Country singer-songwriter and children’s entertainer Colin Buchanan has to be the most uncelebrity-like celebrity I’ve ever met.
“There’s no accounting for taste,” he mumbles shyly when I tell him how thrilled I was to be in his presence when he led worship at Bible Society’s staff day a few years ago.
After all, this is the guy whose Christian songs my kids (now aged 31 and 27) sang along to in the car for many years. His refrains are ingrained in the minds of millions of Aussie kids. A fixture on the music scene for more than three decades, the 57-year-old prolific songwriter has also recorded Golden Guitar-winning hits for a who’s who of country music.
But when reminded of his guest appearance in my world, the thing Colin remembers most about that day was the comical awkwardness of the gift he was presented with.
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“I remember I was given an orchid,” he says, miming the absurdity of trying to wrangle the delicate orchid along with his guitar, his bag and book while going home on the train.
Of course, to say I met Colin is misleading. All I saw was his face on a screen as he juggled a day of interviews – or “nice chats”, as he put it – about his upcoming country music album, his first in more than 10 years.
Inspired by the aching desire for life to return to normal after COVID lockdowns, the first single from the album, In Real Life, celebrates the first in-person meeting of his second grandchild in January after 10 months of Zoom calls.
“‘When you haven’t got to hold the ones you love’ is really a line for them,” he explains.
“I just think of them because little Rupert was born in Leeds [Yorkshire, UK] and we weren’t able to see him until last month when they came down the walkway from Customs at Sydney Airport.”
At the time of our chat, Colin is still enjoying sharing his home in Heathcote with Rupert and his parents, Elliott and Claire. He confessed he was not looking forward to them leaving later in the week.
Physical presence is clearly the thing Colin missed most about the many months of lockdowns and border closures. And yet, he says In Real Life is not a lament for the things that the virus stole from us but a celebration of how good it is to be together.
“I feel like what COVID has taught us all, or what many of us have learned through COVID, is that perhaps we haven’t realised how much we value togetherness – actual togetherness, not mediated, technology-facilitated togetherness, but to actually be in each other’s physical presence,” he says.
“It’s rare to think of a situation that would have been able to teach that to so many people. It’s been everywhere, this thing, and it’s had that effect on much of the world.”
The song, which had been gestating for a while, also drew on “the experience actually being able to drive out of my local government area and do a couple of very short tours in between the shutdowns.”
“Just to be out on the open road, to be driving into the mountains and across the plains, to have that freedom, and then for there to be a gig at the end of it – where there are real people together and I get to sing my songs and they get to be an audience and enjoy music in that way – it’s just extremely therapeutic and good. It’s just good.”
Colin is about to embark on a long-delayed tour of Victoria with his Old Testament Singalong kids’ concerts, leading to performances at the postponed Tamworth Country Music Festival in April. There, he will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his first country album, Galahs in the Gidgee. But he will also sing some songs from the new album, which is set to be released later this year.
While Colin has an impressive tally of awards for his songwriting work over three decades, including nine Golden Guitar Awards, many of these have been for collaborations with leading country artists such as Troy Cassar-Daley, Lee Kernigan and Adam Brand.
“There’s always a touch of confusion. Which Colin is this going to be? Is it children’s Colin or grown-ups’ Colin?”
It’s more than a decade since he released his last country album and 20 years since his last album of all-new songs.
“Ten years ago, I compiled a bunch of songs I’d written with and for other artists and sang them as duets – so existing songs but new recordings. That album was called The Songwriter Sessions, released in 2010,” he explains.
“The country album before that was Land of the Getaway, released in 2001. And that was all solo original material, along the lines of my first four country albums.”
He sees this new album as a way to reintroduce himself as a country artist.
“There’s always a touch of confusion. Which Colin is this going to be? Is it children’s Colin or grown-ups’ Colin?” he admits.
“I will continue to do my kids’ music, for the time being at least, but I am quite keen to create some opportunities for my country music as well.”
Asked if he is aiming to transition out of kids’ music into grown-up country music, he clarifies that he’s “not really flagging my retirement from kids’ music, just continuing to enjoy the multi-faceted nature of my multi-faceted career in my own multi-faceted way. The Lord opens the doors – and so far it doesn’t seem to be closing time!”
It’s clear that Colin enjoyed a different kind of collaboration while recording this album – with accomplished producer Matt Fell, who has won four ARIA awards and nine Golden Guitar awards.
“He’s a very talented, empathetic producer; he’s not eccentric, but a producer needs to needs to have X-ray vision into songs and into the sonic landscape and into the theatre of audio. And he has a great capacity to do that,” Colin explains.
“In recording an album, a director is conscious of theme changes and the flow of plot and development of character. Matt has that in the aural sphere. So it’s really fascinating working with him and seeing his capacity to focus in on that. And, I’m always up for a chat and, he’s way too polite to say ‘shut up.’ But he’s more likely to say ‘you probably won’t need to come in until next Thursday!'”
The studio where they recorded the album, The Music Cellar on the NSW central coast, hadn’t had a band in it for two years, so Colin was excited to be able to capture a performance with a band and then let Matt build his vision around it.
“He’s someone who I’m really grateful to because he could have said ‘No, we’re going to do it my way and we’ll go back and replay all these vocals later,’ whereas I wanted to feel like these songs have been sung in a moment, you know? And he’s able to take that essence and still deliver the sort of quality that needs to be there for it to be played on the radio – so he’s a very clever guy.”
“Maybe it’s my short attention span but you can get a bit obsessed with the new song – the novelty of creating the song.”
I remind Colin that he has previously said he likes to create musical experiences out of moments. So what were the moments he brought to life musically?
“Well, interestingly, because I’m a bit of a prolific, compulsive songwriter, I’ve been building up this backlog of songs because I haven’t recorded my own country albums for so long. So part of the process for me was sifting through those songs and working out, not necessarily which are the best songs, but which songs want to live together and will form this body of work. But as compulsive songwriters are prone to do, I have written new songs as well. Maybe it’s my short attention span but you can get a bit obsessed with the new song – the novelty of creating the song.
“Because songs come out of life and the best messages do come out of pictures and stories. You know, I’m not writing an album that’s trying to teach people something – it’s an artistic endeavour, not a didactic endeavour,” he says, before asking, “Am I the first person to use the word didactic in a country music interview?”
And yet, I remind him, he has also said that all songs have a pastoral element.
“Yeah, that’s right … because there’s something really powerful about stories, about portraits, about holding up a mirror of sorts to your own life. And it’s the reflected resonance that people feel with that,” he says.
“Resonance is a really interesting thing because sometimes through specifics that couldn’t possibly match with someone’s life, that opens the door to their specifics and they meet in the song. I think that’s a really precious thing.”
He gives the example of James Taylor’s song Millworker which evokes the awful boring nature of the daily grind of millwork.
“It’s got this sort of sadness and you can feel the wind blowing through this person’s life,” he says. “And it’s just got a real nobility that’s resolute in the midst of the difficulties of disappointment, and I think that’s very that’s pastoral.
“Laughter is pastoral as well, I think, because sometimes songs can help us laugh or reflect on things that we perhaps haven’t even thought about, or that we’ve only got uptight about, or that we haven’t celebrated. And then a song comes along and it’s this little nugget of art that doesn’t take too much effort to consume, to enter into. That’s the quest of the songwriter.”
For more information about upcoming performances by Colin, go to colinbuchanan.com.au