Sound sisters: Episode 1

Melbourne band The Darjeelings. Photo: with permission from The Darjeelings.

By Madi Chwasta and Catie McLeod

Sound Sisters, a podcast about women, GNC and trans people in Melbourne’s live music scene.
Produced, written and edited by Madi Chwasta and Catie McLeod.
Music (all with permission):
Put it to rest, Are you happy?, Crimes by the Darjeelings.
Youth these days, Venus, Melodramatic by The Vovos.
We are The Wet Ones by The West Ones.
Shakarama and Chicken Twist by The Exotics.
Thinking music by Madi Chwasta.

When she was 15-years-old, a teenager growing up in late 1970s Warrandyte in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Susan Shaw (then Susan World) knew without ever having had music lessons that she was really into music. Her suburban high school had no music program, but her art teacher offered lunchtime guitar lessons in an empty classroom for anyone who wanted to come. He told the students he couldn’t really play, but said he was happy to pass on what he knew.

“So I grabbed a guitar from someone,” Susan says. “We say down and he said, ‘Okay, three chords. And a bit of a blues scale.’ And I was like, ‘Is that it?’ And he went, ‘Yeah, that’s it’. I couldn’t believe it was so simple… I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m starting a band.’”

Susan World in the 80s. Photo: with permission from Susan Shaw.

After she was given some free drum lessons at the local primary school, Susan enlisted her three best friends to form an all-girl band – the Wet Ones. Within a few months they were playing gigs at the Prince of Wales and the Ballroom, big smoky venues which were cornerstones of the late 70s and early 80s Melbourne punk and new wave scene. 

What does it mean to belong, to feel like you connect with other people? What about if you’re a young woman making your way in a world that’s always been dominated by men? 

“When I started going out to venues and seeing bands, I felt I belonged,” Susan says. “The people I met I could relate to more than people I mixed with in other circles. When I thought ‘Okay, I know I can do this’ and I felt good doing it, that gave me a lot of strength.”

Susan Shaw, today, with her record collection. Photo: Catie McLeod.

When you’re thinking about belonging, about connecting with others, music is powerful in the way it spans languages and cultures, genders and beliefs. “It’s the most primitive art form,” Susan says. “I teach English Language to refugees and migrants, so I’ve researched the connection between music and language and the brain. And it predates speech – singing and stuff – and it’s the easiest connection straight to someone’s feelings. I know because I teach Arabic speakers and if I play them a bit of music I’ll just say ‘Happy or sad?’ And it’s universal.”

And what does it feel like to make other people feel something? “It’s just a powerful thing… especially simple rock and roll,” Susan says.

“It’s primitive and beautiful. I can’t explain it.”

In the early 2010s, decades after Susan began playing music with women, the four-girl pop band The Darjeelings formed in Melbourne. It started out as two high school friends, Mairead O’Connor and Greer Clemens, who would busk and sing covers on Lygon Street in the inner suburb of Carlton. 

Mairead O’Connor playing with The Darjeelings. Photo: with permission from Mairead O’Connor.

“It was sort of hot busking property at the time,” Mairead says, laughing. “And we sort of gained a lot of confidence doing that because it meant that you had to grab people’s attention.”

The Darjeelings quickly started getting gigs at big venues around Melbourne, where they were often the only all-female act on the line-ups. “I don’t even think at the time I had many guy friends who were in bands,” Mairead says. “So it was just kind of unusual full stop, but there was kind of a double unusualness to it because when we did go and play gigs often with older people there was no one of our set up of four girls really”.

Mairead says she and her three bandmates were a “strong unit” whenever they performed on stage together. “There was definitely a sense of belonging that came from that,” she says. “Even though externally it made you more unusual that there were four of you.”

Janelle Johnstone says she has seen a change in the Melbourne music scene over the last three decades. The musician, arts worker and, now, student, is a PhD candidate in Anthropology – looking at gendered participation in music in Melbourne.

“There’s been an absolute shift,” Janelle says.

“Particularly in the last probably six to eight years in what I’m seeing happen around participation, seeing a lot more bands that are mixed gender bands. There just seems to be a lot of mixing it up.” 

Janelle says the issue for her with diversity is just as much about social justice as it is about artmaking which is sustainable and creative and good. “When we get diversity we actually get more interesting art,” she says.

“I think what’s happened in Melbourne particularly is the development of a kind of a sound, and it’s a cross gendered sound… There’s a sound and the participation has kind of followed the sound. And that’s cool as, that’s amazing, because I don’t see people feeling as pressured to keep talking about their gender and then their music.”

Sonic aGender panel in 2018. Photo: Paula Mahoney.

She goes on to say there are still “loads of problems” around exclusion, however. Her thesis is bringing together what she says are a lot of the conversations she’s been having over the last thirty years in the hallways of rehearsal studios, the backrooms, all those spaces which provide an opportunity to speak intimately with other women.

“And you know, playing in bands is really fucking fun,” Janelle says. “It gives you a sense of belonging. It’s about creating a gang. There’s all this stuff that happens around that with affirmation, communication, negotiation.”

Janelle says she grew up in a working-class home in Sunshine where there “certainly weren’t any conversations around feminism or art or anything like that”. Her school piano teacher asked Janelle if she’d ever thought of something like electric guitar and invited her to the very first Rock ‘n’ Roll Highschool – a summer music program for girls which ran in the 1990s and is said to have inspired the film School of Rock.

Janelle Johnstone giving the opening address at Rah! Rah! feminist punk retrospective. Photo: Paula Mahoney

“That was the beginning of my obsession with music,” Janelle says. “Particularly punk and rock and DIY stuff. The premise of rock and roll high school was to create a space for young women to participate in those genres of music as instrumentalists. I sort of dived into that space…it was premised on a feminist idea of space making and empowerment.”

These days there’s a different camp for girls and trans and gender non-confirming teens. Girls Rock! Melbourne is part of a wider Girls Rock! alliance which started in the United States and which follows a similar premise to Rock ‘n’ Roll Highschool: teens arrive on Day One, get into groups and pick instruments, then perform an original song in their respective bands in the final showcase concert on Day Five.

Shannon Driscoll is the executive director and co-founder of Girls Rock! Melbourne. When she’s asked about her own musical journey she says, “Oh man, where do you start?” And tells the story of being a teenager whose dad gave her a guitar and taught her a little bit before he passed away. 

When she moved to Melbourne from the US in her twenties Shannon brought her guitars with her but says she didn’t really do much with them, until a couple of years had passed and she thought it would be fun to join a band again. 

“Before that time I was really isolated,” Shannon says.

“I was living in a different country. I had an Australian partner but didn’t really hit it off heaps with many of his friends and kind of didn’t have any friends of my own. And then once I started playing in a band it was like a world opened up and I met all these people and just really felt like I was part of a community.”

Girls Rock! Melbourne. Photo: with permission from Shannon Driscoll.

Shannon says instead of worrying about whether they were any good or not, she and her bandmates were just “sort of doing it for fun”. And she encourages a similar attitude in the Girls Rock! participants. She says the change she sees in them across the five days of camp is pretty remarkable. 

“The culture we’re in makes it difficult for girls or trans or nonbinary people to feel like they can be comfortable and confident in making mistakes,” Shannon says. “They might feel like there are extra harsh eyes on them or they’ve got… their own internal idea of what they need to do to be perfect… I think we need to change the way we look at making mistakes, so they’re embraced and encouraged.”

Shannon says there’s a lot happening in the world at the moment and women and other minorities are encouraging each other to have a voice and to be assertive in having those voices heard. She thinks the tide is changing. And that young women and gender diverse people should be able to look up on stage and see someone who looks like them and be excited and inspired. 

“I think for such a long time we’ve always seen men on stage doing things we didn’t even really think about as things we could do,” Shannon says.

“Because we were always like ‘Playing drums is a guys thing’. And I think we’re starting to break down the gender norms and gender roles in terms of music. More people on stage who reflect the diversity of the world and the community you live in can only be a good thing because it helps everyone to expand their idea of what they can do and what they can achieve.”

Shannon says it’s difficult to be a pioneer of something if you’ve never seen anyone who’s like you do it. But just because something’s difficult that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been achieved.

Girls Rock! Melbourne. Photo: with permission from Shannon Driscoll.

Susan Shaw says when she was a young woman playing the drums back in the 70s and 80s she was never conscious of herself being a girl doing something that was weird for a girl to do. 

“I didn’t even think about it,” she says. “Only when I started playing publicly people made me aware of it, like ‘You’re a 17-year-old girl banging away on the drums and that’s weird.’… You’ve gotta do it for the music. I can’t have the burden of my whole gender carrying all womanhood when I’m playing the drums. I just want to play the drums.”

When she’s asked if she’ll still be drumming as an old woman with grey hair Susan says she will be. “So I think I’ve got a really blessed life. I wake up every day and think I can’t believe how lucky I am to play music I love for all these years, have a beautiful family, a job I love which is different to my music and I feel really fulfilled in every way,” she says. Susan laughs.

“And I’m never going to retire”.

Girls Rock! Melbourne showcase. Photo: with permission from Shannon Driscoll.

Access for all

Rubiks Collective performing in a Relaxed Performance. Photo: with permission from Julian O’Shea.

As the recreation coordinator at Wintringham Gilgunya aged care facility, the hardest part of Alby Brown’s job is finding low cost activities suitable for people living with a disability.

But a pilot concert series at the Melbourne Recital Centre is not only helping Alby with his job, but also giving residents at the Coburg specialist aged care centre the opportunity to experience something new.

Alby Brown at Wintringham Gilgunya. Photo: Madi Chwasta

“I love listening to classical music, and I love it when I take someone for their first time and watch them become mesmerised by the sounds, the way it just captures their imagination and takes them away,” Alby said.

“It’s opened up the doors for people, who are marginalised and can’t afford to sit and listen to great music, to be moved and inspired.”

The Relaxed Performance series allows people living with a mental or physical disabilities or experiencing financial disadvantage to attend professional classical music performances.

Melbourne Recital Centre learning and access coordinator Belinda Ashe said she had worked with various organisations, including Arts Access Victoria and Scope, to curate a concert environment that catered for people who would not attend normally because of strict concert hall etiquette and financial cost.

“There’s a whole audience out there who would love to come along, so breaking down those barriers to ensure it’s accessible for them is really important,” she said.

During a Relaxed Performance the lights are on, loud music is explained beforehand, noise from audience members is permitted, the doors are open the entire time to allow movement in and out of the hall, a quiet zone is set up outside the hall, the performance runs for 45 minutes, and tickets are affordable at only $5.

While the program is in its first year, Belinda hopes as more people and community organisations become aware of the project a larger variety of programs will be available.

“It would be great if people could choose between a full program of music the way that everyone else gets to,”

Belinda Ashe

Australia Council Major Performing Arts director and arts accessibility advocate Morwenna Collett said while the Relaxed Performance series was a positive development, there was still a long way to go, as accessibility options for music in Australia were “vehemently” five to 10 years behind other art forms, such as visual arts and dance.

“It comes back to one in five Australians have a disability, and I think there are some really strong arguments as to why it should be built into everyone’s thinking, but we’re certainly not there yet,” she said.

Even though accessible classical music concerts are scarce, Alby said he was thrilled he could now take residents to the Relaxed Series and was hopeful more programs of this type would be available in the future.

“If we’re trying to build a world where people are included and have a chance, when they do these kinds of acts to allow people into that world, it really makes a difference,” he said.

“For me, that’s a game changer.”

After a Relaxed Performance. Photo: with permission from Julian O’Shea.

Telling the right story

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Domestic violence reporting is important for public awareness, yet complex survivor stories, scant resources and audience backlash can discourage journalists from covering the issue.

PHOTO: Hayley Gleeson (provided by Hayley Gleeson)

ABC journalist Hayley Gleeson said the biggest challenge when reporting these stories was conveying the full complexity of the issue, which required sufficient time and resources.

“I think we have to tread very carefully when we report the causes and contributing factors particularly about domestic violence because it is so complex, and there are lots of different factors involved,” she said.

“I’m in a really rare and privileged position in the ABC in that I have a lot of time and resource to dig into these issues, and that’s rare in the media industry today as resources are tight.”

Ms Gleeson said that overlooking the complex nature of these stories, or choosing sensationalist or victim-blaming language, could prevent people from seeking help.

“We still see egregious examples, simple things like choice of headlines that blame victims for the violence and abuse that is perpetrated against them,” she said.

“Getting it wrong can see women not seek help.”

Ms Gleeson said another barrier to reportage was the “vitriolic” backlash journalists received for reporting these stories, which had discouraged some from investigating these issues further.

“Inevitably, every time I publish a story I can sit at my desk and watch my email inbox and just wait for attacks, and criticism, usually from male readers who see an inherent sense of bias in the way that I’ve approached stories, simply because I report the facts.”

“I know of colleagues in the industry that refrain from commenting in a public way, or refrain from delving into these issues because they’re wary of the backlash.”

University of Melbourne PhD candidate Annie Blatchford said stranger violence was disproportionally over-represented in the media compared with domestic violence stories, which lessened public concern for the issue.

“I think the media do have a role to play in making sure the prevalence of domestic and family violence is known in comparison to these horrible attacks that occur much more rarely,” she said.

She said media reporting on domestic violence has increased in recent years due to advocacy efforts, but media organisations have only recently treated these stories as “newsworthy”.

“One of the common anecdotes I’ve been told by senior journalists is back in the day about domestic violence stories was the attitude of the newsroom was “it’s just another domestic”,” she said.

“The reality is that you are much more likely to be physically or sexually attacked or even murdered by someone you know.”

The Australian Institute of Criminology found one Australian woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.

Researchers from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) found news reports were “murder centric”, and rarely considered other types of violence, such as emotional abuse or sexual harassment.

Orange Door Heidelberg intake and assessment officer Emma Slater said media coverage that acknowledged the complexity and prevalence of domestic and family violence helped normalise the issue and encouraged women to seek assistance.

“If there are no narratives of family violence victims within the media, you might just think it’s your individual fault.”

“Being able to locate yourself within a family violence struggle allows you a sense of community, allows you to recognise their situation is not normal, and encourages you to seek help.”

Ms Slater said advisory and research bodies on violence against women, such as Our Watch and ANROWS, have provided the media with comprehensive resources to ethically report these issues. 

While these peak bodies have contributed to some improvement in reporting, there was evidence many news organisations were not following the reporting guidelines, University of Melbourne and University of Canberra researchers found.

The Morrison government pledged $328 million in a three-year funding plan to domestic violence services in March, with $62 million directed towards the 1800RESPECT counselling hotline.

If you, a child, or another person is in immediate danger, call 000. For sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service call 1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732. 24/7 phone and online services.

Featuring ABC reporter Hayley Gleeson and University of Melbourne PhD Candidate Annie Blatchford.
News report excerpt from 7:30 ABC on 14th February 2014.
Music by Madi Chwasta.

Parking woes

Ivanhoe traders and residents are furious over slashed parking in the main shopping precinct as the Ivanhoe library undergoes renewal.

The council has blocked off 80 two and three hour parking spaces for construction of the new Ivanhoe library, about a quarter of the spaces available, and only half of those will be reinstated once the development has been completed late next year.

Ricardo Ferro trader Joe Giardina said the removal of parking would be “detrimental” to the precinct as there were not enough longer term parking spots for customers near the centre.

“Ultimately it will just choke the centre, people will go and what you will end up with is a whole stack of restaurants and coffee shops that mainly do their business at night, and for retailers like me it becomes difficult,” he said.

“By taking away parking, it’s not going to help, it’s just going to make matters worse.”

Ivanhoe resident Paul Shortal said the local side streets posed a “risk” for drivers as the lack of parking in the main centre had pushed parked cars into residential areas and had hindered the flow of traffic.

“Cars are parked right up to the corner, you try and turn quickly, there’s two parked cars, headlights coming at you and there’s nowhere for you to go,” he said.

“The congestion is increasing all the way down from the shopping strip.”

Banyule councillor Peter Castaldo said while convenient parking may be “harder” to find in the area, the council’s investment and interest in environmentally sustainable transport options, such as the improvement of walking routes and the potential of automated public transport, would reduce the need for parking over time.

“Rather than spending the money on parking, we should be spending the money on the access routes for people to walk and have a good walkway experience from their home to the shops,” he said.

“And enabling predetermined minibuses from the local area into the Ivanhoe Activity Centre will totally change our relationship with the activity centre in my view,

“We have had the first autonomous trial at La Trobe University and they will be the first to be rolled out on pre-determined routes.”

Mr Giardina said there would still be a need for longer term parking to cater for young families and the elderly as the “great inconvenience” caused by reduced parking would push these customers towards big shopping centres.

Mr Giardina presented a petition to Banyule Council supported by all 102 Ivanhoe shopping centre traders last September, which opposed the conversion of one hour parking to 15 minute parking in the main Ivanhoe precinct as indicated in the Ivanhoe Parking Plan.

The Ivanhoe Traders Association declined to comment.

Centre Ivanhoe under construction