THE REAL DEAL: Above, Kristy James at home. Picture: Ryan OslandWHEN Kristy James was six years old she entered a Newcastle radio station competition called Zoo Faces hosted by John Paul Young. She sang a song from Dirty Dancing, winning the prize ($106), and went on to perform at the Newcastle Show.
‘‘I just wanted to be a singer,’’ she says over a cup at tea on the last day of summer at Lena’s Cafe in Warners Bay.
Twenty-three years later, she’s still singing for money. It’s been a bumpy ride and quite an education, but she’s just as determined to succeed as she was as a child.
She’s a five-foot-two bundle of blonde energy with a beautiful voice that cuts through the air on power ballads like a rock’n’roll queen.
Her newest video clip, Nobody’s Gonna Make Me, hit number 34 and is still in the top 50 this week on the CMC charts. The song is one of six on her debut EP, Nobody’s Gonna Make Me, released late in 2013.
It’s a long way from playing with the Steel City Country Music Club at age 11. But then again, maybe not. James grew up with country music peers like Catherine Britt and Kirsty Akers and organised music events herself as a teenager in Newcastle.
She met Morgan Evans at 16 when they were both in Starstruck. She’s friends with a large group of working musicians in Newcastle and the Central Coast, from Troy Kemp to Mike Carr to Dave Leslie.
As magic as the images that come from video clips are, and the notion that anybody who makes an album is successful, that’s not the case in Australia. It’s a small market, and as much talent as there is in every pocket of the music industry, there are not many who make a fortune in it.
Kristy makes living the hard way, the honest way, in the music industry. She has been doing gigs most weekends for 11 years, under the name ‘‘Kristy’’, playing cover songs. During the week she gives guitar and voice lessons from her Warners Bay home.
She’s toyed with the reality talent shows, but never jumped in.
She worked for an insurance company for three years – her only job outside music. And took time out to have children (Jaiden is 7 and Willow 5).
‘‘I can’t afford not to succeed,’’ Kristy says. ‘‘I didn’t want them [the children] to think it’s ok to give up. It’s not money. It’s not fame. I want people to enjoy my music.’’
She saves her name, Kristy James, for her original music.
Motherhood and music occasionally cross over.
Late last year she was picking up her kids from school at Mount Hutton when she was greeted by a surprise.
‘‘My son took my CD and poster to school without me knowing it,’’ she says. ‘‘All of a sudden when I went to pick them up after school there was a crowd. Jaiden said ‘I took your CD to school’. So I played at the school’s Carols by Candlelight and organised friends to help.’’
‘‘I’ve been writing music for a few years, but couldn’t find anywhere it fits. But now, as country music is evolving, especially in America, my music fits in. Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert – artists like them are paving the way for the genre to grow,’’ she says. ‘‘People hear artists like them and think ‘that’s a good song’ and that’s the way it should be.’’
Her first single, Overdrive, was released in December 2012, reaching number 19 on the iTunes country chart and made the CMC Top 50. It was also picked by ABC Records for two compilation CDs – Women in Song, and Beaut Utes 2013.
Buoyed by the success, she the crowd-funding website pozible, last year to raise $5000 towards production of her EP and second video clip.
She wrote five of the six songs on the EP, and shares writing credits on Nobody’s Gonna Make Me with Mike Carr, one of the best country songwriters in Australia.
The EP was recorded at The Grove Studios and Hillbilly Hut on the Central Coast under the auspices of producer Simon Johnson. It is the best music she has ever made, and the songs hold up to scrutiny.
‘‘I’ve gone from never wanting to write to wanting to write for a living,’’ she says of her originals.
‘‘It’s really hard to write good music,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s harder to make great music.’’
You only know that when you get there.