Back in early February 2018, I interviewed Jenny Thomas from Melbourne-based folk band Bush Gothic, at a time when both of us were looking forward to attending the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter.
One of us got there. It wasn’t me.
It was to have been my first National since 2013, a year when I barely felt like I was there. Some nights I was tucked up in the tent by 10.30pm. It happens sometimes.
But of course, your worst day at a festival beats your best day doing many other things, so…
Events transpired that at the 2018 festival, instead of running around with various recording devices, filing copy for a small coterie of publications, I was roughly 400kms north on Lake Macquarie, providing various gardening and handyman services for a friend.
If you want to give your (or any) god a good laugh, make some plans!
Back to the subject at hand.
It’s been an absolute delight and pleasure to not only see Jenny Thomas and Jenny M. Thomas and Jenny Thomas and the System and the current incarnation of Bush Gothic perform, but also to interview Jenny several times, both here on the blog and also on radio in Canberra.
It’ll be great to see Bush Gothic perform again, down one of many dusty roads, but for now, here’s the interview we did in February. You’ll just have to put your headspace into some sort of cerebral TARDIS and pretend we are looking forward to another five or six days of magic at an upcoming National Folk Festival.
*** Sound file will be removed by the end of March 2020 ***
*** Sound file will be removed by the end of March 2020 ***
Text of the interview with Jenny M Thomas:
BQ: Summer lingers on in Australia, but autumn starts to creep into our lives and for those of us of a folk music persuasion, autumn means many things. It can mean Port Fairy Festival, it can mean St Albans, but it most definitely means the National Folk Festival in Canberra.
When I saw this year’s line-up, I was excited to see Bush Gothic there. They’re from Melbourne and joining us on the line from the trendy and socially-aware northern suburbs of Melbourne, it’s good morning to Jenny Thomas.
Jenny Thomas: Good morning.
BQ: Jenny, you’ve spoken to me over the years about how you approach and present traditional Australian folk music. Give us a little run down on what that’s about.
JT: Well, Bush Gothic play traditional Australian songs that are mostly from the Victorian era, and we choose songs that have the great stories attached to them that a lot of our ancestors experienced. So they’re songs of being transported away from your home country and heartbreak and murder and treachery.
The idea behind it was, or the reason I started the band was, I’d heard a lot of these songs but very rarely with women involved. And I come from a classical, jazz and world music background, so it was all about getting the art back into the music, I suppose. The beauty.
And through that, the communication is quite direct.
BQ: In 2018, gender issues and, for want of a better expression, the male/female divide is pretty much front and centre of a lot of conversations. The lack of women in folk in traditional music: a patriarchy thing?
JT: Yeah, sure. I do. I think it’s from a long line of women’s stories in Australia very rarely were written down. I think the women were probably just a little bit too busy, you know, looking after the family.
And even though there were poets and there were writers, we don’t have their perspective very much but it is in the songs.
And then at folk festivals that I would go to, it was usually the men up on stage and again the women are busy doing other important work. It’s a huge scope, but as a feminist I’ve been very interested in how we can get the big, broad picture. I am a woman; I can’t do much about that. If I’m gonna sing the songs, it’s going to be by a woman!
BQ: There is that tradition in folk for a man, say, to write, to sing a song from the standpoint of a woman and sing it in a male voice. Do you think that’s a little bit condescending or a case of they’re the ones putting the music out?
JT: It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s a big world and we’ve got room for all expression of art.
I love my band and I’m really committed to what we do, but it’s not at all a comment to say that it can’t be done in any other way that anyone chooses.
BQ: One thing that makes me laugh (and makes me cry): have you ever heard of MRAs?
BQ: Men’s Rights Activists.
JT: Oh, yeah yeah yeah. I know about that!
I love it when men sing songs from the women’s perspectives and vice versa. I think it’s great.
BQ: I was going to go off on a total tangent, but let’s keep the focus on you…
JT: I know. I moved it across!
BQ: Well done you!
I’ve been out of touch with a lot of the folk stuff in the last year or so. Tell me about your most recent work. I think Jim Jones is one of your recent ones.
JT: That’s right, so we have begun work on a new album and a single, and we started to look at how can we represent the Australian mood, or how to represent Australia in a film clip. So we released this film clip and single. It’s only been internationally, but we are releasing it in Australia in a couple of months.
And a lot of our work in the last couple of years has been in England and Ireland, and it’s been really fascinating to do Australian music. People overseas are really interested in our songs and our stories, and they know about the Melbourne music scene and often on BBC Radio they will specifically get me talk about Melbourne and music.
So it’s pretty interesting to see how the cultural cringe here puts these glasses on us and we can’t quite see what we’ve got. But we’ve got a lot.
BQ: We’ve talked in the past about that process of you taking the music overseas and sort of taking coals to Newcastle, ice to igloos. I was much amused by the way you describe your approach to traditionalists and their reaction when they see and hear you.
JT: Yeah, we get all kinds of reactions. Sometimes people will walk out and say, “Well, that’s not how I like my traditional songs”. And often people will cry and they’ll say, “Oh, my grandma used to sing me that song” or “I’ve always hated that song, I couldn’t stand it, but now you’ve brought something to it that I love”.
And that’s the idea of all art, really, is to draw out whatever beauty is in the story or underlying its roots and express it.
BQ: For me, I can’t stand something like Bound For Botany Bay but do love your version. Suddenly I don’t hate it anymore.
JT: It’s quite powerful. It’s like when you have the leader of your country who you feel doesn’t represent you, or any kind of leader or cultural movement that you don’t feel aligned with, it can be very powerful when you start to come back into the stream. It’s just all part of this amazing conversation that we’re having as Australians to say, ‘What are we?’
Now is a really incredible time to forge our identity, because it really is up to us.
BQ: I’m going to pinch a word that you used in the context of the stitch art you use which is ‘subversive’ cross stitch.
JT: Yes, well, life’s just more fun when it’s subversive, isn’t it?
BQ: Jenny, moving towards the National, have you got your set times yet? You’re going to be in some familiar places, are you?
JT: We do. We’re going to be in some big places and some smaller places, and we do a kids’ show which is really fun. And I’m doing a workshop for people who want to make a an album. I’ve made a lot of albums and I love recording, so it’s just to help people out with a few ideas about making a great album.
BQ: So that’s 28 March it all kicks off down in Canberra, finishes off on Monday 2 April. Between then and now, where can somebody go online and find out more about Bush Gothic?
JT: Sure. We’re playing at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, and all of the dates are on our website: www.bushgothic.com
BQ: Jenny, it’s an absolute thrill and a joy to speak with you as always.
JT: Great, thanks Bill.
Follow Bush Gothic on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bushgothic/