Clare Bowen can’t help but crack up laughing while recalling her first Nashville performance because what Zac Brown Band did for her at the time is the stuff of dreams.
It was during CMA Fest 2012, and Bowen had only been in town a few days to start her new job playing Scarlett O’Connor on the popular drama, Nashville. ZBB was headlining an after-party at the Hard Rock Café on Lower Broadway downtown. Since they shared the same management, she was asked if she’d like to join the band onstage.
There was only one problem: the only song she was confident singing lead on was Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
“It was so funny,” Bowen tells CMT.com. “The band asked, ’Do you know a country song to sing?’ And I said, ’Well it’s gotta be something upbeat, and I don’t know too many of those. But do you know ’Johnny B. Goode?’ And the whole band laughed their heads off in the nicest way. They were like, ’Yeah, we know ’Johnny B. Goode.’ And they swung into it.
“I was looking at the microphone that was making my voice so loud, and I’m thinking, ’I didn’t know I could make that noise,’ and all of a sudden I got lost in it. The band was incredible. The whole Hard Rock Cafe was packed and dancing. I thought, ’Dang. I just got people to swing dance.’ It’s like my pathetic superpower. I can make people swing at the drop of the hat.”
Bowen has established herself as one of the most consistent entertainers to come out of the series. Right after the production on Nashville wrapped, she headlined her first tour as a solo act in Germany. Throughout the series, she was a regular on the Nashville package tours that worked the UK and trekked North America annually. She was also a support act for a Sugarland tour and Zac Brown Band’s Southern Ground music festivals.
Since Bowen spent most of her Nashville life playing someone else, it’s time followers get to know the artist she is, and the result is her 11-song eponymous debut produced by Josh Kauffman. Her vocal performance throughout is high and lonesome, exhibiting the angelic tones of a burgeoning Alison Krauss. “Thinking Out Loud” hit-maker, Amy Wadge; “Humble and Kind” songwriter, Lori McKenna; Zac Brown Band hit-maker, Wyatt Durrette; Taylor Swift hit-maker, Nathan Chapman; and guitarist, Buddy Miller, were some of her collaborators.
“I took five-and-a-half years to write because it was done between filming, touring and everything that came with the show Nashville,” she says. “I’ve gotten so much lovely outside encouragement from people. When I came to town, I got to basically learn how to be in a recording studio with people like T Bone Burnett and Buddy [Miller], which was a massive privilege because I got to meet a lot of people through them, and that was huge.
“When I met my husband, Brandon [Robert Young], one of the first things he did for me when we first met; because I became friends with him before we started courting; he said, ’I’ll introduce you to some of the best people in Nashville.’ That’s how I met Justin Halpern, who co-wrote ’Warrior,’ which has become somewhat of an iconic track on the album for people across the world.”
Bowen says “Warrior” is the album’s cornerstone since it started as a tribute to the pediatric patients she connected with in the hospital during her childhood battle with nephroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer that starts in the kidneys.
“I came up in the hospital where most of them didn’t get to grow up,” Bowen says. “I was very lucky that I made it out because my treatment was so severe in depths. That’s the kind of ward I was in: it was the last hope ward, which is why I have such an affinity for St. Jude [Children’s Research Hospital]. I realized through writing the album that I had never really written a song about those people who I was on the ward with, and who were my family. I watched people suffer things and see things that no person should ever have to see happen with their child.
“As we wrote, I started to realize that ’Warrior’ pertains to everybody,” she adds. “We’re all human. Everybody has scars, whether it’s in your mind, your heart, your body, or your soul. I wanted people to know that whatever your scars are, sometimes scars are not things that we can see with our eyes.”
Bowen adds there was no way to foresee Nashville’s impact on her life when she first auditioned for Scarlett. “I knew that Nashville was a really special place, but I didn’t know exactly how special it was and then how special it would become for me. This is where I found my home. It’s where I found the love of my life. It’s where I’ve gotten to tell the first part of my story in song.
“There was sort of a funny moment when I first got here because when I came to America, I sold everything I owned. I bought a one-way ticket to the US on a wing and a prayer knowing that I had to give it everything.
“When they showed the Nashville trailer at the then LP Field, I was standing there onstage, I said hello to Kenny Rogers and his wife, who were on the sidestage, and I was like, ’What have I gotten myself into?’ The trailer was playing the background, and my head is 20-feet-high, which is ridiculous, and the whole place was packed, and all the people were screaming for us. And I’m thinking, ’None of these people know that I have like $18 in my bank account. Do they?’”
In 2012, during CMA Fest in Nashville, Tenn., Clare Bowen stood onstage at what was then known as LP Field (these days, it’s Nissan Stadium) with the rest of the cast of a brand-new television show, Nashville. Bowen, a native Australian, had just arrived in town and was “completely wide-eyed, standing around and having no idea what was going on,” she recalls to The Boot.
“No one could have prepared me for what was going to happen — but they didn’t tell me that we were gonna be standing on this stage in front of more people than I had ever seen in my life!” Bowen continues. “I was like, ‘Don’t these people know that I’ve got 18 dollars in my bank account?'”
In the years that followed, Nashville’s popularity skyrocketed, as did Bowen’s comfort and ease onstage. On the TV drama, she played the shy, talented Scarlett O’Connor, who begins the series as a waitress at the Bluebird Cafe but quickly becomes a singer-songwriter in her own right. Like her former character, Bowen loves music, but hasn’t always pursued it directly, and she’s struggled to believe in herself and her abilities in the past; in fact, Bowen began work on her debut solo album nearly five and a half years before finally releasing the self-titled project on Friday (July 12).
Although growing pains are inevitable with any major career change, Bowen says she never regretted leaving her character behind. “It was definitely a big step to take, but more freeing than anything else,” she explains. “Scarlett had all these things happen to her, especially being treated badly by men and allowing it to happen, and that was always, like, the younger version of me. It was sometimes painful to watch her get mistreated time after time and keep going back to the same person who wasn’t changing and wasn’t willing to.”
The real-life Bowen and the fictional O’Conner have more differences than they do similarities. While the character is a native southerner with the accent to prove it, Bowen hails from New South Wales, Australia (and also has the accent to prove it). Telling her own story — as opposed to O’Conner’s, or some muddy combination of the two — was important to the singer as she crafted Clare Bowen, and she suspects that getting to the marrow of what she had to say is partially why it took so long to complete the record.
That, and the fact that much of its contents were tough to talk about. At age four, Bowen received a devastating diagnosis: She had cancer, and was given two weeks to live. When she set out to write her album, she knew she wanted to include a song about that experience — not only for the sake of telling her story, but also in remembrance of the many children she knew who didn’t survive their illnesses.
“I don’t know anyone else who survived my round of chemotherapy. It was experimental, and very extreme,” Bowen relates. She has a memory of getting into an elevator with her mom one day early in her treatment plan, when her chances of survival seemed very unlikely: “I remember asking my mother, ‘Are there heaters in heaven? Because it’s really cold here.’ I know that was crushing for her, but that was my mindset at the time, because I knew that I was dying,” she recalls.
While she was in the hospital, Bowen made friends with another young girl named Jackie. “To me, she was so grown up and so big and so strong, and she knew everything,” the singer remembers. “She showed me everything about the hospital, where it was fun to go, and that it was okay to be what we were.
“There was a little magazine, called the Chemo Chronicles, for all the kids, and in the back, there was a section [dedicated to saying] ‘Congratulations, you get to go home today,’ and along with that was the condolences section,” Bowen continues. “When I left the hospital, my name was in the congratulations [section], and Jackie’s was in the condolences section.”
The memory of Jackie and all the other children who lost their lives will always been an important part of Bowen’s identity. When she first got the chance to perform as herself — and not as Scarlett — she knew she had to showcase that aspect of her life. That song became “Warrior,” the last track on Clare Bowen.
“It became this anthem, stemming from beautiful, beautiful Jackie, who I think about every day,” Bowen explains. “And all my other friends who didn’t make it out, who I know they’re onstage with me every time I go out there.
It’s kind of hard to talk about,” she admits.
Once she wrote the song, however, Bowen realized that “Warrior” connected with all kinds of people, not just those who shared her experience of going through childhood cancer. “There are so many people out there who feel like what makes them not fit in is written all over them. I want them to know that whether your scars are in your mind, your heart, your body, your soul — they don’t define you. They’re beautiful,” Bowen says. “Battle scars are part of what makes them so precious.
“I think that’s part of my mission with music, too,” she adds, “to reassure people they’re not alone.”
Some well-intentioned people encouraged Bowen to make an album as Scarlett, but ultimately, the singer knew that she and her character had entirely different stories to tell. Nashville — the show, the town and all the people she’s met through and in them both — gave her the confidence to believe in the power of her own story and her own musical inclinations.
Clare Bowen resides more in the Americana realm than Scarlett’s more mainstream brand of singer-songwriter country ever did, and that difference in style can in part be traced back to their wildly different roots. Growing up in Australia, Bowen’s cultural inheritance was a “people’s music,” informed by Australian country and folk.
“I guess the sound of the earth in Australia is such a big thing for me and my family,” she explains. “It would be hard to put a genre on it, but if I had to, it has, like, Celtic, folk, mostly Americana roots, I suppose — but as someone from a different side of the world.”
Even though she’s from the other side of the planet, Bowen still had her first experiences with Nashville early on. As an artist who names Dolly Parton as one of her most important influences, she jumped at the chance to perform the country icon’s “Coat of Many Colors” for the Grand Ole Opry’s Opry Goes Pink Event, aimed at raising breast cancer awareness. When she was onstage, however, Bowen had a sudden flashback.
“I had this mad flash of memory, of sitting at my granddad’s kitchen table when I was really, really little, and Dolly was playing on the wireless. I think it was actually WSM radio,” she recounts. “That was one of those weird, full-circle things. It just knocked me off my feet a little bit.”
Bowen will return to the Opry on Friday to celebrate the release of her debut album. With contributions from artists such as Lori McKenna, Caroline Spence and Bowen’s husband, Brandon Robert Young, Clare Bowen is the product of a supportive community and a story that the artist has long been waiting to tell.
Jim Casey talks with singer/songwriter/actress Clare Bowen and her husband, Brandon Robert Young, about:
releasing her self-titled debut album in the U.S. on July 12
releasing the album in Germany, U.K. and Australia over the last year
starring as Scarlett O’Connor on Nashville for six season
growing up in Australia
speaking with a Southern U.S. accent on Nashville
working and touring with Charles Esten
overcoming cancer as a four-year-old
drawing from childhood experiences for her new album
opening the album with new single, “Let It Rain”
featuring Buddy Miller on new song, “Tide Rolls In”
the tender new song, “All the Beds I’ve Made,” which Clare and Robert co-penned about each other
closing the album with the gut-wrenching ballad, “Warrior”
performing the album live
upcoming acting projects
Brandon Robert Young
Jim Casey, editor-in-chief of NCD
Clare surprised fans on twitter this this tweet:
My debut album is officially out TODAY in the UK & IRELAND!To all other regions across the world, I love you & am working hard to get it to you! So thrilled we get to share the record over the pond right before my 1st UK headline tour!
If you live in the UK or Ireland you can buy your audio CD here. There’s no news as to when the rest of us will be able to buy the cd. Also, if you live in the UK, Ireland, or Australia, be sure to go see her on tour! You can buy tickets now on her official website.