LIVE A LITTLE

One need only take a cursory look at Audrey Auld Mezera’s resume to see she’s not your typical singer-songwriter.

First of all, she’s from Tasmania, the small island off the south coast of Australia. Her folks in the rural community raised her in a house filled with animals and books and classical music rather than TV and pop music – neither was allowed – so cross out early exposure to typical pop culture.

Next, Mezera writes and sings roots country music, American style – Texas to be more precise – a far cry from what usually comes from the other side of the world where country music is rarely heard and nothing like INXS, Men At Work or any of those other Aussie bands. Plus, she came a little late to the whole recording thing anyway, having released her first album after she was 30.

Finally, the way Mezera made it to the U.S. is via marrying an American sailor. That’s the kind of story you used to hear about at least 20 years ago, which is about when Mezera met her young fellow. Only they didn’t fall in love then. They didn’t even date, because she was dating his best friend instead. But they stayed in sporadic touch for the next two decades, and when she came here for a short tour in 2003 that’s when the romance began. Seems the former sailor, now a plumber, hosted her around California for a week, and the two fell hard for each other, had a whirlwind romance and married within a month. Again, not so typical.

The good news is that Australia’s loss has been America’s gain, as Mezera – who with guitarist Nina Gerber kicks off the Saturday evening program at the Live Oak Music Festival on June 17 and returns the following afternoon for a workshop stage gig – is a real artist, a gifted singer-songwriter with an obviously unique perspective.

So just how does a girl in Australia get exposed to American roots country in the first place?

“My art teacher in college gave me a tape of really cool stuff,” she says. “Texas artists old and new, like John Prine, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Pasty Cline, Bob Wills and Dwight Yoakam. It really struck a chord with me because I’d never heard country music before.”

Neither had most of her friends, which meant despite her burgeoning interest Mezera had few local resources to help her expand her knowledge.

“My friends were all into Bauhaus and the Psychedelic Furs and all that dark music,” she says. “So I researched it in a really private way. I was like a pioneer on my own.”

Mezera got a bit distracted along the way, moving to Sydney and dabbling in live action film production work, and a six-year stint in animation, while music fell by the wayside. But she returned to the fold in her mid-twenties, moved to the Australian Outback and started writing in earnest amidst the farmhouses and waterholes, terrain that inspired the music she loved. Returning to Sydney, she sang a cappella in a small combo, and wrote and sang on her own. She made it to country music festivals but found the emphasis on Nashville slick anathema to her tastes. But it was at a party celebrating Hank Williams’s birthday that she met her muse, Bill Chambers, a member of the Dead Ringers band (and singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers’s dad).

“He was into traditional hardcore country, Loretta Lynn, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rogers – the real roots of it all. And that’s what I was exploring,” she says. “So when we hooked up, it was like he became a catalyst for me to find my own path as an artist.”

Mezera released her debut CD, supported by Chambers, a short time later, on a label the pair founded, Reckless Records. Three more solo discs have followed, each stronger than the last.

“It’s not retro. I’m not trying to emulate other artists,” Mezera says. “I’m a songwriter first and foremost. For me it’s about the song. Not so much about genre.”

It’s also been about adapting to a new culture here in America, a move that was, to say the least, something she hadn’t been planning at all.

“It was very quick and unexpected, and although I’m over forty now, I felt like I had to start over in some ways,” she says. “But it was very positive too, because American audiences are great. I play American music, really, so I feel very accepted. There’s a degree of respect and belonging that I didn’t feel in Australia, where the media would say I didn’t fit in anywhere. Very few people even knew what roots music was when I got started. And here you actually have venues and clubs that are made for acoustic music. Wow!”

Her adopted home has also provided an entryway into a new outlook on songwriting, Mezera says, one beyond even rearranging her life on short notice.

“This is a very powerful political country, a country at war,” she explains. “There are major energy and global issues involved. It’s a big time in history and I live here now. So it’s made me change my point of view, my perspective – I’m writing less about the state of my own heart and more about what it is to be a human being in this world. With all that’s going on the world recently, really, what is your pain? It better be good. It better matter. Because if you’ve got a house and whole body, then what’s your problem?”

Mezera also credits her recent musical partner Nina Gerber – the veteran guitarist who has supported artists from Kate Wolf to Greg Brown and is familiar to local audiences for her many appearances in town – with helping her shift her views.

“Nina is very conscious of the political power of music,” Mezera explains. “She’s inspired me to find my own political voice. I mean the politics of being a human being and how we all get on, not us versus them, because that mentality is the whole problem.”

Finding Gerber was also a musical godsend for Mezera, who missed her association with Chambers she’d had back home. Nearly everyone she met after moving to Northern California told Mezera she should play with Gerber, and the two finally hooked up at a Nanci Griffith show in Santa Rosa.

“She totally understands the roots of country music, or all music for that matter,” Mezera enthuses. “She interprets a song the way it’s meant to be. She really serves the song instead of spraying herself all over it. I’m lucky to play with her and learn from her because she’s very seasoned. She been in the business a long time and has the right degree of cynicism to make it interesting.”

Mezera’s latest CD, “In the House,” is a double-disc duo with Gerber recorded live last fall in a house concert. It’s a great preview of the Live Oak show, 24 songs with nearly as many tracks of between-song stage patter. Clearly, Mezera is not shy.

“I try to connect with audiences,” she explains. “Some people say songs speak for themselves, but I think audiences want to hear where it comes from and what it means to you. But I don’t think about it too much. It’s just what comes out. Maybe I should try to edit myself a bit because I’ve been known to babble on. But I’m just so darn comfortable up there.”

A Roster As Strong As Oak

The 2006 lineup includes quite a few first-timers at Live Oak – Lone Justice’s power-alt-country singer Maria McKee, bluegrass band The Bills, Senegalese sensation Baaba Maal (a two-timer at UCSB), New Orleans roots rockers The Iguanas, singer-songwriters Paul Thorn and Lucy Kaplansky (both familiar to locals through multiple appearances at SOhO) and, amazingly, Arlo Guthrie, whose daughter, Sarah Lee, played in 2004. Returnees include Zydeco queen Rosie Ledet and Crescent City swamp Indian legends Wild Magnolias. The complete schedule for the June 16-18 event is online at www.liveoakfest.org or call 781-3020.