Interview to Jeanette Wormald

JIM: Let’s start with your production Horizons and Heartlands which you premiered yesterday at the festival. How did it come about and what are you aiming to achieve with it?

JEANETTE: Jeanette WormaldWell, it came about because, as well as being a singer and songwriter, I’m a former journalist but I’m also a grain farmer in the Northern Mallee of (South) Australia. I noticed that, coming from a bush perspective, my songs are inspired by the bush. People were asking me what it was like being on the land … and how much rain do you get, and what sort of crops do you grow and what’s happening and why is there dust? There were all these questions and I thought, gee, people are really curious because that link with the land has gone somewhat. It was about two or three generations ago, or two generations ago, definitely, everybody had country cousins, you know. They used to go inland for the country holidays. But that link has gone now. We are a lot more suburban, urban based and inland Australia has got this huge population drift and I thought there’s this information gap.
There are also stereotypes that I was aware of, that people thought farmers in the main were under educated and that they were environmental vandals and I know that there are a lot of very passionate farmers and very good managers who want to create a positive image for people on the land. You know, we don’t all have hay in our teeth and talk with a drawl (laughs)… Also the Mallee’s had pretty bad press in the past. I was doing some research on the Mallee and in 1908 the Bulletin was quoted as saying: “Nobody knows who made the Mallee but the Devil is surely suspected.” So, yes, the Mallee’s been pretty badly treated in the past, both by people who live there and by the outside world.

You know, they just think of the Mallee as dust storms and droughts. And it’s not, it’s a magnificent, ancient living landscape that can teach us so much about this whole nation. And the show, I needed to show people the beauty not only through my songs but visually as well, and that’s where the imagery came in.
JIM: So you’re going to be taking this (show) around various parts of Australia?

JEANETTE: Yes, I was awarded a community fellowship through Land and Water Australia. There was an ad in The Stock Journal, a rural paper, asking farmers whether they had a story to tell about natural resource management and caring for the land and would you like the opportunity to take it to new audiences or tell more people. And I felt there are not many farmers who are ex-journos who sing and write songs that celebrate the land and who are also contemporary farmers working in sustainable farming practices which Dean and I do. So I came up with this idea of a multi-media, audio-visual presentation, the backdrop of the images, and presented it to them and they loved the idea and gave me the full funding that I asked for. So that’s subsidising the cost of my travel up to Brisbane, back through Sydney and back through to South Australia because there’s not a lot of money to be made in the music industry. (laughs) It’s a bit like farming, not a lot of cash flow.

JIM: And you have to promote this yourself?

JEANETTE: Yes. It’s fantastic that Graham (Mc Donald – Festival Director) asked me here to the National Folk Festival and I was able to bring it to a national audience already. We did the first show yesterday and the feedback has been marvellous. People have said I should have had it on again this festival… It was actually a last minute addition. I had put my application in and then heard that I had got the fellowship. I rang Graham up and asked whether he was interested and he said, “Look, we’ve got a lot of things but I’ll see what we can do.” And he put me in.

JIM: So if you could sum up, what are some of the things you would like to get across to people who come to the show?

JEANETTE: view of an old stripper from the back yard looking out towards the heritage scrub What makes us unique as Australians is the land. To me, a relationship with the land is the basis for all life. It sustains us. Without the land and water, we’re stuffed. The biggest message, I guess, is the more you care for the land, the more it cares for you and I think Australians need to appreciate and celebrate our unique environment and care for it and look after it. It’s our heritage. It’s our future.

JIM: In one of your songs, The Tall Poppy one, you come across the frustrations faced especially by women who are vocal. Have you any further comments on this?

JEANETTE: Well, as much as there are a lot of very forward looking farmers, you know, brilliant managers who are really trying to look after the land and grow fantastic food for the world, there are a lot of very conservative people as well. And traditionally women don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to farming. And they’re not supposed to speak out and especially challenge the status quo and what’s happening and question what farming men are doing. And I’ve done that and I’ve been ostracised in my community for doing that. But on the flip side I’ve also found a lot of people have said, “Good on you for saying that” and “You can get away with that because you’re a woman and because you’re a singer and because you’re a bit different anyway” and people say, “Well, she’s weird anyway”.(laughs) So I’ve been able to stand up and speak out but at times it does come at a cost. I feel very lonely and isolated.

JIM: People often talk about the power of music and the power of song, when delivering a message that perhaps isn’t a popular message or is one that is hard to get across. Have you found that music has helped?

JEANETTE: mallee at dusk from Jeanette’s front verandah Yes, music is a very gentle, very powerful form. It’s also a healing form. I think music is one of the most powerful forms of communication we’ve got. You think of the protest songs through the years. It raises awareness. Songs like Goanna’s Solid Rock. I remember dancing to that as a teenager and it wasn’t until ten years ago that I thought, “Wow, the message of indigenous history was fantastic!” And that actually opened up a whole awareness. I think music can really do that. I’m a patron of the Riverland Domestic Violence Action Group and I know that music can tell women’s stories and empower women. Music’s an incredibly powerful medium.

JIM: You mention the indigenous people and you mentioned yesterday how that population is no longer in the Mallee area that you’re in, what contact have you had with Aboriginal people? Have you worked with Aboriginal people?

JEANETTE: Yes, I’ve worked with several language groups in South Australia. The first people whom I was able to work with were the Ngarrindjeri people. Now they’re now seen as the caretakers or guardians of the Mallee region. Not a lot is known about traditional owners. According to Norman Tindale’s anthropological language map it was the Meru speaking people and that Erawirung tribe. But there’s very little trace of them. We have some traces on our own property of Aboriginal occupation which I’m very excited about and to look after that. But I think disease wiped a lot of that history out. You know, good old western civilization.
Our property is about six and a half thousand acres – two thousand four hundred hectares. But we also share-farm three other properties. So it’s a fairly big enterprise and we continuous crop. It’s all grain. We don’t like the cloven hoofed sheep. They actually disturb the soil a lot. You know, you have to be very switched on with your management not to leave them in the paddocks too long otherwise you get too much soil disturbance.

(Our home) was built by Dean’s grandfather and great-grandfather. In fact the Wormald’s were one of the first pioneers in the district and we’re one of the few families left in the whole region that are on their original holdings. We have two daughters and we’re hoping that they may find a life partner that would want to join them on the land because it is a lifestyle thing too. It’s a very big decision to make and we’re hopeful but we don’t want to push them. As I said in my song To The Mallee Born, “child, the choice is up to you”. We can’t force that on anybody.

JIM: When did you start writing songs? Was this before you came up to the Mallee?

JEANETTE: When I was about ten I wrote a folk song. I didn’t know it was a folk song. (laughs)
JIM: Where were you living then?

JEANETTE: I grew up on a dairy farm and I was living in Adelaide. And I loved going bush and it was a song about Cockatoo Creek. It was the old bush style song and I didn’t know that, (although) I loved bush dancing, I didn’t realise the whole folk culture. Because until you are invited into the folk culture, you know, the normal, average Joe Blow in the street doesn’t know the richness that’s here. And I remember coming to the National in 1995. And a friend David Long from South Australia, he looked at me …(Makes a surprised expression) (and I said) “This is all the music that I really love and I didn’t know there was a name to it!”
JIM: And when did you start seriously to think that your songs could be performed and you were comfortable with that?

JEANETTE: When I married Dean. As a former journalist I needed some sort of therapy, (laughs) some sort of outlet and I wrote a song about the mouse plague. My wedding gift, when I married Dean in 1993, was the worst mouse plague in twenty years. And I wrote a song Those Darn Mice and the ABC heard about it and they played it all over Australia. I wrote another song Gotta Beat The Bloke Next Door. Dean said, “I reckon that there’s an audience out there that would like to hear these.” I was invited to country music festivals, and then the National and Victor Harbour Folk Festival. And I realized I had a legitimate voice and a legitimate story to tell and people wanted to hear it. There are not a lot of farmers who actually are living and working and breathing life on the land, who are singing about it. There are a lot who have roots but not those who live and breathe it every day.

JIM: And do you find that you’re comfortable straddling the country/folk areas of music?


JIM: Where do you see your music or do you have a description of your music? Do you feel you need to fit in to one or the other?

JEANETTE: Well, from a marketing point of view. I mean, I’m a realist. It’s easy if people have got a box to categorize you in and then they can say, “Oh, she’s X”, so this, and this apply. But I call it contemporary Australian, acoustic, roots, country, folk music. (laughs)
Working with indigenous people though, whatever that music is, they have said to me, “Jeanette, we love your songs. You’re singing about stuff that we really care about. Thank you. Keep doing it.” – Especially the thing about relationships with the land. There’s not a lot of that sung about.

JIM: What about the idea you touch upon about belonging and having a sense of place? Are you more comfortable singing about that since you’re working the land or do you think all Australians should feel comfortable?

JEANETTE: I think that’s the answer to our future. I think that’s the only way we’re going to survive as Western civilisation, if we rediscover first nation spirituality which is the land, the Mother earth sustains us. God is in the land. You know, I’m a pantheist, whatever that is. I really believe that. We need to have this sense of belonging to the land, not that we’re masters of it, but there’s a relationship there.

JIM: Just clarifying one thing. When you say you have worked with Aborigines, have you actually done workshops?

JEANETTE: Yes, I wrote with the Ngarrindjeri women through an elder Auntie Dot. And then a couple of years ago I was asked to write a song about Ooldea on the trans-Australian railway line. Ooldea is an old Aboriginal soak which was decimated with the coming of the train. And they sent me up to the community. Now, that was pretty confrontational when I wrote my song Walk Beside Me …”look into my eyes without flickering revulsion”… I was confronted with a standard of life that to me was scary. To have dogs all around and sleeping in the dirt and the runny noses, you know. But that’s what it is and they’re beautiful people and I had to get beyond my white, sort of stereotypes and standards and just look at the person. You know, look beyond all the surface stuff and find the person within and once I did that, and the Aboriginal people sensed that, and respected that and loved me for it. They’re dear, dear friends and their concept of friendship is far beyond ours. I mean, when we think about relationships and friendships, you’ve got to keep networking, you’ve got to keep in touch, you know. You’ve got to do the leg-work, otherwise it’s not a relationship. With an Aboriginal person and my friends, if you’re friends, you’re friends. Whether you see each other ten years down the track or ten weeks or ten months, you pick up where you left off. It’s really humbling. It’s beautiful.
JIM: What sort of music do you listen to yourself?

JEANETTE: I listen to singers, like real storytellers. I love the Pigram Brothers. I love Nina Simone. I’m listening to the Cat Empire a bit because I think that’s a real celebration of urban living and multiculturalism. They’re a Melbourne group and very contemporary, fantastic! I like a real mixture. Alison Krauss … I think she has a magnificent voice. I love Shane Howard’s work. Mary Black … I love her voice. Gee, there’s just so many different artists I listen to.

JIM: Australian songwriters who have touched or are dealing with some of the subjects you’re dealing with, say, for example, the songs of John Williamson, how do you react to those? … He’s saying he’s a Mallee boy … Does that sit comfortably with you?

JEANETTE: Mallee fowl in nest – the symbol for the need to protect this landscape. John’s got some beautiful songs and I sing a couple of his songs. But unfortunately the way the music industry is set up, they’ll only take you seriously if you are based on the east coast and preferably in Sydney or nearby. And these people that call themselves the voice of Australia or the voice of the bush or the voice of farmers, how can they legitimately be that and be based in Sydney? It’s going to work for a while but, ultimately, they’re going to be reverting to clichés. They’re not going to be in touch with what’s really happening … I’ve met John’s Auntie Hazel in the Mallee country and what he sang about was important, saying he was a Mallee boy. I like some of the songs of Neil Murray. I think he does some beautiful stuff.
Getting back to workshops, I went back to Oak Valley after that initial song. They invited me back to set up a band and (do some) songwriting and we did their first ever public performance last year at the South Australian Folk Centre. It was fantastic. I just spoke with them last week and they want me to come back this year for almost two weeks and they want Dean and Emma. They welcome the family because family’s everything. And I’ll be working with the band again and …
JIM: Does that mean you’ll be writing songs in collaboration with them?

JEANETTE: Yes, and just teaching them about the music business and how to promote themselves, get a media pack together, (teach) stagecraft and performance skills and encourage them not to sing covers but to sing their own stories. And they’ve started doing that and singing in Pitjantjatjara. Their language and their stories are very important. Celebrating the self, you know, your own identity.
JIM: So, obviously your background in journalism has helped you in the business side of the music?

JEANETTE: Yes, although I’ve been told I know too much sometimes. (laughs)

JIM: A final question about the craft of song writing. Do you usually start with an idea or with a tune or both?

JEANETTE: Normally an idea. Sometimes I get just a tune and I think, gee, that would make a good song, but often it’s an idea. The new song I sang today Dirt In His Hands … I wanted to express the fact that technology is separating us from the land. You know, Dean’s spending more time in the office at the computer than he is on the tractor or on the header. And that really distresses him because he’s not a real farmer, you know, if he can’t do that. But bloody bureaucracy, it’s got us doing all this admin(istration). And even when you’re in the tractor now, it’s not a tractor in the real sense. You can’t even smell the earth. It’s got GPS, it’s got CD’s. You can even watch a DVD while you’re going, all air-conditioned. I mean, that’s not what farming is about!

JIM: Thanks, Jeanette. I really appreciate the time you have given for this chat.