Listen: Katie Noonan chats to Katrina Roe. Photo credit: CybeleMalinowski
When Katie Noonan first launched into a music career as the front person for indie rock band George, I doubt she would have imagined a time when you couldn’t play a gig in Australia.
In her 20 year career, she’s had over 25 Aria nominations and played in front of thousands of people – but right now of course, she can only play online. And that’s a bit of an issue when you’ve got a new album out! It’s called The Sweetest Taboo and it’s a jazz collection of reimagined 80s classics for music icons like Crowded House, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston and Eurhythmics.
Katie probably ought to be touring the country right now, but instead, she’s promoting her album from her lounge room. I had a chance to catch up with her on Hope Mornings. This is our conversation.
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Katrina Roe: This pandemic has been very tough on the arts. How has your work been impacted?
Katie Noonan: Well, basically, any musician who isn’t in a classical orchestra in Australia has lost probably 100% of their income and 100% of their capacity to make a living. So it’s been a very difficult time.
KR: So is it really the gigs that pay the bills, rather than the album sales, for a musician?
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KN: Oh, 100 percent, yeah. When I started releasing albums, in the early ‘noughties’, albums cost 30 bucks. And now, obviously, 20 years later, they are valued at half that price. And there’s also an entire generation that have grown up thinking that music is just this free thing that you get on the internet. So it’s been a tumultuous time of change.
Basically, the only way to make a living as a musician is to play live. So our capacity to do that is entirely off the table.
So it’s been a really confronting time, but also, how lucky are we – we live in paradise! We live in a country that has an amazing health system, we’ve had incredible initiatives like Job Keeper and Job Seeker. So, you know, in the big scheme of things, we are the luckiest country in the world I reckon. And I think this pandemic has been handled incredibly well.
But there is a much larger discussion about the value of our artists and the value of music. Like, I don’t see why there is a sports segment on the news and there isn’t an art segment. That makes no sense to me.
KR: That’s a good point – let’s try and make that happen. I want to talk about your new album because every new creation is a little triumph in itself that it actually made it safely out through the hands of all the creators and out into the world.
The Sweetest Taboo is a new album of of old songs. What brought you back to these tunes?
KN: So basically, I’ve had a really busy four years, the last four years have been amazing, but super dizzy. I was running. I was the youngest ever artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival, which is the largest music festival in the world. And we had over 100 events, over a squillion locations. Not really – but a lot. And I was also a music director for the opening and closing ceremonies for Commonwealth Games. So they were two incredible opportunities that were incredibly exhausting. And when I kind of came out of that, I realized, “Whoa, man, I am pretty burnt out. I’m pretty tired. I want to get back to the joy. I want to go back to the pure joy of why I fell in love with pop music.” And that happened when I was seven and I bought my first seven-inch single. And it happened when I was eight, and I bought my first album.
KR: And what was the first seven-inch single?
KN: It was Vince Jones. Blue, which is on the record, it’s the second track. Vince Jones is an Australian jazz solo singer. And my first album was Crowded House by Crowded House, my second album was Man of Colours by Icehouse, my third album was Revenge by Eurythmics. So I wanted to go back to that pure, childish joy of amazing pop music. And I don’t know what was in the water in the mid 80s but holy moly, so many good songs, I could’ve done ten albums.
KR: Your versions are stunning, can I say! They’re also really fresh. Did you have fun reimagining them and working out what you’re going to do with each tune?
KN: Yeah, I did. I mean, it’s a jazz record for want of a better word. But for me jazz is a really welcoming, warm world. And, I know for a lot of people, jazz feels like a kind of elitist, snobby world where there are just a lot of notes. And I wasn’t interested in playing that. I wanted to play with musicians, who are incredible jazz musicians, but also incredible pop players and aren’t judgmental of, you know, ‘daggy’ 80s pop songs.
So, I picked players that I knew would bring an open heart and a real joy to these tunes, but with their incredible jazz playing. And I kind of made arrangements specific to their skills.
“I wanted to play with musicians, who are incredible jazz musicians, but also incredible pop players and aren’t judgmental of, you know, ‘daggy’ 80s pop songs.”
So you know, the duet of True Colors shows off Phil Stack, amazing double bassist who is also in the band Thirsty Merc. And I knew that Sam Keevers, my pianist, would play, like – Electric Blue, I thought, let’s go for his Afro-Cuban kind of influence and make it a ‘cha cha cha’. And, you know, I knew Ev (drummer Evan Mannell) would kind of do something beautiful with When Tomorrow Comes.
We kind of went for this, ‘50s, [Phil] Spector kind of vibe. And so I kind of wrote the arrangements to their specific skills, but also really honored the tunes. Because I love those songs, so I didn’t alter the melodies that much, because they’re so good. You know what I mean? Like I showed, I hope, the respect that they deserve.
KR: So they’re all songs you loved as a kid… Which artist would you say influenced you most as a singer and as a performer?
KN: Annie Lennox – I would say it’d be a very tight competition between Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston.
KR: But you’ve adopted Annie Lennox’s hairstyle, so is that a subliminal thing? (laughs)
KN: I have. That probably shows the true depths of my adoration because I basically copied her hairstyle 30 years later.
KR: Your voice sounds just like hers on that track of When Tomorrow Comes.
KN: You reckon?
KR: It’s very similar. In the deeper tones…
KN: Yeah, yeah. Well, another thing I did with this record is, you know, I am known for singing ‘high’ a lot. And I really wanted to sing really low on this album a lot. So I kept them, a lot of them, in the original key, which to be honest, is out of my comfort zone to sing in. And actually, I Wanna Dance With Somebody is really low. But I mean, Whitney just had such a crazy, amazing instrument, yeah, it’s hard to sing any Whitney song. Annie and Whitney are obviously my two biggest female vocalist influences of that time. But my biggest male influenc is undoubtedly – well, it’d be a toss-up between Vince Jones and Ivor Davies. Both. And Neil Finn.
KR: Yeah, nice. I want to talk about the women because it was a very different time in the 80s when their songs were first created. So how has the world changed for women in music since these songs were first recorded?
KN: It’s changed a lot. And it’s also changed hardly any at all! So every CEO of the major record companies in Australia, are, you know, middle aged white men, and that was exactly what it was like in the 80s as well, so not much has changed at the top end of town.
And that’s not a bad thing. I love middle aged white men, they’re lovely. But you know, there’s not a lot of women in the power positions.
I think there should always be more on boards and CEOs but obviously, in the early noughties, women started, you know, dominating the charts: Destiny’s Child, Beyonce, internationally, but also domestically.
“If you think of the great artists that have had incredible careers, they don’t sound like anybody else: no-one sounds like Beyonce, no-one sounds like Madonna… U2, Björk, Powderfinger. You know, Lior, Clare Bowditch, Missy Higgins…they all have a unique sound.”
KR: Do you have any advice, then, for aspiring young musicians? Not necessarily just women. I know you’ve been very supportive of people like Tones and I – but thinking of young people now who want to build a career in music in the future, what’s your advice for them? What have you learned from 20-plus years in the Australian music industry?
KN: Be kind and respectful. And nothing takes away from the magic of a live show. If you can’t deliver the goods live, it’s unlikely you will have a long career. And also, sound as unique as possible. That’s your single biggest asset. Unfortunately I find a little bit nowadays, with the whole reality TV show thing, which is a new thing that came in obviously after I started, you know they’re like a ‘karaoke show’. So it does basically promote a bit of an idea of trying to sound like someone else.
Whereas, you know, if you think of the great artists in time that have had incredible careers, they don’t sound like anybody else; no-one sounds like Beyonce, no-one sounds like Madonna. No-one sounds like you U2, Björk, Powderfinger. You know, Lior, Clare Bowditch, Missy Higgins, whoever it is, they all have a unique sound that’s made themselves. Obviously we all have influences, but be as unique as possible would be my [advice]. I mean listen to Tones and I. No-one sounds like her.
And now there are about 1000 people who do, because they think if they, do they’ll have a career. But it actually doesn’t work that way. You know, being unique is your biggest asset.
KR: Yeah, well Sia is a good example of that, too.
KN: Exactly. Yeah, Sia, Björk, Tom Waites, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, whoever it is, they all sound like ‘themselves’.
KR: Well, we’re gonna play I Wanna Dance With Somebody. This was released by Whitney as a very upbeat kind of dancey track, that’s the one that most of us know. But you’ve pulled it right back. So can tell us a little bit about the intention behind the way you’ve done this song.
KN: Yeah, well, basically, you know, I’m a singer. So I have this amazing gift that – I get words – that, you know, other instruments don’t have. So I always start in the lyric and make sure that obviously, when it’s my own lyrics, that they’re are going to be true – because I’ve written them – but when I’m doing other people’s work, I want to make sure that I understand the song’s intention. And when I looked at the words, I was like, “Holy moly, this is the saddest song”. And when you think of her life as well, she had such a sad life.
And so I kind of I guess wanted to strip it back to this very simple, sad song, which is basically a plea for someone to dance with me because I’m incredibly lonely. So I kind of took it back to the lyrics and they led the vibe, and we took it to a very slow kind of gentle dance, rather than the amazing pop-tastic, synth-tastic, flouro, neon version that she did, which I absolutely love still. This one actually came out on my 10th birthday, 2nd of May, 1987. And, you know, it’s weird when you read the lyrics and then listen to the version you go, “Wow, they don’t really, kind of, relate”…so that’s why I took it back to the story.
KR: And yeah, 30 years later, and I think you know, this is very timely, a song about loneliness and that heart’s cry to want to connect…
KN: And isolation. Yeah, wanting to dance with someone. I want to dance with someone, too! But we can’t! It’s a bit hard to dance if we’re 1.5 meters, but you know, I’ll do it!
KR: Yeah, it doesn’t really lend itself to social distancing does it? All right. Thanks so much Katie Noonan, great to catch up with you.
KN: Thank you and thank you for your support. I really appreciate it.
KR: That is Katie Noonan, her new album is called The Sweetest Taboo.