In July 2020 a jubilant Mike Noga took to social media to announce the forthcoming release of a new solo album, Open Fire. “It’s been a long time in the making but I couldn’t be prouder of this one,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
One month later news broke that the singer, songwriter and former drummer for the Drones – who played with the acclaimed Australian band over 10 years and three albums – had died suddenly at the age of 43.
Eric Bogle’s And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda sits among Australia’s best-known pieces of wartime songwriting. Occasionally mistaken for a traditional standard, this Banjo Jackson-interpolating folk song has been covered by everyone from the Pogues to Joan Baez in the 50 years since its composition.
“I wrote the song in 71 after I’d seen my first Anzac Day parade – I’d never seen one before of course,” the Scottish-born Bogle tells the Guardian. “The Vietnam war was still going on, Australian boys were still dying across there, [but] it was hard to know that because the war had been relegated to page six. It was old news. I thought the time was right for an anti-war song. I set the song in Gallipoli because it’s deeply embedded in the psyche of most Australians.”
Starring a young Cate Blanchett in her first film role, writer/director Kathryn Millard’s 1996 film Parklands remains a surprisingly evergreen – and very Adelaide – reflection on memory and place.
The film opens with sprinklers and birdsong, shots of a lush and manicured Botanic Gardens, and a ’90s model Holden idling by. It’s all very quiet and genteel – until the Commodore bursts into flames. Something, it seems, is rotten in the state of South Australia.
Blanchett’s Rosie enters by airplane a moment later, staring out the window as it makes its descent over a skyline still capped by the Santos building. She cuts a familiar figure: another 20-something who has fled Adelaide for Sydney, only to be drawn back by a death in the family – that of her father, a policeman. An uncomfortable conversation at the wake, followed by the discovery of his old journals, sets Rosie on a slow-burning investigation into the “secrets and shadows” of his life and death.
“Adelaide’s my hometown, I moved to Sydney while this film was in development and came back to make it,” Kathryn Millard says over the phone. “I have enormous affection for Adelaide – I think you can say things about your hometown that you wouldn’t let other people say.”
For a pair of brothers raised in the landlocked woodlands of Bohemia, Dušan and Voitre Marek spent much of their lives drawn to water. In their hands it’s a transportive and transformative medium, a place of contemplation, inspiration and the divine.
It’s present in Dušan’s 1948 painting Equator, as the backdrop to the soft pink outline of a woman’s torso that melts into the hull of a ship, with cogs and motors swapped in for her breasts and womb. There it is again in Voitre’s My Gibraltar, this time as a site of longing for his future wife, Vera, who earlier in 1948 fled the onset of communism alongside the brothers only to end up on a different Australia-bound ship. The separated lovers’ faces merge into one as another vessel traces a dotted path across their foreheads towards the horizon. In their own way, both paintings betray a restlessness for whatever’s waiting beyond that big, infinite blue.
Natalie Mering’s work as Weyes Blood is, on its surface, a shimmering throwback to the singer songwriters of the 1970s. But there’s a stormy undercurrent beneath those classic sounds.
On the cover of her 2019 album, Titanic Rising, we find Mering literally adrift, floating in an underwater facsimile of her childhood bedroom. “I wanted it to be submerged as a comment on the rising sea levels, and all these places that will be underwater soon,” Mering explains. “But also how water can represent a subconscious realm.
“I kind of felt like the bedroom was a really formative space for young, westernised youth; this is where you formulate your ideology, what you think life is really about. In some ways it’s this weird initiation into adulthood, but it doesn’t really prepare you for reality, and disappointment.”
The title and cover are also a quite literal callback to James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, which for Mering speaks both to her childhood cultural obsessions and the current climate crisis. “I felt like the movie was such a huge hit, it was such a big deal [particularly] among little girls, but the message that I took home was the hubris of man, and our lack of dominion over nature. But I don’t think anybody got that message, even though it was one of the biggest films of all time. People just didn’t get it!
“Our generation is one of the more cinematically saturated generation with VHS, then streaming,” she says. “Movies play a pretty big role in our psychological life, but we don’t really talk about how they can distort reality, but also transcend it and become our stories.”
Sometimes it’s actually pretty easy to judge a record by its cover. Musically, Herbs’ 1981 debut Whats’ Be Happen? is a stirring example of the spread of reggae across Oceania in the 1970s. But it’s also a vivid political document, from the second you glimpse the black and white photograph on its sleeve. The aerial shot of the final standoff between police and protesters at Bastion Point in May 1978 captures the moment government forces ended a peaceful five hundred-day-long occupation of Ngāti Whātua ancestral lands north of Auckland earmarked for development.
These political tensions are entwined with the band’s early music, starting with the needling guitar riff of opening track ‘Azania (Soon Come)’. It’s a song that traces a line between the civil rights battles facing Pasifika and Māori communities in Aotearoa and the oppression of South African apartheid, all over a rocksteady beat. After name checking Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, the chorus offers a call to “bow to the freedom fighters” and “send racists on the run”, a message of decolonisation sounding across the southern hemisphere.
Released in 2016, Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, evoked a sense of sundried desperation and El Niño-inspired unease that felt as familiar to many Australian readers as the book’s genre trappings (its tagline, “a desperate act in a small town with secrets”, could apply to anything from Twin Peaks to Top of the Lake).
The book hadn’t even hit shelves when producer Bruna Papandrea and screenwriter-director Robert Connolly started planning the film. Papandrea is perhaps best known today for adapting Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies for HBO, which swapped Sydney’s northern beaches for affluent, coastal California – but there was no separating The Dry from its western Victorian backdrop.
“It just lends itself to mystery and suspense so well because you do have that undercurrent of danger in a lot of locations,” Harper says.
COVID-19 has left Australia’s theatres, galleries and rehearsal rooms shuttered and its arts community reeling. But the unfortunately timed announcement of the Australia Council’s four-year funding cycle in April has shown just how this already underfunded sector is being pushed to the brink.
“It’s up there with one of the worst days of my life, I think,” Restless Dance Theatre artistic director Michelle Ryan explains. “We’ve really built our reputation, especially over the last three years, and we’re seen as a leader in disability and arts.”
For Ryan, the “heart-wrenching” news was made more bewildering by the Australia Council’s celebration of her work in March. “I was just a bit blindsided because three weeks earlier I had been given the Australia Council Award for Dance,” she says. “For me, it was sending quite mixed messages – I was shocked. We’ve won a bunch of awards, I seriously don’t know what more we could have done.
In Animals, Alia Shawkat explores a different kind of arrested development as an elegantly wasted twentysomething who can’t quite let the party, or her closest friendship, end.
“I had never played a character like that before,” Shawkat explains. “In the past I’ve played characters who to some degree or another are a little more genuine or relatable. I was excited to play someone who was so fun, but so damaged.”
Shawkat’s Tyler is the sort of character you’ll find in any university town, still haunting the same bars and citing literary references from a second-year modernism course years after graduating or dropping out. There’s probably a Tyler at The Exeter right now.
“At first you’re like, ‘Is she a cartoon character? Does she think people are on board?’,” Shawkat says. “And they are sometimes, but she lives in her own world. When she was younger people were more charmed by her, but she never evolved. It almost rings a little false, comes off a little ‘ooh I don’t think she knows there’s something in her teeth’.
A decade ago, Grizzly Bear’s blend of jazz-camp precision and ’60s pop harmonies made an unlikely candidate for crossover success. Back on the road with fifth album Painted Ruins, it seems no one’s more surprised by the band’s staying power than their founder Ed Droste.
“Honestly, what I sometimes think when I’m walking around onstage is, ‘I cannot believe I’m still doing this’,” he says, laughing. “And it’s a mixture of complete gratitude and ‘Oh my God, I’m here again for the 12th time’.”
But before Painted Ruins could be built, the band first needed to escape the endless string of studios and green rooms they had inhabited since Droste launched the project from his Brooklyn bedroom with 2005’s lo-fi debut Horn of Plenty. The band needed a circuit breaker: they had to let real life back in.
“We’ve been touring, recording, touring, recording, touring, recording pretty relentlessly ever since we started,” he explains. “People were moving, three of us now live in LA, a bunch of us got married, people got divorced, there were babies born. Regular life became a priority over music for a few years, and I think it was good. [We] were just too afraid and tired, and just kind of done. So when we started working together again, we came back really refreshed in a more mature way.”