growing up in a musical family?
Daggy singing around the kitchen table. Dad writing songs about anything and everything, just to get us to sing. If we wanted ice-cream we had to sing his ice-cream song. That kind of thing. It was a very enjoyable childhood.
What was life like growing up on the Ovens River – apparently your family has been there for three generations?
I grew up by the Hume Weir and Mitta river. My mum and my mum's mum grew up by the Murray - those rivers all connect up to each other. My parents now live by the Ovens. I wrote a song called Burrawang which describes that connection. When my mum and dad got together, he took her far from any rivers. She says she was super homesick. As soon as they moved to a town by a river, she felt more at home, but has always yearned for the big river she grew up by.
What is your favourite place in Australia?
My fav place is probably the mountains of North East Victoria. Mt Bogong. Majestic in a very ancient Australian way.
I have started writing for our next album. The band and I have all been too busy for our own good, but some songs are coming to life. Ideally, I'd like to bring new songs to the band first to road test them before we record them.
What is your favourite Australian café/restaurant?
At the moment, it would have to be Saint Monday in Yackandandah. I pop in every Wednesday on my lunch break. Some of my best pals work there and the food is super yum. Lots of locally grown produce. It's the new heart and hub of Jack.
Favourite non-music thing to do?
At the moment my fave non-music to do is probably canoeing along the Barwon river out to the sea :)
Sal Kimber & The Rollin' Wheel are currently on tour, booked to play Lurg Hall near Benalla on 4 November, the Mullumbimby Music Festival from 18-20 Novemner and the Folk Rhythm and Life Festival. All information and tickets via www.salkimber.com.au.
Follow Sal on Instagram & Facebook @salkimberandtherollinwheel, and Twitter @salkimberandtrw