Rob Hirst has a new solo album out – released under his own name instead of one of the innumerable musical units that he’s part of.
The Midnight Oil drummer and songwriter celebrates his new songs with an unexpected collaboration with his artist daughter, Gabriella Hirst.
Rob Hirst oozes ‘proud dad’ as he talks about the achievements of the offspring of some of his bandmates.
“We’ve all got very talented sons and daughters now, all very grown up, and my daughter Gabriella is now in Berlin after finishing her courses at COFA in Sydney and the National Art School. She did very well, got a travelling scholarship and went to Berlin.”
Gabriella Hirst’s art is, indeed, striking and beautiful. And perhaps unsurprisingly, her work seems to share her father’s social and environmental concerns.
“She was looking out over a wasteland where she was in north-west Berlin, went for a walk in the afternoon and asked one of the locals why it was so deserted. He told her that until recently there had been a poplar forest full of birds but that despite the protests of locals the little forest that had acted as a buffer between quite an industrial area and the local residences had been levelled to put in a department store or factory.”
“But he also told Ella that he’d gone for a walk on the day they cut the trees down and found 24 birds’ nests. He sent them to Ella and she painted them as part of her Berlin projects in watercolours on silk flags, which the man then attached to bamboo poles and put back where the forest once was as a symbolic gesture to remind people of what was lost. Being ephemeral artworks, she expected them to be souvenired, which they quickly were, but they fly now from the balconies of neighbouring apartments overlooking this area.”
Rob’s album, ‘The Sun Becomes The Sea’, features 24 of his daughter’s bird artworks in the hardcover booklet version of the album, which he had made to protect Gabriella’s artwork but there are a few of them online.
“I was just finishing a bunch of songs that I’d been doing over a couple of years down at Jim’s (Moginie) studio and I thought for the first time that I’d put it out under my own name rather than under the Ghostwriters or whatever. It’s just one of those lovely synchronicities where she was finishing her artwork at the same time and agreed that I could use these beautiful watercolour birds for the sleeve of the book and for the new website which finally links the Oils, the Backsliders, The Break, Angry Tradesmen, Hirst and Greene, Willies Bar and Grill, etc.”
Unusually, Rob made the decision to make all of the songs on the album available online for free.
“I just thought it would be a nice gesture and I had such fun making these songs.”
I point out that a similar ‘nice gesture’ recently backfired somewhat for U2.
“I would never be so presumptuous as to upload these 11 songs on people’s iTunes!” Rob laughs, “It’s available for those that seek it out and like it and there’s the option for people to go to a few of those old-fashioned record stores that still exist, and which we really want to support, and get the hardcover booklet with all of Gabriella’s birds and other information on it.”
The exhibition of Midnight Oil’s incredible place in the Australian music industry was a huge success at the Sydney exhibition hosted by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum and will be hosted by Newcastle Museum early 2015. How does Rob Hirst feel about his life’s work being treated as a museum piece?
“We had so many people come through and they were pleasantly surprised. I think they thought, ‘Oh Rob’s dug out a few old posters and stuck them on the wall with blu-tack’ or something. In fact, we spent about two years working on it; this is me, curator Ross Heathcote, Virginia Buckingham, Wendy Osmond who did the art direction on it.”
“We’ve got a special film which runs an hour and fifteen minutes made by Rob Hambling about the making of ’10 to 1′ with Nick Launay producing back in London all those years ago, and we’ve sourced all this film from 1984 of the band backstage in South Australia at Memorial Drive, and at Main Beach on the Gold Coast. There’s a lot of home movie footage, the Exxon banner from New York City, a full stage set-up of the band with the exact drums, guitars, amps, backdrop, lights and even the PA to be authentic from 1987 to 1989 which we toured on the back of the Diesel and Dust album.”
“There lots of little early recordings that have never been heard, a song we’ve never released before, and the pièce de résistance is a replication in a box which has sticky carpet, three screens when you walk in and a curtain you pull behind you. It has footage of the band playing at the Tanelorn Festival in 1981 and there’s two sets of headphones you can choose from – one is loud, the other is really loud – and you can stick to the carpet. There’s elbows that come out from the side of the box so that you can be elbowed in the ribs. What I was trying to do was replicate what it was like coming to see Midnight Oil back then at the Mawson Hotel, the 16 Footers or the Ambassador or whatever.”
I enquire as to whether the box also has the special scent that some of our more notorious venues had. Rob Hirst assures me it does.
“I’ve poured so much Tooheys New into that carpet, you’ve got no idea, and I’ve ground some lemon chicken and sweet and sour rat or whatever into it. Remember in NSW in those days the liquor laws stated that the pubs had to pretend to provide a meal if they were serving liquor late. No-one would ever touch those meals but they’d be knocked off the bar and into the carpet. So after three months in Manly it’s getting quite fruity in there!”
“It’s funny, one of the last surviving venues down here (Sydney), The Annandale, has just ripped up there carpet. The carpet was legendary. It was despicable. They could have scraped it for a new form of penicillin! But they shouldn’t have thrown it out. I’d have taken a square metre of it and put it in what became known as ‘Rob’s Folly’, but is now known as ‘The Royal Antler Room’ which is the Narrabeen pub that Midnight Oil first started playing all those years ago.”
“The curator, Ross Heathcote, named it ‘Rob’s Folly’ because he was bemused by the idea. He didn’t think I’d ever build it, but over six months with a couple of hard-working, underpaid friends we actually made it. It looks like a giant road case but it’s big enough for two or three people to cram in and get blasted by Midnight Oil at the Tanelorn Festival.”
Rob describes the opening of the Midnight Oil exhibition at the Manly gallery with great affection and it’s obvious that he still finds great joy in every tiny connection that his career has afforded him – from those with names to the ‘unknown’ members of road crews. Indeed for just a moment he sounds a bit misty when reminiscing about the night of the opening and the loyalty of the huge crowds who were not only Midnight Oil fans but turned out in droves to see the exhibition. I gently accuse him of getting mellow and soft in his dotage as he describes this ‘gathering of the tribes’. This quickly turns his thoughts to Newcastle.
“Newcastle will be the same. After all, Newcastle meant so much to the band. We went time and time again until we finally did a huge gig on Redhead Beach. We expected to find maybe a couple of thousand people, but there must have been 25,000 or 30,000 people on the beach. That kind of paid us back for all the hard work. We’d spoken to The Angels and (Cold) Chisel who’d just preceded us a little bit, and they said, ‘If you get places like Newcastle you’ll get the most loyal audiences on earth’, and that’s what happened. And of course a few years later was the earthquake benefit and we were lucky enough to be on that bill as well, and that gig goes down as one of the great shows we’ve ever played.”
Midnight Oil, of course, achieved success with not just a lot of hard work, but what Rob Hirst describes as an ‘anti-plan’.
“We’d heard all these terrible stories of bands that we’d loved that ended much too early, before their time, through no fault of their own. They were brilliant musicians, songwriters, performers, but through management or lousy agency deals or record company stuff-ups they hadn’t fulfilled their potential. So we looked at them and because Pete and I had done law – Pete finished law, I didn’t – but we knew our way around a contract a little bit. So when we signed with an independent label, even though we were being chased by the majors at the time – that made us too anxious, so we signed with an independent label which we called ‘Powderworks’ after the first song on the first album and gradually eased ourselves in.”
“I think that stood us in good stead because we were able to build this very loyal live crowd – initially in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong and then interstate. But because we took it softly, softly, I don’t think we made the horrendous mistakes that some of the other great Australian bands had done.”
I point out the obvious that Midnight Oil weren’t trying to seduce an audience with songs of sex and drugs and rock & roll like every other band, but were insisting we have a look at contemporary Australian issues.
Again, Rob is amused, “Yeah, we were decidedly unsexy and we didn’t take anywhere near enough drugs although I was on ascorbic acid (vitamin C) for about 15 years.”
“Probably two of the most maligned rock managers of the time were Gary Morris who looked after us, and Chris Murphy who looked after INXS, although Gary also looked after INXS initially but then just us once he realised we were more than a handful.”
“Those managers were much feared and not very liked in the industry, but they were fiercely loyal to their bands and Gary not only was a real strong-arm, Rottweiler kind of manager which you need to protect a young band that has big ideas but no money in the bank, but he also threw all these crazy ideas at us all the time. One in every 100 of his crazy ideas was brilliant and we’d actually do it.”
“The best bands seemed to have been the most unlikely bunch of people – and I include their management in that – all thrown together and all providing different talents to an end that make the sum much stronger than the individual.”
“With Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel, for example, the songwriters weren’t the singer. In the case of Chisel it was Don Walker writing for Jimmy (Barnes), and with the Oils it was Jim (Moginie) and myself writing for Pete (Garrett). There were others in the band that were great performers – Pete was this extraordinarily charismatic singer, Jim was a whiz in the studio, Martin (Rotsey) was great with arrangements … and everyone kind of had their place.”
“Back in those days you actually sold albums, they weren’t all pirated or downloaded for free so we could quickly pay back that poor bank manager in Chatswood and get going and make our own career even thought we didn’t play Countdown and we didn’t play the industry game.”
They most certainly didn’t. And I suggest that to a then-young and female Australian music-goer, Midnight Oil could appear a bit intimidating. A bit cranky.
“We were a bloody-minded bunch of bastards back then and, yeah, we were cranky all the time. If you look at photos from that time we look really cranky. A lot of bands want to look cranky but we were actually cranky because we were tired and probably hungry and pissed off about something.”
Yes, I detect Rob Hirst pulling my leg a bit, but only a bit. He admits that if you were anywhere near the front of the stage during a Midnight Oil gig, or The Angels, or Rose Tattoo, Cold Chisel, whatever, you were a member of a fairly tough breed. I assure him I was happy at the back of the room but I suspect the safest place may have been behind the drum kit.
False rumours have just done the rounds that Robert Plant had knocked back $500-$800 million to reform Led Zeppelin. Big numbers. What would it take for Midnight Oil to perform together again?
“Robert Plant. I really admire the man, he keeps reinventing himself. It’s long not been about the money for people like that. But it’s one thing cruising around the pubs and just playing a medley of your greatest hits and a lot of bands fall for that trap. But I think Midnight Oil is among that bunch of bands that would be much too musically curious to have ever done that.”
“If we were ever to get back together, it would almost certainly be with new material and we’d have to feel we were contributing something rather than just some nostalgic act in sparkly jackets doing the clubs. Whether that will happen I have no idea.”
Rob Hirst’s new album, ‘The Sun Becomes The Sea’, is a beautiful personal work recorded in memory of his later mother, Robin, who ended her life a few years ago after decades of living with depression.
In a recent interview Rob pointed out that it’s important we talk about depression, that we acknowledge the importance of mental health in order to help people.
“It’s not just my mum, there are other members of the family who have suffered from it and it is as strong as any other inherited disease. And possibly more lethal because we don’t talk about it and don’t address it.”
Rob and his daughters sang ‘Someone Scared’ at his late mother’s funeral and he suggests that this song was the catalyst for the full album.
It’s a terrible thing to admit, but as a high school work experience kid I spent a week at Powderworks when Midnight Oil’s ‘Bird Noises’ EP was being pressed on to gooey black vinyl. I simply wanted to know how music worked.
I wish I hadn’t been such a good kid and had actually nicked one.
And frankly, I’d have pinched one of Gabriella Hirst’s beautiful silk birds from the poplar forest, too.
Nearly 640,000 Australian children live in a ‘jobless’ family. These children are, on average, up to three years behind their peers in reading and maths by the time they’re 15 years of age. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
HSC completion rates in lower socio-economic backgrounds are still much lower (58%) than for students from higher socio-economic backgrounds (77%).
Lisa O’Brien is the CEO of The Smith Family which runs programs purely directed toward supporting education from early childhood through tertiary study and says that with 1 in 10 children growing up in a house where there is no adult working, it puts enormous pressure on the financial resources in the home and the consequences are far-reaching.
“Today in Australia, 1 in 10 children are growing up in a house where there is no adult working. That puts enormous pressure on the financial resources in the home and there are far-reaching consequences of that.”
“We’re seeing young people growing up in households where there have been multiple generations of unemployment and financial disadvantage, and growing up in a home where there aren’t strong moral models around employment.”
“That’s not through any lack of desire on behalf of the parents it’s just that they haven’t been employed, so the things that are often taken for granted such as seeing someone get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work – kids don’t grow up with that kind of role model or example and so it tends to become a self-perpetuating cycle.”
“It’s partly because of the role-modelling, partly access to resources and also a sense of aspiration, that ‘I’m at school and I’m going to work hard so I can go on to university and get a job’; it’s just not the language in those households.”
“So we are seeing that these communities of long term disadvantage are growing around Australia. That puts a lot of pressure on young people who want to break out of that cycle.”
Over 20 years ago, The Smith Family changed its support model from one of welfare and charitable handouts, food parcels, etc, to one of supporting education.
“Our mission has always been to support kids and families with emergency help when in crisis, but it was recognised that we were just seeing the same families coming back through the door and we weren’t achieving sustainable change, that we weren’t making a difference in the long term to these kids and families. Research told us the key was education.”
“So we refocused all of our operations from passive assistance support to early intervention, focusing on supporting young people with their education. We start that support when they’re young and we will stay with the child all through the journey providing them support with the ultimate aim of them completing school and ideally going on to some further study, but definitely with the aim of transitioning into employment.”
“We recognised that there were others that could provide that sort of immediate emergency help and welfare support, but over time we realised by us giving additional financial support targeted to education that they were able to make a long-term change and they (the families) really valued that this money was quarantined to support their kids with education and wasn’t just getting subsumed in the needs of everyday existence.”
Anne Hampshire is the head of research for The Smith Family and she says even something most of us take for granted – internet access – can be a major problem for many Australian families.
“ABS data shows that lots of children are unable to access the internet at home. Research shows that 1 in 5 children aged between 5 and 14 had no internet access at home over a 12-month period and in some communities it was as high as 1 in 3 children.”
“Why that particularly matters, the major reason children use the internet at home is education-related activity. Yes, they might download movies and music, but the predominant reason they use it is for education, and assumptions are made that everybody has access to the internet.”
In our own region, the principal of Irrawang High School (Raymond Terrace) recently told 1233 that 25% of his students had no internet access at home and are earning about $200 per week less than the state average.
Anne says these figures reflect their own, “Around 40% of our families don’t have an email address.”
Newcastle mother, Lu*, says the support of The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program has taught her children more than the basics.
“When they were younger, they had a reading group where someone would phone them and have the kids read with them over the phone. We’ve learnt to budget and it makes a big difference knowing that the money is going to help our kids learn.”
“I’m not as smart as my children, I only went to Year 10 and then to TAFE, but I didn’t really have much of an education. My kids know that they need an education to get a job, to make a career, to get further in life, to have a good home and survive. They know it’s hard.”
“If we didn’t have this little bit of support, it would be another struggle. People say, ‘Oh, just put $10 aside’. Well, what $10!? I need $10 more! It’s a struggle.”
Lu now has a child at university, another doing his HSC and a little one yet to start school, but it was tough to hear Lu say that she’d actually told her kids not to be like her.
“I always say to them, ‘You don’t want to be uneducated like us and not be able to afford things. Look at us, we’re struggling every day, but with your education you’ll be able to do whatever you want and help others.”
Alex* is Lu’s son and this year completing his HSC. It speaks highly of Lu’s work with The Smith Family to support her children through education that Alex doesn’t consider himself to be ‘disadvantaged’.
“I think disadvantage is when someone doesn’t have access to the same resources as someone else. I don’t think I am too disadvantaged, I have a lot of positives in my life and I know there are plenty of others that don’t have the benefits that I do.”
How does Alex feel about being sponsored?
“It gives me education. There’s quite a range of social groups at school but most of my friends want to go to university. I want to study a social science degree, philosophy, theology, a few things because I like to learn and I’m fascinated these topics.”
Research by The Smith Family shows that completely Year 12 ‘increases a young person’s likelihood of continuing with further study, as well as entering the workforce.’
It also leads to higher annual earnings for individuals, greater community involvement and economic benefits for the country as a whole.
But not completing Year 12 can lead to:
Increased crime and poorer health outcomes among early school leavers
Nationally lower levels of productivity
Reduced quality of the labour force
Lower growth in income tax collections
Indeed, the Victorian Auditor-General’s Report, November 2012, said:
Education attainment is an important predictor of future employment, welfare and health prospects – and it improves [a person’s] ability to contribute socially and economically in the community.
Lisa O’Brien says that helping children obtain an education is good for all of us.
“There are some kids and families in Australia who are doing it really tough, but with the right support at the right time they can turn their lives around. That’s in everyone’s interest. If we have young people who are well-educated and focused on completing school and going on to employment, we’ll all prosper. It’s a great investment.”
Don Walker is a notoriously private man. He just does not talk about the personal stuff. But he does talk about himself, about music and words and prose and work and Chisel and just about anything else you choose to throw at him.
He speaks slowly, deliberately, and laughs with a quiet, low rumble. Don Walker is also very dry and very funny.
Once a scientist who worked on Australia’s F111 program, Don says he worked for a little while with “whatever modest skills I acquired in aerodynamic engineering. I can’t say I was very good at it.”
Words matter to Don Walker and it’s obvious that language is a great love for the man who has written some of Australia’s most iconic rock songs, “I think my love of words, language and humour – which is very much part of it – comes not so much from reading but from listening to regional speech in Australia, listening to the way people talk.”
“I love the enormously intelligent use of language that you get in regional and grass roots Australia. I like to laugh and Aussies say stuff that makes me laugh all the time. I try and write in a way that’s close to conversation, and the conversation that I know is the way that I talk, and the people around me whose company I enjoy, talk.”
Don Walker grew up in Grafton on the north coast of NSW and says there was little choice in radio listening, “Where I grew up there used to be two stations. 2NR was the ABC station on the north coast, and the local commercial station was 2GF. So 2GF was where you went for music; they didn’t play any music on the ABC except for classical programs, so the music that was played on the local commercial station was the music we heard.”
“It was a peculiar kind of faux-country music; a lot of American stuff, but some Australian stuff, and in that curious period between Elvis and The Beatles. Elvis hit and then it all went quiet when he joined the army, but The Beatles hadn’t happened yet, so there was a fallow period there where all sorts of wild and wonderful but now-forgotten things happened in music.”
“Last year, a mate of mine who grew up in the Wheatfields in WA told me he’d seen a movie called ‘The Tree of Man’ which I haven’t seen but apparently it’s the greatest movie of the last 10 years or so. In this movie he was shocked into that period of 1960 listening to commercial radio. He and a friend who worked in a record shop gathered three CDs of what was on the radio in that period and gave them to me. It’s a real shock to listen to them because these are not songs that are widely played since, so to listen to three CDs of them now plunges me straight back to sitting on a verandah on a farm when I was 10 years old. It’s wonderful stuff. ‘Big Bad John’, quite a bit of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline.”
‘Big Bad John’ is one of my own musical memories so I suggest to Don that I could probably sing him all the words of it and throw in a bunch of bad trucking songs about the ghosts of little girls to boot.
“That’s right!” laughs Don, “Six days on the road and I’m gonna see my baby tonight’, or ‘Wolverton Mountain’, or ‘From A Jack to a King’, all that kind of stuff!”
Our memories are strongly driven by sounds and smells and I suspect that as we get older, the guilty pleasures we have in music from years ago and may not have admitted to previously, are now songs that we love and will play loud in the car with the windows down, perhaps to the horror of our kids.
Don Walker is one of Australia’s most esteemed songwriters so of course I had to take the opportunity to try to get him to confess his musical sins to me.
“There’s plenty of stuff that I can go back to and I’d only admit between you and I that at a certain stage I was very passionate about ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’. It is interesting to go back and listen to stuff now and see if it sounds as good as I thought it did at the time. ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’ now sounds appalling! If you put on ‘Bitches Brew’ (Miles Davis) now, it sounds pretty good. So, there are examples like that, ‘bad fashion’ things that you do in any era.”
“I’m sure among the stuff I’m listening to and liking now there’s some pretty horrible stuff. You’re going to ask me what?”
Yes. But Don isn’t telling.
I share with Don that I had recently played The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ in the car for my kids to listen to because I think it’s one of those things that pre-dates my own record collection but still sounds wonderful. Indeed, ‘Pet Sounds’ was released in the year of my birth. So even if the lyrics are a bit cheesy, if something was beautifully recorded and produced does it redeem it somewhat for him?
“Well, you can’t dismiss something just because it has cheesy lyrics, any more than you can dismiss something because it has cheesy music. Often in those combinations there’s treasure.”
“But The Beach Boys, I never got it, or I never bothered. I think because when I was young, nobody in the banc could actually play – nobody could do a solo – and when I was 20 or 25 that was important. But I’ve been doing a lot of long car trips over the last few years and a couple of years ago I bought a ‘best of The Beach Boys’ and listened to it and started to wake up as to why so many of my musical friends are fanatical Beach Boys fans. Not so much musicians, but people in the music business, radio people and music journalists. I started to get it, to realise that this wasn’t just another pop group, there’s actually something unique and extraordinary that’s happened here and everyone else is just imitators. I kinda knew that, but I never got it myself. Now I do.”
Don Walker is perhaps best known as Cold Chisel’s main songwriter and through that band gave Australian rock music fans a new voice. With 40 years of songwriting under his belt, does the legacy of songs like Khe Sanh – released in 1978 – weigh on him?
“Well, it’s nice! There’s a good living in that kind of thing. But once songs like that go out and are adopted by people as part of that canon of what they like to listen to, then it becomes a little bit remote to me.”
“The last five years or so, occasionally, I’ve done Khe Sanh myself with just piano, but that sounds utterly different so I can kind of own that again. It becomes a story with some chords, but it doesn’t sound remotely like Jim (Barnes) and Cold Chisel on the radio because I can’t sing like that. I’m very proud of it. We were a bunch of young guys and we did some good stuff. It’s good that people like that and it holds up decades later, but it’s a little bit remote from my daily life.”
“I didn’t sing Khe Sanh originally. I just wrote it and showed it to the other guys in the band. Jim’s been singing it as an integral part of what he does live, but not me. Neither are any other Cold Chisel songs. It’s just in the last few years I started doing this other piano version of it. I wasn’t avoiding it in all that time, it’s just that it’s not something that sounds like what I do, and it’s not the way that I sound when I sing.”
“With such a song that’s as widely loved as that, if I get up and sing it somebody might yell out, ‘That’s not how it goes!’ he laughs, “The other thing is it’s gotta a lot of words and everybody else knows them better than I do so what if you get half way through and you get stuck?!”
In 2009, Don released his book ‘Shots’ – a collection of short autobiographical pieces. Reading ‘Shots’ reminded me of the way Leonard Cohen uses words, but Leonard Cohen makes me wonder just which words are lies.
“I don’t think songwriters lie, but they certainly make stuff up. Is that lying? It’s an essential part of songwriting.”
“Many years ago I was listening to someone do an interview with Paul Kelly, and they were digging in way beyond, ‘What comes first, mate, the lyrics or the music?’, they were digging in to just what happens and how do you come up with lyrics,”
“Paul said, ‘I make stuff up.’ I burst out laughing, I thought that was brilliant. Of course, you make stuff up. Is that lying? Yes, definitely. Sometimes it can tip over if you pretend it’s the truth. So if me or Laughing Lenny write something that is not fiction but purporting to be a factual account, but that tips over into something that didn’t actually happen, well … you’re on the edge.”
Where does Don Walker place the Canadian wordsmith, Leonard Cohen?
“The big attraction for Leonard Cohen, and like The Beach Boys I’ve become a Leonard Cohen fan late in life – never took much notice of him before the last five or ten years but the big attraction is his humour. I don’t think anything has got much legs if it hasn’t got humour. You can look around and look at all the recording artists in history and divide the ones who have humour from the ones who don’t. And that’s a pretty profound thing, that really sorts them out, and Leonard Cohen is one of the funniest people out there, and one of the driest in his lyrics. And that’s why now, late in life, I buy every Leonard Cohen album.”
Jimmy Barnes, of course, has deflected a lot of the heat of Cold Chisel’s success from the rest of the band, but after Chisel disbanded Don Walker has put himself up front.
“It’s never all about me, even when you’re up there in front of a band. It’s about the songs and the story. You’re trying to put that over and connect. You’re trying to whisper in the ear of everybody who’s listening, whether you’ve recorded something that’s being played on the radio or if you’re playing a big show and there’s thousands of people there. It’s just one person trying to communicate to one other, and in some situations there’s a lot of ‘one other’. It’s not about ‘you’, the person standing up there.”
“The fascist thing about it is that people can’t talk back,” laughs Don, “And for people in our position, the beautiful thing.”
I find it interesting to think about how songwriters see their own work given how precious it can sometimes become to others. To fans. To listeners. We listen, we love, we lose. We perhaps get married to the words in these songs. Live our lives through them. Die. We carry them with us and consider which of them we’d rescue from our burning house or take to a desert island. But how does the songwriter, the storyteller, see them?
Don chips me about just wanting to ask what his favourite song is, but I think it’s more complex than that and he concedes it’s difficult to answer.
“There’s a lot of stuff over the decades and I don’t think of them as valuable or otherwise. Although there’s a few things I’ve written that I would regard as ‘value-less’, but I’m not going name them. I admire people who use their songs to help people – that has value – but the songs I value most often have no correlation between how good a song is in my eyes and how well-known it is or how much money it’s made or anything like that. It’s not an inverse correlation either.”
“Probably one of the most – in my heart – beautiful songs I’ve ever written I wrote about 15 years ago – at the turn of the century! When I wrote it I thought, ‘This is going to be massive all over the world because it’s such a beautiful song’, and I wrote it about a personal situation but it was universal, it had what I thought was a beautiful melody, it was simple, and it had everything that I thought was good about songcraft. And yet, everybody who heard it in the publishing world acknowledged how good it was but I couldn’t get it recorded.”
“So that’s what I’d call one of the top five songs that I’m proud of and yet nobody knew about it for 13 years.”
“But Missy Higgins has just recorded it and done a stunning version of it (The Way You Are Tonight) and now people are hearing it. In the meantime, there’s a lot of other songs I’ve written that are enormously popular and have been all over the airwaves that I didn’t think were nearly as good.”
Don Walker is a storyteller, but are there stories he hasn’t been able to get out yet?
“Yes, yes there are. There are things like that that have hung around in the back of my head for a long time, but they’re difficult to describe because describing them will be in the song or in the prose writing and I haven’t figured out a way of doing that yet. Where they live now is in pictures and movies and landscapes and feelings and maybe a few scraps of words.”
How does he know when the song is done. When the words are finished. When to stop and leave it alone.
“You just know. It’s like a big bell goes off. ‘This is right now.’ And it’s something that is the same with a piece of prose writing. I can’t explain that but I utterly know when something’s right. At the same time, the reverse side of that is that you utterly know when something is not right. But knowing it’s not right doesn’t mean that you know how to get to where the bell goes off. I’ve put things out without waiting for the bell to go off, when they’re not quite right but good enough.”
Will he tell me what they are?
“No. But there’s an internal thing that defies all logic. Surely, all of these things are subjective. What is right to one person is not right to another, but there is something in me – and I know it exists in others – where it’s not a subjective thing, there’s an utter certainty when something is right. And a nagging, cold dissatisfaction and itch when it’s not.”
Meanwhile, after a 40-year career in the music industry, Don Walker is still touring larger shows with a full band, and smaller intimate shows to just a few dozen people.
“The beauty of doing things like that is to deliberately put myself in a situation where I didn’t know if I could pull it off and I had to do some work. I had to do a lot of preparation and figure out a lot of things I hadn’t had to figure out before to make a show of that length work with just me and the piano.”
I suggest that to do so is gutsy.
“It’s not so much the size of the audience. It doesn’t really matter. It’s what’s going on onstage. In that situation I have no band and nothing to hide behind. So I have to make it work with those few tools. That’s confronting. I did a night in Nundle and it worked. The night I did in Mayfield, the first set didn’t work. I just couldn’t make it work. The second set worked and everybody got it and we all had a good time.”
“I’m hoping that they didn’t feel like it was a waste of their time. That they’re thinking, ‘That was a worthwhile thing to do’. That’s what I’m wishing and hoping for. People’s time and attention is valuable and if you’re going to use it up you’ve got to do something worthwhile, make it work, and try and figure out a way of transporting them into the stories. Sometimes you don’t manage that and if you don’t manage that, well that’s a failure and instead of transporting them somewhere, you’ve seat-belted them into a dark little room for an hour when they could have been enjoying themselves.”
When all is said and done, what does Don Walker feel he’s gotten right?
“The things that I’ve done right have nothing to do with music because they’re far more fundamental things than that, and they’re not public things. There haven’t been many of them and there’s a lot of things I’ve done wrong. But they’re the things in the end.”
“While I’ve been doing this interview, I’ve got a call from my daughter. It’s in that world where you really succeed or fail. If there’s a couple of things I like myself for, it’s in that world.”
And with that, I encourage Don Walker to go and call his daughter.
After a recent visit to Newcastle’s Mosque I was invited to take my family to the Newcastle Eid al-Adha celebrations. I took the opportunity to try and bust a few myths about being a Muslim woman by asking a group of them to tell their own stories over vast quantities of cakes and sweets.
Diana Rah is the vice-president of the Newcastle Muslim Association and I joined her along with a small circle of Muslim women as she explained the celebrations underway at the University of Newcastle.
“We have two Eids each year; one is Eid al-Fitr and that’s the celebration at the end of the fasting month of Ramandan, and we have this second celebration which is Eid al-Adha, this is a time that Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage, the pilgrimage to Mecca.”
“As Muslims, and you can see that we’re from so many different cultural backgrounds, our God is the God of all and we send, on this day especially, our best wishes to everyone from every race culture and religion.”
The group of women gathered to chat on this warm Saturday look like a tiny United Nations. Diana points out that there are 28 countries represented among the families busy with barbeques, conversations and children swarming over the jumping castle.
This small group of women, amongst other things, includes a dentist, a science student and a fitness instructor.
There are many questions I want to ask them, but firstly I want to know how they feel in the Newcastle community, given the broad discussion of all things Muslim at the moment – and not much of it positive.
Despeana has lived in the Hunter all of her life, and is not a Muslim by birth, or marriage.
“Newcastle has always been a lovely place to live in, I’ve noticed that some of the sisters have mentioned to me that they’re a little bit concerned about stepping out on their own.”
“I came into Islam as a choice, prior to finding out about Islam in 2002 I had no idea who Muslims were. I became involved with the Muslim community and discovered what beautiful people they are and I became one of them because of the love I felt here.”
“I don’t see what all the hype is about, I don’t understand it, but now we, and me myself are in a position that we feel threatened.”
Avelina doesn’t actually wear a veil, “I don’t normally wear a veil, my husband would like me to I’m sure but he’s happy with me to not wear a veil. It’s up to me 100 percent and he supports that decision.”
Avelina says when she has worn hijab in public she has always felt safe and hasn’t experienced any problems, but she does say she notices how people behave when she is out in public with her mother-in-law who does wear hijab, “When I walk with my mother-in-law who wears a hijab I often see people – she doesn’t notice, I notice – if anyone was to approach I would definitely say something.”
“I think people just need to realise it’s (hijab) part of who we are and whether we wear it or not it doesn’t make us any different.”
Avelina is a fitness instructor who works in women’s gyms and with children in schools and relates what is probably a common experience.
“I was actually in the gym doing my own workout and waiting for the class to start when the lady next to me commented on the stories in the news, “It’s terrible what’s happening with these terrorists around our country,” she said. I asked what she meant and she said, “These Muslims, they’re taking over and the women are wearing burqas and they’re scary and they frighten me.”
I said, “I’m a Muslim, do I frighten you?’ and she said, ‘No, I don’t mean you, I mean like those other Muslims!’ I explained to her that we’re all the same, that we might wear hijab or burqa and that I don’t but that we’re no different. She was shocked.”
There has been a prominent social media campaign over the last week or so called #WISH – Women in Solidarity with Hijabis – in which non-Muslim women are sharing photos of themselves wearing hijab.
There has also been some criticism of #WISH so I sought the opinion of the Muslim women I had in front of me – what do they think of it, is it offensive?
Unanimously the women assured me that it wasn’t seen as offensive. Indeed Diana Rah thinks women are doing an excellent job with #WISH, “No-one in our community is offended by it, we actually feel very supported by it and we love them for it.”
Dalia agrees, “I believe this is very supportive, you should try it yourself and see how the Muslim woman feels.” I assured her I did on my visit to Newcastle’s Mosque a week ago but that I got hot and sweaty.
Dalia says women at her gym often express concern about her being too hot, but she laughs, “I’m used to it! They keep telling me, ‘You must be very hot’, and I understand but when you’ve been wearing it for years you get used to it.”
Gym instructor, Avelina, “I can’t imagine (wearing it at the gym). I get so sweaty and so hot, even my hair I wish I could cut it all off let alone wear a scarf! I admire every woman who wears a scarf, their faces just glow and they look so beautiful, it’s admirable.”
Farida has come to Newcastle from Cape Town but is originally from Burundi in Central Africa, “I left my country 15 years ago because of the war but I just arrived in Newcastle two years ago.”
Generally the women I spoke with have had mostly good experiences of being Muslim women as members of a minority. Diana Rah says it’s only recently that problems have occurred.
“So far in Newcastle we’ve had a very good relationship with the wider community and we haven’t really ever had these problems that have happened in the last couple of months. I think that they’ve seen that in Newcastle and they do feel safe here but I think there are isolated instances of abuse like verbal abuse and the odd finger (gesture) here and there.”
Farida is concerned that this may change in the current environment, “I hope and we pray very hard that the government must find a solution to see how they’re going to protect the country because Australia is a peace(ful) country. We have the right to choose any religion we want and to wear what we want.”
Dalia has found the recent media discussion of what Muslim women wear to be shocking, “What I’ve known is that Australia is a free country and they support women and I know that the government usually supports women rights. So the idea of discussing what to wear is not what I expected. I wear hijab because I’m a Muslim lady and this is what I believe in. I believe that a women should cover her hair and it shouldn’t be seen by strangers.”
It is often claimed that Muslim women who wear a veil are oppressed. Despeana begs to differ, “No. We are not oppressed. It was my decision to wear the veil. Yes, I decided to become a Muslim in 2002, I wasn’t married at the time, my husband didn’t have a say (in it) – nobody’s pushing me to do this, it was my choice. Yes, it was a bit difficult becoming accustomed to it after being a non-Muslim and not wearing one, but I believe Allah gave me the strength and I just want to please my God. No-one is forcing me to do anything.”
Diana Rah agrees, “There is no compulsion in our religion and wearing a hijab is entirely a woman’s choice. There’s a huge misconception put out by the media and others to say that a women is forced to cover her head by her husband, by her son, her father, whoever, but this is entirely our choice.”
“I had an incident in Beaumont Street last week when we were stopped by two men who wanted to teach us about Christianity. He was very loud and overpowering, very tall and wanted to tell us what he thought about his religion. We accept that because we believe everybody has the right to converse and exchange ideas. But we need to respect each others opinions without becoming angry. He disagreed with something I put forward and then he refused to speak to me further. There is no need to be aggressive. But we need to converse and learn from one another. He was looking to agitate me but I walked away.”
What I have taken away from spending the morning with these women is that, for them, wearing hijab is simply an act of faith – the same as a Christian may choose to wear a crucifix or other religious icon.
If you want to know what a Muslim woman thinks – just ask one!
There is a national Mosque Open Day coming up around Australia on October 25, however the Newcastle Muslim Association will be opening their mosque to the public on Sunday 19 October so as to not clash with state government by-elections in Newcastle and Charlestown.
Megan Washington says that ‘Skyline’, one of the tracks on her new album ‘There, There’ is about ‘choosing hope’.
“I think that’s a choice we have to make daily. Choosing happiness and choosing positivity is something that you have to make a priority. For me, it’s a daily thing.”
“That song was inspired a few years when I became very ill and woke up in hospital, figuring out how I felt in that moment and what it meant. Those moments can be extremely formulative? Is that a word? The highest of highs and the lowest of lows is when you galvanise your resolve to overcome things and that was one of mine.”
Whilst not new to the music industry it would be surprising if her audience hadn’t increased substantially after her appearance on ABC TV’s Australian Story and her frank discussion of growing up with a stutter. It was wonderful to watch the flood of support from many thousands of people sent to her via social media after the program aired.
“To be honest with you, I cried a lot after that. I watched the show – because I couldn’t not watch it – with some friends and we made a dinner and watched it.”
“Afterwards, the overwhelming – you used the word ‘flood’ – and I think that’s a great description of it, all these people … it wasn’t so much the goodwill that struck me, it was the resonance, the ‘me toos’, that I heard and I found really moving. I found it incredible that people could see some of themselves in what I had said.”
“You’ve got to understand, I don’t know any other version of life than my life. It isn’t like I never had a stutter and then I suddenly got one. This is how existence is. To see that brought so many other people together with each other, not so much with me, there was a real sense of us being on the same side, the same team. It’s great.”
People like to tell each other who they are.
“I think it’s universal. When I meet anybody the first thing they want to do is tell you their story. People like to tell each other who they are. It’s not surprising to me when people do this and drop the act, stop acting out their role.”
The shortest song on Megan Washington’s new album was written in just a few minutes and she says she had the aim of trying to describe a sensation.
“There must be a word for that like ‘onomatopoeiac’ but that describes the sensation, the sound reflects the sensation. There must a word for it, a German word!”
“I wanted to write a song about falling in love that was less about falling in ‘lurve’ than literally FALLING in love, falling down the stairs or something. The dizziness or giddyness that comes with that. That was the plan. It is the shortest song I’ve ever written.”
Megan Washington’s new album ‘There, there’ is out now and is our 1233 ABC Newcastle Album of the Week.
You can hear Carol Duncan’s full interview with Megan Washington in the audio attached.
If you missed Megan’s exceptional TedX talk, the link is here.
James Reyne has an enviable career in the Australian music industry – first appearing on ABC TV’s Countdown in 1979 with both of his arms in plaster after being hit by a car in Melbourne.
Australian Crawl held court around Australia’s pub rock scene for just seven years, but the sound of the band and the themes of their songs are the story of numerous Australian summers.
As a solo artist, James Reyne has released over a dozen albums, continued to tour Australia and internationally with audiences of up to 200,000 people.
ABC Newcastle’s Carol Duncan caught up with James Reyne ahead of his Anthology tour.
“I’m enjoying it more now than I ever have. I’ve developed an attitude over the many years that I’ve been doing this that it’s amusing. You can’t let most of it worry you. Certainly most of the people of my generation who were in it for the wrong reasons or the shifty ones have been weeded out. There are still a couple floating around and you run into them occasionally and think, ‘How is this person still here?’
Knowing my attempt to get James to name names will be rebuffed, I ask anyway.
He laughs, “No, I’m not going to name any names because they’re usually quite litigious people anyway.”
“I just think it’s quite amusing. It’s like a crash-course in human nature. You see a lot of extremes of human personality in quite a short time, and up close!”
“I’ve made some fantastic friends and there are some wonderful, wonderful people who work in this industry and most people are genuine with depth and credibility.”
James Reyne, particularly given the success and image of Australian Crawl, is perhaps seen by many as the quintessential sun-kissed Australian, yet like so many of his generation of peers he wasn’t actually born here.
“The ten-pound Pom thing, and Adelaide – the ten-pound Pom into Adelaide. It astounds me. A little city like that, the amount of music that came out of there either British or Scottish-based. We owe Adelaide. But yes, I was born in Nigeria,”
“My father was an Englishman in the Royal Marines, he was ADC to the Queen, but he left. He didn’t want to be a career soldier. He got a job with BP and he was posted to Nigeria. My (Australian) mother and he were not long married and they went to Nigeria when he was posted there. He’d be out in the field and she’d be sitting in a house in Lagos and my brother and I were both born there.”
“I was tiny, three or four, when we came to Australia. I have a really vague memory of one little thing in Nigeria, but I don’t really have any other memories of it.”
James Reyne is heading toward 40 years in the Australian music industry with a career that has taken him to stages around the world with massive audiences, but names Creedence Clearwater Revival as one of the first bands he remembers hearing on the radio.
“There were probably things I heard before that but I remember hearing Creedence and thinking, ‘Wow! What is that? I want to do that!’ I’d have been 10 or 11 and it was probably Proud Mary or Born on the Bayou or something like that. I’ve been a total fan of John Fogerty ever since. I love all the Creedence stuff and some of his solo stuff. Like everybody, it was my formative years, I just love all that and that led me into other things and I was just hooked,”
“There was a great show on the ABC called ‘Room to Move’ and it was hosted by a guy called Chris Winter. I think it was a Sunday or Monday night, quite late; we used to listen to it on the radio under the bedclothes. A few years ago I did a show with Tracee Hutchison on ABC 2 and Chris was our producer, I remember going, ‘Chris Winter WOW!'”
“He was brilliant, and I was hooked. His whole approach, his on-air style, his whisper – it was brilliant. So I fell in love with that, it was the first sort of album show. Then I started to get into albums with my friends at school. We’d collect albums and we had a little folk club – we got quite serious about
“I remember really loving records from Creedence, Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Jerry Jeff Walker but I think Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks ‘Last Train to Hicksville’ – as a whole album there’s not a dud moment on it. So if anyone can find it, get it. It’s brilliant. The whole history of Dan Hicks and his influence – he was in a band with a guy called Robert Hunter who essentially invented the San Francisco scene. This is before The Grateful Dead and so on. I was really in to the sociology of it – the background of who influenced who,”
“I used to pore over the album covers and sleeves and read all the liner notes. I don’t know that there’s much you can put on liner notes now that would be as interesting as they were then. That was your only access because there was no Google or anything. Your only access to any information about the band is what was in the liner notes.”
By the time James Reyne was just 20 years old, his band with a group of art college mates had been renamed Australian Crawl and taken off on the pub circuit, and although James admits that although they had no idea what they were doing, they were having fun.
“I was never thinking, ‘This will be my career’ or ‘this will be my job’ or ‘this will be something I’ll do for another 30 or so years and keep doing’,”
“We weren’t very good. The first band was terrible! But you’ve got to do your apprenticeship and you start learning. But I wasn’t aware of it, we were just doing it.”
James Reyne has always appeared to be a complex person; well-spoken, intelligent, thoughtful, possibly a bit feisty. What about the 20-year old James Reyne?
“I was at the Victorian College of the Arts Drama School and it was about then that we all had to make a decision, are we going to do our tertiary courses or are we going to do this band thing? I guess it wasn’t so much ‘serious’ but we figured, ‘I guess you’ve got to make a decision and if you’re going to do it you have to dedicate yourself to it’.”
“But the 20-year old was, I dunno, pretty happy-go-lucky. He had a big mouth.”
Was he confident?
“I guess relatively confident, but if I saw what I thought was a ‘real’ band or anybody from a real band somewhere down the street, (I thought) they were a cut above me. I never thought I’d be breathing that rarefied air. I just thought ‘those guys must have an extra gene’.”
“Joe Camilleri. I’d see The Falcons all the time, I’d see The Sports, I’d see The Pelaco Brothers and Joe and Steve Cummings were in The Pelaco Brothers.”
“Where we grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, in summertime they used to have bands come down and play in the boat clubs down there. Every club had a boat house that they’d put a stage in and bands would play in there,”
“In my last year of school I used to go to a place called Reefer Cabaret in Melbourne at a place called the Ormond Hall and I remember I loved Arial, I loved Spectrum, Chain – I loved all those great 70s Australian bands. I remember going to the Myer Music Bowl when Thorpey (Billy Thorpe) had 200,000 people there. I was a fan of all that stuff. I remember seeing Skyhooks before Shirley (Strachan) joined. I was aware of Shirley, I didn’t know him, but I was aware of him because there was a surf band that played around where we grew up called Frame and Shirley was the singer of that band. He was such a personality, everybody was aware of him.”
“It was certainly a very unique time and a very formative time for Australian music, for Australian rock and roll and pop music. This is pre-Countdown and any of that stuff and there were so many great bands around; The Dingoes, Carson – I was a huge fan of Broderick Smith. What an incredible presence on stage, incredible singer and harmonica player. He was in a band called Carson, sort of boogie/blues band, and then they went and formed The Dingoes,”
“I used to see as many Dingoes shows as I could. There’s a pub in Prahran called the Station Hotel, I used to go to the Station Hotel quite a lot and they’d have Saturday afternoon sessions where The Dingoes would often play. That would just devolve into fantastic mayhem.”
I’ve interviewed James Reyne a few times over the last 20-plus years and I’ve never quite felt convinced that he’s entirely at peace with his back catalogue of wonderful work. I have often wondered if he perhaps underestimates the importance of his music to his fans. Is this why it’s taken so long to get Anthology together?
“Well, it’s actually got very little to do with me! A record company merger meant that the new label realised that the Australian Crawl back catalogue wasn’t available digitally, and although they can kind of do whatever they want because they own the masters, they asked if I wanted to do it and bring it up to date. I paid for my more recent solo records so I made a list of about 50 or 60 songs, cut it back down to about 40. And good on them. They’ve put the solo stuff on there, the ones that people would know, but it’s a good cross-section of all of it right up to the most recent stuff. Why did it take so long? I never thought of it! It’s just the story so far, I’ll keep making records.”
But has he been dissatisfied with the big machine of the music industry?
“I’m not so naive as to think that’s just the nature of how it works. You’re there as long as they need you and then you’re not and that’s fine and that’s the way it works. No, it’s not dissatisfaction, a lot of my amusement or ammunition I can get for song writing is just human beings. So aspirational but so easily impressed. People get so easily impressed with all sorts of things, not just the entertainment industry,”
“But I think we’re all aware now with the media generally people are drip-fed what they’re supposed to be hearing and seem to lap it up. And adopt these opinions! They read a crappy headline and that becomes their opinion and they know all about it! Well, no, you don’t. You haven’t studied the situation in the Middle East. You don’t know.”
“In terms of the entertainment industry I find a lot of fodder in the way people are so easily impressed and so aspirational about all this silliness.”
In a time when independence is increasingly a healthy option for artists and creatives of all sorts, does James Reyne feel there is a disconnect between the work of an artist and what a corporate entity only sees as ‘product’?
“I think the role of the big, big record companies is getting less and changing. Certainly changing, they’re less significant in the scheme of things. They’re still there and still part of it but I think the disconnect between art and commerce is always going to be there.”
And yet independence is creating a healthy relationship between the artist and the audience, particularly via crowd funding – Kate Miller-Heidke being a good case in point. Kate says that crowd funding O’ Vertigo cuts out the middle man and brings her back into a relationship with the people who love her music.
“That’s right. I think the response was so good she raised more than she needed, which shows how loyal her fan base is. I didn’t understand it when it first started happening, but I do now. I think it’s a very viable development.”
“The last four solo records I’ve made I’ve paid for myself and then licensed them to a distribution company – it gets quite expensive and you’re never really going to make your money back.”
“I still love writing, I write more now than I ever have and I think I write better because it’s a craft and I’ve been doing it longer, I apply myself more to it now than I ever have.”
“I’d like to think I’m a songwriter who is always learning, trying to get better and trying to improve the craft. I’m quite self-critical. I’ve also written a few other things but I won’t talk about them because I’ve learnt that you jinx them until these things get up and running!”
James Reyne’s career has also included varying degrees of success as an actor – harking back to his tertiary studies at the Victoria College of Arts Drama School. Is there more he wants to do other than music?
“Oh plenty! I’ve got about five things bubbling along at the moment. A few times people have said, ‘James, you’ve got to write the book’. I’m not going to write the book! The world doesn’t need another rock autobiography and I think unless you can write the real book and name names,” James laughs, “you’re going to get the pasteurised version of something of nothing ….” Who wants to hear that stuff? It’s boring. It’s been done. That’s not to say anything bad about anyone who has written a rock biography, because some of them I know and they’re lovely people. Mark Seymour wrote a great one. I loved Mark’s (book). He’s a friend and a good writer.”
On a roll, the tongue remains firmly in cheek.
“I always wanted to do ‘Australian Crawl The Musical’ and you either do it as a really bad kids’ play and get kids to play it with terrible home-made props or you do the most stonkingly gay thing you’ve ever seen with a chorus of boys in tight board shorts! We could do that!”
I suspect I’d be happy to see either version and after interview number whatever over a couple of decades, James Reyne actually sounds more genuinely comfortable in his own skin than he ever has.