She grew up in the Illawarra but moved to Nashville to make her name in the TV series of the same name. Now Clare Bowen returns home to perform tunes from her new album.
Clare Bowen started working on her debut album more than five years ago – and it’s finally being released later this month.
The reason for the long wait is because a little TV show called Nashville got in the way.
In the US series, which just finished up after six seasons, the former South Coast resident played the role of Scarlett O’Connor – a poet and songwriter who started the show as a waitress and became half of a popular country music duo.
As well as filming the series, Bowen was one of the cast members who went on the road and performed music live on various Nashville tours.
She says it took up “a lot of mental bandwidth” being another person for more than five years, though she doesn’t feel a sense of resentment that the show got in the way of making her self-titled debut.
Rather, it gave her the time to work out just what she wanted to say.
“It took all that time because we were recording it and writing it between shoots and rehearsals and tours and all of the wonderful stuff that came with Nashville,” Bowen says.
“It gave me the time to find my own sound and my own voice. I found that through all the wonderful people I met in Nashville.”
Bowen spent some of her childhood on the South Coast and, while she now lives overseas with husband Brandon Robert Young, her family is still here on the coast.
“I grew up all over the place,” she says.
“Stanwell Park was one of the first beach towns we lived in. We also moved further down the coast and then back and forth from Sydney my whole life.
“Minnamurra’s where we landed. Honestly it’s felt the most like home. The South Coast is my home.”
She went to the University of Wollongong, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Creative Arts in 2006.
She performed onstage in several Illawarra productions but got her first break in 2008 through actor David Field.
He’d spotted her a few years earlier when he was a guest lecturer at UOW and thought she had something. When it came time to cast his directorial debut The Combination, Field tracked her down and gave her the female lead.
Four years later, Bowen landed her big break – the role of Scarlett in Nashville. As a singer and an actor, it was the perfect show for her.
“It’s a dream come true,” she says.
“To be given that platform is such a massive privilege. To get to sing music every day and learn to play instruments, record albums and tour all over the world singing to people is just the greatest thing to get to do.”
She did learn to play both the banjo and piano for the show after she was cast as Scarlett (“they asked, ‘can you play an instrument?’ and I said ‘probably’.”)
But an inability to read music meant her teachers had to adopt an unusual approach to teaching her the songs.
“They would send me videos of their hands and I would copy what they were doing,” she says.
“That’s how I learned. It’s a party trick I have – I’ve always been able to learn something really quickly and then I forget it immediately afterwards.”
Nashville is done and dusted; the last episode aired in the States in July.
While it means she gets to direct her attention to her music for a while, Bowen admits the end of a steady job – and its steady pay cheque – is a little unnerving.
“It’s an interesting feeling. As an actor you live in the unknown and you never really know what’s going to come next.
“You learn to be excited about it rather than terrified by it,” she laughs.
Still, it’s not as though she's had a lot of free time on her hands since filming wrapped up – she’s been so busy she says she hasn’t really had the time to feel sad about the end of the show.
The cast went on a performing tour of the UK and then she peeled off for a run of dates in Germany followed up by a support slot on a US tour with country duo Sugarland.
And now she and husband Young are heading to the UK for their own nine-date tour before heading to Australia for a five shows, with Wollongong the only non-capital city on the list.
She says it’s “kind of wild” that the experience of the Nashville TV series has ultimately led to her returning home to play her own songs.
While an interest in music came slightly ahead of acting, Bowen sees both as different forms of storytelling.
“Those things are so intertwined for me,” she says.
“I love telling stories and music is what happens when words aren’t enough.”
Bowen’s 11-track debut album comes with the flavour of Nashville (the city not the TV show). That’s an influence that came from a time long before she first became Scarlett O’Connor.
“I remember sitting at my granddad’s kitchen table when I was really little listening to Dolly Parton sing Coat of Many Colours,” she says.
“I’ve always loved Dolly, I’ve always loved Elvis and Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.”
She was involved in writing most of the tracks on the album, one of which – a tune called Lullabye – was written when she first arrived in Nashville and still managed to make the final cut.
“A lot of songs don’t survive,” she says.
“You might eat them or you have these life experiences [later] that outweigh what you were thinking at the time but Lullabye stayed true.”
Bowen says the songs on the album “come right from the deepest part of me”. They may come with a part of her, but she’s hoping listeners might find a bit of themselves in amongst those 11 tracks.
Because that’s the nature of a song, it can grow and develop a different meaning for the listener.
“That’s part of being an artist,” Bowen says.
“You hope that people see their own stories in your stories. And music is something that brings people together so beautifully – it’s a universal language.
“It brings me no greater joy to hear people say ‘I hear my story in Warrior’ or maybe giving them words for something they didn’t really know how to voice before.
“One of the pluses of making music for me is because it is such a universal thing. It’s telling stories that move people but also reassuring people that they’re not alone.
“There are so many people out there wandering around with these life experiences and maybe they think they’re the only ones to go through that kind of thing.
“Through sharing music and sharing stories they find a network.”
While she did learn a few instruments for the TV series, Bowen says she limited herself to singing on the debut album.
“It was lot of fun learning all that stuff for the show but on the album I decided to leave the instrument-playing to the professionals,” she says.
“I really don’t think I should be playing the banjo in public.”
Clare Bowen performs at the Wollongong Town Hall on Friday September 29. For more information, visit www.wollongongtownhall.com.au