Portrait

An audience with witty songstress Leslie Avril. By Lucy Lehmann.

Leslie Avril serenades the heart of the country

“I’m old and fat.” Her voice on the microphone rings out across the showground. A mini-bike flies up into the sky behind the band marquee, the rider doing a handstand on the handlebars.

“That makes two of us,” laughs the MC, feeling daring enough to play Leslie Avril’s game.

When the mini-bike riders were interviewed half an hour earlier, they played a safer game – they’re so pumped to be here at the Charlton Show, they wouldn’t be here without the generosity of this sponsor and that. 

Leslie adds to her self-portrait, “I’ve got big boobs.”

The MC starts retreating, “Ha, ha. Not me.”

Leslie says, “Man boobs.” She’s not cruel; she’s doesn’t actually say he has them. She’s just tossing him the ball, an invitation to join in.

But he’s getting off the stage as quickly as possible, with one last reminder to showgoers not to miss the sheep trials across the racetrack, and the woodchopping heats.

When Leslie was a few decades younger and slimmer, she won a national TV talent competition. Her voice, as I watch the clip later at home, is delicate, powerful, all showy one moment, full of true feeling the next. It’s the same voice I heard at the Charlton Show. The unchangingness of her voice over 34 years is uncanny; our ageing flesh is so distracting we scarcely notice the characteristics that stay the same. Then and now, she has the same voice, gestures, and a certain wild – Truth or Dare! – look in her eye.

The clip confirms my impression: Leslie Avril is one of those people made from a substance thoroughly, inescapably herself. There is a consistency to her; the adjectives that describe her voice also describe the way she looks. There are her hands: small, delicately-modelled; then her arms: big, powerful, “tuckshop arms”, as she has called them, holding them aloft to illustrate, swinging them to get up momentum. There is the advance guard of her formidable bosom, then the true sweetness of her smile, quick to appear on her rosebud mouth, her slightly crooked teeth adding to a childlike quality. 

Most people gather together their strengths and put them to the fore, keeping their vulnerabilities tucked behind. But there has been no such sifting and organising in Avril. She is the one substance of sensitivity and brashness, fragility and power. It’s tempting to follow through with this idea of her consistency, and wonder whether deeper knowledge of her would yield simply more of what an audience member sees on the stage – would she be sweet and funny at breakfast, grumpy at morning tea, show-offy at lunch, heartfelt at dinner? Deeper still: was she like this when she won New Faces, was she born like this? 

It’s all there in her voice – what she is, was and will always be. Back at the Charlton Show, a hot day coming to an end, she’s singing a Patsy Cline song and I’m moved almost to tears. Avril falls into emotion without warning, as though it’s a deep lake she’s forever walking alongside. But then she jumps out, shaking herself off, using the power of her voice to snap us out of our reverie and bring our attention back to her. After the song she says, “Now that’s what every singer wants to see – women walking past with their hands over their ears. Yes, you!”

Above the noise of the crowd, the mini-bikes, the bucking-bronco ride, faint protests from the women: “Too loud!”

There’s a loose group of children down the front, dancing to the music and playing with a giant purple-and-silver ball. Avril points to a toddler and says, “We’re not too loud for babies!”

She and the band are loud enough still to be heard from a seat near the woodchopping, where a 12-year-old, dressed in the woodchopper white trousers and singlet printed with the team logo, is grimly working away at a log, his fellow competitors long since finished. There’s a bit of applause when his log falls in two, but he doesn’t look at his audience as he walks off. C. W. Stoneking happens to be at the bar, watching Leslie Avril from a distance. He is here today as a mere showgoer, yet is still dressed in the clothes you see in his publicity photos: hair oiled back old-style, white trousers, white shirt. He stands out, yet also fits in – he could be a woodchopper, with a shirt pulled over his team singlet. On his latest album cover, he wears a mask.

Night falls and I leave the showground to put the toddler to bed. From the verandah of the old pub, now a B&B, we can see the finale, fireworks exploding above country-town rooftops and eucalypts. We can even hear Leslie Avril, as she sings one last song.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 13, 2014 as "Heart of the country". Subscribe here.

Lucy Lehmann
is a novelist and songwriter living in Sydney.

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