A Punter’s Perspective #36 — The Paperback Sessions

Paperback Sessions at Smiths Alternative Bookshop, Canberra City
Paperback Sessions at Smiths Alternative Bookshop, Canberra City

A Punter’s Perspective

Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage

#36 The Paperback Sessions
First published in Trad and Now magazine, August 2012

Regular readers of this column, apart from probably needing a little light therapy, can probably discern a few recurring themes.

Not the least of these is the little bubbles of childish joy the author gets when a new venue or opportunity for live, original music makes its way onto the scene.

I’ve spent most of my adult life railing against two eminently and easily explodable myths: 1. Canberra’s boring, and 2. There’s nothing to do in Canberra.

Both are, of course, big steaming piles of dynamic lifter.

Friday nights particularly are troublesome with the multiplicities of options if you haven’t been able to replicate yourself into about six or seven independent entities.

Without having to refer to a gig guide, I can tell you that you need to divide yourself between the Phoenix bar, Bucky’s Lone Wolf gigs at the Harmonie German Club, the always wonderful Front Café, the newly-launched Canberra Musicians Club gigs at the Polish White Eagle Club, folk gigs at the Merry Muse, the Transit Bar conveniently located under the youth hostel, the odd very fine line-ups at Alliance Francaise and the occasional gig at old stagers, Tilley Devine’s.

Not bad for a metropolis of only about 360 000. And that’s just the gigs riffed off the top of the head. I’m sure there are many others. (See www.culturazi.com for any missing bits and pieces.)

Still, it’s a thing of joy and beauty to welcome a new player onto the scene. Because if you want to get away from three-chord covers bashers, replete with drum machines, in the clubs, Canberra really does offer a feast of the good stuff. And we’re big and ugly enough to offer a smorgasbord and share the audiences and audients about.

Which is not to say the occasional gig doesn’t kick off with the sound rattling around in poorly-attended venues. That will happen. Some days are diamonds, some days are when you struggle to clear the venue costs and pay the sound guy.

So. One such venue made its way into Canberra’s mix recently with just the right amount of fanfare, immediate support and a growing profile.

The Paperback Sessions is the brain-child of journalist Georgia Curry. And being a deft hand at the quill and ink, she’s made my deadline-averse job so much easier by providing pretty much all of the written copy to my questions below.

That makes her something of a goddess in my eyes.

Firstly, Georgia: the back-story.

Georgia: I actually didn’t want to be the public face of this thing. I’m a fairly private person, but I’ve discovered that if you want to promote something then you have to put yourself out there.

I’m an ex-journalist, having worked as a reporter for The Canberra Times for nine years. During that time I edited the then Times Out (now Fly) entertainment lift-out and got a taste for the music scene.

I also dabbled in public affairs in the public service – but then saw the light, and quit.

More recently I volunteered to promote the Corinbank Music and Arts Festival, as well as the National Folk Festival, where I got the urge to promote a music event of my own.

And how did the Paperback Sessions come about?

I regularly visit Smiths Alternative Bookstore, usually with a laptop, to write and be inspired.

And earlier this year when I noticed their new wine bar, it was like all of the planets aligned – I could visualise this brilliant intimate music venue and see its great potential.

There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t work. All of the hard work in establishing a new venue had already been done: it’s much-loved by the community (an institution in Canberra since 1976), it has bucket-loads of ambiance with its alternative vibe, and it’s already well-patronised by locals.

And it has alcohol!!!!

What’s worked so far for you? What are the positives?

I guess that fact that it was embraced so quickly and warmly by Canberrans.

I was a relative nobody, with no industry contacts or reputation, and yet my first show with Brendan Gallagher was a sell-out.

After three sold-out shows (Brendan Gallagher, Abby Dobson, Heath Cullen) I’m absolutely wrapped.

I always had an inkling that there was a demand for these kinds of small shows. It’s how music should be – live and intimate. I’ll keep doing it for as long as Smiths Alternative Bookstore lets me.

What’s proved challenging? What’s given you any headaches?

The challenging part is getting people to buy pre-sale tickets. For a promoter it’s great peace of mind to sell a heap of tickets upfront.

However, Canberrans are renowned for being fashionably late. they leave things to the last minute. So yeah, that’s been pretty stressful, the waiting and fretting.

But hey, when they all come flooding in through the doors at the eleventh hour, it’s brilliant.

What have been the highlights to date?

The highlight is definitely the response from the artists.

Not only does the audience love to play in a quirky little bookstore, so do the musos!

I’ve been inundated by artists (ARIA-winners, nationally-renowned performers from interstate) who want to play here.

I’m overwhelmed, man!

These are artists who I haven’t contacted or invited. They’ve heard about the Paperback Sessions through word of mouth and that great time-waster, Facebook.

Sensational.

What’s it like holding the gigs in a bookstore versus a more traditional venue?

I guess the set-up is a hassle, converting a bookstore into a live music venue with seating. I lug in 50 plastic outdoor furniture-type chairs (borrowed from Belconnen Bowls Club and the Revolve tip) for every gig.

I also bring in four couches from my own lounge room (cat hair and all) so it’s pretty exhausting work.

What’s coming up? What does the future hold?

It’s classified information.

One thing that I’ve learned in the publicity game is to not let all of your big news out at once.

I’m focusing on one gig at a time, to give each artist fair publicity and a fair grab of the ticket sales. All is revealed in good time on my Facebook page and website.

Let’s just say that we’re no longer doing monthly gigs. I’m chockas booked up from September till the end of the year.

And geez I hope everyone comes with.

(Smiths is up for sale and the longer term future is up in the air.)

As a punter, I’ve attended just the one of these gigs, the Heath Cullen gig supported by Alice Cottee. My ensuring memories are the great press of people not wanting either performer to stop, and the respectful listening during the numbers erupting into enthusiastic applause.

As I passed Georgia deep into the main act, I gave her my extensive, considered opinion and review on proceedings:

‘This is [trucking] awesome!’

For more on what’s happening at the Paperback Sessions: http://www.paperbacksessions.com.au/

Bill Quinn

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