9 Questions for Loretta Barnard

  1. What inspired the idea for your book Kindred Chords: Australian Musical Families?

I come from a multi-generational musical family, and know plenty of other musical families, some personally, some not. I guess I was curious to know what the experiences of other families were. Were their childhood homes (like mine) – always filled with musicians, artists, writers and various unusual (sometimes oddball) people? Was music absolutely central to their very existence? Did their parents rush out of the house every night at dinner time to get to a gig? I also wondered what kind of backgrounds each family had; what music were they exposed to while growing up. Did they have music lessons? Did they sing around the piano? And I was especially curious about the concept of a musical gene, so I asked people for their views on that. That was enlightening by the way: some families were adamant that a gene for musical talent existed, others felt it was more a matter of environment, so there’s a little exploration of the nature versus nurture theme. 

Another thing I was keen to do was to cover as many musical genres as I could, as well as give roughly equal coverage to men and women, and to be as diverse as possible considering we live in a wide-ranging multicultural society. 

  • What did you learn when writing the book? 

I learned so many things, and it was all so absorbing. I bet most people wouldn’t know that the parents of country music legend John Williamson loved Gilbert and Sullivan and performed in amateur productions of the operettas. John’s daughter Ami trained as an opera singer and even studied in Europe although she follows a different musical path these days. Ami’s husband is a classical concert pianist – there’s so much music in that family. I was also taken aback to discover that virtuoso guitarist Tommy Emmanuel along with his brother Phil and two other siblings were the family’s breadwinners when they were very young children. I learned that Kasey and Nash Chambers grew up on the Nullabor Plain – what an extraordinary childhood. And another striking thing I discovered was that between and among the families in the book, there is so much interaction and so many interconnections. It’s almost like playing a game of ‘six degrees of separation’.

One last thing – as the book took shape, I realised that it’s the first book of its kind in Australia. That is, it’s not a book about rock and roll families, or country, jazz, classical families and so on – it covers them all, right across a range of genres and ages. 

  • What did you learn that surprised you the most about Australia’s musical families?

Just how similar they are in many respects. Serious musicians, whatever genre they play, are always working to improve themselves. They practise individually for hours on end, make maximum use of rehearsals, sit in solitude for hours or days at a time composing. They’re dedicated to their art and they work hard at it. You may think that jazz musicians and classical musicians are poles apart, but when it all boils down, their attitudes and approach to their musicianship is very similar indeed. Another common element was that all the musicians no matter what style of music they play, grew up in loving families where music was paramount, and there are cases where families made sacrifices so their children could follow their own musical directions. 

I was also surprised at just how many families had musical roots that went back a number of generations. My own family is one – my sons are the fifth generation of musicians in the family – but there are others, such as the Field family of The Wiggles fame. The great-aunt of Anthony, Paul and John Field was theatrical stalwart Queenie Paul. And Casey Donovan and her cousin Emma Donovan are another example. Each of those women has a musical parent and their paternal grandparents were well known performers in the Tamworth area. In fact they appeared at the very first National Aboriginal Country and Western Festival in 1976.

  • If you could spend a day with one of the musicians in the book who would you choose and why? What would you like to ask them?

Truth be told, I’d like to spend the day with most of them. But if I have to narrow it down, I’d certainly pick husband and wife team Dave MacRae and Joy Yates. Many people will know them as the parents of powerhouse soul singer Jade MacRae, but Dave and Joy have been playing music – all types of music – for 60 or more years. They’ve played with everyone! From Chaka Khan, Olivia Newton-John, Van Morrison, Cliff Richard, Cat Stevens, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Monty Python, the Goodies; not to mention jazz giants like Buddy Rich, Chet Baker, Carmen McRae, Don Burrows. Whenever I speak with Joy she always has a new story to tell me – they’ve had an utterly fascinating life in music, not just in Australia, but England, the US and New Zealand. They still perform regularly (well, when covid restrictions permit) and continue to work with their daughter. They are across it all, jazz, soul, pop, funk, you name it. 

Another musician/performer I’d like to spend the day with is singer, dancer and actor Tony Sheldon. Tony is an award-winning star of musical theatre, best known for playing the role of Bernadette in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. And he comes from a long line of highly esteemed show biz personalities. His grandparents were entertainers (singers and dancers), his mother is the multi-talented Toni Lamond, and of course his aunt is Helen Reddy, who passed away recently. When I met Tony for our interview he was so very welcoming and had a wealth of stories about his family. Do you know he’s written shows for his mother as well as various other musical theatre luminaries? He was close to his aunt Helen Reddy and learned a great deal from her while in his teens. Tony’s also something of an expert on Australian theatrical history and I’d love to hear him talk about how music and theatre have changed over the years. 

Joseph Tawadros was hugely entertaining. He has a marvellous sense of humour and it would have been fun to pick his brain in more depth about his upbringing as the child of Egyptian immigrants. Deborah Cheetham, the fabulous soprano and composer, is another person I’d love to spend the day with. Her experiences as a member of the Stolen Generations and finding her biological family – one of whom is the much loved singer the late Jimmy Little – is one I’d love to hear more about over a pot of Earl Grey. 

  • Do you play music while you write — and, if so, what’s your favourite? 

The music I play music while I write comes mainly from tuning into either ABC Classic or ABC Jazz. I try to avoid playing specific music while I’m working because I tend to hum along and thus lose focus on my subject matter. But of course, as I write a lot about music and musicians, I’m often on YouTube listening to the artist/works about whom I’m writing at the time. 

  • What do you like to listen to when you’re not writing?

I have very broad musical tastes and pick music to suit whatever mood I might be in at any given time. I love jazz and piano in particular, so I love listening to Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Brad Meldhau, Tigran Hamasyan and others. I grew up in a jazz family so I’m very familiar with all the old stuff like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday and I still enjoy that music. One of my favourite singers is the great Ella Fitzgerald. I can always find time for Ella. I also love classical music – Brahms, Saint-Saens and Shostakovich are particular favourites (although throw a composer’s name at me and I’m likely to say that he/she is my favourite too). My other great love is baroque music: give me dose of Purcell, Bach or Vivaldi each day and I’m a happy little Vegemite. 

But just to further complicate things, I continue to enjoy some of the popular music I grew up listening to, like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and so on. I love listening to anything my sons create and not just because I’m their mother. Between them they’re involved in jazz, popular, rock and film music, musical theatre and so on. As a team their synth duo project This Week in the Universe is quite incredible and eye-opening. I’m always learning something new from them. 

  • What musical genre did you dislike at first but then develop an appreciation for over the writing of KC?

I’ve never especially disliked any genre, although I admit to not being a big fan of country music, but the thing about music is that there is something for everyone. If one genre doesn’t speak to you, another does. I have also never been overly enamoured with hard rock, but when I was researching the Young brothers (Easybeats; AC/DC), I watched literally hundreds of YouTube clips and came to totally understand their massive appeal. And gee, those men worked very hard at their craft. George Young of course helped change the face of Australian rock and roll: he was a remarkable songwriter; and his brothers Malcolm and Angus were/are incredibly focused on their music and on putting on good shows for their fans. Same with Stonefield, the all-girl psych rock band made up of the four Findlay sisters. They have an amazing work ethic and some really good music there too. It’s fair to say that my appreciation of those genres has developed.

  • What was your hardest chapter to write for you? 

This is difficult question to answer because all the chapters were challenging in their own way. Going back to the Youngs, that was quite demanding because there is just so much material about them – AC/DC is one of the biggest rock bands ever – and it was a massive effort sifting through it all to gather specifics about family dynamics, which is something I wanted to focus on. The book doesn’t just rehash information you can find easily on the internet, I was aiming to bring a family-centric focus to each chapter. Another challenge was the Westlake chapter. I wanted to give voice to the wonderful work of Nigel Westlake and his family, primarily in the classical field, although Nigel is possibly best known to most Australians for his fantastic film scores, such as BabeAli’s Wedding and Paper Planes. But as many people will know, Nigel Westlake’s 21-year-old son Eli was murdered in 2008 in a horrible act of violence, and I tried to be sensitive to the family’s ongoing pain while writing about that tragic event. We all respond to music in our own ways, but with the Westlakes, it was so clear to see just how healing music can be. 

Surprisingly I also found that writing about my own family, the Barnards, was difficult. Maybe because there are quite a few of us and although the name is mainly associated with jazz, across the family we’re into folk, indie pop, electronic music and so on. My cousin Rebecca Barnard is virtually a Melbourne institution and she can sing anything. Well, maybe not opera, but apart from that, she’s one inspiring woman. Another reason it was so hard to write about my family was because my father Bob Barnard and his brother Len Barnard were in many ways pioneering jazz musicians in this country and my dad went on to become internationally acclaimed. He’s appeared in every major jazz festival across the globe and more than a few smaller festivals too. The list of people he’s performed with is mind-blowing. My brothers and my sons are also professional musicians each doing his own thing, a family tradition that goes back to the early part of the twentieth century. 

  • Music and songs bring back so many memories for some many people  – what special songs or pieces of music remind you of special times?

You’re so right about music evoking times past. Music is so powerful! Whenever I hear the old song ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, I’m immediately transported to my grandmother’s house in suburban Melbourne. It was a song she played a lot at home and at her gigs. She was dance band leader back in the 1940s and 1950s, quite something for a woman at that time. Whenever I hear recordings of Mahalia Jackson singing spirituals, I always think of my mother who played Mahalia over and over again every Christmas eve, a tradition that I’ve taken upon myself to continue. (And by the way, Jimmy Barnes is also a Mahalia Jackson fan – he named his oldest daughter after her.) Anything by Carly Simon or Carole King puts me in mind of my teenage years when my best friend and I would sit in my bedroom belting out the songs as if we too could sing (we were having ourselves on, haha). 

Another piece of music that played an important role in my life is Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. When I was about 16, I saw a sci-fi movie called Zardoz starring Sean Connery, and the second movement of that symphony was playing throughout. I was transfixed and had to stay till the very end of the credits to find out what this glorious music was. Next day I went out and bought my first classical recording: Beethoven 7 played by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. I still have that record. 

Kindred Chords: Australian Musical Families by Loretta Barnard is available https://www.shootingstar.pub/product/kindred-chords-australian-musical-families/