Recently The McMenamins – a brother and sister duo from Far North Queensland – crept into my consciousness, and not long afterwards I discovered that they had a new album due out, and then not long after that I was offered the opportunity to interview Fleur McMenamin, who was inspiring and thoughtful and interesting and completely made me want to see her and her brother Simon when they tour, which they’re about to do. Hopefully you’ll feel the same way after reading this interview – tour dates appear after it.
I know we don’t have too much time, so I’m going to launch straight into questions. And I’ll start by actually asking you about where I imagine you are now, which is Babinda.
From what I understand, you are the third generation of your family to live in that area. And I would imagine that gives some context to your music and to your song writing, so I thought I’d ask you a bit about where you come from musically as well as the area and the land?
Sure. Well, I have moved to Babinda in the last three years, but my family is from Cairns, and we’re the third generation in the far north area. And we feel very connected to where we come from, and the land that is around us. And I think that it’s really reflected in our music, and the music that we write.
And is that reflected in the way your music evolved, into playing the genre you play in now?
Yes. I guess our genre is very – I think it’s quite a broad range of music within the blues – well, within the roots genre, really. So that flavour comes through both blues and roots, and also alternative country. But also we kind of tell the stories about people that we have known and loved, and our ancestors, and also tell stories about our children and what we want for them in years to come, and stories about people that we see around us, experiences that we have, I guess.
It’s quite often when I talk to country musicians, I mention that in particular that country music and its branches – because there are several – is our Australian storytelling genre song. really, and it’s a way for storytellers to reach their audience in a way that perhaps they can’t do in print necessarily. So obviously you very much fit into that mould.
I think so, yes. I think telling our stories is such an important part of passing on who we are and where we come from and what is important to us. It’s folk music in the true sense, and it’s also, it’s culture in a true sense – being able to use music and art to express ourselves.
So did the stories come first for you and then you picked up musical instruments and sang to be able to tell them, or was it the other way around?
Usually it’s the other way around. It’s a feeling and a desire, and something compels me to pick up the instrument, and then those feelings work out themselves into lyrics, and then the song, the music is born.
So do you tend to believe in the muse, in having a muse when you’re writing?
I think the muse presents itself in many different forms as I go through my journey.
And do you write mainly – well, actually I should ask you about those forms, since you gave me that and I almost skipped past it. So are there any forms you’d like to identify?
Well, it’s very much the people that I love, and the people around me, and also the things that I see and experience, things that happen to me along the way, and what I feel about those. Certainly my family and my partner and my children, I would say, they are quite prominent as muses, I guess.
How old are your children?
Five and four, two little girls.
I would imagine it’s quite a feat then to try to organise a tour, when you have children that young who aren’t necessarily taking themselves off to school, or dressing themselves in the morning?
Yes, absolutely, it’s all very busy in my life [laughter] at the moment. And I also have a job as a coordinator of the music program in the community up here, helping other musicians sort of attain their goals. So I’m very, very busy, as well as trying to organise the tour and manage us, and get the album written and produced, and then released. It’s a big, big undertaking.
So therefore does Simon do anything, or does he just let you do all the work?
Well, Simon has a job also. He’s a head of strings department in one of the high schools up here, and he teaches music, instrumental music. And he also has two children. So he does provide a great deal of support to me and also he helps out wherever he can. But I have kind of taken on the management role from the beginning, because I guess it’s me driving the music, and he’s kind enough to come on the journey, I guess.
And so have you two had this musical relationship for quite a large part of your lives?
Oh, well, we only really started making music together after I had convinced him, after a lot of convincing [laughter] when I was writing my own music. But we grew up playing classical music in all the orchestras, and we did all the music exams and all the theory and all that sort of stuff. So we grew up playing music around each other, but not together. And until I started writing my own music, and then we – the first real performance that we did was at the 2003 Woodford Folk Festival as emerging artists. And ever since then we’ve been playing and writing together.
It sounds a little bit like he might like performing a bit less than you do?
No. I think that performing is definitely a shared love of ours. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, he’s actually a really, really wonderful instrumentalist, and an amazing classical musician as well. So he performs in other capacities outside of the band yeah, he loves performing, as much as I do, I think [laughter]. I hate to speak for him, but I’m pretty sure that he shares my love of performing music.
And what do you love about performing? Because I think most country artists or country-related artists do love it, but not every musician likes to be in front of an audience. So what are the elements for you that are really great?
I feel like it’s a bit of a refuge being on stage and actually performing music. I mean, by the time it gets to the stage that you are able to perform it, that’s just the joy of it. You know, all of that work that goes into getting the music out there and writing the music, and then releasing it for people to hear, for you to be able to perform in front of audiences – the moment I step on stage, that’s the fun part for me, and it’s really a joyous thing. I really feel the music that we deliver.
I think that’s a beautiful term to say that it’s a refuge, because I think a lot of people on the outside might imagine that it’s actually quite a stress, getting on stage and being in front of people.
I really feel the opposite when I’m on stage now. I mean, it used to be, when I was younger – in the earlier stages of the career it was quite nerve-wracking, and I was more afraid of what people would think of the music and what the audiences wanted. But now I’ve been sort of doing it for such a long time that when I get on stage I just really enjoy performing the music. I really feel it and it’s kind of that quite a sanctuary for me.
It sounds a lot like you are really able to tap into the creative flow as in when you need it, in a way.
Yes. And sometimes I feel as though it’s just a certain amount of magic happening, because there’s two of us on stage, and it’s just the two of us, and we really tap into some kind of magic that happens when acoustic sounds come out of these instruments. And sometimes it’s just a really beautiful feeling and place to be. It’s – you get transported into another world. So I don’t know if it sounds ridiculous, but it’s kind of how I feel.
No, no, I think that’s what happens when you are able to let go of all the extraneous stuff and be really present in what you’re doing on stage. If you were worrying about what people thought about you, if you were worrying about any other little thing, you wouldn’t be there for the audience and you wouldn’t be there for yourselves. So obviously you have over time managed to let that go, and that’s why you’re having that experience.
Absolutely, yeah. And it’s taken a really long time to get to that stage. But now I have it more often than not, and it’s just fantastic to be at that stage, just enjoy that, and hopefully let that evolve as we go along.
So in the times when you’re not able to tour, when you’re between albums perhaps, and you’re writing songs or preparing to record, and you’re also running your life, is there a longing for performance?
A little bit, yes. I mean, I do long for that feeling – just the part of the excitement that surrounds it also. I feel like I’m really doing something which my – I feel as though it’s kind of important. I feel that’s something that I do in my life that is an important thing to do, as we have been talking about earlier, about keeping our culture alive and telling our stories and just the whole broader need of the community that I am a part of, it feels like it’s a big part of my life.
Are you passing that on to your children?
I think so, yes. Having them present at events like Woodford Folk Festival or Tamworth Country Music Festival and this year’s Blues Fest – it’s really a special thing for them to be involved in at such a young age, and they really feel the excitement. Because Simon has two young children, too, and they are all very close in age. I mean, they are from seven to four and they just adore being with each other. And we get to travel and be with each other for those particular events. I think they really feel the special community of people from all around the world, and telling them their stories. I think they kind of grew up with that. I hope so, anyway.
Well, they have been very lucky to be exposed to it from such a young age.
Yeah, absolutely. And I hope they will carry that with them.
It sounds like they may not have too much choice about whether or not they are musicians, in that both you and Simon grew up with classical training and playing music, so I guess – I mean, of course they have a choice, but it may be their destiny.
Possibly. We’ll see. They’ve all got really good ears, and they are quite talented singers, and Simon’s little girl is playing violin already, so yeah, we’ll see how they go.
I was thinking about you playing with your brother, and I’m actually surprised there aren’t more sibling bands or sibling groups, simply because I think if the sibling relationship is fairly solid, there’s a degree of elasticity in it that I think would stand up, would be useful for touring and playing together and recording together, just because you can have the odd disagreement, but it’s not going to tear you apart.
Yes. And we’re really fortunate we get along so well. And if there is any disagreement, we just kind of know how to compromise and get over it, and move on. With many years of working things out together, that’s what probably contributes to that.
In terms of the songwriting duty, is that mainly yours? I don’t have a copy of your new album yet, so I can’t see who’s written what, so I don’t know if you’ve written more than he has.
I write all the songs, and then Simon and I get together and he arranges his instrumentals and vocal harmonies, yeah.
I read a quote from you talking about the songs being heart-felt expressions of how you feel. Hearing you talk and reading a bit about you, I can tell that that’s true of you. You play and sing from the heart. But I was wondering if there’s a risk of wearing your heart on your sleeve, particularly when you take it to a live audience?
Sometimes I guess there is. And I felt more, as I said, in earlier stages of our career I felt that risk a little more, but now as I get older and my inspiration has changed, and also my aspirations are different, I feel braver in the choices that I make, and I feel like I really embrace – I’m starting to embrace the artistry of being a singer/songwriter, and as I said, I don’t feel as much pressure any more. I think that if you’re good at what you do, and you tell it how it is, and you sing from the heart, then someone out there is going to appreciate it and like it.
It seems like quite a few people have been appreciating it and liking it. You’ve released an album every so often and had these quite interesting opportunities overseas and within Australia – the conventional wisdom possibly is, get an album out as quickly as possible, get another one out as quickly as possible, but it seems for you two, that you can release an album not necessarily every year, and still find these audiences, because the venues you are going to for this tour are good ones, they are big ones.
Yeah, I think so. And just really working hard and sticking with it. And as I said, it’s important to me. Music is something that has never gone away. It always finds me, even if I [laughter], if I’m not actively pursuing it, it comes to me, and therefore, even in a little way, I feel I have no real choice but to keep it going and keep working at it, and keep trying to get it out to people just because the response from the people that do really identify with our music is just so, so encouraging and overwhelming to me that I feel like it’s something that’s worth doing, and therefore I continue to do it, even though it’s sometimes very hard work [laughter].
It is incredibly hard work, that balancing of household and life and parenthood and employment, I think a lot of people underestimate how much work it is actually just to run a house, for one thing, and still have that creative part of your life. So you are either highly organised, or you are really good at instinctually responding to that need to create when it comes up, or maybe both.
I agree entirely. It’s a lot of work to run a family and a household, and have a journey and a path as a group of people and a family, and let alone being creative and figuring out how to do that with a separate group of people or person, and have a sustainable career in this industry. It’s, yes, as I said, it can be difficult at times. But very worth it, I think, and people really do appreciate it. As I said, that magic that you feel on stage just makes everything else go away.
And for you as a singer, as you mentioned classical training when you were younger, I’m presuming that was instrumental. You might have been trained as a singer. But singing actually comes in a lot of ways from a different place than playing an instrument. It’s obviously an expression of the spirit. So I was wondering how you feel about yourself as a singer, or how you’ve evolved as a singer?
I started learning, acquiring it from a very young age, classical music, and I also then went on to do singing, so I did all my classical singing exams at the Trinity College of London, and went up to Grade 8 et cetera, so I was doing classical singing. But of course I loved singing the pop songs and the folk songs of the day, whatever I was listening to. And as soon as I let go of the classical training and picked up a guitar, which I had no training in whatsoever, I felt free to be able to sing however I wanted and express myself in that way. I just – I guess I fell in love with it. Singing has evolved for me into something that is really quite joyous and open, and I feel – I guess that makes me feel some kind of artistic freedom in a way.
Sometimes I find with classically trained musicians that the structure that training gives is actually what facilitates that ability to improvise, in a way, to explore and be free, and if you don’t have the structure then sometimes it can take longer to actually set free. Has that been your experience?
I think so. The training, the background that I have in classical music and all the theory and the training, it does develop your ear and your musical sensibility, so dramatically, as opposed to someone who may not have had that training. But in that same sense you can always have those musical prodigies and freaks [laughter] where they – it just works for them. But certainly in Simon’s case, I think his classical training has just enabled him to be such an incredible improviser, when it comes to getting all the notes right, and the next note, that training is evident.
Because both of you work in music as well as being musicians, I guess you would advocate fairly strongly for including musical education in the lives of children as well as in adults?
Absolutely, yes. I have sung to my children since before they were born, and every night since, and the development that can be encouraged through musical training, not only memory and even coordination of actions – it really is remarkable, I think, the influence that it has on young developing brains. And also children learn – I would just encourage education through music or anything to do with music in any way. I think it’s really important. And the system that we grew up with here, instrumental music being delivered in the schools, that’s just the basis of our entire career, I believe. And I have some concerns that that may be about to go in Queensland, because it’s the only state that still delivers instrumental music in the schools. I have great fears that that is about to go, and that really makes me sad, in a way.
That attitude towards music possibly comes from the idea that music is something that is not essential to human life, when actually – you mention stories about your ancestors before – that music has connected people through time, and always will. It’s not just a frippery for some people to indulge in, it’s fundamental.
That’s right. I believe that wholeheartedly. And not only music, but art in general, it is something that’s so underrated and overlooked in our society as not being essential. However, if you think of any kind of message that was ever told, it started from some point of artistic origin; it’s the way it’s been carried on. And to me it is just so important, and yes, I suppose I will continue giving that message till the day I die.
I actually didn’t mean to turn this into a discussion about education in schools, but I just thought, the opportunity is there, I think it’s important to say. Because even though people all have music in their lives, a lot of them never consciously realise how easily it may not be in their lives if education is withdrawn.
Yes. And it’s really an important part of our cultural identity and our development as any group of people, I believe.
Well, now, I’m almost at the end of my allotted time, so I’ll end with a logistical question: living a few hours south of Cairns, this is a big country to get around, and you seem to be going both coasts and quite a bit of the eastern seaboard. So I was wondering about the logistics of getting out on the road, for rehearsing, for everything like that – do you plan months ahead?
Well, not exactly. The tour is all booked months ahead in advance, and the rehearsing just happens whenever we have time for [it] – we do as much as we possibly can. Both of us having families, and me being an hour away from the regional centre, it is difficult at times, but we do it. We get around as best we can. And it’s not only that we have done quite a bit of touring, especially in the last couple of years, and we’ve been doing pretty extensive show-after-show kind of stuff for much of the time. So I think just, you just have to draw a line around all of that and do what you can.
And actually I just remembered I did have one other question, which is, what music are you listening to now for pleasure?
I listen to all sorts of different music, [laughter] and sometimes it’s very much centred around what the children want to listen to. The only time I really get to listen to it is like in the car when I’m driving to wherever I have to get to. So there’s a lot of Taylor Swift on the stereo [laughter]. But personally, it ranges from sort of Radiohead to The National, to people like Kasey Chambers and Patty Griffin, and Gillian Welch – a whole bunch of artists that I really adore.
It’s been a delight talking to you, Fleur. Thanks for your time.
Thank you. Bye.
The McMenamins are touring through March and April:
Thursday 14 March 2013 | 7.30pm
The Toff in Town, Melbourne VIC
With special guest Emma Heeney
Tickets: $13.30 [presale] | $15.00 [door]
Sunday 17th March 2013 | 3.30pm
Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane QLD
Live Spark – FREE EVENT
Thursday 21st March 2013 | 7.30pm
Lizotte’s, Newcastle NSW
With special guest Amy Vee
Sunday 24th March 2013 | 7pm
The Vanguard, Sydney NSW
With special guests Amy Vee & Sam Buckingham
Tickets: $18.80 [show only] | $56.80 [dinner & show]
Wednesday 27th March 2013 | 7pm
The Glasshouse, Port Macquarie NSW
The Ross Family Studio
Saturday 30th March 2013 | 1.15pm
Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Monday 1st April 2013 | 2.45pm
Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Thursday 4th April 2013 | 7.30pm
Burdekin Theatre, Ayr QLD
Tickets: $19.00 | $15.00 [conc]
Saturday 6th April 2013 | 7.30pm
Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns QLD
With special guests Laneway
Tickets: $25.00 | $20 [conc]
Thursday 11th April 2013 | 7.30pm
Fly By Night, Fremantle WA
Tickets: $23.50 [presale] | $25.00 [door]