Above: Candice McLeod, 39 weeks and one day pregnant, supported by from left Camille Bernadino, Ash Steele, Ceenah and Nyapal Lul (both obscured), Katie Harder, Xavia, Casii Williams, Bec Matthews (out of shot).
By KIERAN FINNANE
If there was only one word to describe the atmosphere of She sings, it might be “loving”.
That had to do with, in part, the mother-child relationships celebrated in different ways in this Desert Festival music event bringing together nine women singer-songwriters: in their lyrics; in their acknowledgements of mothers (and grandmothers), both in the audience and from afar; in their bodies, none more so that Candice McLeod, ready to have her baby at any moment, singing, strumming, foot-tapping, joyfully down to the wire.
It had to do, in part, with the relationships between the women, warm, supportive, reciprocal; not competitive, as key event-organiser Xavia said. One way this was manifested was by them all staying on stage together as each singer moved through her two-song set, sometimes providing backing vocals, sometimes affectionate and funny repartee, sometimes affirmations, and at all times an embracing presence. “They’ve got my back,” as Katie Harder (right) said.
And it had to do with the openness of their worlds. This included the kind of adventuring you might expect from the event’s theme, “Open road”. And cars and roads made their appearances, including the deep-rooted appeal of filling a tank and seeing how far it can get you – the starting point of Harder’s first song, and the end point too, “I’ll keep doing this thing that gives me freedom.”
But relationships were never far away: “I love that I overtook my first road-train with you,” sang Ash Steele in her ballad about a long road trip to Sydney, a promise to her Mum to get there by Christmas. (She made it.)
Bec Matthews’ travels in Africa, so vividly brought to our ear by her beautiful playing of the Kora, the 21-string West African harp, were the ground for her song about the love of a story-teller for his muse.
A journey in the opposite direction, from Africa to Australia, was about fleeing the war in South Sudan. This came from Nyapal Lul (below left), who has found refuge in Alice over the last three years. She has quite a long singing career behind her (as do a number of these performers) and has toured in Australia, but this was her first appearance in her new home town, thanks to her friendship with Xavia.
Her first song, “Never give up”, with lyrics in English, was dedicated to her people, to anyone “losing hope that peace will come in South Sudan”. She followed up with a gorgeously flirtatious song – staying in touch with what is part of the antidote to the grief of war. The lyrics were in her mother tongue; she gave us the translation of the title, “Come, come and kiss me”, but her wonderfully sexy dancing could have done the trick on its own.
“Open road” is also easily a metaphor for life’s journeys and uncertain destinations, as endlessly varied as they all are. From Filipino-born Camille Bernadino we heard a witty riposte to the tiresome question for immigrant Australians, “Where are you from?” She has lived in Australia from the age of three, so she is understandably “so sick” of being asked it. “I’m from my mother and father”, “I’m from my mother’s vagina”, were among the answers her song offered.
Her love song, to the woman she wants to be her wife, received resounding applause, perhaps the most resounding from the very appreciative Sunday afternoon audience.
Young Ceenah (below right) also summoned a feisty spirit in her song, “Soldier”. The 16-year-old student at Centralian Senior Secondary College is originally from Tonga; her family have been in Alice for eight years. She told the audience that the song was about her experience of being bullied, especially in primary school, “for being who I am”.
She has a wonderful voice, resonant, a little husky, accompanies herself on the electric guitar, and sings with complete conviction at the same time as great charm. Some of the lyrics from “Soldier” go like this: “Life doesn’t always work out how you want it to / you’ve got to be the soldier inside you … I can and I will.”
With this kind of composition to her name and her powerful performing presence, it’s not surprising that one of Ceenah’s songs was a 2018 NT Song of the Year finalist; she also won Best Soloist in the 2018 Battle of the School Bands.
Casii Williams, from the famed Western Aranda musical family, is taking her talent in a new electronic direction without losing anything of its soulfulness. Her first song, “Fallin’ Down”, another NT Song of the Year finalist, was about a romantic breakup – a subject that makes for the best songs, she said. The comment recalled Ash Steele’s funny story, about her friend’s challenge that she (Ash) avoids stable relationships because otherwise she would have nothing to write about.
Williams’ next song could have easily been taken for being in the same territory, but it was actually written for her mother. It was about wanting to take back something she said, not having meant it, and not being sure how to be in the world without her mother in it.
Katie Harder’s love song was written for the third of her four sons, Jessie – about her deepest wishes for how he’ll find his way in the world. She dedicated the song to Candice Macleod, on the brink of setting out on that particular road with a child, after seven years of nomadism when home was her car. Now she’s put down roots – literally, into a veggie garden, the subject of her first song.
Xavia’s “Horizon” (yet another NT Song of the Year finalist) was born of a journey in a car, to Uluru, but its dreaminess – in lovely instrumentation on cello and auto-harp, live-looping and vocals – took us beyond a road trip into the expanses of the desert landscape and the way it opens up our hearts.
Just the way they opened during this musical journey – producing two sell-out shows at Monte’s over the weekend – and the way these singer-songwriters have been, in Xavia’s words, “opening roads for each other”.
Below: Ash Steele
Below: Casii Williams
Below: Camille Bernadino
Below: Bec Matthews
Below: Xavia, supported by, from left, Ceenah, Ash Steele, Bec Matthews, Katie Harder, Candice McLeod (not in shot, Camille Bernadine and Cassii Wiiliams).
Finding and losing: self, love, home – the inaugural She sings event, 2017
Running with musical adventurers – the seeds are sown, 2016