Catherall finds his musical home
A talented teen musician from NSW’s Yass Valley seemingly set on the path of jazz or classical performance, Riley Catherall had been chipping away – in his words, “just throwing punches underwater at different things, different styles” – in the small Canberra music scene.
Then, after a trip to the USA to play and write and absorb, he moved to Melbourne and saw the light.
“There was this really cool scene down here that really took to that not quite country, not quite roots or rock ‘n’ roll, not quite folk sort of thing, which was really encouraging,” Catherall said.
“It made me really focus on songwriting before anything else: stripping everything down from playing all the notes, to playing the whole three chords and the truth mindset.
“Having that three or four minutes to tell a good story was a real attraction to me.”
This wasn’t just a discovery; it was an education. Catherall remembers spending “18 months of walking around town, watching bands, trying to figure out how it happens”, having gone from a big fish in a small pond to “a nobody” who looked for work in other people’s bands and on other people’s records.
It was humbling, but as well as teaching him humility, it taught him who he really was musically. “People say you need to write an upbeat song, you need to write a pop song, you need to write catchy songs, but the idea is to write something that I’m proud of, that satisfies me, that can also be translated to other people,” he said.
Catherall is now a gentle-voiced storyteller in the mould of Jason Isbell, who has fashioned a rootsy blend of his father’s record collection (“lots of James Taylor and Neil Young, and at the other end of the spectrum a lot of Slim Dusty”) and modern influences such as Kasey Chambers and Ryan Adams into songs of quiet intimacy.
“I was lucky enough that when I first stepped into the country world, I was doing a little bit of writing and playing with Kasey Chambers, and she is the epitome of not necessarily trying to sound like the winner of Australian Idol. It’s that raw, rough, broken vocal that really serves the song,” Catherall said.
“I think albums like Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker were great for that: listening to someone who had written these songs alone in his bedroom and said that’s the state I wrote it in; that’s the state that it needs to be represented on the record and every time you step on stage.”
The result is debut album When I Go, whose songs mostly come from an intensely productive three-year period that included a “pretty toxic relationship, then the aftermath of that, then the aftermath of the aftermath”, as well as that deep dive into a new world.
“I spent a lot of time looking for somewhere to call my home and I think there’s been this constant theme of always uprooting, having things ripped out from underneath you, not really been able to settle down,” Catherall said. “I think that’s been a theme not only in my songwriting but in life the past few years.
“My job is to make people feel things, I think that’s the whole point of writing and storytelling. I hope that the rise and fall of everything, the quiet parts and the building up to loud parts, does the same and makes you feel something.”
Riley Catherall will play at the Geelong Cement Bowls Club on August 22.
For more information, to buy When I Go and more tour dates, head to his website.