Troy Cassar-Daley has it made. He’s one of the faces of Australian country music who, after more than 25 years in the business, retains not just a doting audience, but critical esteem and a record contract with a major label.
Since debuting with the album Beyond the Dancing in 1995, Cassar-Daley – a Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr man – has won three-dozen Golden Guitar awards, ten Deadlys and a handful of ARIAs. He released his memoir, Things I Carry Around, in 2016 and followed up with a greatest hits collection in 2018.
But having recently brought up his half-century on this planet, Cassar-Daley’s hardly been living a life of smug luxury. The songwriter’s new album, The World Today, is his most personal to date; the experiences that informed it are some of the most challenging of Cassar-Daley’s entire life. A few years ago, he lost his Maltese-Australian father to suicide, which followed a long illness that arose in the aftermath of a stroke. Cassar-Daley was subsequently thrown into an existential panic, which threatened the stability of his marriage to radio and TV presenter Laurel Edwards. And then came the pandemic, which denied Cassar-Daley the opportunity to tour and connect with audiences across the country as he has done throughout his adult life.
He had, however, already started working on songs for what would become his 13th studio album, including a few tracks left over from songwriting stints with Cold Chisel’s Jimmy Barnes and Ian Moss. Then, after sending a warts-and-all demo of ‘How You Fall’ to Paul Kelly – a song Kelly later helped him finish – Cassar-Daley realised songwriting could help him through his personal struggles.
The World Today is built on a commitment to navigating emotional complexity with heartfelt honesty, but it’s not hopeless or self-pitying in the slightest. Benefiting from Matt Fell’s elegant, unobtrusive production, Cassar-Daley’s voice sounds better than ever as he extends an affirmation of life, gleaned from perseverance and a strong connection to Country.
Music Feeds spoke to Cassar-Daley about several songs from The World Today, finding healing in nature, and how songwriting got him through the tough times.
Music Feeds: You haven’t tried to hide how personal this record is. Were you writing a lot of these songs as a means of coping?
Troy Cassar-Daley: Definitely. It was a struggle losing my dad the way I did. When someone takes their own life and they’ve been quite sick for a while and quite depressed, I question myself as to what else I could’ve done. So I struggled with that for quite a while, but I felt the only way out was to not only talk about it, but I do my best talking when I’m writing songs.
I thought I would use [songwriting] as a way of improving my mental health on the way through. It’s definitely not a whinge. It is really about healing.
MF: The record begins with ‘Back on Country’ and ends with ‘I Hear My River’. They’re both about belonging to the land and finding healing and nourishment in nature, which are concepts held by First Nations people across this land. Tell me about the decision to open with ‘Back On Country’.
TCD: I wanted to start by making sure that everyone who listens to this record and lives in this country feels like they’re ready for the ride together. I wanted to make sure [‘Back On Country’] was a song about unity, inclusiveness. I had heard many stories about non-indigenous people and their connection to land and I wanted to make sure I highlighted that because I think that’s the only way forward.
MF: ‘I Hear My River’ feels like a more personal song, reflecting on Australia’s colonial history and Indigenous dispossession, but also looking at how your connection to the land has never gone away.
TCD: I did the show Who Do You Think You Are? – I thought my life was pretty beige and everyday until I did that show. It took me on a bit of a journey down to the south coast of New South Wales where I felt connected to a place I’d never been. I got out of the car at the headwaters of the Shoalhaven River and I felt electricity coming up through my feet and hands and an old Indigenous fellow down there who was a distant relation of mine put his arms out and said, “Troy, welcome to your Country.”
It really was the perfect way to sum up a record for me, to go from an inclusive one that feels like an open door to an album and the way to see it out was, I just felt so moved by making that show, I had to share it with everyone in a song.
MF: ‘Drive in the Dark (Be a Man)’ begins with three minutes of blues guitar playing before transitioning into a song that includes a discomfiting account of an unpleasant domestic situation. It’s almost like two different songs. How are they connected?
TCD: ‘Drive in the Dark’ I wrote for a friend of mine who took his own life, and it ran into a song that I’d half-finished for Jimmy Barnes after reading his Working Class Boy book. I was so traumatised by Jimmy and John Swan’s childhood and then for them to have to stand up and be a man at that age when their parents were going through what I describe in the song… If you had have been reading about it and you didn’t know Jimmy Barnes, you probably would’ve thought that that child, you’re not going to make it, you’ll be in jail or you’ll be dead.
MF: ‘Parole’ and ‘Doing Time’ are also based on other peoples’ stories, specifically members of your family who have been imprisoned.
TCD: My first cousins that were incarcerated and who are out on parole, having the conversations with them about the basic nature of wanting to be free but still having to report to people and having to piss in a jar to make sure you’re not taking drugs, it is part of life I think we’ve never really covered in country music. You go back to Johnny Cash and he talks about Folsom Prison and things like that. Well, this is a more detailed account of what people face sometimes when they get out.
MF: Along with processing your own pain, were you thinking about consciousness-raising and the broader societal implications of the songs on this record?
TCD: It was probably the furthest thing from my mind. All I wanted to do was write as honestly and openly as I could. The first demo I did was for the song ‘How You Fall’. It was like going to a restaurant and going, “Geez I like that. I’ve gotta go back.” That was the song that kept me coming back for more. And the message in the song was, “Can you show me how to get up? It doesn’t matter how you fell down.”
When Paul [Kelly] and I finished that song just prior to COVID, I didn’t realise it was going to be one of the turning points to me actually going headlong into this record and doing my best to write as many openhearted and message songs as I could. There was nothing underlying wanting to wake up anyone with a statement. It was just an honest way of writing – I didn’t sugar-coat a single thing on this record.
The World Today is out now. Troy Cassar-Daley is currently touring with MIDNIGHT OIL & First Nations Collaborators – ‘MAKARRATA LIVE’ and has a run of solo dates coming up, including Bluesfest Byron Bay, Gympie Music Muster, Deni Ute Muster and Savannah in the Round. For more information, head here.