With 30 years in the music industry under her belt Gina Jeffreys thought she'd been there, done that and had the lyrics to prove it.
She was wrong.
A 12-year break from touring and recording to raise her son Jackson proved to be life-changing in more ways than one. The emotional rollercoaster resulted in album Beautiful Tangle and a career comeback that has left Jeffreys feeling like the proverbial babe in the woods.
I think we're given what we need in life. Something that knocked me around so much and was so painful actually became a blessing for me. The new songs are a direct result of that.Gina Jeffreys
A lot has changed. Social media is now a "thing". Country music has diversified. And then there is Jeffreys' own personal growth, expressed through intensely personal yet cathartic lyrics she is no longer afraid to share. One thing hasn't changed, though: her love of performing live. It's familiar and comfortable; like pulling on a much-loved and well-worn shoe.
Beautiful Tangle was recorded at The Sound Emporium in Nashville and produced by Jeffreys' husband (and award-winning record producer and musician) Rod McCormack. First single Cash isa love letter of sorts from Jeffreys to Johnny Cash who asked her to open for him on his 1994 Australian tour.
"Mr Johnny Cash. He literally changed my life," Jeffreys tells Weekender from her home on the Central Coast.
"I already had a record deal but I wasn't really doing anything with it - instead, I was singing in a wine bar to three or four people a night and making $60 a week. Then my manager rang me and told me I'd been asked to open for Johnny Cash. Suddenly I was singing to 15,000 people a night. I had an audience, I finished my album and then it all started happening.
"I thanked him at the time for the opportunity but the older I am getting, the more gratitude I feel. I like taking a young performer on the road with me to give them a leg up in the industry because Johnny Cash did that for me."
Jeffreys wrote and recorded an album five years ago and scrapped it. The timing wasn't right; the words weren't right; and Jeffreys herself didn't feel "right". In fact, she was far from it.
"The album had a name, it had songs, I recorded it and promised everyone it was coming, and then I said to Rod 'I'm not feeling it', and he said 'You're kidding me, right?'," she says.
"There were words that were too hard for me to say, let alone share, five years ago. So I scrapped every single song and started from scratch. I didn't have a record deal at the time so we paid for it but it had to be done.
"I think, in hindsight, that I really hadn't been honest enough yet. I feel that I didn't dig deep enough into what happened during that 12 years that really changed me as a human.
"And one of the things that happened to me was losing a baby on my 39th birthday."
Prior to the release of Beautiful Tangle, Jeffreys had never spoken publicly about it.
"It was our IVF baby that had taken us two years to fall pregnant with. It was awful. My whole world came tumbling down, it really really did," she says, her voice wavering.
"What made it even harder was that one of my very best friends got pregnant at the same time. I watched her belly grow. We never spoke about it - it was too awkward - and then I wrote this song for her, Milestones, and it was almost like a letter. She loves it. It was therapy for me.
"We've only just started touring again and women are already coming up to me and saying 'Those are my words. It happened to me too'."
Jackson (or "Jacky, as she calls him), now 17, is her "miracle baby". Jeffreys has "endometriosis and fibroids and anything else you can think of" that makes falling pregnant difficult.
"Look, I have one son and there are songs on the album about him too but it was really hard, losing this baby. It hit me from every direction," she says.
"When you can't get pregnant ... it's such a hard time and I got really depressed and felt really alone. It was tough on us as a couple. I went in search of some way to cure my broken heart; I tried hypnotherapy, counsellors, naturopaths, antidepressants and eventually I thought 'You know what? I don't want to be sad for the rest of my life. I want to be happy'.
"I drove past a church one day and it had a sign out front saying 'happiness is looking at what you already have' and it spoke to me. I had a beautiful boy, a beautiful husband, and I need to start being grateful. This is where the gratitude comes from. It made me discover a whole new side to myself."
Other heart-on-sleeve songs on the album include Gypsy Soul, where Jeffreys sings about feeling torn between wanting to be on the road and wanting to stay at home, and a duet with Lee Kernaghan called He Still Wants to Dance with Her based on the extraordinary love shared by her parents.
During her hiatus, she and Rod established the Gina Jeffreys Workshops to teach and mentor young talent. Several of her students have gone on to sign recording deals, while others have appeared on The Voice and Australia's Got Talent. It has been a learning experience for Jeffreys, too.
"My songwriting has changed completely. Totally. I'm better at it because I am older and I've been teaching songwriting for 10 years at our little school," she says. "When you teach something it makes you understand it better, and you know how to pull it apart and put it back together again."
In addition to teaching, Jeffreys is a patron of the Australian Leukaemia Foundation and quietly founded the charity event Walk Of Life. She may be the first female Australian country artist to have sold platinum albums, and has many an award to her name, but Jeffreys is remarkably down-to-earth and humble. She laughs when talking about social media, likening herself to a member of the Flintstone cartoon family.
"I'm an idiot with some of the things I post. I am so bad at it - you should see me with a selfie stick. It's been such a learning curve and it has been so frustrating to everyone around me, I'm sure, but I'm getting better at it," she says.
"But it feels so wonderful to be back. I took 12 years off to raise a human - basically we wanted to give Jacky a regular childhood where we tucked him into bed every night, went to his footy games and could just be present for him.
"Any person who leaves the workforce for an extended period of time returns to find that everything has changed. The thing that hasn't changed, for me, is the feeling of standing on the stage. I'm enjoying it so much, more than I ever have, and I feel so grateful to be there because I'm older.
"I'm very much living life in the moment."
She pauses for a moment.
"You know what? I think we're given what we need in life. Something that knocked me around so much and was so painful actually became a blessing for me. The new songs are a direct result of that.
"I wouldn't be laughing and happy talking about the album if I'd gone ahead with it five years ago."
Gina Jeffreys launches album Beautiful Tangle at Belmont 16s on Friday, September 13. Tickets are on sale now. She will be supported by Newcastle singer-songwriter Max Jackson who recently released her new single Saturday.
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