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"A first rank songwriter" — Don Walker (Cold Chisel)
You've probably seen her out there, busking on a street corner, dandelions in her hair. The coins in her case might buy a train ticket home or a down payment on bigger things: a better guitar, time to write another song; one chance in a million to soar above the static and catch the ear of the world.
"She's not me," says Harmony James of the hopeful busker in "Emmylou's Guitar"—although you may glimpse her past between the lines: a teenaged girl strapping on her guitar outside Woolworths in Cairns, a notebook of scribbled lyrics at her feet and a big sister quietly egging her on.
This captivating grey area between a killer song and an extraordinary life is the essence of HANDFULS OF SKY, Harmony's debut album.
Part of that life is already public. TAILWIND, her independent debut of '09, was surrounded by a slew of accolades: breakthrough awards from VCMA and APRA, Golden Guitar nominations for Best Female Artist and Best Album, eight Top Ten songs on the National Country Music Charts and first prize (for the title track) in the country division of Nashville's International Songwriting Competition.
But Harmony's remarkable back story as a church-born, outback-bred voice comes into its own with HANDFULS OF SKY. From the wry brimstone ramble of "Fires of Hell" to the rural panorama of "Hauling Cane" to the resolute emotional backbone of "Pride"—her ninth Top 10 single, and her third #1—it's
an album of arrival after a long, quietly confident journey.
"A friend of mine had gone to the States and taped some country music from the radio," she explains of her earliest inspiration. "She came back and snuck it to me so I had this little tape that I'd hide and listen to. Randy Travis, Dolly Parton, the Judds were on there . . . that was my lightbulb moment."
In a family life where the Bible loomed large—her father was a Baptist preacher—Harmony was destined to keep the flame secret for a time. But her church choir years nurtured the skills and belief needed for another calling.
"My musical exposure was mostly church music until I got a job as a checkout chick and heard the radio," she says. "Now when I hang out with other musos they'll drop names and I'll just look at them blankly 'cause my music history starts in '95.
"It's slightly embarrassing," she concedes with a laugh, "but it may be why my music is resonating with people. It's not heavily influenced by anyone, it's just evolved over time."
And experience. Harmony's road took a dramatic turn when she left home to work as a jillaroo on some of the most remote cattle stations in south western Queensland, "covered in mud and blood, roughing it with the guys, working so hard I had biceps and thinking, 'This is not what my mother pictured for me'."
A gig at a school fete in Goondiwindi led to an offer from the local publican and Harmony's songbook started filling, even as she continued her parallel life on the land, from the Cape to Tennant Creek, studying agriculture at uni and working as a welder "in a shed of 80 blokes."
TAILWIND changed everything again, fast-tracking her name onto country radio playlists and national tour posters alongside such stellar new fans as Kasey Chambers, Sara Storer, Troy Cassar-Daley and the McClymonts.
"I see HANDFULS OF SKY as a record of emergence from one period of my life to the next," Harmony says. "I feel like I'm displaying a lot. There are a lot of tracks which are basically me in a nutshell, though I don’t know how many people will recognise that."
Give or take a busker here or an outback oil driller there, chances are they’ll be too busy recognising themselves or someone they know among the soaring choruses and familiar scenarios of "Flying Too Close to the Sun", "So Long" and "Wait This Long."
The swell of universal emotion is the key to song after song, from the wistful waltz of "Reach For You", a duet with Shane Nicholson, to the stunning pianovocal confession of "The Girl You See". "It's kind of a letter to my family," says its writer, "but I'm interested to hear what other people make of it."
Then there are the more intriguing turns that show rather than tell. What are the words left tantalisingly unsaid in the snapshot moment of "Don't Say It"? Where exactly are the grim four walls closing in on "Great Grey Cloud"? And what's a self-confessed "goody two-shoes wowser" doing flirting with the devil
in "Fires of Hell"?
HANDFULS OF SKY was produced at Sydney's Ramrod Studios by the legendary Herm Kovac— "my champion from the start, almost a mentor," says Harmony—and a stellar gang including Tim Crouch, Troy Cassar-Daley, Glen Hannah, the McClymonts, Mark Punch and Bill Chambers.
"I can't wait to see what people make of it," Harmony says "to see where it takes them. Sometimes I think 'Geez, Harms, you're being a bit too honest for your own good here'. Then I think, 'No, it's art. You don't know which parts are true and which parts are just good stories."