Interview: Stephanie Ashworth of Something For Kate

Something for Kate

Something For Kate should be held with the highest regard for what makes the city of Melbourne so great, alongside our coffee, world-class research facilities, and richly diverse communities. The trio was formed in Melbourne in 1994, with singer and lead guitarist, Paul Dempsey; drummer Clint Hyndman, and Julian Carroll on bass guitar. After the release of the band’s 1997 debut album, Elsewhere for 8 Minutes, Carroll left the band after recently getting married and relocating to rural Australia. He was then replaced by Toby Ralph, who wasn’t the best fit for Something For Kate. In 1998, Stephanie Ashworth joined the band after the disbandment of the short-lived indie rock band, Sandpit. Upon early recording sessions with the lineup of Dempsey, Hyndman, and Ashworth, Dempsey remarked, “We’ve just been lucky because we’ve got this really natural chemistry between the three of us… We’ve finally got the right combination of people and we’re collaborating the way a band should.” 

To date, Something For Kate has released seven albums. The first album recorded with Ashworth on bass, Beautiful Sharks (1999) reached the top 10 of the ARIA Albums Chart; as did Echolalia (2001) and Leave Your Soul to Science (2012). The Official Fiction (2003) and Desert Lights (2006) sat pretty atop the ARIA Albums Chart. Their first album in eight years, The Modern Medieval; released last month, debuted at #4 on the Albums Chart. I chatted with Stephanie Ashworth on a surprisingly chilly day in Melbourne last week, and it’s a conversation I won’t soon forget. 

Stephanie Ashworth doesn’t hail from a musical family. At age 10, she was obsessed with Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths, and The Cure. “I think my parents hated them. I think my parents were horrified,” she laughs. “My brother’s friend used to bring over all the latest 7” singles, and they were all these great bands. I used to be that annoying little sister and put my ear up to my brother’s bedroom door and listen to what they were listening to. That’s how I discovered all these bands and then went off on my journey of discovery of alternative and punk music.” Behold, the moment that kickstarted her obsession with music. “Luckily for me, the bass guitar was so prominent in those bands. It was such a big part of a band like The Cure.” Today, you can find Ashworth, Dempsey, and Hyndman enjoying anything by St. Vincent, Phoebe Bridgers’ acclaimed sophomore album, Punisher, and Taylor Swift’s folklore (same). 

“I think that Phoebe is brilliant,” Ashworth continues. “[Her] lyrics are almost reaching from your subconscious, they’re just honest. It’s like, ‘This is what’s happening, and I’m not going to put it through a filter for you.’ I enjoy that about her.” Of course, alongside heart-wrenching, often funny stories, Bridgers is known for her beautiful melodies. As is Father John Misty. Ashworth notes, “I found Father John Misty a few years ago. At first, I was like, ’This is confessional’. But then, after a few listens, I found it intensely humorous and enjoyed it. His style just works for me.” 

As a band, Something For Kate came from grassroots beginnings. They were interviewed by writers of music zines and university papers. More often than not, as bands get bigger and bigger, they stopped working with those outlets and only spoke to big newspapers. “I feel that it’s really sad to forget about where you came from, and having these conversations with new writers is just as important to me as talking to (national daily newspaper) The Age.” Stephanie Ashworth isn’t one to simply forget her humble beginnings.  

The critical acclaim of The Modern Medieval isn’t lost on Ashworth. However, she doesn’t follow what’s said about the band too closely. “[Reading critical reception] kind of does my head in two. I learned that very early on.” Upon asking what it’s been like to release a new album in 2020, she chuckles. “Well, it’s quite a loaded question, isn’t it? It’s not the ideal scenario to release a record. Normally, we would put out a single, do a tour, then another single, and then tour the album.” For all artists, it’s been a supremely limited year that has opened up a new frontier for everyone. “[The album] did get delayed, it was supposed to come out in the middle of the year, but we did ultimately decide to release it in the strange times that we’re in because we felt that people need music during this period.” It isn’t the best timing for the band, but fans are grateful to have something to be excited about.   

My favorite track on the album, “Come Back Before I Come Back To My Senses” is a bombastic rock track with Dempsey’s signature wordy verses; Ashworth on backing vocals, and the band firing on all cylinders. It was also the last song to be written for the record. “To be honest, it was a tricky one,” she says. “We were writing, and we drafted and redrafted. That process continues on ad nauseam for a year, two years.” However, the band kept coming back to it. “We obsess over every detail of the music. So it’s kind of scary for us to take something unfinished into this year… luckily, it finally revealed itself, I suppose, in the studio, right towards the end.” 

Something For Kate is meticulous in everything they do. “Some people might use less polite words,” Ashworth laughs. Maybe that’s how they’ve stayed so good for all these years. On The Modern Medieval, the band worked with an array of new people in a new studio in Byron Bay – Nick DiDia was on board as producer (Aimee Mann, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam), while longtime friend, Bernard Fanning of Powderfinger fame contributed to the excellent “Inside Job,” and newcomer Mia Wray appeared on the blues-inspired “Bluebird”. “[Mia Wray] was somebody that our manager, who also has a record label, has on his label. We were describing to him what kind of voice we needed for that song. We knew it was going to be a sort of duet, you know, it needed another character,” she explains. “Mia was great. She came in and did it in one take. She has an amazing voice. You can hear she has a real depth to her voice, well beyond her years.” 

I first saw Mia Wray live on The Sound, the sole live-music program on Australian television in 2020. Hosted by radio and television presenter, DJ, author and music journalist, Jane Gazzo; with additional radio presenters, co-hosts Zan Rowe and Bridget Hustwaite (from Double J and triple j, respectively), The Sound is broadcast on the ABC. Something For Kate performed on episode 11 of the program last month. The importance of a properly funded, luscious live music program on the national television broadcaster in Australia cannot be understated. Ashworth agrees, “Music on television has just completely diminished in this country. I mean, there used to be all these shows, we used to do so so much television; we used to perform online, there must have been eight different TV shows we would do when we had a new single. And now there’s The Sound.” Australian artists deserve so much more. 

Nowadays, artists in Australia are very lucky if they can perform on breakfast television. “The Sound is such an important thing for musical culture in this country. And there should be more of it,” Ashworth says. “I have to say that Michael Gudinski (founder of Mushroom Records and co-founder of The Frontier Touring Company), who is behind The Sound, is singlehandedly holding up music television in Australia. He’s an incredible force. So, I think that music on television is crucial, and so missed.”

Not one to slow down during a pandemic, Dempsey took it on himself to release Live from Lockdown videos on the Something For Kate YouTube channel throughout the grueling four-month stage 4 lockdown in Victoria. Ashworth sings harmonies with her husband — Ashworth and Dempsey married in 2005. Their son, Miller, was born in May 2011 — on “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths. “It took a pandemic to get me out of my shell,” she laughs. The videos provide a source of comfort. Hayley Mary (The Jezabels) appears in a video, as does Bernard Fanning. “Bernard and Paul doing ‘Under Pressure’ was inspired by the situation people found themselves in, particularly in Victoria. That song speaks to people where they feel like they can’t get out,” she shares. 

The Late Show with Steven Colbert has been Ashworth’s warm blanket in 2020. Her family is from America, and she, Dempsey, and their son have spent years in the United States. “It was nice to watch him on a nightly basis on his show, talking about what Americans are dealing with. On top of a pandemic, dealing with Donald Trump and everything that entails.”  

Ashworth joined Something For Kate because she loves to write songs. “I love that moment when you can feel a song coming together. I live for that buzz you get. It’s like when a photographer takes a photo that they’re happy with… It’s quite hard to explain. The moment when you’re playing with another musician and both of you can feel something happening.” That feeling hasn’t dissipated for any member of the group. “We’re lucky that the three of us are so close as partners, and friends, and that we have an incredible audience who are engaged and invested in new music… they’re actively invested in hearing what the new ideas are.” We all know how rare that is.

The band will never be just another greatest hits band. “It would kill us to have to replicate something we did a long time ago… You wouldn’t tell anyone in any other field to move on and do something else. You wouldn’t tell an actor, ‘You’re not young anymore. Your best days are behind you; you should stop acting.’” Like actors who have been in their chosen careers for decades, Ashworth has learned so much. She’s at the top of her game. “[Telling bands] they should retire is a crazy thing to say. People should make art for as long as they want to make art, for as long as they have something to say.” If The Modern Medieval is anything to go by, it would be a tragedy if Something For Kate fell into the trap of being a legacy act. 

Like Hayley Williams shared in a May Vulture interview, Ashworth has been outspoken about tokenism and internalized sexism within alternative rock circles for years. “I like to think that we are moving in the right direction, this dialogue wasn’t happening 20 years ago whereas now we can talk about it every day,” she says. But, we still have ways to go. “There’s still a lot of [tokenism] going on. I can sense it across all parts of society; when it comes to women and women’s inclusion and exclusion, and the obligatory ‘got to have a female act on the bill.’” Also like Williams, Ashworth began playing in a band as a teenage girl. She was the only woman among 320 men at the Big Day Out festival. 

“That’s not a great feeling. I was asked to do all these articles in magazines about women in rock, women on stage, and I refused to do a lot of those articles because I felt like it was perpetuating the idea of women in music as a novelty act.” She has one last point to make, one that she’s been making for a long time: “It doesn’t matter what your gender is, or what you’re wearing. None of that matters when you’re playing an instrument or writing a song. I think we’ll get to that place, but we have a long way to go.”