|Photo by Cal Quinn|
By Kevin Broughton
The stage name – Ruby Boots – is quite ironic, given the varied and calloused life thus far lived by the gal who thought of it (though she can’t recall exactly why.) On her own by 14, Bex Chilcott has been around. I mean, the world. Several times. As in, learned to play guitar working the high seas of the South Pacific.
Her Bloodshot Records debut, Don’t Talk About It, out last week conjures country sensibilities with an edge: Lucinda Williams meets T Rex, with a dash of – dare we say – Lone Justice.
We caught up with the brassy, sassy, sexy, saucy Aussie and talked pearling, the (de)merits of the metric system, and checking off a huge bucket list item in the nick of time. And some other stuff, too.
Americans generally view Australians as fascinating and a little exotic. What really grabbed my attention from your bio is that you were working on a pearling boat at age 19. That sounds both exotic and grueling. Describe that kind of labor.
Well, I guess with any kind of out-of-the-box job, there are really cool perks to it. I was out at sea for two to five weeks at a time, and I was in the sunshine 10 hours a day. It was really beautiful, seeing whales during meal breaks. It really helped my work ethic, but it was literally back-breaking work, pulling up 300 cages a day and cleaning all the oysters. It was in the most beautiful environment, though.
It’s a complex process, and I suppose we could do the whole interview on pearling (laughs). They have these Japanese technicians who come during harvest and put a plastic bead in the oyster’s tummy. Then they hang in these cages in ocean for two years. And we had to meticulously clean each one. It was a pretty radical thing to do, off the beaten path. But I needed to get out of my hometown.
Give us a thumbnail sketch/timeline of how you wound up in the States, and Nashville particularly.
I ended up hurting my back on the boat – it’s literally back-breaking – but I also ended up learning to play guitar and writing songs while I was out at sea, so I decided to travel around the U.K. and Europe for a couple years. And I came back to Australia and started playing open mics and gigging. That was around 2008, I believe, and I was gigging a lot and ended up developing nodules on my throat because I wasn’t singing the right way.
So I had to take two years off from singing just to get rid of these nodules on my vocal cords. And after putting my energy into recovering from that, I started gigging and recording, and started to open my eyes to what was out there, and came over to Nashville in 2012. I fell in love with the city immediately; I’d never had that feeling with any other place in the world. And I’ve seen a lot, really: Asia, India, Europe and Australia. And I just kept coming back, because it has this incredible vibe, this small-town feel with all this creative energy that it was living off of. I was coming back a couple times a year.
And then I was awarded a government grant to write my record, so I afforded myself some time in Nashville to get it done, then finished out my last album cycle touring around the country. So in May of 2016, I settled down in Nashville again to write this record.
This is random, but have you quit thinking in the metric system since you’ve been here? Have you embraced “miles” and “pounds?”
Hell. No! (Laughs) My Siri on my phone is still in kilometers and has an Australian accent! I’m all about assimilation, but I still need to know where I’m going, how long it’s going to take me to get there, and how far away it is. (Laughs)
Why the stage name, Bex? Going forward will “Ruby Boots” be you & whatever band is behind you at a given time, and how did you come up with the name?
Actually it’s been so long ago, and I’m trying to remember. This came up recently when I was in Australia and on this radio program. It was live-to-air, with an audience, and I was asked about it and I just honestly couldn’t remember; I’ve used other names in the past and have just used this one for the last couple of album cycles. That name’s been with me for a while now and I’ve started to make fans with it in this area. I’ve thought about changing it to something closer to my actual name, but people have grown used to it and can relate to it.
I do remember that my real surname was not at all stage-worthy, so that was the motivation behind finding an alter-ego name.
The Texas Gentlemen – whose album I’ve worn out since last fall – backed you on this record. How did that introduction come about?
One of the guys who had played with them a lot who had also played with me – Chase McGillis on bass – has become a very dear friend. And he told me the Gents were passing through Nashville on their way to play the Newport Folk Festival, where they were backing Kris Kristofferson. They were doing a warm up show at the American Legion Hall in Nashville, and Chase rang me about two hours before the show and said, “Do you want to come down and sing “Me and Bobby McGee?”
So, I went down there and sang “Me and Bobby McGee!”
Yeah! So the Gents put on my old record on the bus and listened to it on the way to Newport. And when they were on the way back to Dallas, I was living in Nashville at Nikki Lane’s at the time and they were all there. (Texas Gent and producer) Beau (Bedford) was asking me what I was doing, so I started sending him songs. The rest is kind of history, I guess.
What about the arrangements and production? Did you go into the studio with a pretty good idea of how you wanted it to sound? How collaborative was it?
I definitely had set about to move into this record with a fuller electric sound; that was a conscious choice as I was writing the songs. I felt like on my previous tours from other albums that I was missing that extra grit, you know? My punk heart was really missing that.
Beau came out to Nashville and we went through all the songs and talked about them, and what we heard in them. And we set out to honor all the songs, I guess, but still with that electric feel. And we definitely came together chatting about old school records like T Rex, or Tom Petty – whom I’ve just always idolized as my go-to, No. 1 songwriter – and Beau definitely has a lot of the same influences.
But once we got in the studio, all those guys just have such an encyclopedia set between them of such raw musical instincts! The boys are each such great musicians and songwriters; so we did honor the songs, but in a very collective way with such a wealth of everyone’s musicality.
Several of the songs on this record obviously come from dark places; you left home at 14 for starters, and you named the album “Don’t Talk About It.” Ignoring that title for a moment, I’d like to know where these songs come from, and how cathartic it was to record them. Did you get any kind of closure, or was that something you were even looking for?
There are some particularly personal elements in the record, and I’m not trying to avoid...(pauses) the listener thinking they’re all songs that I’ve written from a place within myself. But a lot of them were conversational; they started conversations within myself, you know? What was going on in my life at the time, in my friends’ lives…society, and how all of those things spoke to me and came out in songs.
It’s not a breakup album, it’s not a love album; it’s a life album to me. The introductory track, to me, is a classical example of it.
It’s that element where…I mean, you can be on the giving end of it or the receiving end of it, but you’ve been in a situation where information is being withheld, and all of a sudden this other person informs you that they have a significant other. And it’s too late to make a moral choice; you’re already locked and loaded in that situation. (Laughs) And I think there’s an element of relate-ability there with the audience. And that’s what I wanted to do with the record and the way listeners digest it.
The great thing about coming from a tumultuous life experience in many ways is that you can always tap into it artistically. It doesn’t leave you – it gets better as time goes by – but it’s always there to tap into. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing as a songwriter. And I think there are elements of strength and vulnerability in this record, with a woman’s voice – a good bit of defiance, but with some fragility too.
A long-winded answer, but it’s hard to wrap up the voice of my record in a sentence, you know.
You’ve drawn comparisons to Lucinda Williams and Nikki Lane – the latter sings harmony on one cut. I’m reminded of Kasey Chambers – but that could just be my American brain making subconscious generalities. I’m also reminded of Maria McKee from Lone Justice, but that could be way before your time…
Oh my goodness! I love Lone Justice! You are the FIRST PERSON who’s ever made that comparison! I swear I was just thinking please, please, let him say Lone Justice, let him make a Lone Justice comparison!
Honest, that was the first thing I thought of. I said, “Man, this is Lone Justice.”
No sh*t? That’s awesome, and one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said. I love her! To hear you say that about someone I admire so much is a very big compliment. So thank you very much.
Who are some of your other influences?
Off the top of my head, Lucinda, Ryan Adams and Tom Petty are probably my top three songwriters that I just adore. Anytime I feel like I’m not getting what I want from what I’m listening to, I can just go back to those three.
I still can’t believe Tom Petty’s gone. Can’t process it.
You know, a lot of bad sh*t happened last year, but that was the worst. I feel really lucky because I finally got to see him in Detroit last year, on the 40th Anniversary Tour. I had just fallen in love, and our first out-of-town trip was to Detroit to see Tom Petty, and that was at the top of my bucket list. I’m so glad I acted on a hunch that I might not get a chance to see them again, you know?
What’s next for Ruby Boots?
After the record launch on Feb. 9, I’m gonna play some shows in Kansas City, and we’ll hit South By Southwest after that. I’ll do an in-store here in Nashville. But it just means so much – it’s taken a lot of will and might – to have made my way here to America from Australia. It means so much to be able to launch this record here in America after all the tenacity and focus. It’s a really big deal for me, you know?