Many towns can claim themselves as comfy nexuses of country music. There’s Bakersfield, which harbored Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, or Austin, Texas, home to Willie Nelson and Alejandro Escovedo, among many others. But my favorite new capital of the musical c-word is Fremantle, nestled next to Perth in the far west end of Western Australia. That’s where Natalie D-Napoleon first heard alt-country, and it’s where the singer/songwriter-performing at Rocks this Friday with an all-star cast-rediscovered her backbeat muses.
“Fremantle’s a beautiful place,” she told me over the phone from those precise geographical coordinates last week. “It’s a working-class town, a harbor, so the rents are reasonable, and a lot of artists have settled here.” The scene was rich in music, or at least it seemed that way because of its close proximity to Perth (heralded as “the Australian Austin”) and its rich pub scene. One of the few such places left in Australia since pub gambling became legal and slot machines replaced band stages, Perth features a nice combo of beer-drinking music lovers-both “wharfies” from the docks and bohemians from their flavorful garrets. “It was the indie-rock ’90s when I first started hearing alt-country bands from the States. Bands like Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, and the Jayhawks, and that was it.” (It was Ryan Adams who eventually made her pick up guitar and pen with renewed vigor.)
D-Napoleon, who already had a rock career, considers herself a writer first (she’s had success publishing short stories in Australian literary journals), but neo-country gave her a framework for storytelling, though she prefers a bit of ambiguity. “I write these songs, and maybe I have ten ideas going through my head, and then I sing a song three or four different ways and suddenly I get it, I realize why the song makes sense” she laughed. “I also love it when people come and tell me what they think a song is about.”
She comes by her unusual name honestly, by the way. Though born in Fremantle, her parents originally ventured over from Croatia. The family’s legend tells of an ancestor who became the French emperor’s lover (hence, Di Napoleon) when the general was making his way though the Balkans. Natalie grew up hearing her father sing a combo of Croat folk songs and American standards like “Blue Bayou” in a truck on the way to the market. The family had a small farm, and their other legacy was their land. “I spent a lot of time wandering through the bush-I guess you would call it forests.” Her parents weren’t wild about her career plans, but didn’t interfere.
“I really always just loved music, but the funny thing is I didn’t really get into it until after college,” said D-Napoleon. She tried busking in Fremantle before playing clubs: “I never played covers,” she said, laughing. “I wasn’t a good enough musician to play other people’s music, so I played my own.” She started a rock band called Bloom, met a musician named Grant Ferstadt, had her alt-rock conversion experience, and formed Flavor of the Month, which played in both Australia and the United States. “We even played Santa Barbara,” laughed D-Napoleon. The band was befriended by Brett Leigh Dicks, a freelance writer and promoter, who at the time was writing for Revolver and Australia’s version of Rolling Stone.
For better or worse, D-Napoleon’s solo act came a few years after the band broke up. She went home to Fremantle and, for several years, stayed away from her guitar. “Then I just started writing songs again,” she said. She came to visit Dicks (who had since immigrated to Santa Barbara), and planned to perform last summer when Dicks brought Victoria Williams to the Presidio. Though last-minute technical problems prevented the double bill from happening, D-Napoleon went on to befriend Williams and joined her onstage at a club in the high desert oasis of Pioneertown. There she also met Glen Phillips and a number of California players. “That was unbelievable,” she said. In the meantime, back in the country-western fulcrum of Fremantle, D-Napoleon recorded a sampler of her new music, ranging from straight country to harder (more satisfying) rock numbers, which she will play on Thursday, November 8, at Rocks. Though D-Napoleon lists Neko Case, Gillian Welch, and Patti Griffin on her list of people she sounds like, the real resemblance is to another Natalie: Early, 10,000 Maniacs-era Merchant, who drew frequently on natural metaphors, immediately comes to mind.
At Rocks, D-Napoleon will draw a number of her newfound American friends, including the inimitable Victoria Williams, who “doubles” as vocalist and guitarist. But D-Napoleon is equally excited that folk rock legend Kenny Edwards (of Linda Ronstadt and Karla Bonoff fame) will be playing, too. “I just can’t believe it. He was a Stone Poney,” she said in awe. But that’s nothing; he’ll be playing behind D-Napoleon, an alt cowgirl from the west end of the antipodes.
Natalie D-Napoleon will hold a CD launch party for her debut U.S. release, After the Flood, on Thursday, November 8, at Rocks nightclub, 801 State St., at 8 p.m. She’ll share the stage with friends Kenny Edwards, Dan Phillips, Victoria Williams, and Jesse Rhodes.