Saturday, November 10, 2012

Searching for Singer Songwriters

In fact - it hasn't so much been a search but a flood of live performances and movies.  Over the last month I have been immersed in the work of one singer songwriter after another, have learnt lots about their lives, and how their music reflects their times.  Oh, and I have also been learning to swim.

I'm actually a bit surprised myself when I list out all the shows I've seen (and also by the swimming but that comes later).  Here is what I've been up to:

  • First, Steve Kilbey in a bookshop, as written about earlier.  After this gig I discovered that Steve has a fabulous blog where he features extraordinary existential poetry, moment after moment in his life, colorfully described, and just waiting to be harvested into song.
  • Then Mal Webb, at The Artists Shed, playing at a relatively new venue in nearby Queanbeyan.  The Artists Shed is an eclectic place - in an industrial part of town it combines gallery, small theatre and performance space with the feel of a party in a 60s group house.  Not yet fully discovered, but certainly another venue to add to the growing number of boutique spots emerging in Canberra.
  • This was followed by a fabulous theatrical show featuring Michelangelo and the Tin Star at the Polish Club.
  • Then I saw a show about Woody Guthrie to celebrate the 100 years since his birth, again at The Artists Shed - performed by Shortis and Simpson, a local theatrical duo.
  • Soon after I saw a new movie out about Paul Kelly - Stories of me.
  • And then another movie Charles Bradley:  Soul of America.
  • And this week, Homemade Jam, a local singer songwriter competition, featuring some great talent, all ages - old and young.
  • And lastly another movie - this time about 70s star Rodriguez - Searching for Sugarman - an amazing story of a great American musician who didn't know he'd made it big in South Africa (and Australia).
So what makes a great singer songwriter.  Is it a compulsion?  Is it the incredible ability to observe and recast what is happening to the people around you? Is it a life lived hard with love and passion? From the shows I've seen I've learnt that:
  • if you are a singer songwriter, and you are short of material, the bible provides an endless source (Steve Kilbey, Paul Kelly), 
  • or else try the back catalogue of other great performers (Woody Guthrie, Paul Kelly).
  • don't hesitate to use cliches - they resonate with people.
  • it is never too late to gain recognition (Charles Bradley, Rodriguez).
  • and recognition can come when you least expect it and in unexpected ways (Charles Bradley, Rodriguez)
  • you don't need a big audience to have fun (Mal Webb),
  • if you have a back catalogue, the audience will want to hear the songs they know which means playing them again, and again and again.  You can get away though with just playing part of the song and the chorus(Steve Kilbey, Mal Webb, Shortis/Simpson interpreting Guthrie).
  • you may become an influence to others (Woody Guthrie, oh and probably all of the others)
  • you are unlikely to get rich writing songs, but your songs will be a rich reflection of your times.
  • everybody has to start somewhere (Singer/Songwriter competition)
  • a good singer songwriter has a memorable voice and a feel for music and a soul that shines.  It is always fleeting, but a magical thing when the world connects with them.  And outside these moments, most are humble and surprised at the attention.
I enjoy music, seeing it live, learning about how others have lived musical lives, and listening to the tunes that hold their souls.  Music is both an intimate and a collective thing, and a way to remember we were here.  It is the beat within us all.

As for my own musical journey, I continue to play guitar daily.  I have joined the local guitar society and am rehearsing with the ensemble every fortnight.  There will be a performance in December and hopefully I will be ready.  If I am ready it will have a lot to do with the young school of music student who has been teaching me for the last few months.  She has been great at helping me interpret the sheet music, become better at rhythm and learn to play notes all over the neck.

It is too early to be writing songs, though one day I will (I hope).

And as for the swimming - I am training for novice triathlons and as part of that am learning more about freestyle.  I have always loved water and can swim breast stroke forever but have always struggled with breathing when it comes to freestyle.  It seems the first thing to do is to treat swimming as an art, and to concentrate on floating forward gracefully.  From that with some focus on the arms and the body the swimming comes - and I'm pleased to say doing this has had an effect.  I am swimming laps comfortably.  What a revelation!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Poems float and this one will too, to change in time

Land locked
Looking for oceans
Slowly opening to sunshine
Skin stretched across asanas
Bending, breathing
What a simple joy
To be a voice that is heard by standing still
On earth
In time

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Church and other Canberra Institutions

Last night I went to a gig at a Canberra institution - Smith's Alternative Bookshop - the weirdest, funniest, most entertaining gig I've been to in some time, and terrific value for $25.

Steve Kilbey from the Church also has some claim to being a Canberra institution - having spent his teenage years in Canberra and starting his musical career here.  So it was no surprise really that the show was all hits and memories.  Steve brought with him his memories of high school, buying his first guitar, and the influences of Marc Bolan (T-Rex) and David Bowie.  He'd arrived as an English boy of 10.  Like a European migrant remembers his home country as it was at the time he left, Kilbey's memories of Canberra were fixed in time, in this case the 70s and 80s.  A time when most school leavers drifted into the public service and then measured themselves by the level they rose to (in Steve's case a /2/3).  By all accounts (well all of Steve's anyway) he was a bit of a wild boy then.  And at 58 a wild boy he remains.

This visit to Canberra coincided with some very public ramblings from Steve in which he threatens to leave his band, the one he formed thirty odd years ago.  The trigger, we were told, was the arrival of a cheque for $100.  Most of the band's earnings having been taken over the years as the music industry's cut.  Who can tell why a long standing issue had suddenly boiled over, but three hours of venting on the drive from Sydney to Canberra had led to a sunburnt arm, a raspy voice, and a distracted performance.  We heard a few of the hits (Under the Milky Way, Unguarded Moment) though the musical experience was more impressionist than true to the songs.  Some songs were barely started before Steve interjected with anecdotes - mostly very funny stories about Canberra.  Some songs were started but then stopped when Steve was unhappy with his playing or singing. And just as he was excusing himself and his lost voice, there were some songs he played so intensely he lost himself inside them.

We heard that he is not modest, that he has produced thirty odd albums.  He confessed to not being a good singer or musician. He spoke of AFL football, and politics and debating.  We learnt that he had debated with the ACT team, and that they had been thoroughly beaten by Malcolm Turnbull and the boys from NSW.  We learnt that his family had billeted Malcolm and that his mother thought he would be Prime Minister one day, and that she is still waiting for this.  Steve declared his interest in being the Governor General, or a comedian.

Through all of his stories of growing up and coming of age, I felt I had been taken back to small town Canberra of the seventies.  That you would catch a bus across town to buy a record, and then savour the writings on the record sleeve on the bus ride home. For Steve it was a trip to Manuka to buy a T-Rex album.  I remember  catching the bus to Civic to collect an album I'd won in a radio competition - Deep Purple. Something of the smoke wafting into the bookshop,  reminded me of the Canberra Day Rock concerts that were held in Civic and at the Showgrounds in the mid seventies, and of cider and great live music at Floyds at Woden.  I wonder if Steve watched those gigs, or played there?

There was talk of the possible future gigs in Canberra, probably part of the upcoming centenary.  I hope Steve is able to sort out his issues with the record company, and to stay with The Church so they can play these performances.  It would be great to see him again and to hear the music with the band.  In the meantime I have the CD I bought at the end of show - Garage Sutra - produced only a few years ago.  It has been the perfect gentle backdrop to a rainy day in Canberra today.  You can hear the influences of the seventies British psychedelic rockers on it, and get a feel for Steve's poetic sensibility and fascination with ancient worlds past.  At Smith's bookshop last night his show was perfect - poetry that held many of the moments that have moved us to this time.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Some questions about chords

There are many ideas and ideologies that run in circles.  Apparently opposite ideas can seem very closely related.  In politics the further right you go, the more left the ideas and the further left the more right.  In image, computer geek with long unwashed hair, black t-shirt and ragged jeans is not all that far from rock star.

So what about music?  Are all the available notes arranged only in a linear form?  Is is still a chord if the notes played are from distant octaves?  Is it still harmony if the high note sitting in its office way up on the end of the keyboard is matched with a note that hangs out with its popular mates in the middle?

Picasso deconstructed violins and guitars, and they became boxes of painted steel, stacked upon each other, hard edged and inorganic.  A bit like a jazz tune put together from chords disentangled and resassembled, each somehow dischordant but belonging.

We all live busy lives.  We work, and raise children and pay off mortgages, and in the busyness our voices become silent, our instruments lay still. 

What is most important is not whether there is an audience.  The note is still beautiful when it is played, whether or not it is heard.   The important thing is that the note is sounded.  And if there are other notes that sound with it, there will be chords. And some of these will be beautiful too.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sydney 7 and 8 Jan.  Picasso, amazing, vibrant.  Bought Uke book for Sulawesi trek – daydreams, raindrops, and kings.  Friends, coffee, food.  Walking.  Aboriginal festival – black jazz.  Billabong puppets.