January 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm , by Ron Kelly
Some have pegged Sherrié Austin as the Taylor Swift of the Sex and the City generation. While it was Swift who titled her 2008 album Fearless, it’s Austin who’s had a longer track record of making big, brave moves to get to where she wanted to be. From moving as a teen from her native Australia to L.A. (when she won a role on the sitcom The Facts of Life), to leaving L.A. behind to chase down her dream of making country music in Nashville and even later tackling a few roles on Broadway, Austin’s made a habit of staring down challenges and coming out on top.
If you think about it, Austin’s new CD Circus Girl could also have easily been titled Fearless: She funded the CD, coproduced it and is promoting it, all without the support of a major label. She also took full creative control, penning three of its songs and cowriting all of the others. The task would be a tightrope walk for any country act but it was even more so for Austin, considering that this marks the first time she’s thrown her own hat into the Nashville ring in eight years. Though the singer enjoyed a string of country hits that started in the late 90s (“Lucky In Love,” “Put Your Heart Into It”, “Never Been Kissed,” “Streets of Heaven”), she’s remained mostly behind the scenes the past few years writing songs for others, including some pretty big hitters (think Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, George Strait and Trace Adkins).
When Austin visited us here at LHJ recently, she was honest about how daunting her Circus Girl endeavor was, even though she came out the other side stronger than ever. “There were times when I just woke up and said, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m taking such a big risk here with my time, with my money,’ ” she admits. “But every day this voice just kept saying to me, ‘Keep going. Take another step, take another step.’ I just listened to it. And I have no regrets.”
Why would she? From its first track to its last, Circus Girl soars, bursting with a real sense of Austin’s effervescent personality and pluck. There are tracks that will make you laugh out loud (“I Didn’t,” “If I Was a Man”), tracks that will make you cry (“Get Your Leavin’ Done,” “Tryin’ to Be Me”) and even tracks that will make you want to … ahem … get a little frisky (“I Just Want to Love You Tonight”). Lyrically, Austin absolutely nails it when she captures the internal thoughts that run through everywoman’s head. In her single-lady lament “Friday Night Girls,” for example, she sings, “Trying to look twenty-one / is getting old and it ain’t no fun / That mirror don’t lie / like it used to.” And in “If I Was a Man,” she vows to burn her push-up bra, singing, “Wouldn’t mind me a girl / with some meat on her bones / I’d love me just as I am / If I was a man.”
For the time being in her life as a lady, though, Austin’s main man is singer-songwriter Shane Stevens (a cowriter on Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey”), with whom she stars on the Sundance Channel’s Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys. The show, just nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding reality program, follows the relationships of four straight women and their gay best friends down in the heart of Music City. While being a part of GWLBWLB has helped reintroduce Austin to her fans, it’s also reminded her that performing is something she loves to do. And that’s certainly music to all of our ears.
For a video of Austin’s live and acoustic performance in our LHJ Ladies’ Lounge, read on after the jump. You’ll also get the scoop on this once again rising Nashville star and find out what her hesitations were about doing GWLBWLB, the unique way she wound up writing her favorite song, what country (and pop) stars she’d love to hear sing her tunes, and lots more.
How did Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys come about for you and Shane?
We weren’t sure about doing the show at first. We turned it down about thee times. We were nervous for him, being in the South, and I also wanted to make sure that it was portrayed the right way because he’s my friend and, you know, you’re on TV and you’re showing your life. But we talked about it and we decided that as long as we stick together and we were always open with each other, it’d be a good experience for both of us. And it was.
Any regrets so far?
No. Our goal was to break some stereotypes and to show that gay people are not any different. Shane is just this regular guy—who just happened to be born that way for whatever reason—and he has dreams and aspirations. I think our storyline has come across like that, so I’m very happy with what they did with us.
How about any embarrassing moments?
Gosh, those usually end up on the show! I think out of everybody, this show might’ve been most difficult for me—even though I’m the one who’s had all the TV and film experience—because it’s the exact opposite to everything I learned. I was taught, you know, never let them see you sweat, the show must go on. You don’t show your embarrassing moments. So this has been a real head trip for me to be, like, [whispering] “There’s a camera on me, I’m not saying that! I don’t want them to know that!” I was always one step ahead. Even when I tried not to be I couldn’t help it because my training, my instinct, my intuition. It was really hard. I don’t think I ever quite learned how to do it. There was just no way that I could forget that camera was there.
How about a proud moment?
I loved the episode they did where I did a show at the Bitter End. It was the first time I played with a band in eight years and it was the Circus Girl release party. This show actually forced me to get back up on stage because I’m used to just playing guitar or having a guitar player with me. So I’m proud of the way it sounded and looked, and experiencing that again for the first time. It kind of reminded me of why I love doing what I’m doing. I turned to Shane on stage at one point and said, “Why did I ever quit? Why did I stop doing this?” He’s like, “I told you, you stupid b—!”
None for me, no. Shane’s had some issues with the Jesus thing, because he’s a born-again and he calls himself a Jesus freak. There was one episode where he talked about that he wasn’t sure he wanted to have kids and have them go through what he went through, kids having a gay dad or two gay dads. He got some flack for that. He handled it really well but it made the hair on my neck go up a few times. I had to stop myself from writing back some very nasty comments because it doesn’t help to do that.
On the new album, you were in charge of pretty much everything, which you’ve noted was exhausting. At the same time, it must’ve been incredibly liberating, no?
I feel like Circus Girl, she’s just going and going and going, and everything they told me I couldn’t do we did. They told me I couldn’t get a video on CMT or GAC without being on a major label. I almost didn’t take the video [for the Christmas song “Naughty or Nice”] in because of that. And they played it! Both of them played it. I had labels scratching their heads going, “How did she do that?” Well, it’s not all me, trust me. I have a good little three or four people around me who are helping and believing. And I’m not scared of the word no anymore. It’s like, I’ll ask, and if they say no, then … But they might say yes!
What were your honest expectations going in to Circus Girl’s release?
I was just making a little singer-songwriter record. I wasn’t necessarily making a brand new Sherrié Austin record. It just evolved into something else. It’s probably the first time in my life where I’ve done something without having huge expectations and I think that I’m a lot better that way. Every day is like a little present. You know, when something great happens, it’s like, well, crap, I never thought that could happen! As opposed to, well, I want it to sell a million records, and then I’m disappointed every single day. Maybe having lower expectations is what keeps you happy!
Now that it has been very well received, though, have your expectations for it changed?
It’s given me the passion to keep trying to do other things that I didn’t think I could do or that I thought weren’t possible. So it makes me go, hmmm, if I did that, I wonder if I could do this. So absolutely, it gives me a little fire. I mean, it’s the best reviewed record I’ve ever made and it’s the first one I made by myself and coproduced so there’s a lot in that that made me go, wow, okay! It’s very exciting … and scary as hell!
You say that writing about yourself is harder than writing from someone else’s point of view. Why is that, do you think?
I don’t know. I’ve done some therapy … (laughs) … and that’s been one of the things: Why has that been so hard for me? I think on this record, I opened up a little bit more than on all the others. I did talk a little bit more from my perspective. Like “Get Your Leavin’ Done,” even though she’s telling the guy to leave, well, that was me telling myself, you gotta end this thing. It’s not right. And “Friday Night Girls,” I’m every one of those girls in that song. When I was writing that I felt like they were in the room with me. There’s anger in this record, there’s humor in this record. That’s all of me. When I think about the songs on this, maybe I’m actually better at revealing myself more now than I used to be.
What do you think is the best song you’ve ever written?
I wrote three songs by myself on this record and it’s so hard to do, so I’m really proud of those three. I think “Get Your Leavin’ Done” might actually be my favorite of everything that I’ve written by myself. I mean, I know there are songs that are more of a hit and I can pick those out, but it’s not about that. It was just like magic [writing “Get Your Leavin’ Done”]. I was sitting in my pajamas watching the ACM awards on mute. I had a glass of wine and I just sat there. All of a sudden, that [singing] “aaaaaa, get your leavin’ done …” just popped into my head and I thought, “Oh, wow. Something’s in the room!” I pretty much wrote that song that night watching the awards—with the wine!
What’s been the hardest song for you to write?
“Friday Night Girls” was probably the hardest. I was trying to put a novel in a three and a half minute song. I was trying to do every episode of Sex and the City in a three and a half minute song. And the rhyme scheme of that is really interesting. I didn’t have the hook for the longest time.
Very early on in your career, you’d gone the pop route but you said they didn’t care about what you had to say. Did you ever come up against that in Nashville?
I guess there have been a few female artists that have complained about that when it comes to their songwriting. I had the opposite experience. I was always encouraged to write my records and write my singles—and maybe that wasn’t always the best thing for me, either. I’m not always sure I was 100% ready but people always just felt that I was. So I never had that experience of [coming up against] a good ol’ boys club [mentality]. There definitely is on the business side of things, but in the writing department, no, I can’t say I have any complaints about Nashville.
A lot of your cowriters on Circus Girl were men, yet it’s a very female-driven album from a woman’s point of view. Did the guys every offer up a unique spin on your ideas?
That’s interesting you ask that. I really led the way on every song on this record, other than “I Didn’t,” and I’ve never thought about that before … and when I say “lead the way,” I don’t mean I wrote the song. I mean, it’s a true cowriter situation but I came in with the ideas. They were my ideas and it was the thing that I wanted to say. I kind of instinctively know which writers to go to for what I need. Like, Will Rambeaux is an amazing editor and when I was writing “Friday Night Girls,” he was really good at saying, “Yeah, you might want to try going in that direction.” And then other people I go to for certain melodies, but when it came to the actual subject matters of these songs, they pretty much all came from me. I knew what I wanted to write about.
Throughout your career, it seems like you’re constantly challenging yourself to do different things and to reach new goals. Is that always the plan?
I don’t think I do it consciously, but I see in my career that that’s exactly what I’ve done. I never think of myself as a risk taker, but my whole life has been nothing but that—yet I always feel like I’m not stretching enough! But it’s not ever a conscious decision, like, “Today I’m going to go conquer the world!” I just kinda get up and think, well, I’m here for a certain amount of time, I might as well do something with it. So heck, I’ll go do a Broadway show now. Or maybe I’ll go help somebody else get a record deal, or maybe I’ll just write boys’ songs for a while. I just kind of naturally go and navigate the treacherous waters of the music business the best I can. I come from two hardworking parents: My dad’s a housepainter and a wallpaperer. My mum has done everything; she was even in the army for God’s sake. My brother and sister are both entrepreneurs—we’ve all worked for ourselves. So I think it was the way I was raised. I don’t know how to be lazy. My brain never stops and everyone in my family’s the same way.
Dream artists to cut one of the songs you’ve written? Go! Start in the country genre.
George Strait was a dream that came true. I wanted that since the time I moved. And I had Dolly Parton sing a song of mine. That was also another dream, so that was kind of cool. I always wanted a Martina [McBride] cut and I never got one of those. It’s like, “Friday Night Girls” and “Get Your Leavin’ Done,” are you kidding me? Those are perfect for her! I’d love a Martina cut. Reba—I love Reba! In the boy department, yeah, I got Tim, I got George—those are kind of cool. In the pop world? I love Gwen Stefani, but she writes everything. Maroon 5, I love, love, love. I wonder if [Adam Levine would] cowrite …
You’ve got the Blake Shelton/The Voice connection there …
Yes, that’s true! With the six degrees of separation, that’s like only two! There’s so much cool stuff in the pop world going on. I love Adele, but she doesn’t need any help. But my faves are Tom Petty, George Harrison and Bruce Springsteen.
So if the Sherrié of today were to give advice to the Sherrié from 20 years ago, it would be …
Chill out, relax and stop worrying so much. It’s all going to work out. And for God’s sake, have fun and stop stressing. Go get a drink. Go do some tequila shots! That’s what I’d say to Sherrié 20 years ago.
I love that advice. Can you say that to the Ron Kelly of today, too?
Yes. Ron, go get some tequila! In fact, go with Sherrié!
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