Kimber Sparks talks about Australia, working with late, great Vern Gosdin, her Alabama upbringing, and her new record, It’s Her Turn, with “The Highwaywoman” Brigitte London.
BL: Kimber, you’re an Alabama girl, tell us when and how you came to be in Australia?
KS: It was New Year’s Day, 2001, when I landed in Australia. I’d gone through a divorce and had two babies. I had enrolled in a university here because the dollar was quite good for Americans at the time, and my thoughts were that an education would allow me to do something I wanted to do as a career, rather than something I had to do. I hadn’t studied in years, and never was too good at it, so I don’t think I realized what I was in for. Plus, I didn’t know a single soul, and to be honest, I was scared to death-more than any other time in my life. Honestly, I thought I might fall on my face, and I did a few times along the way. However, my ex-husband and I have always been best friends, and he’s always been so supportive of me. I remember the day I got here, I found some apartments, and as soon as I got off the bus, I took the girls, all our luggage, and went straight to a payphone where I totally broke down. It was Mark that I called. I told him I couldn’t believe I’d been so stupid as to think I could do this on my own. He calmed me down and told me to go into my apartment, put out Mama’s and Grandma’s quilts and ‘make it a home’. I did just that, and now it’s been eight years. I just finished my M.B.A. and will graduate on August 31st.
BL: That’s great. When did you start writing songs, who are some of your influences?
KS: I remember being really young, like thirteen or fourteen, sitting up all night writing tear-your-heart-out songs! I ain’t sure where the hell they came from, but they came and came. I’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning listening to WZZK out of Birmingham – calling them every little bit to request my favorites… George Jones, Reba, Billy Joe Royal, The Judds, Vern Gosdin, Hank Jr., George Strait, Loretta Lynn, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Tammy Wynette, etc. Their music was raw and I liked that, it made me feel like I wasn’t the only person in the world who felt ‘stuck’ or ‘lost’ or going through a rough spot in my life.
BL: Your first release sported a single, “Go Get ‘Em Girl”, that broke into the Top 20 Australia charts as well as brought you success in other countries. What was that like for you?
KS: “Go Get ‘Em Girl” was the first single off an EP I put out in 2006, and it represents such an exciting time in my life. I remember the first time it came on. I called my friend who was the DJ at the radio station and asked if he was going to play it, and he gave me the time it should be on. The radio in the house was missing its antenna, so me and the girls ran outside and sat in the car until it played. Not one of us moved an inch the whole song – as if he were going to hear something that we hadn’t heard a million times before! From there it just took off and got massive airplay. It shocked me!
The song is basically an autobiography of my life. I came from a life where there were a whole lot of ‘cant’s’ and if you wanted to do anything, you had to learn how to make ‘cans’ out of them. I was blessed to be raised by a Mama and Grandma that always told me I could do anything I set my mind to. Lots of folks don’t have that, so hopefully some of them can relate to the determination in my music, and maybe gain strength to fight for what they want.
The video went to #18 on Australia’s Country Music Channel’s (CMC) charts, as well as doing quite good over in Europe. I’ll never forget the first autograph I signed. It was a 5-year-old little boy, and he was so darned cute! He asked me to sign his cowboy hat, and I said I’d only do it if he gave me his autograph, too. Somewhere around the place here there’s a little piece of torn paper that has ‘Daniel’ written on it.
BL: Your sound is very rootsy, traditional…How do you feel about the ‘Roots’ scene in Australia?
KS: In Australia, country music is relatively new, so many of today’s artists that have that traditional sound gets thrown into the ‘roots’ section. It’s good, I reckon, as it offers an outlet to get your music out there. Australia’s got a few legends like the late Slim Dusty and Smoky Dawson, but in regards to modern country in Australia, it’s pretty new still – probably only 15-20 years. Some folks I’ve spoken to have said that the first international country CDs they ever saw sold here, were those belonging to Garth & Shania. If you think about it, that’s not too long ago at all. Because of this, I see that a lot of music, whether it’s roots, blues, country, country rock, etc. are often deemed as one or the other – even bluegrass sometimes, although that’s changing a bit now with its popularity growing. I’m just happy to have a forum, and if they call it rootsy, blues, whatever – that’s just fine with me, but it’d be nice if they throw ‘country’ in front of those, cause that’s all I see myself being!
BL: Your new CD, “It’s Her Turn”, was produced by Bill Chambers, who has quite a following in the ‘Roots’ scene here in the U.S. How did that pairing come about?
KS: I met Bill when an industry contact and I were talking about some songs I’d had written. The first EP I did was one that I was very proud of, but in all honestly, it was a bit scattered in terms of defining who I am as a songwriter. Even though I love singing some of the country rock tunes, when I write, I seem to aim at making folks cry! Can’t help it! In fact, my dear Mama used to say, “There’s two kinds of country music…the kind that makes you look for a bridge, and the kind that makes you jump!” I guess you could say I like in writing ‘jumpers’! Therefore, I wanted the new album to be one that helped express that a bit more, and it turns out Bill Chambers was just the guy I needed to see.
I called Bill, told him who I was, and that I was considering doing an album. I told him I’d like to talk to him about helping me with it. I was a bit intimidated at first, as he’s Kasey Chambers’ daddy, I guess I reckoned he’s be a bit more cocky than he is. However, it didn’t take long to realize that I was talking to someone who was about as down-to-Earth as they come, and who equally appreciated the same good ole’ honky-tonk tunes I grew up on and love so much.
We met a few months later to put our heads together and see if we couldn’t get a few songs together for the album. I took some remnants I’d started, along with some I thought were finished, as well as some concepts. In two days, we had finalized fourteen songs! As we wrote, we laughed, cried, told stories, you-name-it, we really connected. I don’t have a lot of co-writing experience really, but I love writing with Bill. He’s a hoot!
BL: You recorded a version of “Chiseled in Stone” with the late, great Vern Gosdin. How did that experience come about, and tell us about working with “The Voice.” Man, that must have been something!
KS: Now that was the highlight of my career, thus far! You know how, when you’ve been through something pretty crazy and you ask God to send you strength? Well, Vern was my proof that he listens…
It’s a weird story. I met a man online who said he wanted to manage me, and that he was Vern Gosdin’s manager, as well. I’ve not been exposed to that area of the industry a whole lot, so I was a bit excited to have a manager and thought I’d hit the jackpot! It was especially exciting that he knew Vern personally, as I had grown up listening to his music, and I never even dreamed of ever meeting him in person. Then, I blew out my credit card and flew home to meet this guy, and attend an award ceremony, where I’d evidently won one of the categories he’d entered my music in – and Vern was planning on riding the tour bus up to Pigeon Forge with us! That’s my dream, to have a tour bus and be on the road! Anyway, when I arrived in Alabama, I dropped my girls at Mama’s and headed to Muscle Shoals where I met this fella – and Vern, in person – as well as one of Vern’s close friends, Rob. We all went down to the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame, and then out to eat.
At that point, Vern said he was heading back to Nashville, and would see us the next morning when we picked him up in the bus en route to Pigeon Forge. It’d be a huge day for me, as well, so I also said goodbye to them, and assured the manager that I’d meet him at his place bright and early in the morning for the trip. I’d planned to go to my Aunt Polly’s, who lives only 28 miles from Muscle Shoals in Iuka, Mississippi. First, though, I decided to go by Wal-Mart in Florence for some shoes to wear, as I’d forgotten mine… While there, I got a call from this manager, saying that he’d bought some shrimp and tequila for us to have that night, and that I should head back over and just stay at his place. I thanked him for the awkward combination of shrimp and tequila, but declined, as I’d just flown in from overseas that morning, and was pretty exhausted. I again told him I’d stay at Aunt Polly’s and see him in the morning. Then, he called back yet again and told me that Vern had said he didn’t like my personality, and that if I didn’t come back to his house with him, he wouldn’t defend me to Vern, and that I could forget the trip, the award, and the management deal altogether! I was devastated! There I was at Wal-Mart in Florence, Alabama – broke, and feeling quite ‘little’. I drove the three hours back to Mama’s, sobbing and dreading telling the whole family that I’d been played for an idiot. They were all so excited for me getting this management deal and all the exciting stuff I would end up getting to do with my music. Now I had to break it to them that I was instead played for a fool.
On the way to Mama’s I remembered that Rob had given me his card, so I decided to call and tell him I was really sorry if I’d said something to offend Vern, and ask him to give Vern the message for me. He didn’t understand what I was talking about, and assured me that Vern hadn’t said anything negative about me at all. When I told him what had happened, he asked if he could call me back in a few minutes. Within minutes, it was Vern Gosdin who rang, instead, and he wasn’t happy about what he’d heard. I was really embarrassed at that point.
He explained to me that this guy was not his manager at all, only someone who occasionally booked shows for him – that’s it. He apologized for how things had turned out, and said he’d listened to my cd, which I’d given him earlier in the day and that he loved one of the songs, “Taking The You Out Of Us” in particular. He asked if I wrote it, etc. and eventually, he started asking me about Australia, and said he’d always wanted to visit but hadn’t gotten the opportunity. I told him if he ever came over, he was always welcome to stay at my place. At that, he said, “Do you mean that, Kimber?” I assured him that I did, and so he asked what my travel dates were. I told him, and within an hour he called me back and said he was on the same flight, and would be staying three weeks. I remember sitting in Mama’s kitchen on Buttercup Road in Cordova, Alabama – shaking my head and saying, “Mama, VERN GOSDIN is going back to Australia with ME!” To say I was in shock was an understatement.
Before heading back to Australia, my guitarist (whom I’d also flown over) and I spent a bit of time with him in Nashville. He took us around town, told endless stories about things he’d done and seen, and at night he’d sit there and pick his guitar and sing some of his new stuff. After the initial shock, he was like someone I’d always known. It was weird to me then and it’s weird to me now, but that’s the way it was.
We didn’t talk about doing music together, just him visiting and me showing him around. He immediately clicked with my girls, and from then on, spoiled them rotten! While in Australia, we sat around singing, writing and talking all the time. He asked if I had a producer, and said he’d like to do a few songs with me. I was in shock about that, too, as I didn’t have any expectations of that – but I was so excited about it. I remember one night we were sitting there and I told him that I was a bit scared, as I didn’t think I was anywhere near as good as those women he’d sang with on his cds, like Emmylou Harris and Janie Frickie. Then, he said something I’ll remember as long as I live… he said, “You ain’t the best singer I’ve ever heard, Kimber – far from it. But, you touch me more with whatever it is in your voice than anyone I’ve heard in a long, long time – so stop comparing yourself!” I just sat there with my mouth opened at his compliment.
We’d planned a few tunes of his to do, but the night before we met with the producer, I had taken a shower, had a towel in my hair and was singing “Chiseled in Stone” while making him some oatmeal for supper. He started harmonizing with me and said to call the producer and tell him we would be doing that song, instead of the other we’d decided on. I asked if he was sure, and he said he always wanted to hear his songs being sung by a woman. He told me to change the words to suit a female, and then went to bed. The next day, we recorded “Chiseled” and “A Picture Of Me Without You”.
Vern stayed three weeks with me in Australia, and had a ball. I learned so much from him in that short time, and stayed in touch with him until he passed away this April. The last time I spoke to him, I told him I was doing a two-month tour in the States, and he said I’d better stay with him in Nashville, but only if I did so under one condition – that I couldn’t stay a day over two months! He was a hoot! Heck, if I never do anything else with my music, I’ll never forget his words of wisdom, and how grateful I was to have had the chance to sing with The Voice…but most of all, to call him my friend.
As for that ‘manager’, Vern never trusted him again, and I don’t think he ever worked with him again. Even though I can’t say his name on here, if anyone wants to know, just ask me and I’m happy to fill you in on it…
BL: Man, It says a lot for the things happen in this industry. And – to be given such a compliment from “The Voice” himself shows that you have a long future in country music. Anything coming up you’d like to share? Any plans to tour the US soon?
KS: I’m leaving Australia on November 15th, and will do a two-month trip throughout the States, and I’m so excited about it! I’ll be performing in California, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, at this point, but I’m hoping to add more to it. As an independent artist, you wear the ‘booking’ hat, as well – so I’ll keep yall posted if I get more shows!
The highlight, however, will be playing at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on December 6th. I remember going there with my Mama 15 years ago. We spent ages reading the walls where everybody writes, and she was just so tickled to be there. I bought her a Tootsie’s jacket that she kept the plastic on and hung in her closet. She was afraid of messing it up somehow, so when she passed away unexpectedly in September of 2007, it was still hanging there. All her stuff is in my Uncle Danny’s barn, but if I can find that jacket, I’ll be wearing it. I reckon she’d like that.
While in the States, I’m hoping to make a new video. I’m currently talking to Brian Gaskill about shooting it for me, as I like his style! I’m a simple person really, and some of these videos today are a bit too Hollywood for me, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he can put together.
Currently, I’m pushing my debut album, “It’s Her Turn” which is full of those honky-tonk, heartbreak ballads I like. It’s hard going as an independent, and I find myself getting those ‘can’t’s’ thrown at me, but that just keeps me on my toes by making me find my ‘cans’. I have my priorities in order, and if my music touches folks and makes them feel something they need to be feeling, I’ve succeeded in what I’m trying to do. If I can make a million doing it, then that’s just a nice bonus!
The new single, “Movin’ On”, is doing great on radio and Australia’s Country Music Channel (CMC). It’s my sixth video and it never ceases to amaze me when I see myself on TV or hear one of my songs on the radio! I still have “Strait & Jackson” -my last single-getting a good bit of press, but I think it’s smart to keep the iron hot! However, I’m constantly aware of how blessed I am to be able to live my own country song – all the good, as well as the bad… it keeps me from getting bored!
Ideally, I’d like to get more airplay in America, and do more shows there. My tunes will be on iTunes and CD Baby very shortly so that it’s easier and cheaper for folks in the U.S. to get a hold of them. As for whether or not my destiny is heading back across the pond for good, I’ve got plans to start my doctorate here in Australia in March. However, if something trips my trigger, and doesn’t include shrimp and tequila , who knows what the future holds! I’m open-minded, and always up for a good challenge.
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Brigitte London, otherwise known as The Highwaywoman, is an accomplished singer/songwriter out of Austin, Texas. She’s a poet, dreamer, and host of her own radio show she conducts while touring on the road. She enjoys roller skating, watching poker tournaments on cable, and making up dirty ditties.
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