INTERVIEW: Katie Noonan performs with the Australian String Quartet on national tour
Interview: Jett Tattersall
Katie Noonan has been one of Australia’s most respected and beloved performers for twenty years. After finding success with the band George in the early 2000s, she has gone on to have a varied career as both a solo artist and collaborator across pop, jazz, classical and world music, winning five ARIA Awards in the process. She is now launching a project with the Australian String Quarter (ASQ), The Glad Tomorrow with an album and a national tour.
Setting the words of Queenslander indigenous poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal to music, Katie has commissioned ten Australian contemporary composers to create a song cycle based on Oodgeroo’s poetry, to be performed with the ASQ. The pieces have been written by Carl Vine, Elena Kats Chernin, Richard Tognetti, Iain Grandage, David Hirschfelder as well as Queensland composers Thomas Green, Robert Davidson, Connor D’Netto, William Barton and Katie herself.
Both the album and the national tour will also feature Oodgeroo Noonuccal's great grand-daughter Kaleenah Edwards reading her poetry in the Jandai language, marking the first time that Oodgeroo's work has been translated and performed in this way.
We recently caught up with Katie to find out more about this incredible project and to chat about her long career in the Australian music industry.
Hi Katie! You are on the cusp of your Glad Tomorrow tour with the Australian String Quartet and Kaleenah Edwards, how are you feeling about it all?
Really beautiful. We recorded the album over three days in February and then we kind of just let it sit for a few months. I mixed it just last month so I'm pretty much prepped for musically. At the moment I must admit I'm entirely focused on the opera because that's next week and then the week after that I'll turn my head back in the Oodgeroo pieces. You kind of just take each week as it comes.
It's described as a song cycle based on poetry. Can you tell me the creative foundations and your inspirations behind this show - why the song cycle?
Song cycle is just a fancy word for a selection of classical songs really around a particular theme. I first read Oodgeroo Noonuccal when I was a little girl, I think I was about 7 or 8 and I read poems from her book My People. And I was just immediately struck by how powerful her words are and how visceral they are. I remember that being a really transformative moment and realising that I was a white person living in a very ancient country and that there was this whole world that I knew basically nothing about because it wasn't taught in my school and it's largely still not taught properly. So that kind of started an interest in the world of the First Nations of Australia. I think I've always been into great Australian writing. My trio Elixir has been collaborating with great poets, my first album with the Brodsky String Quartet was working with Judith Wright's words. Judith and Oodgeroo are two amazing women who kind of paved the way for female artistry in Australia. They were very strong in terms of their activism environmental preservation and also the rights of indigenous Australians. Then I though wouldn't it be great to go back to Oodgeroo and I discovered the Australian String Quartet has got a very strong south-east Queensland DNA, which is where Oodgeroo's from and it's where I'm from, and it kind of made sense. Of course, they’re brilliant musicians but just thematically it made sense to work with them because they're from this part of the world.
As a classically trained artist performing in concert with such an acclaimed Australian quartet, what was that experience like for you?
I love getting myself out of my comfort zone, but it is confronting because I do flip between different worlds quite a bit. You know, they are 100% classical musicians, non-improvising extraordinary world class classical musicians. And I have not dedicated myself to classical music. It’s great working with people who are as obsessed with their music as you are, but in a different language because they’ve got a lot to teach you. Whereas my main thing is writing my own song and improvising, so that’s a totally different world of performing and a totally different vernacular really. So it’s challenging and exciting.
Despite your mountains of success, do you still feel nervous when surrounded by people such as the quartet or classically trained people? Like you’ll never stop feeling like the newbie?
No. It’s a nervous excitement. It’s not debilitating or confronting, it’s exciting. I just love that I’m playing with absolute motherfuckers, basically. A quartet is such a beautiful and strange beast because it is four people who hang out a lot and make a lot of music together. They spend the majority of their professional music life playing together as a quartet so that brings an extraordinary sense of musicality in their ensemble play. It is a magic thing so I kind of try to slip into the world that they have. It’s exciting. I get to jump in and ride the waves really.
Can you tell me some of your earliest memories of music and what it meant to you?
I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t in my life. Because my mother taught music from home there was always people singing and playing piano pretty much all afternoon while I was doing my homework in my bedroom or whatever. It did mean that I had a fairly lonely childhood in a way because my brother was 7 years older. We were just in different worlds, he was off being a teenager while I was in grade 2. But my constant companion was music, I was always subconsciously and peripherally listening to music and learning music, learning other people’s songs that they were learning. I was hearing them learn it. My other love was jazz and my dad would work extremely hard Monday to Friday and then part of his rest on the weekend was just hanging out in bed, having a cup of tea and listening to the ABC, and it was there that I discovered the Saturday morning jazz show with him. I’d jump into bed with him and we’d have Saos and cheese and cups of tea and listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé all those beautiful gorgeous jazz singers. And then, because I had such a cool older brother, he was introducing me to pop music from a really young age. So I was very lucky to have 3 people who loved different types of music that I was exposed to.
You have been in the industry for 20 years, peripherally involved as you mentioned even longer. I wanted to know what you feel has changed in your 20 years in the industry?
Unfortunately the first thing that comes to mind is that people don’t pay for music as much as they used to. We’re just recovering now I think with streaming, but there was a whole wasteland there for at least a decade where there’s an entire generation of people who believe music should be free. That’s quite scary because it costs a lot of money to make albums. Albums used to make money, they really don’t anymore. You’d be very lucky to not lose money. I’m still old school. I like to buy vinyl and I like to buy albums. The advent of the digital age has been amazing, and I’ve always embraced it and I think it’s awesome. But it does mean that there’s a lot more traffic, so it’s just a lot harder for new artists to breakthrough.
And have you noticed much change in how female artists are treated and perceived?
I didn’t realise I was a feminist because I was just like ‘I can do anything’. That’s because I stand on the shoulders of the women from generations before me that led to me having that belief. Things like the abolishment of the Marriage Act and people like Merle Thornton who chained herself to the bar at The Regatta Hotel in Brisbane and refused to leave until women were allowed to buy drinks. All the amazing things that the feminists did for my generation I am now absolutely reaping the rewards. So in that way I choose to definitely try to do similar advocacy for women in the industry. Change is coming, it’s coming slowly. These things take time. It’s certainly been an amazing time for women in music. I mean, the biggest artists in the world are arguably females. I think Madonna was probably one of the first trailblazers in that way and then Cyndi Lauper, Annie Lennox and now the Beyoncés. Women are smashing it and they are being mothers as well as artists. I remember when I was doing my solo album and I was breastfeeding [my son] Jonah. I had massive promo days and I was like ‘it’s all cool, I just need to take a 20 minute break every two to three hours to breastfeed.’ It was like I was speaking a foreign language, it was unnecessarily difficult. In a lot of ways the people who have done it like Kasey Chambers and myself and more recently Missy Higgins and Claire Bowditch have made it just very normal to be a mother and a musician. I still do get asked in almost every interview ‘So how do you do it? How do you be a mum and a musician?’ And I reply ‘It’s fine, but please ask it of Bernard Fanning next and then John Butler’ and so on. You have stop just asking that question of mothers because parents are equally important – the mother and the father.
One last question before you go, obviously you’ve got this opera coming up, if there was one surprising music genre, like rap or heavy metal song that you feel needed some Katie Noonan soprano falsetto sampled in, what would it be?
I don’t think heavy metal and I will ever really be friends because I find the sounds quite distressing. But I do love rock music, I love prog rock, so I’d love to just rock out a rockin’ tune. Maybe a country album? I reckon I could do maybe a country record. I’m open to anything really. As long as I’m constantly being challenged and stretched and out of my comfort zone. I’m pretty much up for anything. I just think death metal would probably be unlikely. But never say never!
The Glad Tomorrow album is out now.
The Glad Tomorrow tour kicks off in Sydney on October 28 and will visit the following cities:
28 October – Sydney Opera House, Sydney, NSW. Tickets here
31 October – The Tivoli, Brisbane, QLD. Tickets here
1 November – Lismore City Hall, Lismore, NSW. Tickets here
2 November – Woodville Town Hall, Adelaide, SA. Tickets here
6 November – Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, WA. Tickets here
8 November - Civic Theatre, Wagga Wagga, NSW. Tickets here
9 November – Canberra Theatre, Canberra, ACT. Tickets here
10 November - Forum, Melbourne, VIC. Tickets here