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Coals to Nashville: Tattletale Saints’ Cy Winstanley and Vanessa McGowan. Photo/Alex de Freitas/Supplied

Expat duo Tattletale Saints reflect on life in the US

Nashville-based Tattletale Saints return for a New Zealand tour with new album Dancing Under the Dogwoods.

Singer-songwriter Cy Winstanley – half of the expat country-folk duo Tattletale Saints with his former partner, vocalist/bassist Vanessa McGowan – has lived in Nashville for more than five years.

Well, mostly.

Recently, he spent three months in Japan as a sideman for Glen Campbell’s daughter, Ashley, then in Australia and around the American South with Nashville-based singer Rachel Baiman, who helped them get established in the city.

McGowan, too, spends time outside of Tattletale Saints and the capital of country music where they are established “side players”.

“People respect us and Vanessa has had some really killer country gigs in the upper level of the scene,” says Winstanley. “She’s definitely entrenched. And I’ve had some good gigs, too. Nashville is the hub we come back to, but the more time you spend on the road, the less attached you get to the place.”

Winstanley, an Apra Silver Scroll nominee for his songwriting, says there are different scenes in the city and “it’s easy to get absorbed into one and ignore the others”.

But, over the years, they’ve created their niches.“You do a gig, play well, have a hang with the players and they learn you’re a good person to have in a band. It’s not schmoozy-schmoozy.

Winstanley and McGowan. Photo/Supplied

“I thought it would be more so, but it’s quite supportive. Everyone realises we’re all in the same boat. You’re not going to gain friends or gigs by being a dick and schmoozing too much.”

Winstanley also notes his girlfriend is a photographer: “Every time I go out, it’s musicians, musicians, musicians. I’ve dated songwriters and side players and it’s nice to have that different domesticity and be with someone who’s not as consumed as I am with the whole game.”

Alongside the side-player work, Tattletale Saints have recorded a new album, Dancing Under the Dogwoods, which was released ahead of their appearance at the Auckland Folk Festival on Auckland Anniversary Weekend at the start of an extensive national tour.

With a similar low-key approach, concise, melodic tunes and wry or personal lyrics as their previous two albums, Dancing Under the Dogwoods also considers the American social climate, which has changed dramatically since they settled there. Mid-album track One and the Same is a melancholy lament: “I used to call you brother … but somewhere all that has come under attack …”

In the country music scene, Winstanley has encountered many from conservative church backgrounds, so certain subjects are off limits: “You can be similar in so many respects, then a conversation comes up that touches on political things and it’s so divisive.”

Elsewhere on the album, Winstanley reflects the style and delivery of a post-Garfunkel solo Paul Simon, notably on the light cajun swing of Bobby Where Did You Learn to Dance? and the sly D.I.N.K. He admits he’d never heard of “double income, no kids” until his sister mentioned it.

“Vanessa is very proudly a Dink and it’s pretty much about her and her boyfriend.”

And she knows that?

“Of course! We were together five or six years; now we’re best buds and very honest. There are no secrets in Tattletale Saints.”

Dancing Under the Dogwoods was recorded with supportive friends at the same Nashville studio as their debut, How Red is the Blood, which won them a Tūī for best folk album at the 2014 New Zealand Music Awards. The new album also features their live favourite, a downbeat version of Abba’s Dancing Queen, which finds the hollowness in the heart of the central figure. The final track, Here At Last, asserts that “the dream we had is in our grasp”.

Winstanley expects to stay in Nashville but will broaden his musical portfolio: “It doesn’t matter how good you are, the winds of change can blow and you still need to have a gig. So, it’s useful to have a good spread.”

In that regard, he recently recorded a charming children’s song, Marley Sitting on a Pumpkin Seed, as Simon Stanley: “It’s what I always get misheard as, anyway, and that’s been a really creative form of writing.”

He’s also thinking of releasing some new material under another misheard name, which will doubtless ensure fart jokes. “Yeah, I’ll take that,” laughs the man who might soon also be Side Wind Stanley.

DANCING UNDER THE DOGWOODS, Tattletale Saints (Old Oak Music), released January 23.

★★★1/2

Tattletale Saints tour nationally from late January through February. See tattletalesaints.com/tourdates for more information.

This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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