First Published July 2020
PUTTING MORE GOOD IN THE WORLD
When I first had the pleasure of interviewing Australian actress, singer, and songwriter CLARE BOWEN just over three years ago now, the TV show NASHVILLE was at the height of its popularity. And the character played by Clare, that of Scarlett O’ Connor, was among the show’s central and most-loved figures. Such was the success of the show, that it had also taken to the road, with the Nashville In Concert event selling out venues all around the world. That first opportunity to chat with Clare came ahead of the concert’s date at the 3Arena back in June of 2017, and truth be told, I didn’t know what to expect.
What I discovered was that Clare and Scarlett have a lot in common. And all of it positive. Clare Bowen fully lives up to that old adage about the bigger the star, the nicer they are. Courteous, humble, funny, thoughtful, sweet…all traits that would be familiar to anyone who followed Scarlett in the show, and each to be found in abundance in Clare, and each an important part of who she is too.
Fast forward to 2020, and in a world turned upside now, Nashville the TV show is no more. While its memory – and hopefully re-runs for many years to come – live on, Scarlett has gone happily into the sunset. More on that at the end of our chat with Clare today. Clare herself, however, is still very much with us, and long may that prove to be the case. Because the world needs souls like hers. Not just in the creative sense, as a singer and a songwriter – although God knows, her talents in both areas carry healing powers of their own – but just as a human being.
Time may have changed a lot of the world as we knew it over the last few years, and undoubtedly, further change is still to come over the tumultuous months ahead. But the only way time has changed Clare is that it has – if it was even possible – made her even more courteous, humble, funny, thoughtful, and sweet. During the course of our chat, she mentioned as part of her answer to one particular question that she really just wants to “put more good in the world.” Well, she need not worry. Clare does just that, in both the biggest and the smallest of ways with everything she does. My second chance to chat with her was every bit as memorable as my first. And as far as I’m concerned, Clare remains one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever had the privilege of talking with, and in at least some small way, getting to know.
So, onto the main reason Clare and I were chatting this time. Clare is among the guest artists featured on the new album from our own Ronan Keating, TwentyTwenty, duetting with the Boyzone frontman on the gorgeous single, Love Will Remain. Both Clare and Ronan are obviously huge names ‘Down Under’, so did that play a part in how they crossed paths, I wondered?
“I’ve always been a fan of Ronan’s, he’s lovely. I ended up chatting to him on…I think it was Twitter…ages ago, like years ago. He’d said hello and we just got to talking. Then he reached out to me a few months ago and invited me onto this song. And it was just such a lovely thing. I mean, he’s fantastic, I listened to his music growing up. I remember when he covered ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ and ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes.’ They were huge in Australia. It’s always a real honour to be asked to sing on another artist’s track, it’s a very sweet thing to get asked. And I’m so happy with how the song turned out.”
When working with someone on a duet like Love Will Remain, is it a case that whoever extends the invitation has one particular song in mind, or might one artist come to another with maybe two or more tracks in mind, and everybody then works out which option suits best?
“It kind of happens both ways. With this one, this is the first one that he sent me. And we ended up recording it with a friend of ours who has a home studio in Nashville, there are a lot of home studios in Nashville! Our mate Doug Lancio, who used to tour with my husband, and they both toured with John Hiatt together, he put the track down for us. So it was Ronan and I singing to one another from opposite sides of the world! Songs come together [that way], and particularly if it’s a duet and people are thousands of miles away from one another, you’ve kinda got to trust your instinct on what you want it to sound like, and what the other person wants it to sound like [laughs]. You give them a whole lot of options so that they can sort of weadle through and figure out the parts, take what they want and put it in. But yeah, everything is even more different now that we can’t travel and things like that. But it was a lot of fun putting it together.”
As well as lending her gorgeous voice to Ronan’s latest project, Clare has also put her talent as a songwriter to excellent use on the new track from Australian duo, O’ Shea, Bridezilla. Clare wrote the song with her husband, Brandon Young, and O’ Shea. So is writing for other artists something that she’s looking to get more involved in, or does it really depend on the circumstances of who it might be and such like?
“Well, you know sometimes you write songs and you never know where they’re gonna end up. And other times, you’re chasing down a specific scene with an artist. And just like being asked to sing on another artist’s song, it is a massive honour to be asked to write for somebody else’s record project. O’ Shea contacted Brandon and I and said, ‘Hey, we’re chasing down a particular scene’, and they said they wanted something that would be played at weddings and become something that was really fun and classic. So Brandon and I went and met up with them. But you don’t know, even when you get asked to write something specific, if it’s going to go anywhere. So when it ends up being their first single from their new album, that’s amazing! They’re having lots of fun with it. And there was another artist, Imogen Clark, who I brought out on tour with me before, opening for me, Brandon and I ended up writing her new single as well, called ‘Found Me.’ And she’s great, she’s like the next generation of Australian country music, you should check her out, she’s really cool. I came to the U.S. as an actor, but ended up playing a country music artist, and then became one myself, and then discovered my love for writing songs. I really didn’t know that [before]. I was much like Scarlett, I wrote things down and I didn’t show anybody. To have it sort of come to life, I don’t know… reality and fantasy sort of cross over sometimes, it’s really strange [laughs]. I’m just having a whole lot of fun. And it’s been so nice to have things that have come out with everything being shut down. It’s just such a nice surprise that things came out in this period, because there’s really very little that we can do. We’ve very limited right now.”
Speaking of albums, and indeed of Scarlett, I wished Clare a happy birthday for her debut album, which was released just about a year ago now. Clare described that self-titled collection as being a “storyteller’s album”, as opposed to being straight up country, or Americana. And interestingly, Clare’s brother Timothy also describes himself as being a storyteller. But I wondered what had the experience been like of finally having those stories of hers meet the world, and having her voice heard as Clare rather than as Scarlett?
“Yeah! [laughs]. Thank you! Well, I guess the second question first. Just to get to be me on stage…I mean, when we toured with the Nashville cast I was always myself. But telling stories as a character is different to telling stories as yourself. It’s so much fun, but it’s not an easy thing to do. Some of those songs are very personal stories. But the way they were received was so gracious and beautiful. When the Nashville tour ended, we toured for sixteen months [Clare and Brandon] across the world to release the record. And it was just such a privilege that people wanted to hear my stories. And I think the thing that it’s all about is bringing people together for me. That’s what music is all about. It’s a universal language. To see people in Germany, and have people sing ‘Little By Little’ back to me! I didn’t know that they knew the words. It moved me to tears, it was so beautiful that people would take that in and then share it with one another. And it’s kept collecting steam, and people are still talking about it. Now I’m seeing people doing covers of the songs and things like that, and it’s just the loveliest thing. It’s one thing to play a character, but another just to be you. It was incredible. The second album is all but assembled. I mean, everything happens for a reason. I guess sometimes you just don’t find out the reasons. But when something like what’s happening right now in the world happens, maybe you find out in the next life? I don’t know. But after touring for sixteen months I went and shot a project in Australia with one of my heroes, Bryan Brown. Did that in the middle of the tour, so came off the road for a few weeks to get that done, and then went back out on the road. We were in L.A. when everything sort of shut down, so we got back just in time. It’s been interesting. It’s been lovely to have some quiet time. I’ve actually never spent a summer in Nashville because I’ve always been on tour. So I’m sitting here looking out the window at the moment, and I’ve never seen Nashville like this because I’m always on the road. It’s interesting how quiet time cuts out the noise, and gives you a chance to reevaluate things, and see the second album for what it’s actually shaping up as, and what needs to change. Times are changing, so the album has altered a little bit. I think this time, as different as it is and as scary as it can be, is precious. A lot of things have been about discovering, interestingly. But I can’t wait to get more music out there! [laughs].”
I had mentioned Clare’s brother – Timothy – a few moment’s previously, and he’s been making a big name for himself on The Voice Australia, going all the way to the semi-finals. And although that was where his involvement in the show came to an end, he went out singing an original song called Reason To Live, which is about as cool a way to end a journey like that as I can think of. But as a sister, how was it for Clare, given her own experience of living life in the public eye, watching Timothy’s progress on the show?
“I’m so proud of him! Timothy has done such a wonderful job! For the semi-finals they asked him to write a song forty-eight hours before singing it in front of millions of people, and he rose to the challenge. He had…like no time…to write that thing [laughs]. I think he wrote it with Guy Sebastian, actually…yeah, he did. You know, just to put some extra pressure on! Get him to write an original song that he had to sing for people [laughs]. But he had so much fun. Having the eyes of not just Australia, because Nashville has such a far reach and I have fans all over the world – and I’ve taken him all over the world, and they love him – so he’s had all of these eyes all over the world on him. I was saying to him the other day in an interview – we were both on a channel together – and the reporter asked me what I would say to my brother, and I said in my eyes you’ve already won. You’ve gotten what you came for. You’ve made so many beautiful friends there, and gained a much larger following than he had. I think he’s more than doubled it just from being on the show as long as he was. And he’s learned a lot. You can’t pay for that kind of experience. And he has been through a lot. He’s a real fighter. Just to see him up there just makes my heart so happy. That’s what I’ve always wanted for him. I’ve always wanted people to hear him and appreciate him. And he’s done it. I’m so proud of him.”
I suggested to Clare that probably a part of the reason why she and her brother both possess such a fighting spirit is that they are of Irish and Scottish descent! Clare and Brandon also have the most beautiful Irish wolfhound, Faolan. And as well as Clare having once described Dublin as being her grandad’s favourite city, her mum and dad flew into Dublin to see the Nashville Farewell Concert there and surprise Clare into the bargain! Was her Irish ancestry something that Clare had ever delved into in much detail?
“I’m really, really interested in it. My grandparents did a family-tree when I was a kid, and we are Irish, Scottish, and Norwegian. Our family name is MacAloon, which is a very small clan. I guess they are Scot-Irish. And then the other side is Bowen, which is spelt in the Welsh way, but that was a spelling mistake! All of our family came over [to Australia] as convicts, like everybody [laughs]. So no-one was really treated with much respect when they got to Australia. So if you think about it, if it’s just a spelling mistake, that’s just an accident. I think it’s actually [meant to be] B-O-H-A-N, that’s where the name came from. So we’re not actually Welsh, even though we have a Welsh last-name. So much of Australia does have Irish descent, and I wish that I knew more. Because there’s a lot about my heritage that’s very mixed and ambiguous. And I’m very proud of that. But I don’t know exactly where everybody came from, because as convicts a lot of people – when they served their time or if they escaped – they went ‘bush.’ Which means they went and lived in the bush in Australia. So they were undocumented and they kind of got away and moved away from society. So there’s very few things that I can find about my family from way back. I know that we have family in Cavan and Cork, and Kerry and Galway. We’re from all over the place! [laughs]. My grandad especially was always very proud of his Scoth-Irish heritage, especially the Irish side. And Dublin was his favourite city in the whole world. My mother got to take him there when she was nineteen and working for Quantas, it was lovely. James Francis MacAloon, he’s a big part of my heart. I went to Dublin a really, really long time ago when I was a kid, and I got lost! And it was the best fun I’ve ever had on holiday, because I was just lost in the backstreets of Dublin [laughs]. Some people chose to go out there [to Australia] early on, but my family, they were all convicts and were brought out against their will. So heritage is something that is very precious to us, because it was difficult to hang onto. So what we did hang onto is very important to us. I’ve always had a soft spot for Ireland and Scotland in my heart.”
One of the many things that I admire about Clare is her social conscience. She endlessly uses her platform as a high-profile public figure to not just speak up and support things like Black Lives Matter, Juneteenth, Pride, the case of Vanessa Guillen, and responsible mask-wearing these days, but also in giving shout-outs to businesses – a lot of aboriginal businesses in particular – and asking her fans to follow them. My guess was that if Clare is so much like this in public, then the same will be true of her in private too. And sometimes when people give so much of themselves to others, if they’re not careful about protecting themselves, it can really drain their personal energy. So I wondered how Clare makes sure to look after that side of herself?
“That’s such a sweet question. And thank you for saying that. I feel so lucky to get to do what I do. I really just want to put more good in the world. I grew up in hospital, everybody who knows me knows that [Clare is a survivor of childhood cancer], and you see things that the average four year old child wouldn’t see. We were taken in by some communities when I was a kid. Because I looked so sick, people thought I had Aids. And they would judge my parents. I remember other parents pulling their children away from me. Some of the places that we would hang out, and the people we would hang with, were also marginalised groups, but they were the people who accepted us and didn’t judge my parents thinking what have you done to that little girl. When really, I was a terminal cancer patient. They would only take me out if the doctors were really like, ‘No, it’s ok, you can take her to the museum’, and that was so I could learn something because I couldn’t go to school. That’s the experience I had as a child. Having people pull their children away from you, or having people make fun of you because of the way that you look. But that’s nothing compared to being a person of colour and growing up being judged just for the colour of your skin. I don’t know what that is like, and I would never pretend to. Maybe having felt that small amount of not being welcome has…I don’t know…it just gives me this horrible aversion to any kind of prejudice or discrimination. Hardly anyone in my family is straight! [laughs]. We’re a very mixed bunch! So for me, I didn’t really understand that homophobia was a thing. I was very sheltered. And everyone in our family was very loving towards anybody, no matter who they loved. I didn’t see that [homophobia] until a little bit later in life, and it was shocking when I did. And that was just me being sheltered, because I grew up in an environment where everybody was accepted. I guess you do have to protect yourself a little bit. I do meditate. I do yoga. If I can go and sit in a tree, I will! We live on the water, so if I can get out on the water, I will. And just spending time with my animals. I’ll go out on my horse and just wander around [laughs]. That’s my grounding energy, whenever I am where trees are, or where water is, I feel good. I suppose that’s some of the ways that I protect myself. And I have a very loving husband, he always tells me when I’m doing too much [laughs]. Thanks for saying that, though, it was really kind.”
As a songwriter, and a creative soul, has everything that’s been happening in the world – and especially in America of late – has it increased Clare’s need or desire to write? Or has it almost overwhelmed the ability to write, in a sense? Something that’s been the case for a lot of songwriters I’ve been talking to recently…
“Well, I suppose with the massive shift in the world that has happened – and with any kind of shift, whether it’s big or small – artists feel the need to write about it. For me personally, it’s been a time to listen. I have written a few things but really, I’ve been wanting to learn more and absorb information, to make sure that I am doing the right thing, and to make sure that I’m being there for the people who need me. A pandemic is not something that anybody could have expected. And I’ve got so many wonderful friends – African-American friends, Aboriginal friends, Asian-American friends – they’re feeling all of this on a massive level. And I don’t know what that’s like, so all I can do is be there for them. All of my energy has gone into making sure the people who need me are safe, and really just elevating other voices rather than my own. Because I’ve been at home, I thought, ‘Oh gosh, Clare, you should be writing more’, but I had to take the pressure off myself and just allow myself…to stop…and listen. Because I haven’t stopped since before Nashville the television show happened. I haven’t just had a rest. This is the first time I really have. And [in that way] it’s lovely. But, it turns out that there’s a different kind of work to do. And for me, that has been listening, and being there for people.”
So much of Clare’s life revolves around being on-screen, and I am fully convinced that her love story with husband Brandon is just bound to end up as a movie in itself somewhere down the line. What I only realised recently, however, was that it was Caitlin, Clare’s manager, who introduced her and Brandon. Clare has remarked previously that she fell in love with Brandon while they were writing a song together. So I asked Clare, when she thinks of everything that had to happen – all of the stars that had to perfectly align – for her and Brandon to end up in that moment, sitting across from each other working on that song together…does their relationship have that always meant-to-be feeling…?
“Yes. I was born to love that man. He is wonderful. He’s one of the most talented songwriters I’ve ever met. And he’s so kind. I’m so grateful to my manager Caitlin for putting us together. I’m a bit of a late-bloomer, and it’s interesting, when we did write that song – and eventually we will release it, it’s the first song we ever wrote together – I had never really had butterflies before. I had never really had that feeling of wanting to be near somebody. But for me, with him, I just wanted to be his friend [laughs]. But I thought I was going to be sick because I had such horrible butterflies when we were singing the song through [laughs]. And it scared me so much that when we finished the song I ran out of his apartment, got in my truck, called Caitlin, and cried on the phone! I said, ‘I can’t write with him anymore, I’m going to fall in love with him and I really don’t need that right now!’ [laughs]. She laughed her head off at me, and the rest is history [laughs]. He was born in Connecticut, and I was born in Australia on the Minnamurra River, and just the fact that all of these things had to happen…and like I said, everything happens for a reason, I think. You just don’t always get the reasons in this life. But this one was pretty clear to me, that I was just meant to love him. I think it’s amazing that we found one another. There’s a ten year difference between us, and a couple of oceans between us too [laughs]. It’s like we travelled across time to get to one another. And it was just such a lovely thing when the producers of Nashville called and said, ‘Do you think Brandon would be on the show?’ And I was like, ‘What?! In what sense? What are you going to do to him?!’ [laughs]. Because poor Scarlett, it was always what’s going to happen to her next, ya know. But I don’t think that her happy ending could have been any happier, because all of her dreams come true. There’s this beautiful person loving her, which is what she’s always wanted. It was really cool.”
Clare and I ended our chat with one last question about Scarlet and Nashville. Having been Scarlett for so long, when the show came to an end was it in any way difficult to know that she – Scarlett – was staying behind, while Clare and life moved on? Or when that moment came, was it something that Clare was at peace with because of what that moment was like, as Clare had just described?
“It’s funny you say that. I will always love Scarlett. She’s always been, and she always will be, a little piece of my heart. There’s parts of her that were like a younger version of me. And sometimes it was hard – because I had learned those lessons earlier – to watch her get hurt the way she was, and to go through the things she did. But at the end of it, I feel she was one of the only characters who got to step off the screen…I mean, she falls right into this beautiful boy named Brandon’s arms, and for me, it was like she was kept safe. Somebody caught her when she fell out of the show. I feel like, personally, I got to keep all of the best bits of Nashville, the television show. I met the love of my life in this city. I played a character I absolutely loved. I found music in this city. I learned how to use a microphone! [laughs]. Poor Buddy Miller, he taught me. I found a place that I was meant to be. I found a lot of myself in this city and through that show. And I learned so much and met so many wonderful people. And, I got to keep all the friends that I made. The fans loved the album that are my stories. I was part of something that became part of the history, the fabric, of country music. I don’t feel like I had to say goodbye to her. Because sometimes I look in the mirror and I see her, I’m like, ‘Oh, there you are.’ I think all of your characters live somewhere in there…because, you know, you share a body! [laughs]. It’s weird, very weird [laughs]. Yeah, I feel like I got to keep all of the best bits of Nashville, and I’m just so excited about what comes next.”
~ Love Will Remain, Clare’s duet with Ronan Keating, is available now on all digital platforms, and on Ronan’s new album, TwentyTwenty, also out now. Clare’s self-titled debut album – Clare Bowen – is also available on all digital platforms.