Tamara Stewart played Buckle and Boots in 2018 while promoting her last album The Truth, The Music & Me. Her 2023 album Woman actually comes out while she’s over here in support for her good friend Elles Bailey. Tamara has been playing onstage since her early teens. She started out in the club and bar circuit in South Australia, eventually signing a record deal aged 21.
‘I genuinely adore playing for UK audiences,’ she tells me on the Wednesday before the Saturday night show. ‘It sounds like a line but I really mean it! There just seems to be a connection. I’m writing some pretty brave things on this new record, so to be in front of an audience that I feel is so respectful and receptive, it’s not by accident!
‘The first time I played London, I played the Borderline, I think supporting Rosanne Cash. I remember being a country artist coming over and being really confused by what I saw. Every show was different: it was like a jigsaw puzzle of different pockets of what England’s version of country was.
‘Now I’ve done five or so tours and people tend to know what they get when they come and see me. Elles’ audiences are just brilliant: they want to listen, they want to rock out. It’s a good balance.
‘England as a country industry is incomparable to my first impression. I want to use the word “lush” because I’ve been around Elles so much! It’s really fertile ground with C2C. I see me spending more time here, splitting my time between London and Nashville.’
Tamara has a Green Card to enable her to live and work in America and is now eligible for citizenship. ‘I love living in America. I love Nashville. I’ve been there eight or nine years.
‘My first trip was 2001 and even way back then most of my attention was on Music Row. I’ve never really had much to do with Downtown, the bachelorette capital of America where all the “woohoo girls” come and play!
‘Nashville has three lives that run parallel to each other: the songwriting side, the touristy side and a really healthy music industry. Music Row certainly has changed on account of the tourism taking over. People move to Nashville to be songwriters and they end up making a bunch of money on Broadway for tips in cover bands.
‘I wouldn’t say there’s too many songwriters. There’s a place for everyone but it does take a certain luck. My experience was so much more than just a career advancement: if I’d have known how hard it was! Every writer’s story is different and it’s about what we overcome personally.’
Tamara’s wisdom extends to the definition of success. ‘It’s up to the person and it will make you or break you, and I don’t mean on a career level. I don’t regret any choice I’ve made. I wouldn’t be the same person if I hadn’t gone down that path.
‘It’s not for the faint of heart! Your dream is based on what you’re prepared to suffer for. If you can get to the end of your career and you’ve not sacrificed yourself, kept your integrity, then it’s a win.’
Tamara’s all too brief set to warm up Elles’ crowd was terrific. She showed her three decades of experience while balanced on sparkling black boots with vertiginous heels. It made me think of Ashley McBryde or (and this an easy comparison) Brandy Clark.
‘I don’t give a damn if no one knows my name!’ was a line which leapt out of opener Face The Music, before singing much of Joan of Arc, a tune about her sister, in French. The excellent trio of Birds in Cages, Haunted House and set closer Late To The Party were all from The Truth, The Music & Me, her ‘divorce album’, while a finger-picked tune about being an ‘orphan mother’ silenced the room impressively.
Elles, predictably, was tremendous, leading a band which included singer Demi Marriner through plenty of tracks from her 2022 album Standing in the Half Light. To tie in with the tour Elles has put out an expanded version of the album which includes covers of John Martyn’s Over The Hill and the CCR classic Long As I Can See The Light. Fellow new tracks Spinning Stopped and Hole In My Pocket both got an airing in Kings Cross. You can also hear live versions of five tracks including set opener The Game and the song Stones, a rocker written with (wouldn’t you know it!) Tamara Stewart.
‘I do enjoy touring but it’s not how I envisage the rest of my life,’ Tamara tells me. ‘I do it to the level I enjoy it. Everything’s good for the seasons but I wouldn’t want to do it 12 months of the year. For some people the business is designed that touring’s almost a necessity. I know audiences are loving being back out and it’s a beautiful thing that the culture of live music is still going.
‘If I had to choose, songwriting is my passion, my number one. I consider songwriting a trade. My dad worked in a factory as a fitter and turner for 40 years. Coming from a small town I had to work really hard doing gigs every week. Humility, keeping my feet on the ground, was a big part of it. As long as I was kind to the business, the business would be kind to me.’
Tamara grew up listening to the records in her parents’ collection, which included soft rock like Dr Hook and country entertainers like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, as well as the outlaw Merle Haggard.
‘I was thirteen or fourteen when I first got paid to sing. I went off and did the B&B Muster [a sort of Australian version of the Houston Rodeo] and I was in the Starmaker grand final a couple of years. That was a fair hike from my little country town!
‘I kept slogging away. It was around that time that I really understood that there was a whole other world outside of my little home town. It was a hard slog until I signed my deal at 25. I thought my career would be over by the time I was 22 because I’d be too old!’
Morgan Evans, who ‘landed around the same time I did, around 2014’, is doing brilliantly. Like Tamara, he regularly went to Nashville while he was still based in Australia. Tamara sometimes gets a nod from Keith Urban at Wholefoods; though he is a Kiwi by birth, he married a famous Australian actress and so Tamara considers him an honorary Aussie.
‘He’s an amazing guy. I remember being sixteen or seventeen in high school. He started to break and he became a name when he toured with Slim Dusty, our king of country music. He came to our little town and I was blown away and besotted by his bleached blonde mullet!! He was so far beyond anything that had come out of Australia. Even with the level of talent he had, he really worked hard and deserves everything he’s got. He’s a really cool bloke and I haven’t heard a story that contradicts that.’
There is one gripe that Tamara has about the UK. ‘Can you widen the streets so it’s not so scary for me to drive down? That and the grey clouds. I’ve got beautiful friends here. I feel like I see the best of the country.
‘I’ve never really aspired to the old “suffer for your art” thing. I feel like a cat with nine lives at this stage. It’s been a journey!’
WOMAN is out on April 11, while the deluxe version of Standing in the Half Light is out now. Elles hosts a show on Planet Rock every Saturday at 12 noon.