How Charlotte Le Lievre realised a desert dream

Charlotte Le Lievre

Charlotte Le Lievre found herself in unfamiliar surroundings as a recent law graduate when she relocated from Newcastle to Broken Hill. But there was something about this location that felt right. It was were she would find and develop her voice as a songwriter, connecting to local people and their history while processing the grief of losing her mother to cancer. In this interview Charlotte talks about how her debut album “Songs from the Barrier Line” came into being, giving her something very special to share with listeners who love country music with heart and authenticity.


Welcome to this special Unpaved interview. Today I have the pleasure of talking to Charlotte Le Lievre. I met Charlotte via the Unpaved Sessions last year [in 2022] and was quite blown away by the sincerity and power of her songs and her writing, and just where she comes from as a human being.
Charlotte has worked as a community lawyer; she’s in the process of studying to become a nurse. But her songs all come from the heart, often from very personal places, and I think she has a very special ability to communicate those things. So I’ve really been looking forward to hearing her forthcoming album “Songs from the Barrier Line” which will be coming out in March this year. So welcome, Charlotte Le Lievre. It’s great to be talking.

Charlotte: Thank you, Les. Thanks for having me along. It’s really lovely to talk to you too.

Les: My pleasure. I guess it would be great just to get a sense of your musical evolution and you have, I feel, a very honest relationship to country music. All of the pure emotion comes through and there’s a real genuineness there. So can you just fill us in on the role that country music has had in your life and has made you the artist you’ve become?

Charlotte: For sure. I’m fairly new to country music. I would say probably the last five or six years is when I really found country music. I started off kind of playing in a folk band and then I kind of dabbled in all kinds of genres. I was in a folk-punk band when that was a phase. I played some blues and rock’n’roll and more alternative stuff, and then when I moved out to Broken Hill in 2015, living in a regional town, country music’s really popular. And I kind of discovered a lot of the really amazing country music from Indigenous country songwriters out that way like Douggy Young from Wilcannia and the love in Wilcannia for people like Chad Morgan and Slim Dusty, as well. You know, I met some contemporary country musicians like William Alexander that were singing about country and singing about place.
And it was also at that time that I was grappling with my mum’s mortality. She had a cancer diagnosis and I was going through some really challenging stuff as a person in their mid-twenties.
I think I found country music at that time when I was confronting mortality and really experiencing grief for the first time. And I think that’s what drew me to country music, is that really authentic expression of emotion and songs that were really unapologetically sad.
Yeah, so I took a really hard turn into country music [laughs] and started writing country songs. It was a new era of songwriting for me and I’m really grateful. Although I’ve lived through some painfully devastating things that I have country music as an outlet and a space that’s been able to help me process some of that stuff.

Les: Yeah, definitely. It sounds like you might have had some really beautiful friendships and connections moving to Broken Hill. What took you there in the first place? What has that place come to mean to you, and how does it work as a setting for this album?

Charlotte: I moved there in 2015. I finished my law degree at the beginning of 2014 and then mum got diagnosed with cancer, and so I’d moved back to Newcastle for a year and was living and supporting mum through those early stages of her diagnosis. And then it got to the point where she was in a really stable place, and so I started applying for jobs as a lawyer in various community legal centres. I scored a job in an Aboriginal family violence prevention legal service in Broken Hill. So that’s what took me out there. I vaguely knew two people. I’d driven through the town once before. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had an instant connection with the landscape going there. Lots of my early times there, when I wasn’t at work, were me just driving out into the desert and walking through dry creek beds or going out to Menindee Lakes and sitting alone watching a sunset and I really did feel a strong sense of belonging instantly. But I was incredibly lonely [laughs] as an overly social person. That was really confronting, but I think also it was a really important time, because I think that solitude also contributed to unlocking my next phase as a musician and a songwriter. Slowly I just started to build an incredible community.

Broken Hill, like other musicians and writers and creative, I was drawn there and there’s just an incredible community there. And I feel really lucky to have become enmeshed within that.
We’ve done lots of really awesome things out there, like touring country shows into Wilcannia and some of the smaller communities , and having campfire jams and I’ve got friends that are filmmakers and writers and painters and ceramicists and we all really support each other.
And so it went from this experience of being isolated to being, I guess for me now, the closest place I know to home and every time I go back there, I just get this deep rush of inspiration and I start writing songs. [laughs]
I can’t really explain what it is, but it’s an interesting town. Like there’s a really rich union history in Broken Hill; there’s histories of Afghan cameleers; lots of writers, painters; a mining history as well.
That all kind of coalesces and there’s all these stories that you hear people talk about and then that becomes the inspirations for songs, or the places you visit become inspirations for songs. I just found a place that really unlocked a voice for me.

Les: On the one hand, you have the amazing wide open spaces, but if you look at the detail about what surrounds you in Broken Hill there seems to be so many fascinating things to concentrate on. One stand out song for me, as a unionist, is Hold the Line. Can you give a bit of background on that one?

Charlotte: Yeah, for sure. I wrote this song after going to an exhibition at a place called The Geocentre, which is kind of connected to the Broken Hill art gallery but it focuses on Broken Hill’s geological history, but they also have a gallery space and there was a photographic exhibition that was called The Rebel Women of Broken Hill and it was all about the women’s contribution to the union movement.
Women played such a critical role in the early days of the union movement. Women came from all over Australia to be involved. They were really integral in organising picket lines, in organising childcare so that people could attend the picket lines. They also did a lot of solidarity work with union organisers that had been locked up in prison. And they led marches past the prison with hundreds of people singing union songs. They were really fierce and really well organised, and that was something that was a part of the story and then somehow the union movement just took a bit of a misogynist turn. It was probably always misogynist, but anyway that aspect kind of got forgotten for a while and those stories weren’t told. Then this person did this exhibition and kind of uncovered some of those stories again. So I felt like, as a feminist and a unionist myself, it was really important to honour and acknowledge that history, because it’s incredibly important. So that was kind of the inspiration behind that song.

Les: Yeah, to my ears it’s the kind of song that should be in the Wobbly Songbook or on all of the union playlists.

Charlotte: [Laughs] I love that. I’d love for it to be in the Wobbly Songbook.

Les: Yep. It’s absolutely awesome. And you’ve got other local references there to specific geographic sites. Can you tell us a bit about the meaning and significance of those places and maybe if you can paint a picture for those of us who live in the city, because we don’t get that experience necessarily? Just what it’s like to sit out there with a guitar and write a song would be amazing.

Charlotte: Yeah, for sure. Well the Barrier Line is a term that I kind of made up, but it references the Barrier Ranges which is this small range that runs on the outskirts of Broken Hill, so it was really a reference to the Barrier Ranges combined with this old historic railway line that used to run between Broken Hill and this little mining village Silverton which is about 20 kilometres out of town. In terms of sitting out there with a guitar and writing songs, it’s really diverse landscape as well. My favourite spot to go and it’s a little creek bed that’s on the outskirts of  Silverton and it’s this beautiful red sandy creek bed that’s lined with these epic red gums all in the centre, with really white bodies and beautiful dangling green leaves and it’s really shady in the hot parts of the day there. That’s a really beautiful spot to sit and to camp and to have a fire, and the skies just incredibly open and vast there. I think it’s really vast country and I think it’s something about that openness that enables the vulnerability that you need to write a country song.

Les: Yeah, there’s several aspects to this album and I think the biggest is probably the way that you’re able to pay tribute to your mother in very profound and tender thoughtful terms. Maybe if you can talk about to whether this was part of getting out the things that you needed to. How has this played a role in where you’re at emotionally and has it been helpful and something that’s really aided your healing?

Charlotte: Yeah, it’s been an incredibly cathartic experience. There was a little while there in the last year of Mum’s life and probably a little while after she passed away where I kind of was a bit shut off from music. I hadn’t written a song in a long while; I wasn’t playing much; I found it really quite difficult to engage with it. And then at one point the floodgates just opened and particularly just around the year anniversary, coming up to her one-year anniversary, I wrote about six of the songs that are on the album. Vigil By Your Bed, I wrote that song. On her one-year anniversary we scattered of her ashes and you know I grew up in Newcastle and mum’s wish was to have her ashes scattered with the whales, the humpback whales that do their migration up the coast and we chartered a boat with our closest family and friends and we went out and we scattered mum’s ashes and I literally finished By Your Bed two days beforehand. I sang it on the boat as we sent mum free and these songs, I guess, were so incredibly important for my grief journey of being able to process the immensity of losing my mum who was so supportive of me.
I was an incredibly eccentric and creative child and I’m so lucky to have had a mum that really supported and it’s a hard thing releasing this album has been a long time in the making and there’s an element of sadness that I didn’t get to do it while mum was still alive.
At the same time it’s a bit of a paradox, ‘cause I know that this music wouldn’t exist if she hasn’t passed away so there’s this complexity.
I feel like songwriting became the space where I just really channelled all my sadness and it really helped me to make sense of losing mum and make sense of how I feel in general about life and death and dying.

Les: Yeah. My own experience just hearing the songs, although there is an obvious sadness and loss there’s no doubt the love and honouring. I think it’s a beautiful statement of care for this main person in your life. There’s no one more important than our mothers, so I think it’s highly relatable to so many people and I think just hearing the way you introduce songs, as well, about what you’ve been through, you’re coming from a place of great emotional maturity and insight. So that’s just my reflection on that. It sounds like she gave you a lot growing up. I’m interested to hear how these songs evolved from solo, very personal works to what we hear in all their glory on the record as well.

Charlotte: Yeah. They are immensely personal works. I guess songwriting for me is a deeply intimate personal space and I think … I shared a bedroom growing up; I shared bedrooms in share-houses when I was a young adult and I think finally moving to Broken Hill and being alone and having space actually really enabled this songwriting voice to come out. So it has been really interesting, but I actually believe so deeply in collaboration and I’ve just really enjoyed expanding my practice to work with other amazing musicians and this whole process started with three of us. It was me and Jas Bell, who plays mandolin and pedal steel on the album, and Grace Bigby, who plays fiddle on the record. It was the three of us in between lockdowns, in my lounge room, kind of nutting out arrangements for the songs. I’d never done this process before, so I feel like I really learnt a lot through that process and then I always knew I wanted to double bass player so we roped someone in. And then the tracks kind of blended themselves to a bigger sound, so we found a drummer as well and an electric guitarist for a few of the songs; it was beautiful and I’m really grateful to Jas and Grace for co-producing this album with me and I think they deserve so much credit for the record, that we’ve made.

Les: Yeah. It’s a really natural-sounding album and it just sounds like you’re in the same room listening to it which I suppose is the desired effect.

Charlotte: Yeah. That was the intention. I really didn’t want something that was heavily produced, so I made the decision to record live to tape. I wanted an old country sound, so that’s why I chose tape. And also a live sound because a lot of the songs are really about the feeling and the emotion and I just felt like only a live take could capture that, even though that was king of terrifying. [Laughs] But they were really intentional choices ‘cause I wanted a really raw, live, authentic sound and I think we did a really good job of meeting that.

Les: Sounds good, and you’re coming up to a March album launch. Can you talk about how it will work and what people can look forward to?

Charlotte: Yeah, so we’ve got four big shows planned. We’re doing a release day show at The Gem on the 10th of March, the day that the album comes out, and that will be with the full Charlotte Le Lievre ensemble [laughs] and I would really love to play the record from start to finish, but I think we’ve got lots of instrument changes, so I don’t know if we’ll do that, but we are planning to play all the songs from the record, some arranged a little bit differently. And then we’re actually going to Broken Hill on the 18th of March and doing an album launch in Broken Hill, which is going to be special to take the record back to the source of the inspiration and then we’ve got two vinyl launch shows booked in in May. One at Shotkickers on the 11th, and one at The Diggers store in Campbell Creek where we recorded the album. There’s this beautiful front room with wooden floors. So one for the Goldfields folk and one for the Melbourne folk.

Les: Sounds good. One final question. How would you say the songwriter you are now compares to where you were when you first decided to get stuck into writing this collection of songs?

Charlotte: I wouldn’t have even fathomed that I was capable of writing such songs. [Laughs] I mean the first song that I wrote from the album was Barrier Line and I didn’t think it was a very good song at the time, but subsequently a lot of people where like “That song you wrote, Barrier Line, it’s really good! It’s my favourite of your songs” . I didn’t really consider myself a songwriter, a singer always, but it’s definitely through this process that I’ve been like ‘No, I love writing songs and I am a songwriter and I really connect with this identity; it feels very much a part of who I am. I feel like I’ve always loved stories and finding stories and telling stories and it’s just more beautiful telling stories to a melody.

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About Les Thomas 106 Articles
Narrm/Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor