Prolific singer-songwriter Shane Nicholson has been working hard, so he’s going on a little cruise — and he’s inviting you to come with him.
Nicholson is one of the headliners of Cruisin Country 6, the latest instalment of the legendary country music festival at sea.
In a first for the event, Cruisin Country 6 will set sail from Brisbane, before pulling into ports of call in Vanuatu, the Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia and the ever-popular Isle of Pines.
All told, passengers will spend eight nights aboard the luxurious Legend of the Seas, enjoying performances from a who’s who of the Australian country music industry.
“It’s a pretty cruisy gig for the headliners, if you’ll pardon the pun,” says Nicholson. “You perform for one night, and the rest of the time you’re just hanging out on the ship, having fun and watching everybody else perform. Imagine taking the biggest country music festival in Australia and putting it on a boat — that’s pretty much what it is.
“I mean, it’s a holiday, and I get paid to be there. What’s not to like?”
Nicholson has certainly earned his place among the country music elite — he’s won multiple ARIA, APRA and Golden Guitar awards, including last year’s Best Country Album ARIA for his last record, Hell Breaks Loose — but he’s never truly felt comfortable with that label.
After all, the Brisbane musician first came to public notice as the frontman of a local indie rock band, Pretty Violent Strain, and much of his output owes more to folk and bluegrass than it does to mainstream country music.
“I don’t know if I think of myself as any kind of artist,” he says. “I just write songs I want to write, and then I make records that I would personally like to listen to. I’ve always made music for myself, first and foremost. If other people enjoy it, that’s a bonus.
“I’ve certainly never sat down with the intention of writing a certain type of song or making a certain type of album for somebody else, and I’m not trying to be a particular type of artist. I just do what I do, and people will call you what they call you.
“I think we’re becoming less genre-specific these days, because all the music is out there and easily accessible. We don’t have to go into record stores anymore and go to the pop section or the rock section. So the whole idea of genre is getting a little bit old now. It’s just not that important. I never think about it.”
In fact, Nicholson says, that’s how he’s always consumed music.
“When I listened to music when I was a kid, my parents didn’t tell me if it was country or rock’n’roll or whatever. I just didn’t know the difference. I’d listen to a John Denver record and then a Metallica record.
“I’m more than happy to be part of the country community — I love it, actually — but I don’t really see myself as a country artist any more than I see myself as a rock or pop or folk artist. Anything and everything is on the table for me.”
Nicholson became inextricably tied to Australia’s country music community when he married Kasey Chambers in 2007. The pair released two popular and critically acclaimed albums together, Rattlin’ Bones and Wreck & Ruin, before the marriage came to an end in 2013.
It took Nicholson a long time to get back on the songwriting horse after that, but he says that was largely circumstantial.
“I threw myself into production work when my marriage ended. I worked on about a dozen records for other people and I hardly came up for air in 18 months. So that’s why I hadn’t written.
“I think I could have written — it was a pretty opportune time to be writing songs, you know — but I was just throwing myself into so much production work that I totally forgot to write songs for a while.”
It was a trip to the small town of Hermannsburg, outside Alice Springs, that really got Nicholson’s creative juices flowing again.
“Writing songs isn’t like riding a bike, you know. If you’re not doing it all the time, you have to get back into that rhythm and hone that skill again. It’s like a blunt knife, and you’ve got to sharpen it every time.
“So I started writing, but I was floundering for a little while. I went out to Hermannsburg with a really good friend of mine, a songwriter named Warren H Williams, who took me out there to his home town. That’s really where the record started.
“I wrote Hell Breaks Loose sitting on the steps of the old church, ironically, and that was the catalyst for the record coming to life. There was something about being out there, removing myself from my life… there was a whole bunch of perspective gained in that.
“I don’t think I even took a guitar out there. The whole point of the trip was to not play music, because I was all music’d out, really. I’d been producing so much. But when I got there, I wrote three songs in a week, and I had to go and borrow this guitar with three strings on it from a local and try to write songs on it.
“That’s the way it goes sometimes. When you’re not trying, that’s when the songs come, and you just have to run with it. So I came back home with those three songs, and by then the train had left the station, and I just had to go with it. I wrote the rest of the record in the three weeks following that, and then I went straight into the studio. I just got the bug.”
Nicholson insists he wasn’t consciously thinking about the breakdown of his marriage when he wrote the songs on Hell Breaks Loose, but he admits those feelings might have filtered into the album anyway.
“I think so, yeah. I’ve only become aware of that with hindsight, looking back. Writers will always draw on their life in their work. Any creative person will, that’s what they do. So whatever happens to you inevitably ends up in your songs, or at least influencing them somehow. The biggest difference with this record, though, is just my willingness to be less guarded.
“All of my albums have been quite honest in their own way, but there was something about this one that was more direct, in the way I worded these songs and the way I wrote them.
“It’s a much less guarded record than the ones I’ve made in the past. It’s not more emotional, or more meaningful, but it’s a lot more direct. I think people have identified with that, because they can see themselves in a lot of these songs.
“That could just be part of getting older and having made eight albums. You just get to a point where, as a writer, you’re more comfortable with saying things without burying them in metaphor and being cryptic about it. Some of this record is a bit more confronting, I guess, than what I’ve written in the past. So I’m sure my situation had something to do with it. It can’t not, you know?”
As well as being his most direct album, Hell Breaks Loose is also the first one that Nicholson doesn’t mind listening to.
“I’ve always had a really heavy hand in the production of my own records. I’m a bit of a control freak, and I know what I like. But I’ve learnt over the years that getting so close to my own music kind of reduces it to a science. Now that producing records for other people is my day job, I realised that I need someone else to produce my own albums.
“On my own records, I need to just be the artist and enjoy the magic and the mystery of it all. I’ve found, with my earlier records, that they’re tainted for me because of my memories of being involved with them on a structural level. I just wanted to remove that. So handing the reins over to Matt Fell was easy, because he’s a good friend of mine and he’s incredibly brilliant at what he does, and I felt comfortable doing that.
“So I got to just enjoy being the artist and sitting at the back of the room and being part of the fun side of the record, not creating the skeleton and bones of it, you know? I loved the experience so much, and I don’t think I’ve enjoyed making an album more in my life.
“It’s funny, because I’ve never listened to my own music after I’ve made it. Well, hardly ever. But I’ve found myself listening to this record for enjoyment a few times, and saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’m proud of this’. Because there are things I’m still discovering about it! There’s still a magic and a mystery to it.
“Certainly, playing the songs live is a whole new experience. I hear them as songs now, not as pieces of a puzzle. It’s really quite an enlightening experience.”
Of course, it’ll soon be time to start the whole process over again.
“I’ll make another record soon, hopefully. That’s life for me. You do it once, and then you go and tour it, and then you do it again, and then you go and tour that. I never force it, it’s not a ‘job’, I just wait until the muse arrives. In the meantime, I’m still producing lots of albums for other people. I’m in the middle of three at the moment.
“Life’s pretty good when you can just wake up, get out of bed and do music every day. As long as I’m able to keep doing that, I’m more than happy.”
Hell Breaks Loose is out now through Lost Highway Australia / Universal Music.
Nicholson will be aboard the Legend of the Seas for Cruisin Country 6 from 13-21 November alongside Adam Brand, Amber Lawrence, Luke O’Shea, Dean Perrett, Lyn Bowtell, Kristy Cox, Beccy Cole, Melinda Schneider, Felicity Urquhart, Drew McAlister, Simply Bushed, Travis Collins Jasmine Rae and more. To book your cabin, visit chooseyourcruise.com.au.