Interview: Katie Noonan

The Glad Tomorrow is the new album from 5-time ARIA Award Winner Katie Noonan and the brilliant Australian String Quartet. This is the first time Noonan and the ASQ have collaborated, and this uniquely Australian project sets the poetry of Queenslander and First Nations icon Oodgeroo Noonuccal to music.

The Glad Tomorrow is the new album from 5-time ARIA Award Winner Katie Noonan and the brilliant Australian String Quartet. This is the first time Noonan and the ASQ have collaborated, and this uniquely Australian project sets the poetry of Queenslander and First Nations icon Oodgeroo Noonuccal to music. Noonan commissioned 10 stellar Australian contemporary composers to create a song cycle based on Oodgeroo’s poetry.

Katie Noonan

Ben: Thank you so much Katie for allowing myself and Glam Adelaide to sit down with you and have a chat about your new album, The Glad Tomorrow, which presents the amazing poetry of First Nations poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal in song, composed by 10 iconic Australian composers, accompanied by the incredible Australian String Quartet.

Katie: No worries, thank you so much for the time and the opportunity.

Ben: Where did the concept for this project originate from?

Katie: It started in the heart of a very young girl in the early 80s, me, reading a book called “My People”, which was by Oodgeroo, who back then went by the white name Kath Walker, and I just fell in love with her poetry. That kind of started a lifelong fascination with First Nations culture and a world that I’ve been very lucky to explore a lot in my adult life. Basically, I made a record with the Brodsky Quartet over in London almost four years ago, and that was focused on the poetry of Judith Wright. So, I love celebrating great Australian poetry, particularly female poets. When I was studying Judith’s work I realised that her and Oodgeroo were shadow sisters, so they were very close and were very much together on the front line, on the picket line, for the 1966 referendum and lifting the marriage bar and all the important work that these amazing women did in the 60s, 70s and 80s. So, I love celebrating being a fiercely proud Queenslander artist, I love celebrating other Queensland artists, and Oodgeroo is obviously an iconic Queensland poet and so it kind of just fell into place. Where Oodgeroo is from and where she lived, and now her resting place, Minjerribah, otherwise known as North Stradbroke Island, that has been basically, for my whole adult life an incredibly beautiful country for me to go and explore. I’ve written most of my music on there, I got married there, we renewed our vows there, and my husband (Isaac Hurren) scattered his Granny’s ashes there, so it’s a very, very special place for my family and I. It kind of felt like the right thing to do and then I was lucky enough to meet Oodgeroo’s grandson and granddaughter and spoke to them about the project, and then that’s when I thought it was important for family to be involved, so Oodgeroo’s great-granddaughter Kaleenah Edwards speaks the poems in the Jandi language for the first time, and her uncle, Joshua Walker, Quandamooka songman, translated all the poems into the Jandi language for us. So, it’s kind of been a beautiful project that’s been simmering along for a few years, and has come out just recently.

Ben: Why do you think projects like this haven’t come to the forefront before in Australia? We have amazing Australian resources and artists, but there are a lot of American influences that hit our market, where I feel Australian artists and projects, like what you are doing, should be at the forefront of the Australian music industry.

Katie: I totally agree. I think we have a bit of a cultural cringe here in Australia where we do seem to think that if it’s from somewhere else it must be better and it’s just not true. Having toured the world and worked with artists from all over the world, I can 100% say that we make truly world class art and music and dance and, well, lots of things. We are obviously known for making world class sports people, and that’s awesome, but unfortunately, we just don’t have a similar level of respect for our creative people, and that’s reflected from the top down. I was on Q&A recently just talking about this as well, and there is a profound lack of respect and understanding of the importance of culture, and how amazing our culture is here. Obviously we have our non-indigenous creatives, but we have this extraordinary ancient culture, the oldest culture in the world here, which is such a profound source of inspiration. Some of my favourite music and musicians certainly are First Nations artists and it’s just a very, very special thing, so I’m all about celebrating what we make here and also looking to our history, because it was only 50 years ago that our indigenous brothers and sisters were allowed to vote, which is a crazy situation. I guess personally and professionally I’m very much committed to doing what I can to support the intention of the Uluru’s Statement of The Heart, which is a beautiful piece of writing that I’ve read and urge everyone to read, and I’m very hopeful that it’s in our near future: a treaty with our First Nations. I’m quietly confident.

Ben: So, what was it about the Australian String Quartet that you thought would be the perfect partnership for this project?

Katie: Well it’s cos they are from RADelaideof course; I love RADelaide! I’ve known Stephen, the violist, for a long time, and he’s a beautiful man and a beautiful musician. I’ve admired the ASQ artistry for a very long time, but I feel that the current lineup, which is Dale, Francesca, Stephen and Sharon, has found this particularly potent and beautiful mix. It’s hard to find the right band, and they are now 50% Queensland – Dale and Francesca are from Brisbane – so for me it was very important that the musicians on this project all have a strong Queensland DNA really. So, of the six creatives on the record, four of them are from Queensland: myself, Kaleenah (Oodgeroo’s great granddaughter), Francesca, and Dale. Stephen studied in Brisbane a lot too, so he said, “You can kind of count me as a quarter Queenslander too!” They are just beautiful and extraordinary musicians and you know with musicians of that calibre you can write basically anything and you know they’ll be able to play it and make it sound amazing.

Ben: I studied at the Elder Conservatorium here in Adelaide, where they are based, and I remember spending some of my breaks sitting outside their rehearsal rooms when they were in town listening to them rehearse, and just loved listening to them.

Katie: They are amazing, and really beautiful people. We just rehearsed here in Melbourne last night so it’s like floating on this beautiful, musical cloud. It’s pretty awesome.

Ben: Having 10 of Australia’s finest composers, including yourself, collaborate on this project is very exciting. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Carl Vine’s works; I’ve loved his compositions for many years. How did you go about the selection process and were they given any compositional guidelines?

Katie: Zero! No, I don’t believe a commissioner should govern a work. If you like someone’s writing then you just say, “This is the idea.” I basically said, “I want you to set Oodgeroo’s poetry to music. Pick any poem you like, any length, any whatever.” I did kind of say ‘song-ish length’, so 5 to 6 minutes, and Carl wrote such a gorgeous piece on the record I did with the Brodsky’s, and so basically the only difference this time is five of the composers are from Queensland – again I wanted to have that strong musical DNA connected to Oodgeroo’s country. So we’ve got 2 amazing up-and-coming composers, Thomas Green and Connor D’Netto, and Robert Davidson, who I believe was their teacher or their supervisor for their doctorates, and then William Barton, beautiful composer and Didgeridoo player from Kalkatungu country, or Mount Isa, and myself, and then five incredible composers who are all on the Brodsky record as well.

Ben: Having Kaleenah Edwards tour and work with you on this project really must bring that connection back home to Queensland and to her great-grandmother. Did it take much convincing to get her on board?

Katie: No, basically it was her mother’s wish. Her mother Patrina and her uncle Raymond are the estate holders, and when I first met with them, they said (Patrina particularly), “My daughter Kaleenah is amazing. She’s a graduate of ACPA (Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts) and she’s a very fine young actor. Is there any way she can be involved?” And I was like, “Oh that would be awesome! I’d love for her to speak the poems and maybe we can get them translated.” That kind of started that whole journey. Joshua, her uncle, translated the poems and taught them to her, which is beautiful. The first time I heard her speak the poems I just burst into tears; it’s just such a beautiful sound and she sounds so strong and awesome. She is a very fine young actor. She’s just graduated from ACPA in Brisbane, and she’s just done a 10 week tour of a play called ‘The Longest Minute’, with Jute Theatre Company, so she’s really blossoming into her career, and I’m really excited to take her on this tour. As far as I’m aware she’s never been to Adelaide, so she’s actually going to hang in Adelaide for a few days rather than go back. The world premiere is at the Sydney Opera House, so it’s very exciting to take her around with us.

Ben: I’ve been blown away listening to every track on this album.

Katie: Oh! Thank you!

Ben: I have a background in classical music and musical theatre, so I listen to a fairly vast collection of music, but the first track, which then flows into the song you wrote, ‘A Song of Hope in A Major’ – the music just hit me emotionally. And also, in pieces like ‘No More Boomerang’ by David Hirschfelder, where the lyric was really emphasised by the music. The music really parallels what was being spoken about.

Katie: For me that was tricky cos it has the ’n’ word in it, which is a word I’ve never actually said, ever, and I never will say it, and I didn’t want to sing it, but that was the intention of Oodgeroo. But because of the way David wrote it and it was so caustic and quite ugly at that point it made kind of sense, but it was quite upsetting, actually.

Ben: I can imagine. What was the inspiration for you behind the song structure and composition behind the song you wrote, ‘A Song of Hope in A Major’?

Katie: Look, it’s very, very simple. It was just a simple meditation, like a prayer really. That poem is so beautiful and hopeful, with the final lyric ‘to our fathers’ fathers, the pain, the sorrow, to our children’s children, the glad tomorrow’ – that was just such a beautiful lyric and so I really wanted to keep the music super simple. It really just wrote itself. I got to Minjerribah, sat down and it just happened. Harmonically it’s very simple, but first of all I knew there would be other composers that would be more complex harmonically, and so it felt like having a nice, meditative prayer kind of vibe.

Ben: The tour starts at the end of the month. What in particular are you excited for audiences to experience from this?

Katie: Obviously hearing these poems in language is very exciting, and I think that it’s a really beautiful sound, so I’m really excited about people hearing that. I imagine there will be quite a few people who may have never had the privilege of hearing the language. Celebrating this amazing woman’s words and having her great-granddaughter there is very special, as well as exploring these 10 beautiful pieces. And on top of that, the quartet will be doing Connor D’Netto’s String Quartet, which is pretty bloody amazing. They just did that up at the AFCM up in Townsville. They are also doing one of the Sculthorpe quartets, so 100% Australian repertoire, which I’m always passionate about. So, it will be a celebration of great Australian poetry and amazing Australian contemporary classical composers, but then getting to hear these beautiful poems by Kaleenah will be very special.

Ben: And finally, looking back at your career in the Australian Music industry, particularly when you first started back in the days of George, did you ever think these amazing opportunities that you’ve experienced would ever be possible?

Katie: No! I’ve been so lucky to follow my muse and be able to be a full-time musician. That’s an incredible privilege that I do really realise is quite rare. I’ve worked, obviously, very hard, but so have so many musicians who aren’t as fortunate to have it be their full-time career, so I’m extremely grateful for that. I think I have a pretty veracious appetite for challenge, and so I love getting out of my comfort zone. The first half of Richard Tongetti’s piece, ‘Son of Mine in A Minor’, was like, holy moley! That’s quite a tricky piece. I love setting challenges that are difficult, cos I think that’s when you truly grow as an artist. Often, I’ve gone, “My God, can I do this?” And then when you can, you’ve grown a lot. I’m just open to absolutely anything. I just love that music is this limitless source of inspiration and lessons and learnings. I have been returning a little more to my classical roots in the last few years. I’ve just premiered a new opera that my husband wrote with Victorian Opera, which was actually the hardest thing I’ve ever sung in my life. This ASQ project and the Brodsky project is getting more into that classical world, but then I’m always slipping between different projects. My obsession is just sounding unique and celebrating our Australian cultural identity.

Ben: Thank you, Katie, for taking the time to chat today about this amazing project, and the upcoming tour!
Katie: My pleasure and thank you. Three weeks last night before our first performance, so yes, it’s getting exciting!

Katie Noonan and the Australian String Quartet’s national tour of The Glad Tomorrow premieres on October 28 at the Sydney Opera House, before touring across Australia.

Katie and the ASQ will be performing at the Woodville Town Hall on Saturday November 2nd at 7pm. For all ticketing information, please visit katienoonan.com

Interview by Ben Stefanoff

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