An Interview with Damien Leith

MI0003406690 Singer-songwriter, Damien Leith is about to hit the road with his huge 25-date Roy – A Tribute to Roy Orbison – The Hall of Fame Tour. With two albums in the works; I caught up with Damien to talk about Roy, Elvis and how he’s making an impact in the country music world.

Your six ROY – a Tribute to Roy Orbison shows sold-out in 2016. What’s the reason for bringing it back in 2017?

Last year [was] an isolated run. We did six shows to see, well, first of all, we were celebrating the 80th birthday but also to get it out there, see how people respond to it and see what the vibe is. Those six shows got a fantastic response so we decided straight after that we should head out to more regional areas and take it further even than we did the first time around. Also just because I love Roy Orbison’s music – always have done – and it’s great to perform.

Those six shows were in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Gold Coast, Melbourne and Hobart but this time you’re taking the tour to more regional and suburban areas. Is there a difference between regional and city crowds?

I probably identify more with a regional crowd – that’s my upbringing. I’m originally from a little tiny town – actually the regional towns we’re going to are a lot bigger than the one I was brought up in (laughs). Mine was more like a village. I love the regional crowds because [they] really embrace the show, get involved, and sing-along. The meet and greet afterwards, you have a good chat with people – they’ll tell you anything! I love that. It’s open, upfront and cool.

The tour kicks off this week in Tamworth, where you recently won the APRA AMCOS Song of the Year Golden Guitar for your co-write of Call Me Crazy with Travis Collins at the 45th Country Music Awards of Australia. Congratulations on your win!

We were absolutely thrilled and shocked. We were hoping, but it was a tough category – could have gone any way so we were over the moon. That’s a career highlight for me, I gotta say! He’s an absolute pleasure to write with. He’s a cool guy and great performer. We’re gonna organise our next writing session really soon. We were meant to do it at the end of last year but it didn’t work out between gigs, so we’ll see what we come up with next.

Where do you keep your award?

I have it at home. I have different things in my studio, but there’s a fireplace in our living room, it looks very nice [above] there (laughs). It’s a beautiful award.

What did you do to celebrate the win?

To be honest, I didn’t do too much at all. It had been a massive day so we hung out with all the people from the show, the nominees and all the rest, and then we decided to head back in to Tamworth. We had the most hilarious trip back into the city. There were no taxis anywhere so we got on a public bus with the Golden Guitar (laughs). It was the most hilarious ride ever! The amount of singing that was going on! It was packed and everybody was singing at the top of their lungs. It was great fun!

You’re gaining quite a reputation in country music industry. I know you also recently wrote with another country artist, Matt Cornell …

Yes – how’d you know about that?! That song is really great – I really, really love it. There’s a few of the artists from the Awards that I’m writing with this year as well. You’ll know them all, and some of them were nominated in different categories, so it’s pretty exciting for me to work with them.

It’s interesting because you don’t often think of Damien Leith and country music.

There’s a really good crossover between that Celtic-y, folksy, kind of sound and country. Not necessarily in the sound of the songs but in the story side of it, the lyric content. I grew up on a lot of the old Irish music; all the songs are stories the whole way through and that’s a good cross over point into country. There’s definitely a tone to a country song and the instrumentation is different, so there’s a different vibe that goes with it but what country music does really well is it always tells a story. Whatever it’s about, the lyrics are so important in all country songs and that’s what I love!

Just as country music, you don’t often associate you with Elvis Presley music either, and yet you’re also doing the one-off ELVIS: The Gospel Collection – 40 Years on Anniversary Concert at the Arts Centre in Melbourne in August this year. Can you tell me a little about that?

I always talk about Roy Orbison but the other love has always been Elvis. [The concert] is on the same day that he passed away so it’s a special thing for any Elvis fan. I love all the well-known Elvis rock songs and everything else, but it’s the gospel side of things that I really wanted to perform. We’re putting together a mini gospel choir, full band [and there’ll be a] couple of special guests. I don’t know if many people have done just his gospel side, but he won two Grammys for his gospel. He didn’t win any Grammys for anything else, which is interesting.

You’ll also probably be performing a lot of Elvis songs that people may not have even heard before.

I imagine that’ll be the case as well. There are a couple of key ones that they’ll recognise, but it’ll be a special show [and] something quite unique. It’s all about the harmonies in that show. We’re all working hard to get those harmonies down [and] doing so much work leading up to get it up to it for just that one night – it’ll be a bit of a celebration. And exactly the same as in the Roy Orbison side again, I’m not going to try and sound like him or act like him. I’m just singing the songs. I am really excited about the show because it is a one off. We’ll be doing so much work leading up to get it up to it for just that one night. It’ll be a bit of a celebration.

The secondary school I went to was a Christian Brothers; most of the schools in Ireland are that style, so you always go to the various kinds of masses. One of the first live performances I did anywhere was in the church, so some of the earlier stuff I ever sang stems from that gospel area, so it’s nice for me to get back into that style. Not needing to do with religion or anything like that; these are soulful, beautiful songs.

As well as touring, you’re also currently working on two albums. The first being a Celtic-type album, and the second, a collection of originals with American songwriter Joe Melson. How are the albums coming along?

They’re both in full swing at the moment. The Joe Melson songs, they’re absolutely beautiful. I’m doing vocals in my studio while he’s listening on Skype (laughs) so it’s the weirdest process to record an EP or an album, but he’s actually doing it live online. When we first met, there was a taste of the Roy Orbison style in there from both of us, but as times gone on, and we’ve got to know each other better, the songs have really developed their own style and uniqueness. The first song we have is called ‘The Journey’; it’s quite a haunting song. It’s written on the piano [and has] a lot of soft falsetto in it. It’s quite a unique song – it doesn’t remind me of anything, which is cool. The Celtic stuff has a different kind of feel; the Joe stuff is very vocal driven.

Lastly, did you make a New Year’s resolution?

I did. My New Year’s resolution this year was to get a lot fitter. It’s nothing amazing – I’m sure lots of other people have the same one – but so far I’m doing well. I had a great start to last year. I was fit. I was doing various different things. Then I got into touring mode and I ate lots of pizzas, McDonalds after shows, and stuff like that (laughs).

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[Originally posted at the AU Review]

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