Katie Noonan: Love is a Circus
by Steve Proposch
Way back in 1998 a little indie-pop band from Brisbane released their first self-titled album, George. The band included Katie Noonan on vocals and keys, Katie’s brother Tyrone on vox, guitar and keys, Geoff Green on drums, Nick Stewart on guitar and Geoff Hooton on bass. Hooton left the band in 2000 to be replaced by Paulie Bromley, and the band went on to build a solid following over the next few years, culminating in their 2002 release, Polyserena, which went Platinum.
While George effectively remains together as a group, the individual members have been on hiatus, attending to their own projects, since their last performance as a band in Brisbane, December 2004. Katie has arguably been busiest during this time, achieving widespread acclaim through vibrant excursions into Jazz, Pop and Classical music, and taking one of the world’s most pure and versatile singing voices to new and sublime heights.
One of those peaks was an amazing and beautiful song cycle based on the letters of early Australian pioneering women that Katie devised and composed in 2012. The songs became the basis for a collaboration with contemporary Circus group Circa, who helped to meld the piece into a remarkable physical theatre piece called Love-Song-Circus, which ran to rave reviews and packed houses in both the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and the Melbourne Spiegeltent.
This year Love-Song-Circus returns to the stage for the Garden of Unearthly Delights (13 February – 16 March) in Rundle Park, Adelaide, and Trouble jumped at the opportunity to interview this remarkable and protean performer.
We were blown away by your wonderful performance of Songs of the Southern Skies with Karin Schaupp last year at the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine …
Katie Noonan: Thank you very much – I love that gorgeous space.
You are nothing if not eclectic, working across a range of genres and styles with a wide variety of fellow performers and songwriters. I’m interested in how you might describe your own practice, considering your apparent refusal to fit into any neat musical pigeonholes.
K.N. For me music is simply about connection between one human and another. The genre and style do not matter to me at all. As long as it comes from a place of integrity and honesty that is all I really care about. Thankfully that has meant that I have been able to work with a wide and wonderful range of artists from various walks of musical life. My passion of late has been working with artists from different mediums, like visual art, dance and circus, and seeing how that challenges and inspires me.
Do you feel a special affinity to any one style of music over the others?
K.N. My first love was classical music. Then came pop and rock and later came jazz and folk. Somewhere between these worlds is my favourite music. A glorious space where genre does not exist.
Your mother’s opera career must have been hugely influential in choosing your own career path. Can you tell us a bit about your family and those early years of classical voice training?
K.N. My mum and dad are wonderful parents and introduced my older brother Tyrone and I to a fantastic world of musical influences, mainly classical and jazz. Mum Maggie is also a music teacher so she has seen one too many pushy parents in her time, and definitely did not push Ty or I into any particular musical path. She simply supported our choices and taught us both singing and piano along the way, and encouraged us to do our best. My love of literature and great lyrics came from my father, Brian, who is a wonderful journalist and writer.
In 2013 you were placed in a top 20 list of greatest Australian singers, according to a Herald Sun poll of your peers. The list included Bon Scott, Michael Hutchence and Gurrumul. Can you name a few Australian singers who might top your own personal list of ‘the greatest’?
K.N. At the top of my list would have been Dame Joan Sutherland, Vince Jones and Archie Roach. I was incredibly honoured to be included in the list – so amazing!
Love-Song-Circus takes you to new ground yet again, performing a physical theatre piece in collaboration with circus troupe Circa. Can you offer a bit of background as to the narrative of this particular song cycle?
K.N. Love -Song-Circus was inspired by an exhibition at the National Museum called Love Tokens. The convicts would engrave pennies – the tokens – with messages and images for the loved ones they left behind. This imagery of love and loss captured my imagination immediately … as a woman and mother I felt deeply compelled to explore these stories. I soon discovered that the lives of the first female convicts is a part of our history that has unfortunately been explored by few. My research led me all over the country and as I got to know these incredible women more and more, a lovely musical world began to emerge, a song cycle for string quartet, piano, double bass and guitar/banjo.
My desire to add a visual element lead to the involvement of the team at Circa – directors Yaron Lifschitz and Ben Knapton, and three exceptional performers, acrobat/aerialists Melissa Knowles, Jessica Ward and Kate Muntz. I feel we have created a fascinating introduction to the world of these brave and stoic women.
Have you found the results of Love-Song-Circus surprising in any way? and/or What kinds of new things are you learning about through this kind of performance?
K.N. There is something very special about singing about actual real women and bringing their history to life. I feel very honoured to have got to know these women … they really are truly inspiring and powerful! It has been fascinating to work with the team at Circa and to witness how these stories translate into their bodies. They have such a different vernacular. It makes me feel incredibly unfit and un-bendy!
You do seem to love the narrative elements of songwriting – can you expand on your feelings for any story-songs that may have influenced your work or made an impact in your life?
K.N. One of my greatest influences as a lyricist is Joni Mitchell. She really is the queen of the narrative that sucks you in and takes you on a journey. Honestly though, pretty much all music I listen to influences me in some way. With my own lyric writing I just try to be as honest as possible and try not to edit /judge myself as the words come out. It can be quite scary revealing your private world in your lyrics but I feel that is the only way to truly connect.
Katie Noonan and Circa will perform Love-Song-Circus at Garden of Unearthly Delights, Rundle Park, East Terrace, Adelaide (SA), 13 February to 16 March 2014 – gardenofunearthlydelights.com.au