On 1 April 2019, singer and songwriter Troy Cassar-Daley was finishing up a song with Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss when he took a phone call. His father, who had been depressed and in poor health following a stroke, had taken his own life. The song’s chorus – “watching it all go south” – took on a too-real darker hue.
As 2019 stretched into the pandemic of 2020, Cassar-Daley entered a downward spiral. His long-standing marriage to broadcaster Laurel Edwards, with whom he has two adult children, was suffering. The son of a Bundjalung woman from Grafton in north-eastern New South Wales, he tried to escape back to country, seeking his grandmother’s counsel.
Cassar-Daley’s grandparents are long deceased, but he still talks to them. “I consult with them a lot when I’m sitting by myself on the river where I grew up, and I distinctly felt my grandmother say to me, ‘Your problems aren’t here. I think you know where the problems are; you have to go back,’” he says.
Cassar-Daley is part of the firmament of Australian country music, the winner of 37 Golden Guitar Awards, on top of numerous ARIA and Deadly gongs. On Friday, he released his 13th studio album, The World Today. It’s a classic mid-life crisis record, written as he grappled with the loss of his father and the reckoning in his relationship.
Unable to play live – being constantly on tour had been a sore point in his relationship – Cassar-Daley was finally forced to stop and think. “I started to grow a beard. I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, stop it, just stop. You are destroying everything that you love.”
By his own admission, Cassar-Daley had hardened. The music he was writing was getting harder, too, moving away from country to a rougher-hewn heartland rock. As well as working with Moss, he’d written a single (Shutting Down Our Town) for Jimmy Barnes; another song, Parole, was intended for Cold Chisel.
He ended up keeping it for The World Today. It was about Cassar-Daley’s cousin, who had been inside. Another song, an acoustic jewel called Doin’ Time, had been sent to him earlier by his friend Greg Storer, just after Cassar-Daley had visited the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, where he’d gazed at images of his idol playing at Folsom prison.
The themes of Indigenous incarceration and suicide were cemented when Cassar-Daley took another call from Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, asking him if he’d like to read a couple of lines from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which appears in spoken-word form on the band’s Makarrata Project album from last year.
Cassar-Daley took these lines: “Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for our future.”
Back at home in Brisbane, songs about Cassar-Daley’s family life bubbled out as he tried to reconcile his grief for his father and his marriage. “It became a healing thing to write. I tried to soften how I felt, because I was very stubborn after losing my dad, stubborn towards anyone who tried to give me some reason as to why it happened,” he says.
Suicide has been a recurring tragedy in Cassar-Daley’s life. When he was still a boy, an uncle took his own life after being acquitted on a murder charge. “It was heavy duty. It tore the family apart, destroyed my grandmother. Even though it happened when I was very young, that hangover of sadness was still there. The song I Still Believe is pretty much about him.”
The ripples of that event spread through the family. Some of them found trouble. It wasn’t until long after he’d been out of jail that Cassar-Daley’s cousin, for whom Parole was written, felt free. Keeping clear from the crowd who had helped put him there was the biggest challenge: “Old friends have more power than you think,” as Cassar-Daley sings.
In between writing music in his studio at home, he set about patching up his marriage. From that, more hopeful songs emerged, starting with a peace offering called My Heart Still Burns for You. Being unable to tour helped: “Even though most of the dramas were at home, running out on tour or getting back on country wasn’t going to fix it,” he says.
When progress stalled, he says, “I’d go fishing, and I’d come back, and have another crack and we’d make some ground. And Covid, it had an effect on musicians one way or the other; it didn’t have a middle effect on anyone. It killed a lot of people’s creativity where they fell into a heap and went, what the fuck am I doing with my life, I’ve lost my purpose.
“I went through that for a few days. But a lot of people, their marriages went to shit, or their careers went arse-up – staging people and roadies lost everything they had booked in. So we weren’t alone here, everyone was feeling it. I had to actually almost give myself an uppercut to say, this is not broken as much as you think, it’s not beyond repair.”
Cassar-Daley’s great gift remains his ability to make his own stories resonate. Reading the Uluru Statement on The Makarrata Project, he also has the last words: “We leave base camp and start our trek across this great country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”
“It means a lot to be reading that last paragraph out,” he says. “Come On Down is the song [Midnight Oil] suggested I sing with them, and it was almost custom-made for how I feel. I’ve always said, ‘You’re welcome at my fire anytime.’ I say that to every walk of life, and this song captured that, so I was very proud to have been a part of it.”
First published in the Guardian, 19 March 2021