Name: Bill Chambers
Occupation: Country singer-songwriter
What’s your superpower? “I think the communication with music is a superpower—anything that tells stories from the heart.”
About this series: In this blog series, I profile people who have made a conscious decision to craft a life that allows them to meet their personal and professional aspirations. The series is intended to celebrate those who are living the life they want and to inspire others to do the same. Also, I ask everyone about their superpower, a question inspired by Ruth Ozeki’s great, great book A Tale for the Time Being.
Anyone who has ever fallen in or out of love, left home and moved as a stranger to a new place, or experienced the bewildering change that comes with new life or loss—that is, anyone who is human—can likely identify a song that captures their feelings in that moment. Music can inspire and console, champion and challenge, give us courage or give us solace.
There is a musician who can speak to every different type of heart.
Perhaps that is because becoming a musician takes a certain strength of heart—the ability to listen to what the heart really wants and go for it, money or fame be damned.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to meet Australian singer-songwriter Bill Chambers at the concert of his famous daughter, Kasey, whose stage he has been sharing as a band mate for more than a quarter of a century. At the time, he and Kasey were in the midst of a U.S. tour. Chambers talked with me about how his family went from singing together around the campfire when they lived in the Australian Outback to playing together in the country music mecca Nashville.
You grew up in a very small town in South Australia and made the decision as a dad to take your young family to live in the Nullarbor Plain. Tell me about those early years.
I grew up in a fishing village in South Australia, and my dad was a lobster fisherman. We were the only kids in the town of smelly old fishermen. In the meantime, I was listening to a lot of country music, and in my teens, I discovered Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
For a while, I was an ambitious young guitar player and used to appear on TV in Adelaide on a national show called Country Music Hour. But once I had children, my priorities changed. My wife and I decided to head to the Outback, for a totally different lifestyle. My mum and dad always lived off the land, catching local fish and growing their own vegetables, and I grew up naturally believing that if you want something done, you do it yourself, and if you want to eat something, you either hunt it or grow it.
So we picked up and moved to the Nullarbor Plain, the most remote desert, just above the Great Australian Bight. It was in the middle of the fox trade in the early ‘70s, and you could actually hunt Australian foxes, dry the skins, and sell them to Europe for quite a bit of money. My son, Nash, was 3 years old, and my daughter, Kasey, was three weeks old. My wife didn’t feel comfortable and freaked right now, but I said, “Look, we’re just here for a working holiday for four or five weeks.” I was trying to convince her this was a good idea. We didn’t stay for four weeks; we stayed for 10 years.
Eventually, my wife grew comfortable with it, and the kids grew up listening to my music around the campfire, and my wife home-schooled them. We’d sit around the campfire and sing songs, and my daughter was very influenced by the songs. So as my kids got into music, we formed a family band.
How did that experience influence your life today?
My life today is far different from where I come from or where I grew up, but it’s similar in the sense that it’s the survival of the fittest. We may be on tour in New York—about as far from the desert as you can get—but every day you deal with different problems, and you have to think quick and make decisions.
What are some of the values you have prioritized in creating your life as a musician—what are the ingredients that have made this life work for you?
I have always been ambitious and you can be ambitious in different ways—ambition is a great thing if you don’t use it against other people. I’m still ambitious. Every day, I come up with new ideas. My main thing is to create music that we’re proud of, don’t sell out, and treat people well. I like to be asked back at the venues we play at. People are good to us, and I want them to know we appreciate it. I have instilled in my daughter those values, and I think she takes it very seriously. You get out of life what you put into it. It’s not all take; you’ve got to give as well.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Finances are a problem for musicians these days. It’s very hard to make any extra money. We just survive week to week—that’s the price you pay for being on the road and living the life of a musician. But I don’t even think about it anymore. I almost always have a bed to sleep in. Even Kasey, who has done very well in the music business, hasn’t pursued the life of a superstar. She’s not tied to any particular lifestyle. She goes grocery shopping, she helps carry the instruments like the rest of us when we gig, she’s got three kids, and she wants to be a normal mother. Those things are more important than making a million dollars and being a celebrity.
What have you learned by choosing to craft your life this way?
I believe you’ve got to follow your heart. Most people these days just conform to a lifestyle, and have a normal job, working for someone. Even if people hate their job, they think, “This is what I have to do.” I don’t think you have to do that. I think you need to look for what your heart wants to do: Follow your heart and your gut feeling, believe in yourself, and don’t give up. I’m not going to give up till the day I die. I’ve made so many mistakes, but I’ve made more right ones than wrong ones.
Last question: What’s your superpower?
I think the communication with music is a superpower—anything that tells stories from the heart. So many people have come up to me and said, “You changed my life.” I have no doubt that’s a superpower.