Based in Byron Bay’s forested hinterland, Starboard Cannons is the creation of Ash Bell and Matt Bone. Fundamentally an acoustic duo, Ash and Matt have been writing and performing together since 2009 – Starboard Cannons put songwriting at the helm and back it up with a solid live performance.
The release of their debut album, Somebody’s Opus, through Vitamin Records in August 2012, has put Starboard Cannons on the map. Engineered and co-produced by Jordan Power (Angus Stone, Powderfinger, The Vines), the recording features some of Australia’s finest musicians, including Sara Tindley and Sal Kimber.
Ash Bell also surprised himself, but nobody else, when he took home the 2012 Dolphin Awards gong last Tuesday evening with the Steve Gilpin Memorial Award for Best Male Vocalist for Piano Accordion, the lush fifth track off the band’s debut album Somebody’s Opus.
Echonetdaily tracked down Ash and nagged him with some curly questions after his busy week at the Dolphins and the band’s successful gig at the Mullum Music Festival.
How would you describe your style?
I call it contemporary Australiana. The album is really diverse in terms of the types of songs. There’re slow, sparse ballads, super-fast bluegrass and everything in between. There’s a bit of a Scottish theme, too. It combines rootsy-acoustic settings with neo-traditional instrumentation. Kind of.
How would others describe your style?
I think Kim Cheshire from Country Update magazine nailed it when he described us as sitting ‘… somewhere between the Scottish highlands and the Aussie bush’.
Things have moved pretty quickly for Starboard Cannons?
This is our first album, and we’d only done a handful of shows prior to recording. I suppose the response has been a bit overwhelming because I was expecting we would have to be around for a while before getting much exposure. But the album’s just gone crazy! So far it’s been played on over 80 community radio stations nationwide as well as Triple J. I couldn’t be happier with the response.
When did you start working on the new album?
The songs on the album go back about as far as late 2009. Once we had enough material to be able to leave some songs off, we started the recording process. It was very early January when we first went into the studio and it took about seven days, spread out over about six months. We were working with Jordan Power from 301 in Byron, who is absolutely incredible as an engineer, producer and drinking buddy. We just did things as they felt they were ready to be done. No rushing, but not much re-doing, either. It was a great way to do it, and I reckon you can tell when you listen to the album that we weren’t in any rush.
What is your favourite track from the new album?
I have to say Bowen Station. It is a duet with an amazing local singer/songwriter and a very good friend of mine, Sara Tindley. I have been a fan of hers for a long time and to work together on this song was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Also, we were super-lucky to get Sal Kimber from Victoria to play banjo as well. It’s a really simple song, but it is the one I’m most proud of.
Where is your biggest fanbase?
I have no idea. I know we have a heap of support locally, which is the most important thing for me. Every time we do a show around Byron it gets bigger and bigger, but because of how global everything has become, we are finding our music is being bought by people all over the world. Brazil has been a big one. Also England and Ireland.
What have been some of the highlights over the last 12 months?
Playing a support show for The Beards in Byron to over 400 people was pretty cool. And having Bowen Station come fifth in the national Catapult Song Contest was very validating. But for me, just getting to a place where we have built a great live show with Steve Cook (violin/mandolin) and Jason Caspen (drums/percussion), has been my favourite part of the last year.
Oh, and releasing the album
… and one would expect winning a Dolphin.
Is this the first time you have been nominated for a Dolphin award ?
Yep. This is the first I’ve had anything to do with them. It’s great to be part of something like this and be surrounded by heaps of friends and the community.
How does it feel to win an award for something like this ? Does it make you reassess yourself?
It’s a bit surreal still. I have never considered myself as being much of a singer. I’ve never had a lesson and I have no technique whatsoever. I pretty much just put a tune to the way I speak. To be voted Best Male Vocal in such a large region of so many outstandingly talented people is a bit beyond my comprehension at the moment.
What effect, if any, do you think it will have on you as a performer ?
I think more than anything it has shown me that what I’m doing is fine. You always wonder if your own approach is the right one. This award is more of a sign that I’m on the right track as a vocalist.
What was the competition like?
It was Marshall Okell (Marshall & The Fro) and Roy Wilders (Wild Jester). Both very established artists. Marshall just took out ‘Best Blues & Roots’ artist in the MusicOz awards. It was pretty steep competition.
Did you have an idea you might win?
It was amazing just to be nominated. I absolutely did not expect to win. The best part was that the award was presented by Murray Burns. We recorded the album in his studio, and he has given us a heap of support from the very start. It was an excellent feeling to see Murray and share that with him.
What are you working on now?
We’re just about to release the album internationally, so that is pretty exciting. Also, we’re putting together a couple of fairly comprehensive national tours for next year.
Who are you listening to?
Well I’m listening to Mr Cassidy’s new EP and I was also blown away by so many of the acts I saw at Mullum fest. I went nuts and bought a heap of CDs, so right now on high rotation are Liz Stringer, Joe Pug and local lad Jimmy Dowling. And Suzannah Espie. And The Lucky Wonders…
• Find the Cannons and heaps of other great acts in our Gig Guide