Seems that us Aussies just like former Australian Idol Damien Leith in covers mode. Following on from the disappointing chart performance of his previous originals album ‘Remember June’, Damien has headed back into the studio to craft a brand new album – and this time around, it’s full of cover versions of Roy Orbison songs. It debuted at No.5 on this week’s ARIA albums chart.
We plonked down for a chat with Damien and discover that the foundations for ‘Roy’ the LP were laid more than three years ago.
“Roy’s always been there for me,” he says. “He was a big reason that we did ‘Catch The Wind’ (Damien’s songwriters covers album from 2008). Roy was meant to be a big factor on that album, but when we started picking through songs and which Roy should actually be on it, we got to the point where we decided that if we were to do any Roy stuff, we’d do it as an entirely separate project.
“That, then coupled with the connection to (Roy’s widow) Barbara Orbison. She’d been in touch with me around four years ago and after we got in touch again last year, she jumped at the chance to executive produce the album. She organised everything in Nashville from the studios to the producers and really brought a whole new level of strength to the project. So once all that was in place, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” he says.
Damien first rose to national prominence through the fourth season of Australian Idol in 2006, winning the competition ahead of fellow Sony Music signing Jessica Mauboy. Five years on, he’s found that some people still readily connect him to the now defunct show.
“There was a patch there where I thought the Idol tag had been shaken off,” he admits. “It wasn’t an intentional shake like I didn’t want to have anything to do with the show anymore. I was just gradually moving away from it. But as time’s gone on, Idol comes up quite a bit. A couple of months back, I just decided that it is what it is. You’ve got to be true to where you came from, so I’m kinda happy to have the tag still linked there in a way.
“Without it, everything that’s happened since would never have happened. I know that and I’m totally realistic about it. It’s given me all the different possibilities and options that have come to me since. Without those I would have just been pursuing the chemistry. There’d still have been the love of music, but I wouldn’t have been able to chase the industry anymore,” he says.
He adds that Idol has brought him so many more incredible live experiences than he could have ever dared to imagine, with one in particular standing out more than any other.
“I did the State Theatre (Sydney) last year,” he enthuses. “I know that some acts go in there and do 50 nights in a row, but for me personally to be standing on that stage looking out into that theatre, I was quite blown away. So it’s things like that that remind me of the opportunity that I’ve been given. Five years ago, there was no way that I’d have been on that stage.”
Damien released his last album in 2009. It was the criminally ignored ‘Remember June’ (left), which spawned the singles ‘To Get To You’ and ‘Forgive, Forget’. Though naturally disappointed that the project didn’t gel with radio station music directors who would ultimately decide its fate, he remains humble and philosophical.
“It was just one of those things,” he admits. “When you spend so much time on something and then it goes out, it’s kinda out of your hands. You can do as much promo or whatever else, but if it just doesn’t get picked up, it doesn’t get picked up. And you’re just left scratching your head wondering what was wrong with it.”
He says it could be one of any number of factors that caused it not to fire.
“I understand that different networks have different demographics and I suppose that my album history to date has varied between covers and originals, covers and originals, and I think when people see that you’re doing so many covers, it puts you into a certain demographic that doesn’t suit a lot of stations,” Damien admits. “I can understand that. I understand the way they work. I don’t particularly like it.
“U2 had ‘No Line On The Horizon’ out around the same time, and even they struggled too. At the end of the day it just goes to show that it’s across the board. Sometimes things just don’t reach people for whatever reason. You’ve just got to pick up your feet and go onto the next project.”
‘Roy’ is the next project. The album brings together cover versions of 14 different songs from throughout Roy Orbison’s career. It’s a career, Damien says, that he was introduced to as a young boy.
“‘In Green’ was the first track I’d ever heard of his when I was about eight years of age. My auntie used to sing it all the time. I didn’t even know it was Roy Orbison back then – I just knew of this song. And then a couple of years later I started listening to his music and clicked that I recognised it,” he says.
Damien is also at pains to point out that there was an incredibly fine line to be tread between recording a straight out covers album and one where he had the opportunity to apply his own special touch on the final product.
“You’ve just got to be so careful. We just had to tread so softly on it. These are classic songs by a classic artist. It was really important for me to have people listen and understand that it’s me doing all these songs. We didn’t want people thinking it was me trying to sound like Roy. There are a couple of interpretations and little variations to the songs that make them uniquely mine, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t take anything away from the original song either, so yes, the line is very delicate.
“I was worried about ‘Pretty Woman’ right from the start. Everyone knows it and I felt that we couldn’t do too much with it. I think if you go too far with ‘Pretty Woman’, it could be sacrilege. We managed to just give it a little edge. It still has that old sound, but it’s got a little bit of rock in there and trumpets and the like, so I’m thrilled with how that went,” he says, continuing that he has a soft spot for one of the album’s other songs.
“My favourite is ‘She’s A Mystery To Me’,” he says. “I love that song, I love the way we did it. We went with a Buckley-esque guitar line towards the end which is very different to the Bono version.”
Damien has also roped in a swag of other talent to appear alongside him on the LP. A sublime version of the country-tinged ‘Blue Bayou’ features Aussie siblings The McClymonts, while fellow Idol contestant Bobby Flynn joins The Choirboys’ Mark Gable and The Potbelleez’ Ilhan Kidron on Traveling Wilburys’ ‘Handle With Care’.
Damien says it was pretty easy getting them all involved with the project.
“Barbara told me that the only thing Roy wanted as a writer was for people to cover his songs. He loved to hear other peoples voices on them. We said to Barbara right from the start that we wanted to have some other voices on there too. Cover his songs, but add our own little flair as a tribute. It just separates the album nicely,” he says.
“They’re all friends actually,” he admits readily. “I love The McClymonts – they’re incredible. They’re really making their mark and setting the bar in the country music scene. They have beautiful harmonies, so they were an immediate, definite choice for that song. Then with the other lads, Mark, Ilhan and Bobby… I’ve known them all at different points for a long time now and it was just a case of ‘this is meant to be’. A bunch of friends all singing on the one song and that’s exactly what we did.”
Damien will hit the road in July for a slew of live theatre dates in support of the new LP, adding to his incredible list of achievements, both personal and professional. A trained chemist, a father, an author of two books, a musician, a one-time TV show host – is there anything this man can’t do?
“Well I can’t dance!” he laughs, alluding to his upcoming appearance on Dancing With The Stars. “Dance is my Achilles heel – literally! I was actually going to do it two years ago. It’s come up a few times for me and unfortunately I’ve never been able to do it. But this year I was going to be in the country. I signed on the dotted line before I realised how difficult it was going to be. You’re going to get a nice surprise when the series starts.”
Damien’s new album ‘Roy’ is available physically and digitally now.
Damien kicks off a national theatre tour in Melbourne on July 08. Dates HERE.