At 65, Clelia Adams is at the top of her game. Clelia has been involved in the Australian country music scene since 1975, and in a testament to both her career longevity and the embracing nature of the country music industry, Ms Adams continues to kick goals, having most recently achieved a finalist berth in the Southern Stars Australian Independent Country Music Awards for Independent Female Vocalist of the Year.
The much-beloved Clelia sings and performs locally, but how much do we know about this modest superstar of the country circuit?
For a start, she’s Italian.
‘My family migrated in the postwar 1950s from Bonito when I was four, just out of Naples. We came to Australia, grew up in Orange, and pretty much I was a kid of my generation – I listened to radio so I heard pop music; it was the most powerful force in my life even then. I didn’t know I was going to become a singer. In music in those days there was no demarcation of styles; radio played anything that was good – from middle of the road to jazz to rock’n’roll and that affected me to the point that when I was 16 I went to Sydney and got a job at Go Set magazine, which was the pioneer magazine for popular music at the time. I left school at 15 but I picked up what I needed on the job and became a journalist. I ran the office, and from there I was headhunted into WEA marketing, which was Warner Electric Atlantic – the most exciting label in the 1970s as they had all the new music. My job in product and marketing was having to go through all the American releases and decide what we would release – Bonnie Rae, Eagles, Jackson Brown, Aretha, Rolling Stones. There I found my passion for music but I wasn’t a singer yet; I was in marketing!’
Life was pretty exciting for Clelia, who even scored herself an invitation to Mick and Bianca Jagger’s wedding in Europe.
‘I came back to Australia and basically decided I wanted to live around music, and heard that a country music festival had started in Tamworth, so we moved there in 1975 and I had my two children there, and that’s where I started to sing. I realised at about 25 I had an ear for harmony; I was a harmony singer to start with. Over that 25 years I forged a career that was pretty much built on my harmony singing; I was on 90 per cent of what was recorded in every studio in Tamworth over that era!’
While she was singing, Clelia still hadn’t found the confidence to step out on her own.
‘It was the brain tumour that got me to step out. I was 40 and I got a brain tumour. I was starting to get really unwell. I kept presenting to the doctor, and because the symptoms were memory related I would forget what they were! I eventually virtually diagnosed myself. Because I knew I was not getting the blood circulation, I put bricks under my bed to slant it and the next morning I almost fell over from the impact of all that blood rushing to my head. I had a brain scan, and there it was – three years undiagnosed. I was pretty mad, and about that time my marriage started to fail. Thankfully it was benign (the tumour, not the marriage!) – that was my wake-up call, this was my ‘this is your life’, this is what you get. Make the most of it.
That is when I decided I wanted to be a singer – that I wanted to move people in the way the great singers had moved me.’
Clelia not only loves her music, she credits the genre of country for its incredible artist loyalty.
‘It’s an embracing culture. There is something about country that says you have real heart and that you care; once you have fans they are loyal for the rest of your life.
‘At 65 I am finding it amazing. I am like the last woman standing of my generation. I will always sing. Country music has great respect for its elder stateswomen, if you still have a good voice – if you don’t use it you lose it, so I keep fit!
‘I was 50 when I recorded my first album. It was more a statement of progress after the trauma of brain cancer. My voice went, my memory went; it was the pressure of the tumour. It was like a rope. I had to re-learn everything. That is when I fell in love with language, finding the right words; I am now a queen scrabble player! That album was called Fine Company, rhythm and blues and country blues; it wasn’t as mainstream as Bring It was later on. I realised I couldn’t have a career in jazz and blues because there was nowhere to go. I made the decision to move to Mullumbimby in 2000; I had been through here and seen how beautiful it was. In a way it was like you can’t be a prophet in your own town; I had to leave Tamworth to carve my career.’
Mullumbimby was the game changer for Clelia.
‘I started to write here, I never did write in Tamworth. I found it inspiring here; not only were the people my kind of people, they were alternative. I was always different from a lot of people in Tamworth. The musical community here is just to die for. I love working with Stu and Amber for uke night as well as on my own and with Ray and Kathryn for the Mad Mullum Mob. We have a whole diversity of really creative things going on here. Mullum is special. Mullum was the poor cousin of Byron; it now runs rings around Byron for heart – it’s got heart and soul.’
Adams has had music accolades aplenty. Her Wildflowers album took out 2010 Production of the Year for the European Country Music Awards. Each album in fact has produced about six top fives and top tens here and in Europe. Her River Valley Dreaming album (2011) now has the seventh radio single from the album garnering radio play. In 2010 Clelia was inducted into the Hands of Fame in Tamworth, and in 2012 the Axeman’s Wall of Fame!
‘I’m not attached. I have never been one to go for awards. I love making beautiful music. It’s amazing being acknowledged – the other three nominated female artists together are as old as me!’
Clelia will be performing this week with the Mad Mullum Mob at Brunswick Bowlo on Saturday and in full swing at the Murwillumbah Country Roots Festival 2–5 October.
For program and ticket information go to www.mcrfest.com.