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Since arriving on the music scene as a teenager in the band George, Katie Noonan has been an evolving artist. Now, she’s seeking to empower fellow female singer–songwriters in rural Australia. By Susan Chenery.

Katie Noonan takes to the bush

Katie Noonan
Credit: CYBELE MALINOWSKI

On the plane, taciturn miners spread out in jeans and high-vis vests. Large, grim men flying in to work underground, a dull uniformity in their baseball caps, workboots and doubtful manners. But as the plane banks across red earth and scrub and the tall chimneys of Mount Isa come into view, there is an apparition among these working men. With a stiff white quiff, flaming red lips, jangling chunky jewellery, a long dress of rainbow colours and pale skin swathed in silk scarves, Katie Noonan would be a flamboyant presence anywhere.

The multi-award-winning singer, songwriter, producer, collaborator and pianist is heading to Mount Isa for Songs That Made Me, a program for female regional songwriters that is part of the Queensland Music Festival, of which Noonan is artistic director.

Later, I see her wafting through the heavy copper doors of the town’s civic centre, trailing perfume and silk, singing to herself. The seven-time platinum-selling artist is always singing. Inside on the stage a small group of women are huddled together over guitars. Noonan steps into the glare of the stage lights, now in her natural habitat.

Cath Purcell, 38, has the authority and bearing of the police officer that she is. She has broken up a lot of bar fights around here. In her jeans and boots she has a swagger that is not to be trifled with. Today she is one of three local women selected for Songs That Made Me. Four other women have been chosen in each of Mackay and Gladstone after they sent in videos of themselves singing a song they had written. Part of being a finalist means being mentored by Noonan today. She has brought along music educator, vocalist and songwriter Leigh Carriage, who is teaching breathing exercises.

“I am very lucky that I have been able to make a living as a musician my entire life,” Noonan tells them. “So for the past five years I have felt a responsibility to shine a light on the next generation. So I thought, let’s try to do a program that empowers female singer–songwriters. It is hard enough in Sydney and Melbourne, but if you are in the regional places, it is a lot harder. We thought it was particularly important to find women who have chosen to stay in their home towns and make their lives there.”

Later over drinks she will add: “The main purpose of Queensland Music Festival is to transform lives through music. So that is our remit. We are dedicated to going to the small towns, to the communities, going to Indigenous communities. Queensland is so big. It is being able to recognise resilience and to express it and colour it with the music of what I want the message to look like.”

Here in Mount Isa the songs the women have written are classic country songs of loss, grief, regret. Purcell’s song is about her marriage break-up. “I left,” she says, “and I admit that I stuffed up.” She thought she had no chance of her song being chosen but here she is.

Lenita Woodsbey, 35, is a stay-at-home mother of four, whose truck driver husband runs a road train across the outback. She grew up singing around camp fires and in church choirs. There was always a banjo or ukulele being played in the house. She sings in church choirs. Writing songs, she says, “is a process that I have always used to get through a moment or express my feelings. It is a release of emotions and so therapeutic.” Her husband was ecstatic that she was chosen as a finalist “because he knows it brings me so much joy”.

Her song is about the recent death of her mother from brain cancer.

“Your guitar is out of tune,” Noonan tells Woodsbey before advising her to “do some sort of visualisation to imagine your feet connecting down to the earth and down below it. It really helps ground you. And you are Aussie, sing like an Aussie, you are putting an American inflection on your vowels.”

Bianca Lugo, 32, works as a youth support counsellor at a local high school. She has toured the United States in a rock band with her family and would like to be a professional singer again but is struggling with writing the songs.

Noonan tells her, “It is bigger than us what we are connecting to when we are writing a song or singing. I try to connect with that other source and just let it flow and not think about the actuality. I don’t really think about the form when I am writing but I listen to a lot of music all the time. I don’t have a television, which I highly recommend for a creative person because it is such an awful sound to hear. Every bit of music that’s coming inI want to be receptive to.”

Katie Noonan’s program for the Queensland Music Festival is unapologetically political. At the end of the month a massed choir will sing “You’re the Voice” to raise awareness about domestic violence. “I guess as a festival director I do believe I have a responsibility to ensure that our society is reflected in our programming. I have always kind of functioned as a producer who wanted to build multi-art forms but I have never been to board meetings and corporate government and all that kind of stuff, so that is extremely grown-up.”

She first understood the power and responsibility of music at the age of 19, when her band George released the song “Special Ones”, about her futile friendship with a drug addict. “I had women in their 50s send me messages saying, ‘I heard your song on the radio, I pulled over the car, I had a big cry, and listened to it and it gave me the power to walk away from my abusive marriage.’ And stuff like that scared the crap out of me. But I understood that music is to connect us and realise our commonality rather than our differences. To do good, that is what it is for. But also talk about tricky stuff because singing about something is often so much easier than talking about it. That has filtered through all my work in my life.”

Noonan’s musical education began in utero. Her father, Brian, is a jazz-loving journalist, her mother, Maggie, an opera singer. “She taught from home my whole life so there was always music in the house. She was doing Albert Herring, the Benjamin Britten opera, at the Opera House when I was in her tummy. She took my brother to see ABBA – I reckon I would have heard that, too. I reckon my in utero experience actually formed a lot of my life.”

Noonan entertained the idea of following her father into journalism. “I wanted to be a hardcore investigative journalist but I am not tough enough. I wouldn’t have been able to cope with that sorrow.”

Instead, she went to the Queensland Conservatorium to study opera then, to the consternation of her teachers, radically switched to lower levels of jazz. “I am very glad I am not an opera singer. I don’t love it enough. I didn’t want to be other people, I just wanted to be myself as much as possible. With opera, obviously, you are just playing other people’s roles. Usually they are quite depressing and messed up. Because operas are all ‘I am dying’ and ‘he cheated on me’, ‘I have got some fatal disease’, and it is all dramatic stuff. Authenticity is my main goal as an artist, to be myself.”

Noonan is constantly on her phone. During the lead-up to the Queensland Music Festival she has continued performing, touring for her recently released album Songs of the Latin Skies, a collaboration with guitarist Karin Schaupp, and singing at a new jazz club in Brisbane. At a recent concert at the Brisbane conservatorium, her voice absolutely pure and singing in Portuguese, she talked about when she met her husband, musician Zac Hurren, downstairs in the corridor. She had walked past him and got a jolt. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is what love is,’ because I thought I knew what it was before then. I remember going, ‘Oh, wow, this is what they are talking about in all those movies and books.’ ”

Noonan and Schaupp have made three albums together, and done four tours.

“People talk a lot about the quality of her voice,” Schaupp says. “It is angelic, but it is really what she does with it and her versatility and insight across musical styles. Katie is a perfectionist, she puts in the hard work, she doesn’t rest on her laurels.”

Together with her brother, Tyrone, Noonan formed George after leaving the conservatorium. “We were such an unexpectedly out-of-the-box success,” she admits. “Basically our success was due to our fans, because we toured and toured. We never made any money. Any money we did make went back into touring and making our independent records. We were a real little hard-working business for a while.” They had just signed with Mushroom Records and were south of Perth when they found out their album Polyserena had gone to No. 1 in the charts. Then they were on television. “It was overwhelming. I could afford to take myself off the dole and pay ourselves the equivalent of the dole. And that was a huge success for us. But what I was so proud of was that we got there on our own terms, still functioning as an independent band. People came in and wanted to change us. We had to really stick to our guns, which wasn’t easy. It took inner resolve. And even when I have worked with major labels, I still function as an independent artist with complete creative and artistic control, which is actually very rare. I fought for that my whole life.”

Today she is the primary earner while Hurren is the stay-at-home carer for their sons, Dexter and Jonah, at their rainforest home at Eumundi on the Sunshine Coast. When she is at home she is an earth mother, big on vegetables. “We have always been a touring gypsy family but Dexter is going to high school next year so I am trying to reconfigure my life so I can be at home more for that. We are a very talky-talky family. My husband is a very evolved man. He is writing an opera.”

By now it is the next day and we are back at the airport in the departure lounge, where miners are having pre-flight morning beers.

While speaking to her, Noonan is working that phone, sending texts, taking calls, sending emails, showing me photos of her children. The next day she will be in concert in Melbourne, with Schaupp. “She is one of those people who can be very busy but is calm internally, very clear-headed and incredibly organised,” Schaupp says. “She will always answer an email, even if it is a brief message.”

I comment on Noonan’s constantly changing genres, collaborating with everyone from Tim Finn, Michael Leunig, her mother, Paul Grabowsky, Don Walker, her jazz band Elixir to the Brodsky Quartet.

“All my favourite artists are constantly reinventing themselves and trying new stuff, getting out of their comfort zone. Joni Mitchell is one of my heroes. If you look at Joni in the late ’60s, early ’70s and Joni now, the evolution of her as an artist is incredible. Björk is the same, Tom Waits is the same. Tori Amos, John Coltrane, Radiohead. They never looked back, they only looked forward. You don’t rest on your laurels and don’t think you have achieved all you can achieve. I would go crazy doing the same things over and over.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 22, 2017 as "High Noonan". Subscribe here.

Susan Chenery
is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.