Ahead of the release of Any Less Anymore – the eighth studio album by Travis Collins – we caught up with the chart-topping, multi-award-winning country artist to discuss what made him fall in love with music in the first place, his habit of falling asleep under tables at Dad’s gigs, being ‘discovered’ while busking, how fatherhood has impacted his own musical output and so much more.
On Supporting Billy Ray Cyrus
“[Supporting Billy Ray Cyrus] was good! Well, it was only a few dates but it was good. He was really kind with his time, and one of those guys that doesn’t sorta hide behind doors, and, yeah! He was just hanging out with everybody.
“It was funny because I didn’t even realise until I was much older, but Mum and Dad produced all these videos one day at home and it was, like, me and my little brother – he doesn’t have anything to do with music now, in fact he was so embarrassed by all these videos of us. We were at a pub in Parramatta and it was a family lunch and we just started singing into these makeshift microphones – I can’t even remember what they were – and we were singing Achy Breaky Heart with the dance moves and everything [laughs]. It was so cringey, man.
“I would’ve been ten and my brother would’ve been eight or something. But that was actually the first video recording of any musical interest that I ever took, ‘cause I didn’t start busking with a guitar until a couple of years later than that. So that actually predates any other musical interest I’d ever shown and, yeah! It gets attributed to Billy Ray Cyrus.”
Latest single Raise Me’s impact
“In the video it starts with me and my phone, like, doing a selfie video – that was the start of the song. And it was never intended for recording or releasing; this all happened what is now two years after that song was written.
“The song started as just me penning a letter and a little melody, and singing into my phone with the only purpose that one day I’d play it for her [baby daughter, Ava]. Just to mark how I was feeling three weeks out from her arrival: I was feeling kinda scared and a bit vulnerable, and I wasn’t ready, but, you know, was just gonna try and do my best. But the more that I played it to people at little songwriter shows, and I played it to my management, and then once the label heard it they said, ‘Man, that’s gotta be something that you record’.
“And you kinda have a responsibility, I think, as an artist to go to those places and be your most vulnerable and be your most honest in your music. And I honestly feel like – on the other side of the coin, as a music fan – that’s where my favourite songs come from, from my favourite artists, is when they’re getting real with something.
“I’ve gotta be honest and say – more than anything I’ve ever written – this particular song, I’ve had a lotta people reach out and particularly people that were in my boat that were first time fathers, expecting, and concerned that they didn’t have a connection to their child before it was born, like, while their partner was pregnant. It’s really a difficult thing, because – I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a win for the girls [laughs]. But I was so jealous when my wife very obviously had a physical connection, from day one – even though it wasn’t a great one, you know, she’d have morning sickness and vomiting – that had already started. And I was so worried, but I wasn’t feeling any of that – like, she’d have the baby kicking at four months and I was just like, ‘Man, I should feel something and I don’t yet,’ and I started to worry that that was gonna be some kind of indication of my capacity to be a parent.
“And then, yeah! It all came together one night about a month before her due date when I was sort of putting her nursery together – you know, the cot, the flatpack furniture – and putting up shelves and hanging all the plush teddies on the walls. And so I guess logically that’s what had happened for me: the simple caveman brain suddenly made sense that, ‘Shit! Someone’s moving in here very soon,’ and the penny dropped and the connection was made. And I’m hanging up the little dresses and onesies and stuff in the cupboard and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I can feel it; she’s close,’ and from that moment on I was just overwhelmed with so many different emotions. And for the next couple of weeks I was just absolutely terrified that I had no idea what I was doing! And, anyway, that’s where Raise Me came from.”
“I wasn’t sure if I was gonna be a good dad”
“It’s been a really refreshing thing about – not only a song like this, but being honest enough to talk about where it came from and saying, ‘I was shit scared, I was vulnerable, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna be a good dad,’ and I don’t think many people talk about it.
“And I feel like with all issues in life there just needs to be someone to pull the trigger on the conversation and go, ‘Hey, I feel like this,’ and then other people think, ‘Yeah, me too! Me too! Me too!’ And so I really think you have a responsibility as an artist, as a creator, and you just go, ‘This song came from ‘here’, has anybody else been there?’ And I think once those conversations start, it’s amazing how many people put their hands up and come forward and messaged my inbox these last two weeks just going, ‘Man, you’re in my head!’
“So I’ve learnt since then that parenthood’s just – you never really have control of it; as long as you’re trying, that’s really the whole dance, man. No one is as good a parent as they wanna be, nobody is. But I think as long as you’re constantly trying to be better, that’s really all there is to it; that’s actually the best parent you can be, is the one that wants to wake up every day and be better than the one you were yesterday.”
Discovering music is magic
“This may sound corny now, but I remember when I was a kid – I might have been about nine years old and I got my own radio from the Salvos op shop or something like that. I was allowed to have my own radio cassette player in my bedroom – only my oldest brother had one at that point, so for me to have my own music in my room was amazing! So I had all these different cassettes and things like that, but one day I discovered the radio dial and I was just going through listening to that noise in between the stations and I landed on some AM station and I heard The Seekers and Mandawuy Yunupingu singing I Am Australian. And I know it sounds kind of patriotically corny, but at that point when I heard that song – you know, hearing that Aboriginal verse at the front and then hearing the story, all in the one song.
“I think that was the first time I heard the magic of songwriting and I just went, ‘What they just did was magic,’ and I felt it. And even now when I’m talking to you, recalling that memory, like, the hair on my neck stands up because it was just like everything around me was completely blurred-out and there was nothing but me and this radio.
“And I heard every word and I so profoundly remember that moment, just going, ‘That speaker just vibrated and made waves that made me feel something’. And I didn’t understand how that worked and I was just like, ‘Why do I feel something? Because, you know, I hear noises all the time,’ and that was the first time that music really unlocked an emotion in me and I just went, ‘That’s magic!’ And from that day on, I was just like, ‘Music’s magic and I wanna be a magician’.
“I think every time you sit down and write a song it’s like, ‘What is something in my life that I can portray with 100% authenticity and honesty that might also be somebody else’s story?’ And I think I’ve felt that many, many times – hundreds of times – since that day; when the right song comes across the radio or Spotify or Apple Music, whatever the medium, I hear songs to this day where I’ll be driving and I literally have to pull the car over and absorb what I just heard. And it might be a lyric, it might be a thought, it might be the vocal delivery but, yeah! There’s something in music that has just always stirred me up like nothing else does.”
“There was always misfit musos hanging around the house on weekends”
“We’d go to Dad’s gigs and fall asleep under the table and, yeah! I thought every kid in Australia grew up going to their parents’ gigs [laughs]. I’m one of six kids and there was always music, there was always misfit musos hanging around the house on weekends – jam sessions – and if it wasn’t at the house, it was at a pub, ‘cause there was a gig. So, yeah! At one point or another most of us did something musical as children – whether it was play the drums or guitar or singing or, you know, just banging on pots and pans; it was just something that was really ingrained in us at a young age.
“I got the hooks into me and then I could never let it go, and by the time I left high school I was playing enough gigs to sort of make a similar amount of earnings to what my mates were with their day jobs and working at Maccas, or a lot of us joined the Army Reserves at that time. And music was something that was keeping me on a par, so I just figured, ‘Well, let’s just see how far I can ride this and keep up with my mates.’ And it’s all I’ve ever done seriously – I mean, I’ve had day jobs and things like that throughout the years to make ends meet, but music’s always been the number one.”
“It probably helped that I was a 12-year-old kid with a mullet and a guitar that was way too big”
“I busked on the street and around South West Sydney and Campbelltown. A coupla times I caught the train into the city and busted it out on the big tough strips in there.
“Because everybody’s got somewhere to be and it’s not like a show or a contained audience where they’re there to listen – it’s busking on the street – like, people are in a hurry, they’re going from place to place or someone might stand there and just finish their coffee. At best you’re probably gonna have 90 seconds to try and encourage someone, through your song, to reach in and throw a coupla coins in your case. And it probably helped that I was a 12-year-old kid with a mullet and a guitar that was way too big to stand up with; probably more than anything, actually – now that I think about it – was to do with them thinking I was cute, or homeless [laughs].
“Right at the start I only knew three songs and it was actually my older sister that encouraged me. I said, ‘I only know three songs,’ and she said, ‘Well, if we pick a spot where it’s foot traffic, no one’s gonna know that you’re doing the same three songs unless they stay there for longer than 14 minutes. As long as people keep moving – it was pretty clever management from her.
“She came with me all the time, until I was old enough to go by myself, and once I was old enough to go by myself I was sorta doing gigs on the weekends rather than needing to go busking, so It was a really good transition. I think it was a really important part of my development as a young artist and figuring out how to get people’s attention when they weren’t really open to having their attention grabbed so, yeah! It was definitely a very, very important learning curve. When young artists today ask me what they should do et cetera et cetera, I just say, ‘Try and go busking. I mean, it’s great that you guys have avenues now that I didn’t – with TikTok and Instagram and all those kinds of things, and everyone wants to be an online celebrity – but if you really wanna learn the art of grabbing somebody’s attention as they’re walking past, then busking is the go’.”
From streets to the stage
“There was a guy who stopped and just stood right in front of me while I was busking and I got the sense that he wanted to talk to me, so I stopped playing. And he told me he ran this country music night at one of the big local RSL clubs and that he’d love me to come and play. He said, ‘Do you know seven songs?’ And I immediately lied and I said, ‘Yeah I know seven songs,’ and he goes, ‘Okay, well it’s a seven-piece band so you’ll need music charts to give to the band and all that sort of stuff.’ And I mean this sounds like a pittance now, but back then it was seven songs and they were gonna pay me $100! And I just thought that was it! I’d made it, man; you know, to me that was rich.
“And so, yeah! I went home and told Mum and Dad, ‘This guy gave me his number.’ And Dad gave him a call and locked it all in, yeah. I still remember the date, it was January 10th, 1996 and it was just one of the most pivotal moments of my life. I don’t say that lightly, because music has led the course for my life. And I remember walking out on stage that night and, for the first time, being hit by a spotlight and in that moment I just remember not being able to see anything in front of me, but I could hear everything and I relied on my senses to hear a room, and pick up the vibe in the room, without being able to see it, ‘cause I was blinded by this huge spotlight. And I just came off stage as a ten-year-old kid with the biggest rush, thinking, ‘That was the wildest thing I could’ve ever done!’ you know? I’ve chased that every weekend ever since.”
“The future of Australian country music is female”
“I don’t think there’s been a healthier time for – well, not only country music in general, but particularly waving the flag for Australian country music. There is some incredible talent coming through and particularly females: I think that the future of Australian country music is female. There’s a great young artist that I’m taking out for this tour, her name’s Sara Berki. She just has a great, smoky voice, really great songwriter – I wish I was that good when I was that young! – and, yeah! I can’t wait to see her play to my audiences, because I think she’s gonna be a name that’s around for a long, long time.
“Other females that are kicking huge goals: Melanie Dyer, Kaylee Bell – who’s a Kiwi, but we’ll claim her; she recently opened up for Ed Sheeran on his world tour and she’s absolutely killing it so, yeah! I think there’s some exciting stuff in country music in Australia at the moment, but I think there’s some big star power among the girls that might get some international love and, you know, kick the next bunch of doors down.”
“I do want Ava to someday hear my music and not be embarrassed”
“[Welcoming daughter Ava into the world] made me think: of all the people listening, her ears are weighted so much more than everybody else’s. At some point she’s gonna be listening to my music and so I’m her dad in all areas – even in my music, now – and I never had to really think about that before. But I wanna have her listen to my music – I don’t ever expect her to think it’s cool, ‘cause I’m her dad, but, you know, I want her to not think I’m an idiot. And I do want Ava to someday hear my music and not be embarrassed, you know? That would kill me.
“So, yeah! It’s a strange thing… I go to the studio now and things that I used to go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s cool we can say that – there’s not much in it,’ now I’m like. ‘Yeah, do you say that as a dad, though? Do you really get out there and sing about that subject – or that country song, drinking in a paddock ‘til three o’clock in the morning – it’s like, ‘I dunno, I’m a dad; I kinda need to sharpen it up a little bit now’. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, I just one day had it pop into my brain, going, ‘Yeah, Ava’s gonna hear this someday’.”
Breaking news: Travis and his wife Bec are expecting baby number two – a boy this time – later on this year.
The eighth studio album by Travis Collins, Any Less Anymore, is out 16 June via ABC Music. Upcoming tour dates: https://www.traviscollins.com.au/tour