Heath Cullen was raised and lives in the Bega Valley in a dairy shed on his mother’s property. He has no plans to move from his little community of Candelo because he cherishes the peaceful surrounds and the fact that he can play his guitar as loudly as he likes without any complaints from neighbours. But last year he went wandering the world. Estelle Pigot, from Regional Arts NSW, discovers what he found out there. [Story curtesy of Regional Arts NSW]
Having spent a decade touring Australia as a session guitarist and producer-for-hire (working with the likes of Kate Fagan, Jackie Marshall and Tim Freedman), blues and roots singer-songwriter Heath Cullen released his first album A Storm Was Coming But I Didn’t Feel Nothing in 2010. It was recorded in his hometown, the tiny village of Candelo, NSW and was a worthy debut. Commentators likened Cullen’s sound to that of music greats like Cormac McCarthy, Patti Smith and Townes Van Zandt.
Then, last year, a lifelong affair with the music of America’s 1950’s and 1960’s was enough to lure the country boy from his sleepy home to LA on a journey collecting stories and sounds. He travelled through the United States on a journey he describes as “a pilgrimage through the musical holy land of the American south”.
It was an experiment in wish-fulfilment. Calling on his fans to support him through crowd-funding website, Pledge Music, Cullen went hunting his heroes. As he travelled from from New Orleans and Memphis to New York City he assembled a back-up band by looking up the pedigree musicians he had spent his childhood listening to. All in all, he basically ”borrowed” Tom Waits’s band and in the Northern summer of 2012, in a recording studio in LA, dreams came true as he jammed with Jim Keltner ( who has a head-spinning freelance resume that reads like a rippling drum roll of music industry who’s who… Roy Orbison, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, The Ramones, Neil Young, Crosby, Crowded House, Fiona Apple, Elvis Costello, The Bee Gees, Pink Floyd, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Petty, Alice Cooper, Sheryl Crow and Carly Simon… seriously, just Google him) guitarist, Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Mike Patton) and bassist Larry Taylor (notably from legendary blues outfit Canned Heat, but also a key contributor to the Tom Waits sound).
The result is The Still And The Steep (2013). When asked why he believes the album is “difficult” he deadpans by emailing a Wikipedia link to something known as the “Sophomore Slump” however, he shouldn’t be so modest. The Weekend Australian described it as “a collection of exquisite songs … like a road trip heading out of town at daybreak, nothing ahead but empty plains and cloudless skies.”
What was it like leaving country NSW for the USA?
The Bega Valley, where I come from, is mostly dairy farming country. Most farmers would call where I live a hobby farm, it’s not a working farm as such. It’s a nice place to come back to when you spend a lot of time on the road. No neighbours nearby and you can still see the stars at night.
The space here is something that’s really hard to explain to so many people around the world, wherever you go. On my last trip to the US I spent three months living in Los Angeles – a city of about 17 million – a population not too far behind the entire population of Australia. Try standing in the middle of that and explaining to someone that where you come from, the nearest town is in actual fact a tiny village of about three or four hundred people, about six miles away down a dirt road.
How did this adventure impact on you as an artist?
Like a lot of creative folks, I find that traveling stimulates some particular part of my muse. I like spending time in new cities or towns, encountering different environments and stories and characters – these are things that keep the songs coming, for me personally.
Through my travels in America I’ve made some great friends that I wouldn’t have otherwise met. On my new album, I collaborated with some artists whose work I’ve been an admirer of my whole life: Jim Keltner who played drums with the Traveling Wilburys (the first LP I ever bought, as a kid with my own money) and with John Lennon and Bob Dylan and scores of other great artists. “Marc Ribot is probably the most singular and inventive guitarist in the world right now.”
Larry Taylor played at Woodstock in 1969 with his band Canned Heat, and he’s on the record. I would never have made these kind of connections if not for my adventuring in the US.
What are the challenges of being a regionally-based creative?
The challenges are many but apart from the obvious distance/isolation factor, there’s also an attitude among many city folks, including in the arts industry, that if you’re regionally based then you mustn’t be serious about what you’re doing. I hate to say it but that is a very real thing.
We’re very fortunate that organisations like Regional Arts NSW exist, as there are so many people doing amazing world-class work out in the sticks who have trouble trying to get their ideas off the ground and to a wider audience.
What are the benefits?
The rent is cheap and the community is strong.
Here in my local area we’re lucky to have a very active Arts community. There are a lot of very talented people in all sorts of creative fields. The Candelo Arts Society, founded in 1986, was an incredibly supportive forum for me in my formative years. In the years after I finished school I made the decision to not leave for the city as so many young people do, and instead to try and build an international career from where I was, whilst also contributing to the local community.
I turned the challenge of distance to my advantage by volunteering my time as an event organiser, bringing touring acts to the region and through that I developed relationships with national and international artists and concert promoters. The Candelo Village Festival is now one of the most exciting cultural events in the South East, and continues to grow.
What did you put into The Still And The Steep and what do you hope people will take from it?
I’ve put everything into this album. You have to, don’t you?
I’m extremely proud of it. We had a lot of fun making it and took a lot of care to make something that, hopefully, will touch people and stay with them. That’s what I think a good record is for.
You offered your music free for a limited time to the world, what was the reasoning behind your generosity?
For one week I offered my downloads on a pay-what-you-want basis, with a minimum of $0. Am I in a position where I can afford to give away everything that I do? Not by a long shot! But I really would prefer that people had the records than not, if it’s simply a matter of them not being able to afford it. A lot of people paid, even given the option not to.
Recorded music is an interesting product in the way that we consume it. Most people don’t buy music if they haven’t already heard it and been moved by it, and sometimes that takes a few listens. I think that if people really appreciate the music, they’re probably going to stick with you; come to a show, recommend your album to a friend. When you don’t have a major label to fund your advertising campaigns, then what have you got? Word of mouth and your fans. So you have to treat them well; with generosity and respect.
Watch Silver Wings performed by Heath Cullen (filmed roadside on the Hay Plains in Western NSW)
Photo by Eryca Green, 2012