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interview: katie noonan

Undeniably, Katie Noonan is one of the most loved figures in Australian music. She has reunited with one of her first projects Elixir, a jazz trio with her husband Zac Hurren and Stephen Magnusson. While touring their ARIA winning second album First Seed Ripening, I spoke to Katie about what audiences can expect from Elixir now, what inspires her, and her perceptions on women in the music industry.

Can you summarize Elixir’s sound in five words or less?
Gentle, intimate, quiet, music.

Your career has spanned so many genres (opera, jazz, pop, rock and dance), but which is your favourite?
I don’t really have a favourite. I guess my own inspiration and focus as an artist is to try to find my own voice as much as possible in both my performative and compositional style. My original material will always be my first preference, but my favourite is whatever project I’m in  at that time. I just follow my muse and go where it takes me.

Is there a particular reason for the eight-year gap between Elixir’s first and second album, First Seed Ripening?
The main reason was parenthood and being a wife and mother of two boys. We had two kids very close together and my husband is in the band, so obviously we were pretty consumed with parenthood for the first few years! Then I was focused on my solo stuff working on Skin, and then jazz stuff with Blackbird and The Captains and having fun with my different projects. But then I realised I wanted to return to that quiet, gentle music of Elixir so that’s why we went back to that kind of world a couple of years ago and started writing for a new record.

What have you and the band learnt in that time and how has this influenced your music?
In that time Zach has made his own album, Xordium, as a band leader of Trio, and I think I’ve made four – or five? – records since the Elixir record so each album has taught me something new.

We are all improvising jazz music first and foremost so we’re constantly trying to evolve as musicians and get better at what we do and have more tools in our compositional language to use in gigs. Its pretty much impossible to pinpoint one succinct thing I’ve learnt but I always try to listen to new music and try and get a better sense of time and intonation and everything that makes up what you do as a musician.

What can audiences expect from the current tour of First Seed Ripening?
We really want to create a gentle, intimate, quiet space where people can come and feel comfortable and welcomed and… gentle. That’s the main intention of our music.

How does it make you feel to be constantly regarded as one of Australia’s greatest singers?
Oh, it’s a huge honour and it’s hard because obviously you can’t take that stuff on or your head will be the size of a house. It’s just a great honour to be able to do what I do full time and be a full time musician. It’s a great gift that I know a lot of musicians don’t have so I’m just thankful.

Who do you admire most in the music industry?
There are many, but I would probably say Joni Mitchell, she one of my heroes and she is still making music four or five decades after her first album. She’s an amazing artist who gets better with time, which is exactly what I hope to do with my career.

Do you think the Australian music industry treats female musicians different to male musicians? Have you seen this as an advantage/disadvantage for establishing your career?
Generally the music industry tends to sexualize women more than men. That’s the main point of difference and you’ll see plenty of female artists who think that they need to wear scantily-clad clothing or dance in a saucy way, or whatever, to sell their music. It does still happen with men, but generally not as much. Generally, really great musicians don’t need to sell sex to sell their music, they sell their music because their music’s great – so I think if you need to sell sex to sell your music there is something missing in the music equation.

I don’t think I’ve been treated any differently – I’m certainly one of the boys and I love my gear as much as anyone else loves their gear. There is certainly sexism in the music industry – but there is sexism everywhere. I don’t think sexism is particularly rampant in the industry. The charts definitely reflect a love of women because the highest selling records over the last few years have been female singer/songwriters, but the industry itself certainly has many more males behind the scenes with the crew, record companies, agents and all of that stuff. As long as everyone treats each other with respect I don’t think the gender thing matters at all.

If you had to pick a favourite career moment, what would it be?
At the end of 2010 I did a pretty special, amazing concert at the Opera House called Sumptuous, where I presented a snapshot of my career as a composer with a full chamber orchestra with special guests and myself. That was very special in my career and I felt very lucky.

What can we expect next from Katie Noonan?
I’m pretty fascinated with the stories of the women who first came to Australia, so I’ve been researching the letters, diaries and anthropology of female convicts who first came here in the late eighteen century to mid nineteenth century. I’m researching in order to write a song cycle depicting this world, where some of the lyrics will be real, actual texts by the convicts and others will be fictionalised. I’m presenting that as a world premiere at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in June. I’m working with Circa, which is a fantastic Circus company, with all female circus and physical theatre performers, myself, a string quartet and some musician friends.

Elixir’s ‘Snapshot’ tour is continuing along the East Coast in March and April – check Katie Noonan’s facebook page for details.

Have a listen to ‘Snapshot’ from the album, First Seed Ripening!

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