You may know him as Dr Karl Kennedy but Alan Fletcher is a serious singer-songwriter.
Releasing your first full solo album at the age of 65 may seem a strange career move for an up-and-coming Aussie americana singer-songwriter, but Alan Fletcher is far from your normal hopeful americana troubadour. For twenty-eight years he played Dr Karl Kennedy in the Australian soap opera Neighbours, but in his earlier career, he performed musical theatre and was in a touring rock band in tandem with his career as an actor. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with Alan Fletcher while he was at The Tamworth Country Music Festival to talk about his background in music, and why now is the time to release an americana album. It quickly becomes clear that his debut solo album ‘The Point’ is not an actor’s vanity project but a genuine Australian americana album, that also features, as producers and backing musicians, Lachlan Bryan and his band the Wildes, who are probably the leading Australian americana band. Alan Fletcher explains what he thinks are the differentiating characteristics of Australian americana, and he shares his love of John Prine’s songwriting and performance ability. While this may be an Americana UK interview it was impossible to chat with Alan Fletcher and not get his views on Neighbours being taken up by Amazon and he shared the hope that it will reach parts of the world that the original show was never able to reach.
How are you?
I’m very well and I’m actually out and about because we are farewelling some wonderful Yorkshire americana artists who came out to the Tamworth Country Music Festival, which is one of the largest country music festivals in the world, so we are having a farewell night with Dan Webster and Emily Lawler. They’ve had a wonderful time here and they are awesome players, it’s been great to host them, really fabulous.
You’ve had a musical career for over twenty years – why did you want to mix music with your acting career?
Music has always been part of my acting work, of course, because as an actor I’ve performed in musical theatre since back in the ‘70s, and I sang a lot of swing music, etc. So I’m quite used to being a performer like that, and in 2004 I actually formed a rock band called Waiting Room which successfully toured the UK many times, I think we did ten tours in eight years actually, which was very popular on the party circuit and with university students. From there I had a little hiatus, but I’ve always loved country music and americana, it has always been a passion of mine. I was fortunate to run into two of Australia’s foremost country and americana artists who had a studio and they said to come and record, which I did, and hence this album ‘The Point’ of which I am very proud.
Why is now the time for Alan Fletcher to become an americana artist?
I think it is simply that I’ve been writing songs all my life, and my computer is full of songs which when I look at them they are country and americana influenced because going way back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, americana through the music of John Prine, Guy Clark, and artists like that, was influencing me enormously, and often we get influenced by country and americana artists by people covering their songs. I mean, the first time we heard ‘Angel From Montgomery’ was Bonnie Raitt, and then you find out it is a John Prine song so you start doing a deep dive and John Prine became, I suppose, my mentor in a way because I so admired everything he ever did. I suppose it is kind of strange to come to it later in life, but one thing about country and americana is that some of the really established acts in the genre are actually my age, haha, or older because Willie is around 90 or something, haha. What I find interesting is that when I go to gigs to see Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes, for instance, play live the demographics are that the vast majority of the audience is over 50, and a lot of them are over 60, and I find that fascinating because americana borrows some much from different traditions, and I think there is a great influence from American folk on americana, your Woody Guthries have played very strongly into it, and I think the older audience loves that aspect of it. I know that is also true in the UK where Celtic folk is quite an influential genre in terms of americana.
What do you think is the particular ingredient that differentiates Australian from American americana?
That is really interesting because Australian country is quite distinctive, there is definitely a definable Australian country music sound that has nothing to do with Nashville at all, and a lot of Australian americana music comes out of Australian country so it has a lot more earthy feel to it. I suppose a lot of Australian americana owes a lot to influences like Justin Townes Earle so it does have that American americana influence but the topics and the themes are very Australian. So I do think it has its own distinct character.
What is your relationship with Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes?
First of all, I met Damian Cafarella, who is the lead guitarist in the Wildes, and I met Damian years ago doing Christmas concerts if you can believe it, and when I was up in Tamworth at the country music festival in 2019 doing a John Prine tribute show with a bunch of other musos, I got to see Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes for the first time and got to meet Lachlan for the first time. Lachlan and Damian have a studio here in Melbourne call End Of The Road Studios, and they asked me to bring some material down and we will see what you’ve got and maybe record some songs. So I thought, you know what, I will take some of my stuff down and maybe we will do one or two songs, it will be like a vanity project just for my own ego, and the songs will probably sit on my own computer and go nowhere. With their mentoring, their inspiration, and their stimulation I ended up with an EP in the middle of last year, and we had enough for an album that we finished recording towards the end of last year. The best thing about being with Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes is that they play for me, when we tour the UK in March they will play their own set and then they will back me, so people will get two doses of Australian americana, haha.
Lachlan Bryan is also sitting inside saying farewell to the wonderful Yorkshire musicians. It is a beautiful scene here, it is incredible how the industry is so supportive like I’m sure it is in most other places. There is something about the feel of country music where no matter how big you are in country music everyone is treated equally. There is a real egalitarian spirit in the genre and it is a real joy for me. I was at The Tamworth Country Music Festival last year and I was back-stage and Troy Cassar-Daily was there, now Troy is one of Australia’s greatest country music artists and he has won forty Golden Guitars which are the highlight of the award ceremony here at Tamworth, more than any other artist, and he just goes, “G’day mate, how are you going?”, and we have a bit of a chinwag about my music and he is like, I’ll keep a lookout for that. It is a fabulous industry like that, it is not like rock & roll.
Who picked the songs for the record, and why pick John Prine’s ‘Fish and Whistle’?
There are many Prine songs I would dearly have loved to have picked, but I picked ‘Fish and Whistle’ because it is the first John Prine song I heard. I remember thinking at the time, this is genius look what the man is singing about, “On my very first job I said thank you and please They made me scrub a parking lot down on my knees”. It was extraordinary, and musically the style was amazing. I got to see John Prine in the early ‘80s in Melbourne, he actually flew in to do a concert out in the country at a race course and he was about two hours late because of a plane delay and he flew in on a helicopter. It was one of the most mesmerising shows I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of John Prine shows since then, even to his end of days I think he was one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever seen on stage, and having said that I’ve seen Kristofferson, I never saw Guy Clark, but I think John Prine is a standout in this genre. So ‘Fish and Whistle’ is my little doff of my cap to him, but when I do gigs I do love to sing the last song he ever recorded, which of course is ‘I Remember Everything’, it is a beautiful, beautiful song.
My own songs are actually quite eclectic in reality, ‘The Point’, which is the title track, which was supposed to be a comedy song. We all sit there and ask ourselves what’s the point in life, why are we here what’s the point of doing that? I think a lot of people find the point in religion, in God, and all hail to them, that’s terrific that they can find that, but that doesn’t apply to me, I haven’t got that. So ‘The Point’ was going to be a bit of a comedy about how some people have God to give them the point, and unlike some other people, I have to find it out for myself. The song wasn’t forming very well, and I realised, what is my point? I then realised it was my partner and it turned into a love song. I do write a lot about family, about friends, about love and I slightly morbidly write about death, so a lot of my songs come from there, but I also have a passion for writing comedy songs, like there is a song on the record called ‘How Good Is Bed?’ which is an unashamed doff of my cap to one of my favourite places, which is in bed, haha, I can’t spend enough time there, haha.
So it is quite an eclectic record from that point of view, and a lot of my comedy songs are influenced by the wonderful Todd Snider and artists like Steve Poltz who have a delicious turn of phrase. So I swing between writing comedy songs to ballads. My favourite song on the record is perhaps ‘Hey You’, which is a song about my dear mum who is a spiritualist who said she would be looking after me even after she passed away, and that song is me calling out to her to see if she is still there, will you be there when I get there? That is quite an emotional song for me, and then I threw in a bush ballad called ‘Jack’ which is about my grandfather who I didn’t know a lot about, but who I heard stories about so I sang about the stories I’d heard about my grandad, Jack. So yeah, it is quite eclectic.
The way you’re talking, I suspect that in your songwriting words are key – is that fair?
Yeah, generally the words come first, which is interesting because when I was writing rock & roll I would get together with the band, and the band would create a riff or a feel, and the lyrics would flow from the feel. I would say to myself what does this make me feel and I would then start writing, but in this genre, I guess I just write poems, stream-of-consciousness, and all sorts of things. Then I sit down with the guitar and wonder what am I going to do with this, and this is where having great producers like Lachlan and Damian is so important because they are often the ones who bring in the melodic feel and help me find something interesting in the song, and obviously, as producers, they create the soundscape that makes the song interesting. Yeah, for me words do start first.
How road-ready are you to tour ‘The Point’ in the UK?
The launch gig for ‘The Point’ is coming up in Melbourne, and we launched it as well at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, and then I’m coming over to Dublin and then I have my first music gig in Belfast on the 27th of February at the Black Box, which I’m really looking forward to because when I was doing rock & roll my two most successful gigs were in Belfast at Mandella Hall. This will be a little bit more modest, haha, but it will be enormous to play there, particularly to an Irish audience who are very much in the wheelhouse for this sort of music. Then I go off on a big Neighbours celebration tour with a doff of my cap to my Neighbours’ background, and then I’m joined by Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes to do a two-week music tour in March April right around the UK. So a very exciting time coming up.
You will have to be careful you don’t take the wrong Alan Fletcher persona to the wrong gig.
That’s interesting because the Neighbours people got in touch with me to say they needed a song to close the show, which one should we use. I told them I’d better write one, haha. I’ve written them a song to finish the show, but it is not americana, that’s for sure.
I have to ask you about Amazon reviving Neighbours only four months after the supposedly final episode was screened. Have you started filming for Amazon yet or is that later in the year, and do you have any titbits for Neighbours fans?
All I can say is if I get the chance to bump into Jeff Bezos I will give him a big hug and a kiss on both cheeks because the last screening of the last episode of Neighbours attracted the biggest TV audience on TV in Australia that night, the UK had a cumulative audience of five million people. This is a show that didn’t deserve to die, it is loved by so many people, and the outpouring of grief from the audience when the cancellation was announced was so huge that I think it was a miracle that Amazon realised it was the right vehicle for them. They are a business company and they said it is going to work for us, and geez, I’m so glad they’ve done it because it means the audience in the UK will be able to see it again, and here in Australia they can see it again in the traditional way on their local television station. All hail to them, it is marvellous, I haven’t got any titbits for you because, I’ll tell you what, I don’t know anything, haha. The secrecy surrounding the new Neighbours is huge, but I’ve talked to the producers and what is really exciting about it is how often do you get the chance for a do-over. They’ve been making the show for thirty-seven years and it has been a huge international success, and now there is the opportunity to see what we can do to make it even better. It is going to be a remarkable time, and I can’t wait to get started on it. The other thing is my character on Neighbours, Dr Karl Kennedy plays music but he is absolute rubbish, and that is always fun to do, to be deliberately bad, haha.
One thing about Amazon is they like to push their product in America, did Neighbours get much traction in America the first time around?
It is an opportunity, and they will be playing Canada. Neighbours has had a bit of a chequered history in America, it has had a few short runs, most notably when Oprah Winfrey’s channel picked it up, but it has always been a scattergun thing. This now means Neighbours will be taken to an international audience at a completely different level, and we are going to rise to that challenge as well. Basically, anyone who can download the Amazon freebie app will get it. We could be in places we haven’t been before, which is saying something because at one point Neighbours was shown in sixty-five countries. So if they can expand on that, it is pretty exciting.
You never know Alan you may get enough of a following to tour America.
I have got my eyes on heading over to Nashville for AmericanaFest in September, which is a five or six day festival in Nashville. I love Nashville but I’ve only visited once, I’ve got some great pals there who are producers of music and everything, so I’ve set my goal to be there this year. My wife plays with me too, she plays keys in the band and sings duets with me which is fantastic. This is a bit cheesy, but one of our favourite shows was Nashville, the soap opera about country music, and we loved the show so much that my biggest ambition is to play The Bluebird Café.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
The first thing I always steer people to is Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes because I think they are the best americana outfit here in Australia. I would steer people to Todd Snider if they are not listening to him because he is exceptionally funny, very witty, and very dry. And the other artist I would steer people towards and really encourage them to hear is an Aussie artist called Melody Moko. She is absolutely fantastic, her new record has just been released and her first record was brilliant, and I actually cover one of her songs in my gigs because I admire her so much. She has a song called ‘Like Hank Would’ and it is a really beautiful break-up song and she is a beautiful singer and writer. Don’t get me too started on what to recommend because I will just start rattling them off, haha, particularly Australian artists. On my Spotify, I’ve curated an Aussie americana playlist, so if people go to my Spotify they can hear a lot of Aussie americana to get a feel for it.
There are quite a few Australians in Nashville.
There are, very much so, in fact, a whole contingent from here always go over to Nashville every year, and many players are living there and working there. I’ve got a buddy of mine who I used to play rock & roll with, Johnny Lucas, who was a fantastic shredder on the guitar, who now has a studio in Nashville and he is writing and producing country music. I can’t wait to catch up with Johnny and it is going to be a real joy for me. It’s funny, here in Australia we have a rock band called Kingswood who are a very prominent rock band and they have created a country version of themselves, they have a bus and they are touring the Australian outback playing country gigs. Everybody loves country music, it is taking over the world, haha.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
The first thing I want to do is thank anybody who loved Neighbours because their love of Neighbours ensured the show came back. It has kept me employed for twenty-eight years and I’ve been very grateful. I hope people will take an interest in my music because it is speaking very much to the truths of who I am as a person, so if they have any interest in me as a person my music is the best way to get a sense of that. Obviously with ‘The Point’ being released, I’d like anybody who is interested to follow me on all the streamers all the obvious things. And more importantly, come and see me because I love meeting people, and I love catching up with people, and I’ve got this string of gigs right around the country. That is my favourite thing in the world, to be able to look people in the eye and sing them a song and say hi afterwards. So I do hope people will come and see me.
I’ve seen Lachlan & the Wildes a couple of times, both at Kirton in Lindsey Lincs. Excellent. I noticed their up coming UK tour and that was when I saw Alan Fletcher was accompanying them. As an unashamed Neighbours fan since 1985 I had to book my tickets immediately. Selby here we come!!!!
I’m glad you a looking forward to the gig, Alan. It should be a celebration of Australian americana at its best.