Mullum Music Festival patron Harry Angus continued the festival’s commitment to mentoring young talent when he visited Cape Byron Steiner School music students this week.
Previous under-15 Youth Mentorship winner Mali Biggin-Johnson was part of the four-person band Children of Moscow (their dads are in Dustyesky Russian Choir) who received an hour-long consultation with Harry about their performance, songwriting and musical arrangements. Mali at 16 is the guitarist and vocalist for the group who have a gig at this year’s festival; she was joined by fellow band members 17-year-old Felix Abercrombie, and 14-year-olds Paddy Swain and Mali’s brother Luca.
Children of Moscow played Harry a selection of their material that included a few select songs along with original pieces. As a foursome the group showed incredible musicianship, with band members playing guitar, banjo, uke, drums, bass guitar and sax as part of their song arrangements.
Angus was generous and enthusiastic in his engagement with the young band who benefitted greatly from his input.
He referred back to Edith Piaf as an example of performance approaches.
‘Edith Piaf is old school, but she’s known to be one of the greatest performers of all time. She never got over her nerves about walking on stage. She would be trembling all the time, but she said, “If you are not nervous then you don’t care!”
‘It’s about being natural onstage,’ he told the kids. ‘Often it’s about being the best actor! There are a few things you can do to make your own performance artistic’.
As a fellow horn player, Harry offered Felix some advice.
‘You have an interesting job. What do you do when you are standing around? Think about what you do to pass the time until it’s ready for you to come in. When you come in to play your part you want to give people the sense you are about to play right before you do, you want people to see you. You step up and come in with something dramatic. It’s about a tone. It’s a sound, and if you get it right everyone goes Wow! You can feel it in the room. One of the best things about horns is that you don’t need a microphone; you have the ability to play to the acoustics of the room. To do that you actually have to listen to the room to get the tone right.’
For songwriter Mali, who penned Short Term Memory, Harry had some excellent advice.
‘A lot of people make the mistake of singing a happy song happily and a sad song sadly, but when you step up and sing a song you have written, you want it to be like the first time your wrote it. Go back to that secret world of your head.’
The advice also works with songs you haven’t written.
‘When I go to the jazz songs I love, some of them are as cheesy as, then you hear someone like Billie Holliday sing and she transforms a cheesy song into a work of art. She puts Pain in the song. She’s going somewhere with it and you want to be there with her. There’s this emotional world in every song that you can just step into.’
Harry also reflected on the very individual nature of songwriting and how songwriters have to know what way works best for them.
‘My wife Em (Emily Lubitz from Tin Pan Orange), her best songs are the sad ones. The simple songs. She writes one every 3 months. She is very very slow. Then one day after she’s had a conversation or felt a bit sad she’ll write an amazing song. When she watched the Great Gatsby she wrote a song called Light Across the Water, inspired by the image in the film. You don’t have to have the whole idea unpacked when you start writing. You don’t have to know what it means. You just need to imagine.’
Harry admits his writing technique is completely different from his wife Emily’s.
‘I sit down every day and I write a song. I don’t care if it’s bad or good. Then I record it in my phone. Later I will listen and I’ll go: that bit, that’s a great bit. I watched a documentary recently on John Cage; he’s a modernist composer, and he has this great image of songs as an underground river and all you have to do as a writer is find a way to get to it. It was always there, and songwriting was you finding your way there.’
For ticket and programming information go to www.mullummusicfestival.com.