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Interview with Shelly Brown on becoming a Mullumbimby festival youth mentor

Shelly Brown at Mullum Music Festival

Mullum Music Festival | 15–18 Nov

Last week saw Mullum Music Festival’s Youth Mentorship open for nominations for the 2018 event. The mentorship offers young musicians a unique and very pivotal experience to work alongside an industry peer. Along with performing at the festival, singer/songwriter Shelly Brown is the mentor for the Vocal component of the program. She spoke with The Echo about what it means to sing…

Shelly, it seems every second person can sing. What is the essence of a good, or even great, voice?

I’d say everyone can sing, it’s just sometimes it’s a private affair. It doesn’t always have to be public to bring a little inner joy.

I’d say a part of a good or great voice might have something to do with shedding your fear.

Instead of being worried about what people might think, to just practise, relax, smile occasionally and breathe. Most audiences would be thinking you can do it! so to waste any time thinking your audience is thinking pffff, my dog can sing better than that, is a pointless waste of your heart.

But I guess really the essence of voice is tone. The unique tone of your voice is your signature, whatever that may be.

Consider the tone of your voice when you speak with love, or hate, or anger, or whinging. And then multiply that by how much emotion you put into singing. And then practise letting that fall out of your head.

What are the most common mistakes young singers make?

To go back to the basics sometimes is a valuable lesson. We all want to act out and emphasise the emotion, but to just go back and nut out the notes, breath work, technique, yada yada.

And just to breathe. Support your notes by filling your body like you’re about to swim.

But hey, what do I know, there’re plenty of young singers out there utterly rocking it.

Is it hard to find your ‘natural’ voice or is it something that is just there?

This is the journey’s question, where I can’t help sounding like I’m a cliche from Byron Bay.

But, yes, I think your natural voice is there; sometimes you just gotta go the long way round to find what was there at the start and to trust it. You can do this in a bunch of ways. I could list twenty of varying comfort levels to journey around your personal vocal awareness… singing lessons, songwriting, yoga, toning, screaming while skydiving, getting drunk at karaoke, choirs, studying instruments, turning the TV off and putting music on, singing in the car, open mic nights…

I really loathe the contemporary style of singing, which makes women sound like breathy little girls. It sounds a bit pornographised to me. Are there fashions in the way people sing in the industry? What’s with that weird vocal style?

I think I would technically call that singing with a high larynx with lots of air to soften your sound.

High, open, soft – yeah? It actually takes a surprising amount of energy to sustain that business, while making it seem like dejected under-singing. I don’t dislike it, but I really do like singers who are dynamic. I guess some people find their strength and stick to it like butter on toast. When a Jack Johnson song comes on the radio, you know it’s him, and that’s working out for him pretty well.

I’m not sure I’d call it a fashion. Rikkie Lee Jones was my queen of that open, high, clear-as-a-bell sound, and she was cooking with gas before I was born.

Pornographised make me laugh! Singing with a husky, airy, sexy tone has been going on for a long time! Happy Birthday Mr President! But yeah, I know what you mean. One of my Year 12 students told me her (male) music school teacher said to sing her song ‘more sexily’. I almost had a fit at how inappropriate I thought that was. I encourage students to sing love songs for their family, or for something they love and to be diverse in their range of abilities.

If you could give a young singer five songs to practise on what would they be and why?

Ernie – Fat Freddy’s Drop – to teach the minor pentatonic scale, to encourage improvisation over a simple progression, to loosen up and breathe.

Ain’t Nobody – Chaka Khan – to smack that minor pentatonic like you mean it, to bring your inner black woman out, to get your funk on, to make you dance like a nutcase around my studio.

All I Do – Stevie Wonder – So you know who Stevie Wonder is, to get you in the groove, to get you singing hard, fun descending vocal lines, ’cause walking down Mt Warning is easier than walking up it.

Something jazzy… like Willow Weep for Me – ’cause I heard Laura Nobel sing it a while ago and the blues oozing from her still makes me weak. You gotta get into some blues, and the blues scale so you may as well go to a hard song with a fun teacher and work your way back.

And a fifth song? Something the young singer adores with their heart and soul. Because they know it, it has shaped them and been a sound track to their life. And in teaching it to me they learn to trust themselves a little more.

How did you start singing? Was it innate to you? Did you know you could sing?

I sang with my family. I grew up jamming around the table after dinner. We had a bizarre repertoire of The Clancy Brothers, John Williamson, and Bernard Bolan.

Who are the singers who influenced you?

My dad and his music collection (mainly guitar-based folk singers – James Taylor, Crosby Stills and Nash). I remember the first time I heard Tori Amos singing Cornflake Girl and I was smitten. And Di Franco and her quirk and twang, Michael Franti’s rapping back in the day.

More recently? Goddamn, did you hear Harry James Angus sing Struggle With Glory? Dan Sultan’s rawness, The California Honeydrops, Mama Kin’s honesty, Hatz Fitz and Cara… Claire Anne Taylor breaks me every time.

What happens when you step into a song? Do you go to the deep places every time? Is it important to do that when you are singing?

I don’t go into the same deep place every time I step into a song, but it’s fun to go somewhere. Being given people’s time and space to make your musical offering is a pretty special gift. So acknowledging that by getting into the intent of the song is usually appreciated and can be enjoyable.

How do you keep a song ‘fresh’ when you have sung it many many times?

Improvise, express yourself, express your day and your heart – what have your learnt, what do you love? Rearrange it, mash it into another song, do a cartwheel, sing it in Spanish, learn it on a new instrument, play it on an old instrument, change the tense, sing it to your dog.

What song do you most love singing?

I wrote a song called Blackbird, which brings me a lot of joy. I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the lyrics and I mean every word. I sang it for my mum and dad at my dinner table when it was new. And I can see them smiling at me when I sing it.

Why did you decide to be a mentor for Mullum Music Fest?

For two reasons: I love teaching singing and helping people believe in themselves, and because I adore Mullum Music Fest. This glorious crew have worked their patooties off making this festival flourish and I am honoured to be a part of the team, be involved, spend time with them, learn from them, and just get in to it. They had me at Hello.

What should we expect for your shows at Mullum?

This year I applied solo. Just me and my little guitar are going to sing our little hearts out. I’ll perform some extremely stripped-back soul songs from my previous album (available under my maiden name Hughes from Vitamin Music), and a veritable bucket load of newer folky, soul songs.

Shelly Brown is a featured performer and a mentor for Mullum Music Festival. To see the whole lineup and to buy tickets go to mullummusicfest.com.


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