Day 27: Autism Awareness Month (3 days to go people!)

Warning! There is an image of the Letterstick Band in this post. Members of this band are deceased and this image may cause some family and friends distress. They are remembered here with a lot of love.

Music has always been incredibly important to me and has been a constant theme in my life. From the very early days I could always lose myself in a great song, a beautiful melody and a back beat. I was always sharing music through my playing, singing and hanging out in dives all over the countryside.

As a baby, my boy was sung to, rocked in rhythm and danced around the lounge room. I wanted him to share my love of music, but like most things it didn’t quite pan out the way I thought it would. Instead, I had a highly sensory, sensitive child and music was just that little bit too much for him to take. He did enjoy short musical experiences where he could touch the instruments and feel the vibrations, but very happy to walk away from it as well.

Lately though things are changing. He is taking more notice of music – enjoying it more, but still very sensitive to certain pitches and tones. There are particular songs and themes that can send him into a screaming, crying, ears covered foetal position. There are others that captivate him and make him smile. I even caught him trying to dance (very rare) this morning.

So I’ve been collecting lullabies and gentle music that is soothing and acceptable to him and I thought I’d share a few of our favourites with you.

The Putumayo Dreamland compilations are wonderful. Putumayo are a NYC based label who specialise in world music compilations. They have a great catalogue of quality music for kids from all over the world.

My favorites from this series are Acoustic Dreamland, Celtic Dreamland and the original Dreamland.

Quite a few years ago now I helped them in sourcing an appropriate Australian Indigenous track for their first Dreamland album. The track is from a group who is ‘family’ to me. They no longer play after losing band members to a road accident. I love this song, sung in Barrarra language of the An Barra clan from north west Arnhem land.

‘Yirrana” (sunset) by Letterstick Band

Here’s a beautiful cover of James Taylor’s ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ by William Fitzsimmons from the Acoustic Dreamland album

There’s some amazing artists doing beautiful albums for children. Justine Clarke is an Australian actress who is making great albums and dvds that kids just love. Here she is singing ‘Creatures of the Rain and Sun’

And of course there’s the artists who just make luscious music that creates a relaxing environment for our kids. Here’s Lior with ‘Secret Little Garden’ (check out  his fabulous website)

And lastly (because I don’t want to use up all my available space in one post) here is a song from an Australian kids show Giggle & Hoot which is screened around bedtime each night. L hates the voices of the characters, but the songs are pretty good and this one in particular is a winner. Sweet Dreams everyone…


#2 Enter At Own Risk: Sydney

I hit the big smoke (Sydney) as a fresh faced 18 year old in late 1977. Disco sucked and punk was in. That was a lot of fun, maybe too much fun but I saw a lot of live music. The live music scene in Sydney was huge in those days. People would cram into all kinds of crazy venues, then spill onto the streets in a sweaty, beer-soaked mess.


One of my oldest friends Dave, was a drummer and we shared houses for many years. He managed to get himself into a few bands that did pretty well and I got to go along for the ride. Through him I got my first industry gig selling t-shirts and counting punters. But it wasn’t till 1983, after travelling overseas, bike riding expeditions and various other activities that I finally decided to bite the bullet and went and bought myself a bass for fifty bucks.

It was a Hofner violin shaped, semi-acoustic similar to the bass Paul McCartney played in the early days of the Beatles. I loved that bass and swore I would never sell it. It was a piece of crap, but I didn’t care. Within a few months I was in a band and it was all over red rover.

That band was The Happening Thang. Our first gig was at a party in a house overlooking Sydney Harbour. Our set list was a mash up of classic country rock and selected covers along with a few originals. We were entertaining and added a new flavour to the Sydney scene and as a result we were never short of a gig.

The Happening Thang 1985

Soon after that I got together with a couple of other singers and together we formed a group called the Wild Wild Women (Tony Alaylis, Alice Pappademetriou, Kate Swaddling & myself). We were an ‘a capella’ group – voices only, no instruments or backing. Four very different girls (ahem…women) singing some really diverse songs – everything from Free Nelson Mandela (who still needed to be freed in those days) to My Body The Car/Godley & Creme. No one else was doing this at the time, except…a group of four guys, called The Elevators.

We would often work with these guys. It was a great line up. We’d each do a set and then do a set together. Leading the Elevators was Tony Backhouse. A wonderful musician, vocalist and arranger who would go on to lead the Café at the Gates of Salvation choir and many other musical adventures.

We did a LOT of gigs and became a group that could slot into a lot of different situations. We did a bit of touring – totally unorganised and audacious in our approach. I remember trying to organise shows out of the local phone booth (lots of 20 cent pieces!). Our first tour took us to Brisbane and while we were here we managed to wangle our way onto the bill as the support act for Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers who were touring Australia. Jonathon loved what we were doing and invited us to do the rest of the tour with him – yes please! We had a great time with those guys. We never recorded except for an afternoon with radio station Triple Z in Brisbane – a tape that went into the vortex.

Wild Wild Women 1986 in rehearsal

Soon after we were invited to open for Screaming Jay Hawkins of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ fame. Eye opening, to say the least. Yes, he did the whole emerging from a coffin thing and rattling skulls and bones around the stage. We also got to tour with some Australian artists including The Black Sorrows and Hunters and Collectors. Our act was always a surprise to the dedicated fans who would attend these shows, but it was a thrill for us to win them over and have a thousand or so people stomping and screaming for an encore.

I became a member of another group – Bellydance Disco, later known as just Bellydance. This group was a soul/funk/reggae outfit with most of the music written by singer Tony Hayes. Bellydance went on to get signed to a label and although that can often be enough to kill the spirit of a band, Tony and Bellydance are still going.

I bought myself a new bass around this time. Got it at a pawn shop in Kings Cross which could be good or bad…depending. It was a Fender mustang which is a ¾ sized bass and it was…good! I’d stepped up in the world and spent a whole 300 bucks. It was a great bass for me – not too fancy, not too heavy – just right.

The Happening Thang at The Hopetoun 87 (mustang)

Another group I was in was The B’jesus Burgers. Legendary, almost mythical status. The stories are all true! We were a self-indulgent collective of idiots from various bands around town who just wanted to play some fun songs and dress up (Pat Powell, Tony Gilbert, Andy Travers, Peter O’Doherty, Ashley Cadell, Irish Ted and me). I mostly sang but also played bass on a couple of numbers. We had nights where we could clear the room and others where we were absolutely in the zone. Our set list was raided by lots of other bands who were looking for a good cover to exploit. We never recorded, but had a hell of a lot of fun!

B'Jesus Burgers backstage at The Piccadilly Hotel 1987

Meanwhile, The Happening Thang was getting pretty serious. The line up had consolidated into Cathy Wearne on vocals, Andy Travers on guitar & vocals, Jeff Mercer on guitar & lap steel, Robbie Souter on drums and myself on bass & vocals. We also had a lot of people who would guest with us including Reg Mombassa, Graham Lee, Mark Dawson, Murray Cook and Ian Simmo Simpson. Andy was the main songwriter, but I had tried my hand at writing a few songs and got a couple onto the set list.

We were playing lots of shows, getting plenty of media and generating some interest. Although I was not involved in any negotiations at all, we ended up signing with Trafalgar/WEA.

Right around this time, I was kind of unhappy with myself. I felt like I wasn’t very good at anything. You know that feeling where you feel like you’re faking it and pretty soon someone ( or everyone) is going to find out. Well that was me.

So I decided to get out of Sydney and go and study music up in the lush green hills of northern NSW around Byron Bay. At least then I would know what I didn’t know – instead of just flailing around blindly. I remember Neil Murray telling me I was absolutely insane for leaving town. I did keep playing with the band for a while and had two songs on the first album which I was involved in recording. But I didn’t like the raw ambition you needed to succeed in the business of music.

However I did join one more band for the summer of 87/88. The Stetsons was a group of established musicians from different bands – mostly gangaGANG and Mental As Anything and put together by Buzz Bidstrup who had gotten an album deal for the group. My friend Peter O’Doherty had a song on the album, a duet called The Ballad of Fifi and Jimmy and he asked me to sing it with him for the recording. Then, as the band were rehearsing for the launch of the album and the various gigs to follow, their bass player pulled out of the live shows (he’d gotten a better paid tour for the summer with Jimmy Barnes). I ended up being asked to step in.

The Stetsons 1987

We played quite a few shows including one at Australia’s biggest country music festival, Tamworth. It was a fly in, fly out gig – all of us on a charter flight. There were a few jokes about the Big Bopper & Patsy Cline, but we made it back in one piece.

It was all soon to change as I packed my bits and pieces into my car and drove 9 hours north. It was a risk, but I knew it was the right move for me.

Status: Destination Unknown

Enter At Your Own Risk: music and me

Music has been an incredibly powerful force in my life. Why? Well that’s just one of life’s little mysteries. But here is a bit of the how.

My mother played the piano so we always had one in the house. When my four sibs and I were young, she would often play at night and I have those fuzzy childhood memories of lying in bed letting the music wash over me till I was asleep . My dad had, and still has, a genuine love of music circa 1948. He loves to sing and can usually find a song for most situations. Something I had a genuine hate for as a teenager. As a young man he had played the Hawaiian/steel guitar and also the harmonica, but I’ve never seen him in action. So there was always a bit of music going on around the house.

There have been a few pivotal moments along the way that led to the casting of that magical musical spell which has dominated my life. The first would have been in 1970 when my older brother blew all his pocket money and brought home his first 45 – Let it Be/You Know My Name, Look Up the Number. We would sing our hearts out to the classic, but the B side – it connected, it spoke to me. It was crazy, with it’s weird beat and strange lyrics.

This was a new world. I was 10 and instantly, I knew there was more out there. Some of what was out there would make more sense to me than my current reality growing up in the steamy heat of far northern Australia.

The next 45 was Mungo Jerry with In the Summertime. Loved that shuffling, skiffle beat. Something had shifted in me and The Banana Splits, Lost in Space and Maxwell Smart, as fun as they were, started to fade as music drew me in.

My first performance had been singing ‘There’s a Kind of Hush’ by Herman’s Hermits at the kids summer camp on Magnetic Island a year or so earlier. Bold as brass.

Then, for the first time in my life, I asked my parents for a specific Christmas present – a transistor radio! The ultimate possession. It was a big investment, but they made it and my dreams came true on Christmas morning.  From then on I had that single ear piece crammed into an ear, or had the radio going under my pillow at night. I loved that tiny black box (the first of many). It gave me the world.

Fast forward a few years and I’m living in another country town, in the cold country of regional NSW. It’s 1974 and the whole singer/songwriter thing is going on. My brother (yes, same one and dammit – now I’m realising how much I owe him) is fooling around with guitars. So I decide I’m going to teach myself the guitar. And I do. First song I learn (forgive me) is Annie’s Song by John Denver. You know the one…you fill up my senses etc. etc. Yeah, I know, not very cool. It gets worse. It also gets better.

Here’s the worse bit. I became a dedicated fan of the group America. Bought every album, knew every song. Even now, when I hear one of those songs, it takes me straight back to those times. But I wasn’t a one group girl.

Here’s the better bit. I managed to convince my parents to sign up to the World Record Club – where they would send you an album every month whether you wanted one or not. You were sent a catalogue and could choose an album or they’d just send you one. Well, I would look through those catalogues with an eagle eye. There was a lot of classical music and compilations in there, but in amongst all that I managed to get a few gems including Paul Simon/There Goes Rhymin Simon and The Beach Boys/Pet Sounds.

I’d started spending my own money on albums once I’d got myself a job. The first album I bought was Van Morrison/Moondance, followed by numerous James Taylor, Steely Dan, Seals & Croft and of course, America. And this was how I learned to sing harmony, singing along with these guys.

Of course we had the obligatory Beatles, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, etc. But I had moved on from the world of radio to the world of ‘yeah, I’m into music’.

Yes, it’s all a bit white and a bit mainstream, but I was living in a small country town, I had no music mentor saying – you gotta listen to THIS. I was just blindly finding my way. So it wasn’t until later that I started to delve into the rich history of blues and jazz and r&b, of soul and funk and gospel, ska and reggae and all that good stuff.

That white boy music saw me through all those angsty teenage years while I was waiting for my life to begin. But in the meantime, I went to my first live show, Australian band Ariel, at the local town hall. Years later I would end up working with one of the guys from this band and funnily enough, I would also put a few tours through that very venue. Live music! PA’s, electric guitars, amps – I wanted more of that thrill. Status: totally addicted.

More of this fascinating story in my next post.

Wind Chimes

This morning I woke to the sound of some modal wind chimes. They were gently swinging to the breeze as it swept up the small green valley to the little ramshackle hippy pad I am staying in this weekend with my lovely friends.

Anyway, I am here for one night only and am practically child free – yes! Just me and the bub. L is having the weekend with his grandparents and N is with his aunty, uncle and cousins. So I grabbed the chance to run away from the domestic duties and hang out in the lush hinterland behind Byron Bay.

It takes me back to when I lived just a couple of valleys over in the late 80’s when I was studying music at the local university. I chose to live out of town away from student life. It was a great time to be here. Bangalow was a tiny village where the shop shut at 6pm. Byron still had it’s seasons and winter was my favorite when it was just a small local community with a great arts scene. Everyone up here was a bit of a mad hippy back then. It took a while to get used to, coming from the Sydney music scene. I softened a little over the years, getting used to all the hugging and overt therapising, but never crossed over thank goodness.

Those days were a fabulous musical indulgence. Spending day and night playing, singing and writing, apart from a bit of cooking at the old Beach Cafe on a Sunday morning. It was a big decision to leave sydney and the various bands I played in to escape to the country to spend 3 years learning as much as I could about music and composing. But I wanted to be a ‘real’ musician, who understood what the hell they were doing and who had the chance of a career in music. Later on of course I had to try to unlearn a lot of what I’d learnt so that I could get back to that joyful innocence that got me playing and singing in the first place.

So there’s a lot of memories for me here, even though it’s changed so much. Staying in this little shack at the end of a dirt road with corrugated iron for walls, a chandelier in the kitchen and art everywhere takes me back. Luckily the vista hasn’t changed too much, even though I have.

Today I’ll go back home, pick up my kids, play in the backyard, feed then bathe them and get them into bed and tell them I love them with some fresh energy thanks to a few hours of rejuvenation and a peaceful, sleepy morning serenaded by birdsong and wind chimes.

Your Flight Is Boarding

I’m off to Sydney to contemplate other people’s navels. Yes, I’m assessing music grants. I know what it is like to put your heart and soul into a grant application to wait with baited breath for several months to get a reply. So when I do this assessing business I am not a soul-less arts bureaucrat who has forgotten how important each and every effort and person and project is.

The life of an artist is a hard, lonely road. Keeping your eye on the joyful pleasure that took you to the start of the journey and meanwhile applying the craft and technique that you build over time is a tightrope act of the highest order.

This week I lost a dear friend who managed that balance beautifully. A wonderful human who made my life better for being in it. So here’s to you buddy, you’re efforts will be helping me through the next couple of days.