Amongst its luminous covers, Sweet Inspiration’s original title track swells into a slow wildness; it’s not frenetic, but a gradual building of riotous vocals, organ, electric guitar licks and horns that disgorges itself outwards in a very With A Little Help From My Friends fashion – and it’s a fitting reflection of how this album, Kate Ceberano’s 28th, was created.
“First of all, I entered the project quite mad,” Ceberano says simply. “We were all a little bit in shock: ‘What’s actually happening, and when will be the next time we get to do this together – when will it ever happen again?’” In addition to those lockdown realities, Ceberano had also been wrestling with the “weird crux” of wanting to create, but feeling self-indulgent in doing so. It was the words of Nina Simone – “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times” – and the practice of Leonard Cohen, which came to steer her true. She interprets her eventual understanding of her position thusly: “‘You’re born to sing, and somehow describe the feelings that you have about the world around you.’”
“So we started off with the simplest kind of recording – and we did it all live, by the way,” she says. “There were very tiny, minimal edits here and there, but because we were all in the same room, you couldn’t actually do a lot [of editing], acoustically. And so what you get is that kind of Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs & Englishmen dynamic.”
If it sounds unbridled, it’s because Ceberano and her band were truly experiencing a process of unchaining their hearts across the two days they recorded. “When things go a little bit mental, well, once they’re released it’s not like you can rein it in,” she says. “You really did get the emotion, and the kind of combined consciousness of the band. We were playing standard songs, and we’re meant to be all tidy – but by the end, we’d kind of unraveled, and we were spent! So in the end, we just went ‘You know what? That’s going to be the truth of what we’re doing.’ And that’s how it remained.”
The group bent their steps through 10 covers and two originals – the afore-mentioned title track written by Ceberano and Rick Price, and the affecting, acoustic-and-piano-led blues ballad Hold On, written by Ceberano, Rodrigo Bustos, and Jess Fairlie – making stops in all manner of seminal coves. “Paul McCartney, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Dolly Parton, Paul Weller, my favorite band Elbow,” Ceberano lists. “I mean, it’s a f-cking mixed bag!”
Finding the core of a cover is something Ceberano approaches with trademark earthiness, but the musician notes that originals can become just as problematically familiar. “I’ve been in the middle of singing a song I’ve been singing for 40 years, like Brave or Bedroom Eyes, and I’ve lost the power to remember the next verse,” she laughs. “And then I have to go, ‘Come on, Kate, f-cking pull yourself together!’ Like, don’t don’t forsake the audience’s experience on this!”
Her version of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, the penultimate track on Sweet Inspiration, is stunningly present; everyone knows these words by heart, so how does she ensure she’s not singing by rote, but actually connecting with the song’s sentiment? “I find that part of me, that’s the very Hawaiian part of me, in that moment,” she offers. “And I try to imagine nature: how we look around and we think we’ve seen it all before. We’ve come across that particular plant, or that insect, or we’ve seen that coastline before, but it’s never the same. And it’s always perfect within its own universe of never being the same as anything else. To me, the perfect way to sing is to try to find what’s new about that moment when you’re singing, and just sing it in that moment, as true as you can. And then, I suppose, that’s the closest you can be to nature.”
THE BOY FROM OZ & THE GIRL FROM MELBOURNE
Ceberano’s album includes a stirring cover of I Honestly Love You, written by late Australian icon Peter Allen and American pop producer Jeff Barry (who co-wrote numerous classics including Do Wah Diddy Diddy, River Deep – Mountain High, and Chapel of Love). She recounts meeting Allen in this wonderful story:
“I had the greatest fortune of doing a New Year’s Eve event when I was 17. I had an album – it was a jazz album, and I was very much into the visualisation and conceptual idea of being a jazz singer. It was doing really well and I was thrilled. So I got this gig: it was with Peter Allen, Whitney Houston and Frank Sinatra. I was at Sanctuary Cove up north, and it’s the biggest [event] I’ve ever had, pretty much still today. They couldn’t put me on the bill because Frank said, “I will not sing a note after the stroke of midnight. That’s the end of my contract. We’ll sing Auld Lang Syne, and then I’m f-cking gone!” So I had the great pleasure of just simply watching the show, and getting paid for it!
Sweet Inspiration by Kate Ceberano is out February 5 via Sony.
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