When a delegation from Tamworth visited Nashville in June 2013 to sign the sister-city agreement at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Clare Bowen spoke at the ceremony. But you may be surprised to learn she has never visited Australia’s country music capital. That will change on July 11 when the Australian actress and singer, who has made her name playing a fledgling country music artist in the hit TV series Nashville, plays live at West Tamworth Leagues Club’s Blazes auditorium.
It is the second time Clare has returned to Australia to play a string of concert dates since coming to prominence on the small screen. With her debut album just about ready to drop, and filming almost wrapped up for Nashville’s fifth season, the diminutive star spoke to Fairfax Media over the phone from her home in Nashville. Clare describes the city, known as Music City USA, as the place where she feels she belongs and recalled a memory from her childhood.
“The very first time I heard the Grand Ole Opry, I was sitting in my grandad’s kitchen in Revesby. The Grand Ole Opry, WSM, was on the wireless, and it was Dolly Parton singing Coat of Many Colours live, and I think I must have been about eight. I was really young. It was a weird memory that came back recently. It’s just funny how things come around.”
Since her childhood, her career has taken her from the stage in Sydney, then to Los Angeles, and eventually Nashville.
After completing a Bachelor of Creative Arts degree, Clare was working for the Sydney Theatre Company, where she was encouraged by Cate Blanchett to move to Los Angeles. “I spent a week working with her as the artistic director, and she took me aside backstage, after the first show we did I think, and said have you ever thought about moving to Los Angeles. I said that sounds terrifying, but she said do it anyway.”
After arriving in the states in 2011, Clare spent time couch surfing between homes, as she teed up management and scored her first movie role in the same year. The following year she auditioned for Nashville, a new TV series created by screenwriter Callie Khouri – best known for writing and directing Thelma & Louise.
“It probably sounds like it happened really, really fast, but it didn’t feel like it,” Clare said. “It feels like it was yesterday I was working four service jobs in Australia. (I worked at) three different bars, and a tea shop during the day, as well as auditioning and trying to pay my phone bill.”
It was raining the day the auditions were held for Nashville, as Clare waited for the bus, which didn’t arrive at the usual time. I turned up looking like a drowned rat, really late, but they waited for me, and I read a script and I just loved it. I loved Scarlett.” But immediately, there were doubts.
“I said to myself, this is going to be something that happens to someone much more experienced than me, who is much more well known and incredibly deserving of this wonderful role. But I said to myself, I’ll go in and have fun, meet the cast and directors, and learn something.”
She walked in, speaking with a southern accent, learnt from watching movies her father had brought home when she was a child, such as Steel Magnolias and The Wizard of Oz. “I’d never met a southern person in my life, but I knew my lines and I knew a song, so that was about as prepared as I got.”
Having never had any training on accents, Clare said she had learnt by listening. And having never met a southern American, she said she just hoped she wasn’t offending anybody, as she acted with the southern accent she had learnt as a child. Following the successful audition in 2012, Clare was soon moving to Nashville – the city – to begin filming the series which changed her life. And Nashville has been home ever since.
“I bought a house out here, rescued a bunch of animals and found the love of my life.” She was referring to her long-term boyfriend, singer-songwriter Brandon Robert Young. The pair, who will have two wedding ceremonies this year, one in Australia and one in the US, got engaged in 2015 after Young popped the question during one of Clare’s performances at the Grand Ole Opry. “We go out on the road together and have a whole lot of fun, not a lot of rest, but a whole lot of fun,” she laughed.
Her dream run on Nashville looked like it might have been all over last year when it was dropped by the ABC network after four seasons. It sparked outrage from fans on social media, and Nashville was soon picked up by the country music channel CMT for a fifth season, then in April this year CMT announced the show had been renewed for a sixth season. Over the five years the show has run, there have been guest appearances from a lot of country artists in Nashville, including Zac Brown, who Clare sang with in one episode.
“Reba was so sweet, Vince Gill is like the nicest person on the planet, Steve Buchanan, the executive director of the Opry, he was on the show playing himself. Brad Paisley has been the show, gosh, Kip Moore. We’re just so grateful for their acceptance. The fact that we have all these people wanting to be on the show makes us feel very much accepted.”
Now Clare has recorded her own music, with her debut album full of stories from her own life, and from the lives of people she cares about. That is evident on Love Steps In, her first solo single released earlier this year, which is a tribute to her younger brother, Timothy, who spent all of 2016 fighting end-stage cancer. When writing the songs for the debut album, Clare wrote with other artists, including Timothy and her fiance Brandon. The new release is different from what we see Scarlet O’Connor perform on Nashville, with Clare saying the album is truly her, when asked about the difference between her character’s music and her own.
“We’re different because we’re two different people. It’s funny, because it’s like sharing a body with someone, sometimes it’s Scarlet’s turn to walk around in this thing all day,” she laughed. “I thankfully have far less dramatic life than her. She’s been through a lot.”
That includes breakdowns on stage, breakups with boyfriends, putting up with an abusive mother, who later dies after an operation, donating a kidney to save her uncle’s life. While it might be less dramatic, that’s not to say Clare Bowen has had it all easy in her own life. Years before her brother’s battle with cancer, Clare herself was diagnosed with late stage Nephroblastoma at the age of four.
“I was a kid they brought in who was given two weeks to live, and I’ve outlived four life expectancies,” Clare said. “So even just letting people know that, it’s giving other parents whose children have been given a really dire diagnosis, hopefully a little bit of hope, which is the idea behind Love Steps In. Standing by and watching someone go through this horrible illness, you can feel helpless, but really you have the most important job in the world, as parents and loved ones.”
Clare has been an Australian Cancer Council Youth Ambassador since 2008, then last year she was asked by St Jude’s Children’s Hospital, which is one of the world’s leading childhood cancer research centres, to be a guest keynote speaker, where she told spoke in detail about her battle against cancer, for the first time.
“I feel very lucky to still be alive, and to be living the life I’m living. I’m very grateful. I try to spread the message that anything is possible, because I’m still here and my brother is still here. I feel that there are people out there who maybe need to hear that.”
Her brother Timothy is now in remission, and will be the support act for Bowen’s Australian tour dates.
Getting back to the new album, Bowen said she felt her main mission in music was to tell stories that reassured people they were not alone, which has clearly been influenced by her brother’s battle, and her own battle, with cancer. Will we ever hear Bowen’s original songs on Nashville?
Ultimately that is up to the network, and there is a long list of people involved with the series who have to sign off on the songs that make it to air. But Bowen did say she has had songs that have sparked some interest, despite not having one make it onto screen yet.
“Ultimately they have be super right for the characters,” she said. “But I’ve been focused so much on my own album, (and that is) taking musical precedence at the moment. But they’ve shown interest which is incredibly flattering. “I know Chip’s (Charles Esten) got a song on there, and Jonathan Jackson, and it’s so lovely to see that integration, from the actors. But I’ve been so focused on my own album, that I forgot about trying to write for the show. They’re doing just fine without me,” she laughed.
For 10 months of the year Bowen is busy filming for Nashville, and most of the remaining two months and spent touring with the live Nashville show, which takes the actors across the northern hemisphere during their summer months to perform the songs from the TV series live. Which means she has not had break for about five years now.
“It’s so funny when people say ‘you need to do more shows’, I’m like, I really need to go and lay down.”
In June the tour went to the UK, then after Bowen returns to the USA, they play 10 dates through late July and early August before returning to Nashville to start filming season 6.