By Caroline Paone
Lovers Dreamers Fighters is the name of country singer Lo Carmen’s latest album. Three words that say a lot, especially if you’re a musician. Carmen’s love for music and dreams of becoming a singer began in the clubs and concert halls of Australia beside her Dad’s piano. Then, it was the Rolling Stones, Ronnie Spector, Tom Waits, Loretta Lynn and Janis Joplin who inspired her; among others. With help from her musician Dad – a progressive rock keyboardist and country musician – she was playing the guitar on songs “Wild Thing” and “To Know Him is to Love Him” at age 15. Music was a natural progression for the storyteller.
Cover Photo Credit: Katerina Stratos
Carmen has also had a successful run acting in several popular Australian shows and films, but that ole country road called her home. She was in various bands over the years such as The Honky Tonk Angels (a ‘70s Nashville-inspired group) and has released her sixth full-length solo album.
The songwriter/guitarist keeps it real on Lovers Dreamers Fighters available digitally and on vinyl through Chiquita Records. The 10 atmospheric songs contain classic country elements but have their own special twang through Carmen’s gently rich vocals and textural songwriting. Her soulful country roads feel pink and orange from the Georgia dusk where she wrote the album. And the tracks are as uniquely authentic and dreamy as their lyrics: “I’m just a girl wearing rhinestones in the rain” (“Rhinestones In The Rain”). “There’s no history, there’s no mystery, ah don’t ya miss me…(“Lovers Dreamers Fighters”).
But before ever hitting the road or recording, she learned the realities of a working musician from observing her father. “I never had any stars in my eyes,” she says. “I understood that music was its own reward.”
After listening to your music and reading the stories on your site, it’s clear you have a writer’s heart. What did you first compose – lyrics, poetry or something else?
I used to write a lot of stories when I was a kid- lots of mysteries, eerie and mystical type things about statues and witches and roses and hauntings! I also wrote lots of silly songs when I was little – the first one I remember was called “I’m a Pyromaniac” and it involved a lot of headbanging. I’ve always written a bit of all of the above really. I write poems, prose and essays, but songs certainly feel like the definitive fit for me, and come to me most often.
How did you start playing music? Did you learn piano, too?
I did manage to learn a handful of jazz tunes on piano from my father as a teenager that I practiced constantly. Unfortunately, once I became distracted by other things and stopped practicing them, I forgot them and now I can only noodle on a piano. He also taught me guitar when I was 15, first ‘Wild Thing’ followed by ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him.’ I always just learned chords by learning songs I liked, although he tried to encourage me to delve deeper into understanding music. I’m about to embark on studying the art of improvisation from a book he’s been writing and has finally published after 20 years! I had Tom Waits and Rolling Stones guitar tab songbooks that I practiced with a lot; I picked up a few great chords from Tom Waits!
Your Dad is a lifelong musician (pianist Peter Head from Australian progressive group Headband, The Mount Lofty Rangers, and a country rock pioneer). How did that influence you? What experiences have shaped you having a musician father?
I guess I never had any stars in my eyes. I always knew that being a musician meant hard work, long hours, thankless nights and lean times, but it never put me off! I also saw that there were a lot of people that hung around the music scene as managers, bookers, etc. that meant well (presumably), but that they often promised a lot more than they could provide. I guess that gave me a determination to take care of my own business, which I do – and that brings its own freedoms and joys and frustrations and difficulties. Mainly, I guess, I understood that music was its own reward.
“I didn’t really relate to other kids a lot, I was much more interested in being around the musicians and the music.”
I read your story with the comment about falling asleep under your Dad’s piano; that is such an endearing image. Children want to stay up late and not miss a thing. You clearly had a curiosity about music…
I didn’t really relate to other kids a lot, I was much more interested in being around the musicians and the music. Everyone was nice to me, and I just loved listening to the songs and being a part of it. Back then it was ok for kids to go to venues. I was hyperactive and had a lot of trouble sleeping, so I would just tag along as often as I could. I loved to help carry gear and roll leads and hand out the setlists and charts for the band. I love hanging around the backing singers and checking out their costumes. I always dreamed of being a singer.
“I was obsessed with Suzi, she’s so cool. And I loved the idea she promoted that rock ’n’ roll made everything all right.”
He bought you a Suzi Quatro record? I love that! What album?
Quatro! She has a great grimace on her face and is wearing black leather and playing her bass, so tough – I stared at that picture forever. I think ‘Devil Gate Drive’ was on the charts in Australia and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I was obsessed with Suzi, she’s so cool. And I loved the idea she promoted that rock ’n’ roll made everything all right.
Your father was in a band with Bon Scott (singer from AC/DC). Any memories of him?
Though he was a constant presence at our place when I was small, I was too young to remember much of anything. My Dad taught him guitar and Bon would sing on my Dad’s recordings in return – we had a studio at home. I do recall him being sweet, and that he liked to chat. Also, that he told me he saw the ghost of our recently dead dog Harry, which made me really happy! There’s a reel to reel lost somewhere in time with Bon singing on one of my Dad’s songs and me wailing cos I wanted to be the one to sing it… I hope it turns up some day, could be a hit!
There is a piece on your website about Bon Scott’s death. Reading that was doubly sad with the recent passing of Malcolm Young. As a tremendous rhythmic player, he really shaped a sound and feeling in rock music.
He sure did. I’m really such a fan of rhythm guitar with good feel – especially Malcolm’s. Angus says Malcom is a better player than him, he just prefers to ‘bang out’ the rhythm. I was a rhythm guitarist in a friend’s band for a while and I loved it, the freedom of being part of the engine and then being able to move around the bass and drums at times to change the feel up.
Who inspired you to write and perform Country music? Although, your music touches other styles as well. I hear folk, soul, classic country twang.
I spent a hell of a lot of time deep in Dolly, Tammy and Loretta records, but at the same time I was listening to Aretha, Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, Etta James. Girl groups – Ronnie Spector in particular – were my teenage soundtrack. I was reared on the Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, who took in all those influences, too – it’s always made sense to me to mix them together.
“I like to call my style ‘atmospheric’ guitar playing, and I think it works for my songs.”
Did you admire Loretta Lynn’s guitar style and vocals? She’s an amazing guitar player – so fluid.
Loretta Lynn has been an absolute heroine to me since I discovered her. I spent countless hours listening to her records, copying out the lyrics, and trying to work out the chords. I love how she can convey so much emotion without any hysterics. And I love the freedom that accompanying herself on the guitar gave her. She was completely in charge of creating her own feel and style. Her guitar style was simple, but it was also perfect. I’ve always been inspired by singer-songwriters that can accompany themselves, especially if their guitar playing came secondary to their singing or songs – they can develop such unique styles of playing – look at Willie Nelson for example. I think Willie is my favorite guitarist, he has such a personal brand of guitar playing that no one else can copy it. Not being a particularly skilled guitarist myself, I’ve really taken heart in listening to singer-songwriter-guitarists that have made their guitar limitations work for them. I like to call my style ‘atmospheric’ guitar playing, and I think it works for my songs. I’m often surprised by how difficult I can find it to sing my own songs if I’m not playing guitar, and a much better guitarist is accompanying me, but the feel can just be wrong for what I’m needing to hear in my head! That said, I really appreciate how a guitarist with great feel can play with me and around me, and make my sound work even better.
We have a mutual admiration for Leonard Cohen. I love the song about his time with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel. What are you inspired by or like about him?
Although he’s considered so lugubrious, it’s his wicked sense of humor and his clear-eyed observations of flesh and fire that really get me. He’s so clever with his turns of phrase and his comic timing, while totally transporting the listener to a room, a place, a time, with this incredible sense of nostalgia for something that’s not theirs but they feel like it is.
You collaborated with many talented artists on this album, such as pedal steel player Russ Pahl. What layers and textures did that add to the songs? For example, I feel “Last Thing I’ll Remember” has a haunting quality and depth to it: I’m transported to a panoramic scene in a beautiful country western movie.
Textures is a good word, it kind of felt like we were making a tapestry together, lots of weaving in and out of each other’s ways! All the players just had such beautiful feel and tasty licks without any need to stamp all over everything – it was all about serving the songs.
David Ferguson engineered this record. He’s worked with legends like Johnny Cash and others. What was your experience working with him?
Ferg is just a very cool cat. Not really a story teller but of course you know he’s full of them and every now and then he’ll let loose with one. He really inspires confidence in all the musicians around him because it’s obvious he just knows when a song is being played right, so if he seems happy, there’s good reason for you to be too. However, I also really like that he respected and listened to my visions, even though he and the other Nashville musicians were far more skilled than me, they were willing to go wherever I wanted, which is not always the case in a studio environment. He’s a super funky, mean guitarist, too, who can come up with some really different and unexpected riffs – it’s totally his feel on ‘Sometimes It’s Hard,’ and I loved it from the moment he jumped up and played it. He and his studio partner/engineer Sean just set a great tone together, very fluid and instinctual.
I’ve always been inspired by Southern music, and responded to it to the most. I kind of felt like I was just where I was meant to be and the sounds and sights and accents and sunsets and trees I was surrounded by all infiltrated and got thrown into the stew. It was lovely to have a big covered patio to sit on in the evenings and strum away, working on songs.
What guitars did you play on this album?
I played Jake Bugg’s baby Martin which he keeps at Butcher Shoppe as it’s endangered Rosewood and so needs a passport to travel, which it doesn’t have, lucky for me. Very easy to play, especially for my soft arpeggio kind of style. I always wanted to try one, as I discovered years ago that’s Dolly Parton’s favorite guitar and that piqued my interest! I really just wanted to provide the basic simple structure and let those incredible Nashville players do their thing, so I didn’t do anything too fancy!
Do you still play solid body electric at all?
I love my Tele Thinline and prefer to play electric if I’m playing live with a band. I like to use a Music Man amp, or something similar with good reverb and then use an overdrive pedal for a bit of feel, sometimes some tremolo. Acoustic seems to work better for solo shows, but I haven’t found my perfect acoustic yet – though I loved the little Martin that I recorded with, so would love to get one of them down the track. Right now, I just have a busted up old Stella guitar that I found in a Georgia Goodwill under a vacuum cleaner for $4.95! It sounds more like a banjo than a guitar, but it serves its purpose.
Check out Lo Carmen’s music and writing at https://www.locarmenmusic.com/