Not Pretty Enough (K Chambers) 2002 and True Colors (W Steinberg/T Kelly) 2003 – Kasey Chambers
Kasey Chambers (1976) was born and grew up in Mt Gamber (SA) and made the transition from interesting new country artist in Tamworth (NSW), to mainstream success in 2001/02, when her album Barricades and Brickwalls, and the first single lifted from that album, Not Pretty Enough, both occupied the #1 position on the Australian charts at the same time. This had never happened before, particularly for a genre like country music which was generally regarded as the source of the occasional quirky crossover hit, but it had a mostly stereotypical image of utes, boots and B&S roots – Chambers and her family were country outsiders, too.
Kasey’s emergence was no overnight success, she was twenty-five years old, had been touring for over a decade with her family’s Dead Ringer Band, she had already released three singles which had failed to chart. But it would be her debut studio album, The Captain (2000), and the title track that became her breakthrough hit. She had resisted record label attempts to ditch the song, “Once I wrote [the song The Captain] I knew that that was the centrepiece, the glue, everything. And I wasn’t prepared to bend for that,” she says of the gently picked ballad, that sits somewhere between country and folk, and was written about a close friend she believed had changed her life. The album won the ARIA Award for Best Country Album, and rose to #15 for her first top twenty hit, and also included a great cover of the Crowded House song Better Be Home Soon.
The Chambers were a musical family, father Bill led their Dead Ringer Band, and with mother Diane, and brother Nash, and Kasey, they toured locally in their home state of South Australia and were the stars of the annual Tamworth Country Music Festival. Kasey’s musical inspirations while growing up were Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris would perform with Kasey on her 2018 album Campfire.
Kasey is a creative songwriter and performer and her breakout single Not Pretty Enough, poignantly posed seven questions in the first verse, as well as stating the song’s title “ Am I not pretty enough?/Is my heart too broken?/Do I cry too much?/Am I too outspoken?/Don’t I make you laugh?/Should I try it harder?Why do you see right through me?”. Some concluded that Kasey sounded defeated, unsure of herself, not confident enough to air her thoughts and feelings, nor reveal her misgivings. Yet there was also a defiant air of protest about the song as well, a sense that for this woman there was some unfinished business here, personal aspirations not yet fulfilled, “I live, I breathe/I let it rain on me/I sleep, I wake/I try hard not to break/I crave, I love/I’ve waited long enough/I try as hard as I can”
Kasey was used to her music being rejected by radio stations and record companies who wanted to put her in a C&W box. She also felt the anguish of a woman trying to make her way in an industry which was increasingly focused on the sexualization and commodification of female performers, who by and large, did not look or sound like Kasey Chambers, but more like Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue, and because of that she felt inadequate.
The song intros with acoustic guitar and keyboards, it is a subtle sound palette over which Chambers vocals are vulnerable, artless, while at the same time she is quite precise, direct, and unpretentiously strong, there is a yearning quality to her voice which resonated with fans, she invoked empathy from those who have felt “not pretty enough” at some time in their life. Not Pretty Enough was awarded the APRA Song of the Year Award in 2006, and was subsequently enshrined in the National Registry of Songs, as a record of both cultural and musical significance.
Family members played on the record and her brother Nash produced the session, her chart success with both the single and the album, which sold over half a million copies, alerted the world to a performer who had a clear-eyed, quirky take on country music, eschewing the sentimentality and syrupy aw shucks tone of her US peers, she would take her next three albums, Wayward Angel, Carnival, and Rattlin’ Bones, straight to #1. Wayward Angel featured the classic bass lines and engaging yodelling of Pony, as well as the song Hollywood where Kasey displayed her vocal range and nuanced phrasing that would make this song her fifth top 40 hit. In Carnival Kasey shifted gears and embraced a more roots-influenced, bluesy, driving style of delivery not heard before, as exemplified on Nothing At All, while the Rattlin’ Bones album would emerge as a musical peak of creativity and collaboration between Kasey and her husband Shane Nicholoson, often singing in tandem and sharing a musical partnership and empathy for their songs, that resonated with fans.
Kasey and and Shane first met in 2002 when they were brought together by Chamber’s brother Nash to perform a duet called Designed To Fade, they staged an impromptu wedding right before Christmas in 2005 in the backyard of their Avoca home. Both the bride and groom were barefoot and in jeans and t-shirts, they threw a BBQ and had a pavlova for the wedding cake. At the time Kasey remarked “I can’t explain how happy we are, it really was my dream wedding.” Kasey had a son Talon from a previous marriage to actor/director Cori Hopper (2000-04) and she and Nicholoson would have two children together a son Arlo and a daughter Poet.
In 2003 Kasey covered the Cyndi Lauper hit of 1986 True Colors, songwriters Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly had originally offered the song to Anne Murray who passed on it, Lauper included the song on her True Colors album, it was the only track that she had not written herself, and it became a US #1 on release.
The original demo of the song was strongly influenced by such gospel ballads as Bridge Over Troubled Water, Let It Be and Lean on Me, but Lauper stripped the arrangement right back and delivered a simple, starkly beautiful ballad with heartfelt lyrics about the inner beauty of people. Chambers rendition was faithful to Cyndi Lauper’s original, the two singers have similar voices, it became Kasey’s second top five hit and was the theme song for the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
Wreck and Ruin in 2012 would be Kasey’s ninth studio album and the second recorded in collaboration with Shane Nicholoson, it would also be their be their last, the title track and such moving songs as ‘Til Death Do Us Part, and Adam and Eve, were harbingers of major changes taking place in their lives, after eight years of marriage the king and queen of Australian country music seperated, citing the collision of work, life, and family pressure as the contributing factors. Musical rivals as much as partners over the course of their careers, the couple both competed against each other for ARIA and APRA awards and collaborated on critically acclaimed records such as Rattlin Bones which was a #1 platinum hit in 2008
Kasey would take her tenth studio album Bittersweet to #2 in 2014 and follow up with Dragonfly in 2017, it was a double album with one disc produced by Paul Kelly and the other by her brother Nash, guests on the album included Ed Sheeran, Vika and LInda Bull, Keith Urban, Foy Vance and others, and it became her fifth #1 studio album
Kasey’s albums which have included two with her then-husband Shane Nicholoson, have spanned country, rock, bluegrass, and folk, she is a gifted singer/songwriter who over the journey since 2000 has won 12 ARIA awards out of a mammoth 32 nominations and been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2018 by Paul Kelly. His induction speech was a brilliant ode to Kasey and her life’s work; Missy Higgins, Kate Miller-Heidke, and Amy Shepherd sang Kasey’s most identifiable song Not Pretty Enough that night, followed by her own dramatic rendition of the self-penned Ain’t No Little Girl.