Singer/songwriter Shane Howard may be best know for his anthemic song Solid Rock from the Goanna album Spirit of the Place back in 1982, but it is his extraordinary catalogue of work and his ability to make sense of the story of a Whitefella in Aboriginal country that makes him such an important contemporary artist.
Howard has just released his 13th solo album Deeper South (he had three with Goanna as well), an epic journey that sees the songwriter take on the bigger themes of man’s fragility in the face of the world. Like Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey, Howard is the little man in the boat shouting at his inconsequence to an unlistening and wild sea.
As for how an album with such mythic themes came about, Howard is uncertain: ‘These things evolve, I am not sure really how; it’s part voodoo, part design. Essentially I have spent a lot of my life – I am famous for a song that is about looking towards the middle of the desert – I spend a lot of my artist life looking inland; this time I faced the coast.’
The coast is where Howard now lives, a town in southwest Victoria, near Port Fairy, where the next stop is Antarctica.
Howard reflects on the journey that has brought him back home to the place where he grew up.
‘Growing up in the country, you know how to read the sky, the sea, the elements, you know what sort of day is coming; there is all that local knowledge of a place…
We will probably get rain, it looks like it’s going to be a dry summer, all those predictions; it’s farming country, we are cool country, temperate rainforest, and cold country. This area has the highest concentration of Irish migration outside of the city; they came here post-famine, it’s a very Celtic, I call it an Anglo-Celitc ghetto!
‘I have been back here a while now – engaging with local Indigenous country. It’s great to come back to where you grew up and the people you grew up with; there are still people I went to school with, the names that were there then are the names that are here now…’
In this album Howard wanted to focus on the notion of deeper south in a metaphorical sense.
‘It’s a bit like Ulysses is out on the sea, the unconquerable sea; no-one can own the ocean or control it or rule it – it is its own mistress and he’s a weary old man returning from the Trojan war!’
Howard grapples the bigger philosophical themes around death and inconsequence. ‘I think its inevitable how we go – you look into the eye of death and inevitably you have to go there alone, and inevitably we are all on a journey to save our souls and we are there in our boats, alone…’
Deeper South’s greatest strengths perhaps lie in that it is not constrained by commercial considerations. ‘In some songs,’ laughs Howard, ‘I rant on for eight or nine minutes! The Deeper South title track is the opener and sets up the manifesto, and it touches on those things. I am not a young man any more and I am not concerned by the things that young men are concerned with. I am dealing with grief, and love and joy, and in the end I have worked out that love is really the only thing that matters.’
Howard has always been a believer in music, or art with intent.
‘You want to be useful; art should be useful; it shouldn’t just be decorations to hang on our ears.’ Shane Howard makes his way to Murwillumbah for the Country Roots Festival in October, heading, one muses, deeper north. It’s somewhere he first came hitchhiking in 1975.
Shane Howard is joined by his trio at the Murwillumbah Country Roots Festival October 2–5 at the Murwillumbah Showgrounds.
For ticket information go to www.mcrfest.com.