How ‘She Will Have Her Way’ Captured The Hearts Of Australian Music Lovers

A simple compilation album of covers, 'She Will Have Her Way' wound up becoming a household staple - and a massive commercial success.

she will have her way photo

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There were a handful of albums that never seemed to stray far from the stereo throughout my childhood. Kasey Chambers’ Barricades and Brickwalls was one of them, Paul Kelly’s Songs From The South was another, and about three random ‘Ladies Of Jazz’ compilations that I’ll still put on whenever it rains.

But easily the most popular in our family was She Will Have Her Way, the 2005 compilation album of female artists covering songs from the deep back catalogue of Neil and Tim Finn.

The guestlist was gilded: Clare Bowditch, Missy Higgins, Sarah Blasko, Holly Throsby — artists that were just beginning to assert their dominance over the Australian music landscape, and would do so for years afterwards. On the surface, She Will Have Her Way seemed like classic record label compilation fodder — hammer together some covers of successful artists and watch the copies fly off the shelves. And fly off the shelves they did, but She Will… was more affecting than that.

In the hands and voices of female artists, the Finn brothers’ songs were gifted a new and beautiful power. They were fresh, colourful renderings of songs that had been implanted in the consciousness of music lovers across Australia and New Zealand for decades. For many, the album served as an initial gateway into the Finns’ formidable back catalogue. For many, these versions would outstrip the originals.

Fall At Their Feet

The idea for the album came from John O’Donnell and Craig Hawker, A&R reps working at EMI. O’Donnell was initially inspired by a similar album, The Women At The Well, which featured all-female covers of Paul Kelly songs. He thought the album was a little patchy, but saw the potential in a similar idea being applied to the vast catalogue of the Finns.

“This body of work from the Finn brothers is so incredibly important to Australian and New Zealanders,” O’Donnell, who’s now managing director for the label, told Music Junkee. “These songs mean so much to people, all the clichés about people getting married to these songs, people burying loved ones to these songs, falling in love to these songs — all of those things are really true. So we knew we had something really special in its idea.”

“I just thought that those songs resonated as much with women as they did with men, and to have a female perspective singing songs written by two males…I found fascinating,” O’Donnell adds, regarding the decision to make it an entirely female-drive album. “There were just those simple things that gave us the idea… And as there is now, there were a lot of really impressive female artists that were starting to make their presence known, and Craig and I were really excited by them — we wanted to take it in a direction that gave it a very strong voice.”

O’Donnell had spoken to Neil and Tim and secured their blessing to go ahead, but neither of them wanted to be involved directly. The album was pulled together rapidly — within about a month of O’Donnell chatting to the Finns, he already had about six or seven tracks recorded.

“I’d burned a CD for him and he was gobsmacked that it had moved so quickly,” O’Donnell says. “And then he listened, and he was blown away with how unique and different all of the artists were and the approaches were, and that was really flattering to me and to Craig. He was like ‘Oh my goodness this is moving already’.”

“But it was quite easy, as each artist just had to choose a song or take a song that we’d recommended and record one song, and for so many of the artists they were totally familiar with the Finns’ work and so it wasn’t hard for them to choose a song and record a song.”

Hawker and O’Donnell wanted the big guns to be covered — ‘Fall At Your Feet’, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ — but they were also determined to have some more obscure cuts on the record to showcase the depth and variety of the Finns’ work. They were very selective about the artists they chose, as they wanted a “triple j leaning” record; they went after artists, such as Higgins, Little Birdy and Bowditch, who were already being spun on the station regularly.

A devout Christian, Fraser omitted a line from the bridge, “Like a Christian fearing vengeance from above”. 

Others, like Holly Throsby and Brooke Fraser — who was a massive star in her native New Zealand — were less known in Australia, but ended up delivering two of the standouts on the album, with ‘Not The Girl You Think You Are’ and ‘Distant Sun’ respectively.

Fraser’s ‘Distant Sun’ remains a particular highlight. In the hands of Crowded House, the track sways along in a mid-tempo daze, one of their more forgettable songs. Fraser turned the song into a whip-crack, a bolting horse spurred on by bright and ringing acoustic strums. A devout Christian, Fraser omitted a line from the bridge, “Like a Christian fearing vengeance from above”. 

“I was both humbled to be asked and worried that I’d inadvertently massacre a classic in spite of my good intentions,” Fraser once said of the cover. “‘Distant Sun’ is a great song and the one that immediately captured my interest as I was browsing the Finns’ immense catalogue from a re-recording point of view. It has wonderful mood and fantastic melody.

“Like any Kiwi growing up at any time in the last thirty years, the songs of the Finns contributed to the soundtrack to my childhood. When I listen to these songs now, the kid in me attaches memories to the melodies, while the songwriter in me throws her hands up in the air and wonders why she even bothers trying.”

Won’t Give In

O’Donnell and Hawker knew they had a good album under their belts, but they faced scepticism within EMI as to how well it would actually sell. In planning meetings, O’Donnell insisted the album would go gold — meaning selling over 35,000 copies — and received scoffs from his colleagues in return.

“I remember a couple of people were like ‘That’s crazy’ and they really pushed back,” O’Donnell recalls. “And I said ‘Well I think we can, and we’re going down that path’…the fact that we had naysayers in the company…it gave us an energy to push ahead because of that.”

She Will Have Her Way would go on to sell over 350,000 copies, rendering it platinum numerous times over — extraordinarily successful in the Australian market. It peaked at #3 on the ARIA charts, spending a total of 44 weeks on the rankings.

“The key was that both of the Finns wrote the most remarkable songs, they gave us an embarrassment of riches, and we only just went across the top.”

Even O’Donnell, who was sure of the album’s potential, was surprised by the runaway success. “I was running the company, so I could kind of put my foot down and say ‘We’re getting behind this record’, but it just took off,” he says. “It was in the days before Like A Version being a thing, and triple j really embraced the record — they were playing a lot of the artists that were on the record, that played in our favour.”

Male artists began knocking at O’Donnell’s door, wondering when they were going to get a go at it — and a few years later, He Will Have His Way appeared. Featuring artists such as Boy & Bear, The Living End’s Chris Cheney, Paul Dempsey, and The Sleepy Jackson, it was another strong collection of covers — Boy & Bear’s ‘Fall At Your Feet’ would go on to become one of their most beloved songs, landing at #3 in the Hottest 100. It was another commercially successful exercise, but it didn’t capture quite the same emotion as the original.

They Will Have Their Way, a compilation of both of the records, with some newer covers added, appeared in 2011. The trilogy of albums have sold over 550,000 copies to date. It ended up going on the road with a bunch of artists from the album, raking in over 80,000 ticket sales; recently, it got pressed to vinyl for the first time.

The original still holds a tender place in the heart of Australian music lovers, and O’Donnell, 15 years after its release, is immensely proud of the connection that it made.

“The key was that both of the Finns wrote the most remarkable songs, they gave us an embarrassment of riches, and we only just went across the top,” he says. “I was glad we went with some tracks that were less obvious, and others that were incredibly obvious. We were working with absolute gems, and the artists polished them up in a really unique way.”

Jules LeFevre is the editor of Music Junkee. Follow her on Twitter

Grab They Will Have Their Way here.