To give her her full name, Natalie Damjanovich-Napoleon is a self-described torch and twang singer-songwriter and poet from Fremantle in Western Australia and was one of the leading lights in the emergence of the country’s alternative country music scene. Recorded in Santa Barbara three years ago with a single microphone in a historic chapel and featuring Dan Phillips on piano and Doug Pettibone on guitar, pedal steel, and mandolin, You Wanted To Be The Shore But Instead You Were The Sea, her fifth album, was intended to be her swan song before concentrating on her poetry PhD. Fate, however, had other ideas, released in Australia in late 2020 it reached No. 1 on the Australian Independent Record Labels Association 100% Independent Chart in November and is now getting a wider international release with support from the state’s Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.
It opens with ‘Thunder Rumour’ a gathering in power acoustic strum big ballad kiss-off to an estranged partner (“The phone is telling me that you’re coming home/Every time it rings my blood turns cold…You think I’m yours, and you’re mine/Baby, we were never meant for rain or shine/Lock the windows, bolt the door/Our love don’t live here anymore”).
Led by piano and coloured with violin, the melodically catchy, cascading chords ‘How To Break A Spell’ continues the album’s running theme of releasing yourself from broken relationship (“Burnt a lock of my lover’s hair in a bowl of clay”), and self-reinvention (“Every day for a hundred days I changed my name/I stopped looking in the mirror at my face/I wrote down everything I knew to forget it all/I danced naked in my backyard to the crow’s caw…This is how you forget all the stories you tell”).
Again accompanied on piano, ‘Wildflowers’ is a slow waltzing, lyrically poetic song of post-betrayal rebirth (“Don’t bury my body/Don’t burn me to dust/In the field where I lay/Let my blood turn to rust/Wildflowers will grow/Where my shadow lay down”) while ‘The Second Time Around’ is about starting over (“When we got to the airport, Mama asked “Do you know what you’re doing?”/I wish that she’d told me how God laughs when we make plans.
Man will build his towers and one breath will take them down”) where the narrator prepares to give love another go (“Could never have imagined I’d be standing before you today/About to say my wedding vows and start all over again/We are the flowers that grow out of line/Got a second bite of the apple and it’s sweeter this time”).
‘Soft’ is again character narrative, here on a theme of female identity toughened by life as a barrier to vulnerability (“I can pinch a penny, but I can’t save a dime/The kids are never ready for school on time/I try and I try to dress right, but my skirt’s always too high/I always piss you off when I push your hand off my thigh/You wanted a woman who was soft, but you got one that’s hard… I know you’re a good man, my rock, my wounded knee/But I had to watch my dreams circling the drain”) while, also speaking of being soft and hard, ‘No Longer Mine’ is about realising that Mr Right is in fact Mr Wrong (“I thought she was your sister/Until I saw you kiss her”).
Opening with a simple acoustic strum but building in musical and emotional power as it goes, the lyrically heartbreaking country-shaded, pedal steel coloured title track switches tack for a song about the scars left by childhood trauma and parental neglect (“How could I have ever known/The house I lived in was not a home? /When I was a child, I wanted to believe/
You were the shore, but instead you were the sea”), a self-reminder that she’s not the one to carry the blame (“If I was the sun you were the black cloud/The murder of crows, like rain coming down…It wasn’t about me it was about you/You were never there when I needed you/That’s the cold, blue feather of truth/It was not my fault”).
Fuelled by sorrowful violin and fingerpicked guitar, ‘Gasoline & Liquor’ is another finely wrought storysong, here from a male character, about abandonment and escape (“ One came on fast, the other acted slow/Liquor and gasoline/One made me stay, the other helped you go”) veined with longing (“I’ve been sleeping alone so long, still reach out every night to feel your place…I’ve been pumping gas so long so long, I see your face in every car”) and regret (“Heard you’re out in Riverside, with a new guy and our oldest kid/I look at the locket of hair in my wallet, ask God forgiveness for what I did/Pour my whisky down the sink, pray it washes away my sin”).
It’s not all about broken emotional bonds, taking a political path ‘Mother of Exiles’, a reference to the Statue of Liberty, being an acoustic protest number about the world’s refugees looking to find succour at America’s breast but noting “I hope I don’t choke
On the American dream” where “justice is blind” in more ways than one.
Delivering another emotional kick, ‘Reasons’ is about the loss of a child as the narrator asks “Does heaven need another angel?/Does time really heal all pain?/Does everything happen for a reason?”, countering that “Maybe we make the reasons to ease the pain” so that we can find a way to carry on.
Returning to the theme of starting over and reinventing yourself after life and love have kicked you down, ‘Cut Your Hair’ is a folk rock strum that, carried by Knopfleresque guitar, advises “When you want to start again/Shave it off until you’re stripped back like a baby/Shave it off/Get rid of it all” so that “when he passes you on the street/He will never know you once loved him”. It ends, then, with ‘Broken’, a final piano ballad that, drawing on the imagery of the Wat Phra Kaeo temple in Bangkok, constructed from over one million ceramic tiles salvaged from a British shipwreck, and the Twin Towers about putting the pieces back together, overcoming thoughts of self-loathing (“I am not enough/I am broken inside and can’t be loved”) with the mutual support of others (“We are two broken bones, together we will mend as one”) to find the beauty inside (“All the damage that’s been done/Burns up and shines/Like a fireball in the sky”).
D-Napoleon having been compared to iconic New Zealand singer Shona Lain and, to these ears, also fellow Aussie Natalie Imbruglia, moving from loss to rebirth, from despair to hope, it’s a tremendous album and fully deserves to sweep her along on an international tsunami of recognition.
Artist’s website: www.nataliednapoleon.net
‘Broken’ – solo live:
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