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INTERVIEW – Shane Howard, February 2015

| 13 March 2015 | 1 Reply

INTERVIEW – Shane Howard, February 2015
By Shane Pinnegar

Shane Howard released his thirteenth solo album last month, a collection of tracks called Deeper South that was informed by his birthplace on Victoria’s Southern Coast.

Shane Howard 01

As lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of Goanna, and more recently a globally recognised solo artist, Howard has been one of this country’s finest musical storytellers since Goanna released the Spirit Of Place album in 1982. That years single Solid Rock remains an enduring Aussie anthem, as well as a resolute call for justice for our indigenous people. He admits, however, that it took him a while to not be threatened by living in the shadow of that huge hit.

“I know there was a time, probably in the years after Goanna finished particularly, where everyone wanted to talk about Goanna, and I just wanted to be me,” he laughs, “and I felt like I was dragging a huge bag of predetermined ideas around behind me. But Solid Rock, it broke me and it made me, and the same with Goanna – that whole album Spirit of Place. It took me a long time I suppose to get easy with that and to realise that this far down the track, Solid Rock – I live with it very easily, I’m proud of it… but look, there are 200 other songs there in the catalog, and for me as the writer they’re all valid.

“Solid Rock got enormous commercial profile,” he continues, “and I’m still amazed to this day that a song like that which is really, lyrically, it’s not a very commercial, but it was able to be popularised, and I think it put an idea out there into the Australian psyche that’s embedded. I know that that’s what I’m best known for, but it sits easily with me, because it’s an easy song to live with as your legacy. But as a songwriter you can’t live in the past. You’ve got to keep moving forward.

“Aboriginal people back then didn’t have the opportunity to get on radio even, but these days there are plenty of Aboriginal artists out there who can tell the Aboriginal story. I don’t need to do that. I’m more interested with this record for example in trying to understand how do we – as ‘settler culture’, as non-indigenous people – make sense of who we are and where we are here in this country, and I suppose to that end, Shane, I’ve spent years… I had to get rid of all the American influences out of my music. I had to question everything and go back to the well, back to the Celtic well in Scotland and Ireland and England, and work out where did that tradition in America come from and where did the tradition in Australia come from, and it came out of that very deep folk well of music back in those landscapes, so I had to go back and learn all those tunes and learn all those songs and understand that very deep history that informed American music and informed our Australian music.

“America had a whole African-American experience,” he says with visceral passion, “which we don’t have, but we have this thing that is really deep here. We have the oldest archetypal human stories on earth right at our doorstep with Aboriginal Australia, and so I wanted to bring all those elements together, and I feel a sense of achievement with this record actually trying to create a new folk tradition for this country.”

Shane Howard Deeper South cover

Howard says his birthplace, a small town called Dennington on the coast of the Great Southern Ocean, provided the spark for Deeper South within him.

“Well, this is wild country here, in a different way.” He explains. “[When] they settled back 150 years ago or more, 160 years ago, and cleared the old [bush, they] turned it into farmland. This part of the world is very different from the rest of Australia. It’s not deserts and windmills. It owes more to its Celtic heritage.

“But they cleared the land – and its green rolling hills are probably more like Tasmania in a way,” Howard continues lyrically, “so the only sense of the wild was the ocean in many ways, and the ocean… it’s the edge of the world here too, Shane. The next stop is Antarctica. So you’re totally at the mercy of the sea in this part of the world. The wind blows in off the sea, it comes from Antarctica. It makes you obedient. The Southern Ocean is untamable. It’s inconquerable, and as any fisherman will tell you, every time you go out to sea you take your life in your own hands.

“No-one can rule the sea here. It’s beyond that. You can roll over a land, but you can’t roll over the sea. There are wild winds that blow in, and gales will blow for three days, and you’ll get 10- and 15- and 20-metre waves out there.

“So metaphorically, it’s the great unknown. It’s wild in that sense, so I suppose that stayed deeply into my thinking. I’ve spent a lot of my life looking elsewhere in Australia, because all the imagery is always about something other than that, but this time I actually turned around and looked at my home and where I’d grown up.”

Shne Howard 02

A strong believer in the indigenous concept of song lines – telling a connected story through a piece of work rather than putting random songs together to make an album – Howard draws comparisons to Deeper South being informed about world issues, and feeling like we’re being tossed about a raging sea in a small boat, and sees the album’s title as an indicator of the content within.

“Yeah, I do. A record is called a record, I guess, because it’s a record of where you’re at at that time,” he explains. “These songs probably evolved over maybe the last five years. Sometimes there’s a long gestation period. Songs can take years, and every now and then one’ll fall out of the sky and land in your lap as a reward for your work…

“Ours is a rapidly changing world, and I think it’s a world in crisis. It possibly always is, and that’s good and bad. I think as much as communism has failed as an ‘ism’, I think we’re also seeing the death throes of capitalism.

“I don’t want to draw too long a bow, but someone said recently the Mediterranean was a graveyard, and Western thought is really under challenge at the moment and is very stagnant. It’s a time of really rapid change and a digital age where the old ways of doing things are really seriously under challenge, and the old guard is holding onto that. The world of the billionaires running the world is really also under serious scrutiny and serious challenge.

“In terms of the challenges of climate change and competing ideologies, it feels like the end of an era, and the abiding imagery for this is a lone person, a little boat out in the middle of a pretty wild and unforgiving sea, and I suppose that’s a metaphor for this record, and what is there to hold onto in that reality?

“I think Leonard Cohen’s says love’s the only engine of survival, and I think love is one of the things that really underpins this record in all its forms, Shane. Spiritual, whether that’s divine or whether it’s the love of the other, the love of a woman, the love of the land, the love of music, or love gone wrong, as the murder ballad proclaims.”

Nowhere has the huge upheavals in capitalism itself been felt as keenly as in the microcosm of the music industry.

“Absolutely,” agrees Howard. “Three years ago digital sales were about 15%, and now they’re 50%. No-one knows where the music industry is going. Will there BE a music industry? Will anyone be able to afford to BE an artist in ten year’s time? If you look at things in a global sense, I suppose, 1% of the world own 99% of the world’s wealth. I don’t think that’s sustainable, and the world has never been so connected, and yet we find ourselves almost impotent in being able to resolve ideological differences.

“It’s a really, really fascinating time, and if I can be so bold as to suggest that I think we’re coming to the end of a male-dominated era and coming into a time where the feminine is becoming more predominant, and needs to, because the cycle of war and violence and the domination that comes with laissez-faire capitalism really has to come to an end in terms of the challenges we have to meet as a world.”

Having been a commentator and even a crusader against injustice since the early day of Goanna, Howard says he still feels music is a valid tool to promote societal change.

“I think it’s a contributor, absolutely, and I know that for a fact if I look at… I just have to go to Solid Rock to know that that’s true. To add your bit of light to the sum of light – I think that’s what artists do. Our job is to stand apart from society and hold a mirror up and say, ‘have a look at yourself. You don’t look too good from here.’ It’s one of the functions of art.

“If it’s just decorations to hang on the walls or to tickle our ears, that’s entertainment, and that has its role too, but I think the artist has a responsibility to challenge and confront, because the reality is [that for] most people it’s a hard road. It’s a land of small returns, and the artist is just as confused as the next person… Thoreau said most people lead lives of quiet desperation, and I think that’s true. They get up every day and go to work and pay the bills.

“We have an imagined life when we’re younger, and as we go through our life we have to let go of our dreams often and settle for something less, because of the confines of the daily grind, paying bills, paying mortgages, and so as an artist someone has to stand outside of that and remind people of their inner life and the things that they hold true, and to question things, because we’re all having that inner dialog. It’s all going on in our heads, but not all of us have the opportunity to act on it.”

Shane Howard 03

Talking about societal change, I ask Shane why he thinks there is such an ingrained Aussie bogan culture who treasure celebrating Australia Day by wearing the flag and sinking a few tinnies listening to AC/DC, rather than exploring the folk traditions of our history as parlayed by the likes of Archie Roach, Paul Kelly, Ruby Turner and himself. Why, in fact, these songs and histories and traditions aren’t taught to kids at a young age in schools?

“Because we’re stuck!” he snorts exasperatedly. “We’re stuck in this country. Our constitution is a racist document! We’re still… Who is the head of [State of] Australia? The Queen. Under her comes the Governor General, then the Governors of all the states, and then comes our Prime Minister, who can be sacked by the Queen or by the Governor General.

“My political awakening came in 1975 when Gough Whitlam was sacked. I didn’t know that could happen, and many of my generation didn’t know that could happen, and in that moment the seeds of the absolute need for a republic were born in the same way that the seeds of the need for a treaty [with indigenous Australia] were born around that time.

“Australia, we have to grow up,” he continues with fervour. “There’s a lot of resistance to that, because it’s not easy. It requires hard and deep thinking, and the country was built on a lie. The prosperity that we enjoy in Australia comes on the back of Aboriginal misery. Now, that’s a hard thing to swallow, but we have to grow up and swallow it. It’s not enough to just get an Australian flag with the Union Jack on it – someone else’s flag on it – and put it around their shoulders and say, ‘I’m an Aussie.’ It’s not going to get us where we need to go.

“We’re a multicultural country. We have very deep roots in that Anglo-Irish Scottish tradition, but we have to find a new pathway forward. We have to stand up as a country and say, ‘it’s time to be a republic with an Australian head of state,’ and to be an independent sovereign nation and to take our place in the world as a beacon of hope and a beacon of democracy.

“We have much to celebrate, we have much to be ashamed of, and it won’t serve us to stick our head in the sand. We have to face this stuff as grown-ups now, and we can’t get on like a petulant child anymore and go ‘it’s just party time on Australia Day.’

“It’s deeply offensive to Aboriginal friends of mine on Australia Day. It’s a terrible time. It’s confusing, and I think a lot of people are beginning to feel that now. We have to find new pathways forward, and I’d like to think that the work that I do as a musician, as an artist, makes some contribution to that discussion.”

This is exactly where the voice of someone like Shane Howard becomes so important. It’s the voice of an artist as a commentator, as a singer of protest songs, and a caller for change. That voice contributes to and publicises the discussion.

Shane Howard 04

“Well, I guess because there are justice issues,” Howard ponders, “whether it’s environmental justice, the First Nation’s justice issues… [but] if we turn away, we don’t solve anything. You have to go through the hard discussions, the hard challenges, to come out the other end and you know, I think most people want to do the right thing and build a decent society, but Australia’s not going to get there by ignoring the hard questions.

“It did for many years,” he continues, “We were never told at school, we were always told Australia was settled peacefully and Aboriginal people just went along over there somewhere and the reality was that wasn’t true. And now, we’re having those discussions through film and through literature and through music. Music has an entertainment role too and that’s important, it’s important just to kick your heels up and dance. It’s also more than that – music is an international language and a lot of this record also deals with universal themes. It’s hard just being a human being on the planet and trying to work out the modern world – where the hell are we and what are we doing?

“I really think it’s important to explore the inner landscape and ask those hard questions and build a decent society. You don’t get it for free.”

An edited version of this interview was originally published in X-Press Magazine’s 18 February, 2015 issue

Shane

Category: Interviews

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  1. andrew says:

    Aint that the true, Well said Shane, your words speak to me, both you and Billy Connolly has always made sense behind his stories. #DeeperSouth buy it now, or tomorrow if you can.

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