Music

Former 'Nashville' Star Clare Bowen Brings Show of Strength, Hope to Debut Album

Photo: Sally Flegg

Portraying promising singer-songwriter Scarlett O'Connor on Nashville, Australian Clare Bowen learned a lot about the Music City … and herself. Bowen tells us about her journey in this extensive interview.

Clare Bowen
Clare Bowen

BMG

12 July 2019

Most of the characters from Nashville left the television show last summer with uplifting, happily-ever-after endings to their storylines, including Scarlett O'Connor, played by Clare Bowen. But for the real-life singer-songwriter-actor, life goes merrily along after the ABC/CMT series, focusing on a group of fictional country music artists, concluded its sudsy six-season run.

As she anticipates her next career milestone, Bowen's long-running show of strength keeps getting stronger. A network spinoff wouldn't stand a chance against Life After Scarlett.

Calling on a landline from her parents' home in New South Wales, Australia, before 9:00 am in early July, the ebullient, easygoing Bowen admitted she has been too busy in the past year to miss her role. The fragile but perky character with a twangy Southern accent, poetic aspirations, and an emotionally troubled past — the best and most dramatic Scarlett since Gone With the Wind — hit numerous speed bumps on her road to glory, but Bowen's true story might be even more intriguing.

After years of playing a country artist on TV, the delightful little wonder from Down Under drops her self-titled debut album in the US on 12 July, then plays an album release show at the Grand Ole Opry that same night, another dream-come-true moment for Bowen.

Angel Wings by Zorro4

(Pixabay License / Pixabay License)

Yet through her Nashville role, Bowen already has enjoyed the highs of singing on hit soundtracks and touring the country and other parts of the world with cast members. There also were performances at the Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, and other major venues in town for concerts and events like CMA Fest, where she remembers thinking in 2012, "They all don't know that I have like $18 in my bank account. (laughs) I was broke."

Now she gets to do it as herself, the remnants of a memorable role left behind but not forgotten. After an extended stay in her homeland, where Bowen visited her family and shot a four-part TV series in Melbourne called Hungry Ghosts with Bryan Brown, it's time to get back to her adopted American home. The animal lover who owned a place up the street from her parents until recently selling that house was eager to reunite with her horses, a "Gentle Giant" of an Irish wolfhound named Faolan and the red 1963 F100 truck she has owned since arriving in Nashville.

"It's funny because this thing happens, and it's a wonderful, wonderful thing," Bowen said. "And I think it's really important to remember where you came from. Because at the same time, standing on the LP Field with all of these people cheering for you (at CMA Fest), it can go away in a second. And I will always be the kid who got picked last for sports because I was the worst athlete out there. I find those humbling moments. Like I love where I came from. I come back to the Minnamurra River; I sleep in my old room. And there's no sense of, like, having made it because I want to be evolving my entire life until I fall off my twig."

Preparing to return to Music City USA on an exhausting overnight flight that was scheduled to depart and arrive on Independence Day, Bowen was already celebrating days before the Fourth, excited about getting to wear a "big, ol' patriotic onesie" on the plane ride to America.

Despite being heard on numerous soundtracks featuring the music from Nashville, the precious Clare Bowen, released more than a year ago by BMG in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Australia makes her a bona fide recording artist. Nine of the 11 tracks she co-wrote, seven of which were with her husband, Brandon Robert Young. Other co-writers included her producer Josh Kaufman, Amy Wadge, Wyatt Durrette, Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna, Caroline Spence, and Stephanie Lambring.

The record, with sparkling doses of gospel, pop, Australian folk, straight-ahead rock 'n' roll (Buddy Miller is featured on the rollicking "Tide Rolls In") and yes, a little bit of country, doesn't fit into any specific category. Bowen laughed when told that anyone who would think she's a country artist just based on the TV show would be mistaken before listening to the album.

"It sounds really funny, kind of like something my grandmother would say," Bowen said, still laughing. "No, I'm not your traditional country artist. I don't know that I fit into that mold. But I did want to give my fans something that they could, I don't know, that they could relate to. It just makes me so happy because it is what music is all about when somebody tells me that they hear their story in my story. I think that everything happens for a reason.

Photo courtesy of Activist Management

"All of the places that I've been or all the things that have happened or all the people that I've met, that's what 'Let It Rain' (her album-opening sound of solace, not the Eric Clapton classic rocker) is all about. They all bring me to the place that I'm personally meant to be. Even with the really, really hard stuff, if I cannot be afraid to talk about it and help somebody who doesn't have the words for what they're going through, or even help them find those words, or even help them forget their troubles for just a minute … that's what really gets me. So whatever genre I seem to have made (laughs) … sometimes you've got to make your own space in the world. But as long as it's helping people and making them feel something and bringing them together, then I'm good, whatever it is."

Settling somewhat for an Americana roots description with a qualifier — "but I'm from Australia," she reiterated, having grown up in Stanwell Park along the South Coast — Bowen seemed to sum it up better by adding, "It's a storyteller's album. It's just me. And I think it's just honest. It's the first installation of my life in music."

With so many fascinating chapters to share beyond what's on the album, Bowen chatted at length about growing up Aussie, seeing Scarlett get put through the wringer in Nashville, finding the love of her life, also in Nashville, and relying on input from game-changers along the way to completing an album that was five and a half years in the making.

Finding 'A Few Guardian Angels'

Saying she never wanted to choose between singing and acting, Bowen thinks she was maybe two years old when "the first song I ever learned was 'The Goodbye Song'" from The White Horse Inn, "and at the same time, the first poem I ever learned was 'The Naming of Cats' by T.S. Eliot."

Bowen credits her progressive parents Tony and Kathleen Bowen for developing her early musical tastes, encouraging her to play their vinyl collection that included everyone from Elvis to Vivaldi, Dolly Parton to Billie Holiday and Johnny Cash to Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.

At the age of four, Bowen believes she bought her first cassette — Paul Simon's Graceland — then graduated to CDs such as No Need to Argue by the Cranberries and the soundtrack to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the 1994 Australian film.

Also as a four-year-old, she started classical training in operetta. Then cancer got in the way of her hopes and dreams.

"When I was diagnosed, I was given about two weeks to live," Bowen said. "My (chemotherapy) treatment was completely experimental. But it nearly killed me outright. … But because they tried all those things on kids like me, now the same cancer has a 97 percent cure rate. … That whole experience made me who I am. And I didn't know any different. So it wasn't like my childhood got taken away from me or anything. It was just different. No better or worse. Just different."

Feeling "incredibly blessed" and thinking "I have a few guardian angels hanging around," Bowen weaved those early years of survival and the role her parents played ("They made a childhood that could have been really scary into one I wouldn't change for the world") into the inspirational "Doors and Corridors". The album's second song was co-written with her husband Brandon and Wadge, a British singer-songwriter who collaborated with Ed Sheeran on his No. 1 single "Thinking Out Loud".

If I could say the words, I couldn't / If I could change a thing, I wouldn't / All of these doors and corridors / They brought me right here

So missing a formal education while spending the next four years in a hospital, the introverted child who didn't relate to healthy schoolkids quenched her thirst for knowledge while learning about dinosaurs and gigantic blue whales during occasional trips to the museum, zoo, and aquarium where her grandfather worked.

"The ability of children to take themselves to whatever place they need to, to get through what they're going through, is definitely a testament to my parents," Bowen said. "I feel so blessed that I get to … I got to grow up. A lot of people didn't get to grow up, but I got to, and I get to tell stories with it and write songs for this album that is so much about my childhood. And I think music is the universal language. And what I want to do with it is bring people together because there's so many people walking around feeling like they don't belong anywhere. … I just want to reassure them that if they don't feel like they belong anywhere else, they belong right here with us. And they're not alone."

Discovering Her Voice … and Accent

By the time she was eight and healthy enough to join the choir, Bowen was also reading and writing, often as an escape. "If I buried myself in my journal, then people would sort of leave me alone," she said. "So I wrote everything. Sometimes I would write from the moment I got up to the moment I went to bed, and my parents let me because they knew it was an outlet for me."

Musical theatre soon followed, perhaps after her teacher, Evana Webb heard Bowen sing "Miss Celie's Blues" from The Color Purple. Bowen was enamored with the film version sung by Tata Vega, whose voice she loved because "it didn't fit in, in the musical theatre, like the what-you're-supposed-to-sound-like world. … It was something completely unusual. And so beautiful. And it sort of gave me confidence to explore what my strange, little voice could do."

Bowen said she was about nine when Webb heard her student sing "Miss Celie's Blues".

"You know, you've got like a little country lilt in your voice," Bowen recalled Webb telling her. "And I went, 'Oh, OK. Thanks.' And completely forgot about it until ending up living in Music City for six years. And now becoming one just, I don't know … life imitating art imitating life."

Before departing Australia, Bowen acted in films (including 2009's The Combination) and TV shows, then landed the leading role in the Australian musical production of Spring Awakening in 2010.

Taking some advice from Cate Blanchett, the Academy Award-winning actress who was the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, Bowen arrived in Los Angeles on a one-way ticket in 2012. By the time she got to Nashville, though, the foreigner with a world of hope and ambition still didn't know how to use a microphone. But she could pull off a mean Southern accent.

It became a favorite pastime put into practice since her childhood days spent watching videos of films like Song of the South and Fried Green Tomatoes that her dad, who worked for Qantas, brought from America. "I couldn't do much when I was in the hospital except watch movies and listen to music," she said.

Photo: Jason Myers

A Southern belle in the making, even armed with an accent in her back pocket, showed up for the Nashville auction still thinking, "Somebody else is gonna get this," because an actor unknown outside Australia wanted to play an aspiring singer from Natchez, Mississippi.

"I thought, 'I'll just have fun with it,' " Bowen said. "So I walked into the room in her accent that stayed the same throughout the whole series. … Her voice was something that I've always been able to do. And I did it, and it worked."

Bowen became one of only five actors to appear in a leading role for all six seasons (124 episodes) of Nashville, according to IMDB. Looking and sounding like an angel on stage or on screen, Clare and Scarlett were one in the same, and she made sure to play her popular character with "a whole lot of empathy. And I really wanted her, no matter what she went through, I wanted her to be kind. … In a drama, sometimes people think that being mean is being strong. And it's not. It's weak. … And the best thing was watching her learn to be kind to herself, and getting to play that. Getting to put into action as she was getting stronger and stronger, she didn't lose her softness. She got a whole lot of battle scars, but she loved every single one of them."

Once Nashville singer-songwriter-musician-producer Buddy Miller showed the actor how to use a microphone, "I did a lot of growing through her, I think, just learning self-appreciation and to believe in myself through her because she had such a terrible time. It was difficult watching her over and over and over again allow men to treat her badly. Or just allowing people to treat her badly. But I used to be like that."

Young at Heart

Like Scarlett O'Connor, Clare Bowen had little luck with relationships. Though the show "put Scarlett through the wringer" emotionally and physically, Bowen's actual experiences included "some pretty scary stuff to the point where even being touched was frightening," and memories of violent moments from her past still caused terrible nightmares.

Then Caitlin Stone, Bowen's day-to-day manager, arranged for the real-life singer to meet Brandon Robert Young before her first major concert, then perform for a crowd of 17,000 at Bridgestone Arena in 2014. That's when, Bowen recalled, "something tapped me on the shoulder and told me not to take my eyes off him".

Bowen needed a duet partner to sing "If I Didn't Know Better", the Civil Wars cover she sang with castmate Sam Palladio on The Music of Nashville's original soundtrack. Forty-eight hours after listening to a download of the song, Young, a Nashville musician who was scheduled to board a bus that night for a John Hiatt tour following a rehearsal, showed up.

"I remember from the moment he walked in, there was something very special about him," Bowen said about meeting Young in her dressing room before the show. "… I just wanted to know him. There was not a romantic feeling in my body because I was so scared about walking out on the Bridgestone stage. I just wanted to be his friend. And so he sat down in front of me and he sang this song that I had been singing for two years already. And no one had really ever sung it to me that way until Brandon Robert Young did. And I thought, 'This guy must be an actor. He's so good.'"

They didn't see each other for three months while he was on tour but stayed in touch with text messages. "When he got back, we started writing together," Bowen said. "We started writing this album together. And I fell in love with him writing a song. As hard as I tried not to fall in love with him, I couldn't help it."

The love story continued to add chapters when Young proposed to Bowen on the Opry stage in December 2015, and they were married on 21 October 2017, at Cedar Hill Refuge, the property where Johnny Cash had a family cabin built in 1979.

While Bowen and Young wrote seven of the album's songs together, one they didn't write — "All the Beds I've Made" — includes both of their voices on the record's lone duet.

"I couldn't have sung that song with anybody else," said Bowen, who decided to turn the number written by Spence and Lambring into a duet and make it a tribute to Young. "And the song, when we heard it, it spoke so deeply to us because it's all about healing and finding trust in somebody. …

"Our romantic careers before we met one another were total disasters," Bowen revealed. "We'd actually given up on finding someone that could love us for just who we were. … So we had decided separately that we would probably be alone for the rest of our lives. And we were OK with that. You know, when you go through enough bad things, you just think, 'Well, I'll learn to love myself first.' And that's what you gotta do in order to love someone else. …

"And it took us a long time to even hold hands (laughs) because we were so nervous about being hurt again. But once you find the one that just gets you and really, really, truly is your best friend, it just changes everything about the way you live life. It's just a happier existence. And he's my everything. He's my whole world."

Homecoming Away From Home

Ahead of some headlining tour dates this summer that will include Young performing on her left and possibly her younger brother Timothy James Bowen on her right, Clare Bowen, now 35, looks forward to adding more vivid performance memories to her life's journal. Already included are three nights of sold-out shows in 2017 at London's Royal Albert Hall. She sang the sprightly, sweet-sounding "Little By Little", another song from the album co-written with Young and Wadge, that honored the victims, survivors and first responders of the attacks at London Bridge and Manchester Arena that year.

Bowen's Music City highlights started with her Grand Ole Opry debut, singing "Fade Into You" and "If I Didn't Know Better" with Palladio during a show at the Ryman on 17 November 2012. Then came her solo debut at the Opry, and the chance to sing "When the Right One Comes Along", also from the original Nashville soundtrack, with Vince Gill in 2013. More Opry shows followed, the most recent during the final season of the TV series, when the Opry hosted a performance with Bowen and the other prominent cast members on 25 March 2018.

"It feels like home when you go in there, you know, the Bluebird, the Ryman, and the Opry, but especially the Opry," Bowen said. "It's got this thing about it. It's hallowed ground. They all are. … I have so much respect for the people who walked on those stages all through the years before I was even in existence. The fabric of country music was woven there."

Now comes the album release show at the Opry ("It's such a lovely, lovely homecoming," Bowen said), and she hopes her "spontaneous" parents will be in the audience when she sings "When the Right One Comes Along" again.

"I get worried about them wearing themselves out. But they have gypsy blood. They're not stopping any time soon," said Bowen, who was surprised when they flew from Australia to see her perform in Dublin.

Singing and acting meshed for the last episode of Nashville that aired on 26 July 2018, its emotional finalé ending with cast and crew coming together onstage at the Ryman for "A Life That's Good," the sentimental send-off solidified when show creator Callie Khouri announced, "That's a wrap."

Photo: Katie Kauss

"It's changed my life so exponentially that it flipped it on its head into now having, being successful in that area," said Bowen, mentioning a long list of mentors and advisers who helped make it happen, including Gill, Buddy and Julie Miller, T Bone Burnett (for "taking me under his wing") and Nashville executive producer Steve Buchanan, the former president of Opry Entertainment Group responsible for sending the cast on concert tours.

Weeks before their last day of filming in April, executive producer Marshall Herskovitz pitched an idea to Bowen.

"So Scarlett is back on tour and she's found her happiness, she went back to singing, she's doing what she was always meant to do. Her dreams have come true," Bowen recalled Herskovitz telling her. "And she just happens to fall madly in love with the guy in her band whose name just happens to be Brandon."

Blink, and you might miss Young's brief appearance as he and Scarlett kiss backstage before the show's swan song is sung in the Mother Church of Country Music, but it's the sentiment that counts more than any incoming residuals. "It was the most beautiful gesture of, like, 'We believe in you and your music.' I don't know, like the full circle-ness of it was crazy," Bowen said. "So Brandon agreed (to appear) and he became Scarlett's forever person."

Now the man who taught her how "to trust again" is Clare's forever person. "To get to experience all of this with him is … I don't know how I could possibly ask for anymore," Bowen said.

Stay tuned. This feel-good story seems destined to get better and better, little by little.

Photo: Jason Myers

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