Where The Heart Is: A Q&A With Lo Carmen

The Australian artist opens up about her forthcoming album.

Lo Carmen is an artist by many means: actress, artist, singer and songwriter. As an actress, the Australia native has starred in “The Year My Voice Broke,” “Red Dog” and “Blue Murder.” However, while she admits she’s always eager to take on a creative endeavor, Carmen’s heart is in her music. This is clear on her forthcoming album Lovers Dreamers Fighters, which was written in a sleepy town in Georgia and recorded in Nashville at The Butcher Shoppe and Welcome to 1979 Studios.

We caught up with Carmen to chat about the her sixth solo album, recording on her own terms, and growing up in a musical family.

Lovers Dreamers Fighters will be your sixth full-length album. What is different about this newest project?

The interesting thing about being a stranger in a strange town is the freedom it gives you to be whoever you want to be and to do whatever you want. With this album, I had quite a long time to prepare in relative isolation in Georgia and I worked really hard on writing the songs, thinking about feel and finding the players. I knew I wanted to make a modern but old-fashioned album full of pedal steel and backing singers and just authentic and simple good playing, cut mainly live to tape.

I wrote three times as many songs as I needed, which I’ve always wanted to try, but I generally run out of time and end up writing songs in the studio or the night before recording. Recording in Nashville has always felt like the Holy Grail to me and being able to make that happen was really inspiring, especially in terms of not wanting to mess it up. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy dueting with me on “Sometimes It’s Hard” was a total dream come true. Working with David ‘Ferg’ Ferguson and all the fellas at Butcher Shoppe was also really dreamy and very no-fuss. I’m a big fan of Ferg’s and recorded a solo EP with him a few years back, and was always determined to get back to Butcher Shoppe to make a whole album. There’s magic in that studio and I felt it the first time I recorded there, and chased it.

What I loved most about recording this album was how wordless the whole thing was. It was like everyone just had each other’s number and after I’d play them the song through once, with my shoddy guitar skills, they’d all just look at each other and nod and then go play the song exactly as I envisioned it would sound — actually, far better than I ever imagined it. It was quite uncanny and very exhilarating. Every now and then I’d describe a mood or feeling I was aiming for, or ask ‘em to play a little slower or sparser or greasier, but mainly we were all spookily in sync and it was really intuitive. I literally couldn’t stop smiling.

How have you grown as an artist since releasing Born Funky Born Free in 2002?

I recorded that album myself in my bedroom, an experiment really in total self-indulgence, after growing tired of hearing “that’s not the way you do it” or “you can’t do it like that.” That’s certainly an album that’s not for everyone but it’s won a few hearts and I guess that simple act of doing it myself let me grow to a place where I’ve come full circle and I’m now very happy to hand the reins back over to people I trust. I know what I like and I try very hard to be open to input from everyone I work with and everyone I love and admire, but ultimately I trust my own instinct completely these days. I know pretty quickly when something sounds like I want it to, and also when it’s not getting where I want it to get. I also feel like I trust that I understand how to create what a song needs to bring it into the light.

Can you tell me about why you chose the title Lovers Dreamers Fighters?

Most of my album titles have just announced themselves to me, and this one is no different. I had planned another title and then every time I shut my eyes I kept seeing Lovers Dreamers Fighters flashing at me in blue neon lights and it seemed unavoidable. And perfect. I wanted to make a really cohesive album full of love songs — all the different shades of love whether that is fighting for love, dreaming of the past, or thinking on the future.

You are an artist in many more ways than just as a songwriter. Does your experience as an author and a visual artist tie into your music?

I guess I feel undaunted and excited by any creative endeavor; I’m always happy to have a go and generally pretty happy with whatever I make. Perhaps I have no quality filter or maybe I just like the idea that everything is a small cog in a bigger picture. I feel like they all flow from the same place, a simple desire to condense emotion and express something somehow, and to make it into something beautiful. In terms of doing album artwork, I just enjoy creating the whole package. I like all the sections of making an album, from the writing of the songs to designing the artwork.

You’ve also had roles in many films over the years. How did you get into acting?

I literally fell into it. I got cast in a film from working in a pizza bar as a teenager and then just got offered roles here and there stemming from that. I do love acting but it’s sort of like waitressing in that you kind of have to toe the line and fulfill someone else’s hunger rather than your own.

What is it like to be a part of the small Australian Americana community?

Although I have some dear friends in that community, I’m not really part of it as such. I’m more a lonesome cowgirl. I work alone mostly. And my band in Australia is more from the rock ‘n’ roll world. Although I will say I’m grateful to have finally found the umbrella term ‘Americana’ to describe the music I make, because I’ve always taken a pinch of this and a bit of that and being so non-genre specific and then very wordy on top of it can make it tricky to find an audience, especially in a place with a relatively small music-loving population like Australia. When I first received a review that described me as ‘Americana’, many years ago now, I thought they were saying that I was trying to sound American and wasn’t sure whether that was disparaging or not. As much as I dislike having to be a particular ‘genre’ I do like that there’s somewhere I finally fit.

Your father, Peter Head, is also a musician. What influence has he had on your career?

His influence is far reaching on everything I do and everything I aspire to be, from his independent spirit and hard work ethic to his never-ending contagious enthusiasm about making music and listening to other musicians. He is 70 years old and still out and about seeing live music and gigging constantly. He just released a new album too! He sat me down and taught me songwriting techniques when I was little and if I’m stuck I still write all the consonants across the top of the page like he does to find a good rhyme. I swear it’s far better than any of those rhyming dictionaries.

I’m forever grateful for his willingness to let me tag along to gigs and sessions and listen and learn as a kid, to start to help here and there with backing vocals and equipment packing up as a teen. And then later his willingness to play in my bands when I asked him to, not always styles of music that he liked, but he was always gentlemanly about it and added a certain class to whatever I was attempting to do.

I guess because of him I’ve just always grown up feeling part of a music community, and forming bands and writing songs just felt like a natural place for me to be. I feel really lucky for that opportunity.

Are you planning to tour for the album in the near future?

I’m in kind of a strange place where I can’t perform in the U.S. legally at this time, but that is getting worked out and I hope to be hitting a stage somewhere very soon. After performing my entire adult life in Australia, it’s been an interesting time to be living here in the U.S. but not be focused on booking shows and getting ready for shows and basically revolving my life around gigs. I’ve really honed in on exploring songwriting instead, trying to get more educated on the business side of music and listening to a lot of new music. I can’t wait to be able to play again!