Chris McNulty: A Siren From Down Under
AAJ: One of the things about your artistry that is so intriguing is the element of surrealism in your lyrics. Is any of this due to Australia's geography and native culture?
CM: I'd say most definitely, but then I have lived in NYC for the past two decades, so who knows. If you ask someone like Paul, they'll probably give you a raised eyebrow and an answer like Chris' brain [laughs]. But honestly, the wide-open spaces of my homeland definitely play a role in all this, for sure. It's stunningly beautiful and at times, a hauntingly lonely country, sometimes even spooky. Aboriginal folks will attest to that.
I miss the country of my childhood a lot. The price I've paid for leaving it behind has had a lasting impact on me, the yearning for it weighs heavy on my spirit some days. Maybe the memory has remained so vivid and strong because I'm not there and I miss it so much. The geographical landscape in Australia holds some serious power over all of us. It's in our blood.
Physically speaking, most of the past two decades of my life have been spent living in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattanso I sit here and writethe past often informs the present and the present the future. I realize that perhaps I've had to hold onto those memories because life was so tough for me here for many years, it most probably kept me alive. My memory has served me well for my life and for my writing. To keep what's precious dear, you sometimes have to write it into memory. For me, those words/lyrics always connect to the spirit of memory and therefore music.
I think I've always had a finely tuned sense of big picture, the wide lensmaybe that comes from experiencing the wide open spaces, but I am rather detail-oriented too (Catholic upbringing...nuns). I love the music of Bernstein, Copland, and Barber, but look for meaning in small things as well. Anything that might help explain our existence, why we're herewhat's just under the surface.
To this day I remember being no more than eight years old, standing on the porch of my house looking up at the stars and wondering what we were doing here and why we were here at all. I was asking God a pretty big question; I think I expected an answer too...still waiting on that one [laughs].
I have started to write a lot more of late, that's the full circle thing. I realize that it's something I love to do as I did as a young girl, so I hope to get the chance to spend more time doing this, or rather allow myself the time and space to do it. Right now composing music is my first priority, administering this record label, and booking tours are also on the daily to do list, not to mention answering interview questions on time.
Whispers the Heart, and a heavy touring schedule coming up so I am just getting my creative juices going again. The business of music can really sap you of a lot of creative energy, if you allow it to. I have to watch that tendency; having the capacity to juggle a lot of things just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
I try not to write trite or silly lyrics and I'm kind of particular about what I readliterature, fiction, prose, poetry, even the news. I loved the Bronte sisters as a young girl growing up; their writing had a powerful effect on me both visually and literary and at an age where things can impress one deeply. I started writing short stories around age 11. I think by the time I arrived at the place where I was ready to write lyrics to music, that aesthetic was already firmly entrenched in my writing style. I have no idea where the surrealism, if that's what it is, comes from. It's a surreal time in our existence on this planet. My writing has always been informed by the external, perhaps that's all I need to say.
AAJ: Since you are a Baby Boomer, what music shaped your youth?
CM: Even if you were just into pop musicthe pop music of the late '60s and '70s was pretty killin' and I think in a way may far outlast some of the pop music that has followed sincethat doesn't include some forms of early hip hop, which I really dig. I find more and more teenagers now listening to the same music we were listening to. That's pretty amazing in itself and in a way it makes me feel really good to know that I was listening and dancing to that music as it was going down, being created.
I was still just a little kid without a thought that I would someday become one of those artists on the radiowell not a pop artist to be sure. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, James Taylor...so much of their music still remains beautifulmagnificent to listen to today.
Then you had all the great English pop and rock artistsThe Beatles, Cream, Yes' Close to the Edge (Atlantic, 1972), especially; and then of course, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Woodstock, The Allman Brothers, Crosby, Stills & Nash. By the time I started singing I was already performing repertoire from The Isley Brothers and Tower of Power. Some of these cats are still out there doing their stuff and they still sound great, but they were all just starting out back then and it was a great and amazing time to be young and alive.
The great jazz of that period, which of course for us kinda takes it to a whole other realmwithout sounding too snotty-nosed, in a way, far surpasses everything. I got to that a decade later, and am still sifting through, so that's testament to the other amazing thingcreative musicjazz, if it's real, stands the test of time and remains beyond timeless.
As a little kid, I watched a pile of movies and was particularly mesmerized by Sinatra and Judy Garland and even Doris Day to a lesser extent. Though coincidentally, they were not the singers I listened to once I did get the jazz bug a decade later. I still love to watch Meet Me in St. Louis just to hear Judy Garland sing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"exquisite and very moving. I never talked about the effect that particular rendering had on me, as I was such a little girl at the time.
In retrospect I imagine it was rather huge. I recall singing this song 12 or so years ago and having not just the audience, but just about every musician on the band stand close to tears. I think it was Judy Garland's indirect influence. So after all these years of forgetting to acknowledge her, I now have to say that Judy Garland's emotive delivery and pitch, back in that time of her career, are beyond category. I wish she'd lived a different life or perhaps taken a different course and better care of herself, she would have been a hell of a jazz singer. Sinatra, well he had a whole other magic but stayed the course in a way no one else has ever managed to do. I don't think anyone will come along to take that torch for another 100 years.
These were fabulous teachers for a budding vocalist, even though at the time I had no idea I was going to end up being one. I learned the value of great pitch, emotive delivery and breath control by osmosis. So I was real lucky. I was exposed to all that great pop music on the radio and then at the same time saw repeats of those great movies. The vocal duets between Frank and Doris day on "Young at Heart" are remarkable enough just for their perfect tuning but then you listen to how spontaneous and hip their phrasing was. I don't know how they did all that all at onceacting and singingpretty darn talented for sure.
So I was familiar with the repertoire of the Great American Songbook before I knew what it was. The transition from popR&B singer to becoming a jazz singer was strangely not such as weird a leap as one might assume. I think of those great Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duets and realize there are just way too many influences for me to list here. As a jazz vocalist, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, early Billie Holiday and early Nancy Wilson really had the most influence on me in my early 20s.
I am so grateful to have come up during a period of time that exposed me to so much amazing music and unique, beautiful and soulful talent. That pop music and jazz combined has played a major role in developing my vocal style.
AAJ: Since you are a native of AustraliaI wondered if the Aborigine culture had any influence on you and your artistry?
CM: The short answer is no, although to explain why would take more time than we have here. It would be an interesting topic to explore now; as in how much more possible it might be given the changes that have taken place since I left Australia in 1988. Historically, parallels drawn between the American Indian and the Australian Aboriginal situation are most revealingthe outcomes for both, tragically similar.
Prior to leaving Australia in 1988, there were perhaps a handful of rock bands composing and performing music marginally influenced by Aboriginal music. At that time there had been very little movement towards gaining recognition for Australia's Aboriginal population, their rich culture and spiritual heritage. I think the shape shifting didn't really start happening until the '70s. The majority of Australians, artist or otherwise were mostly informed by way of documentaries, books and films. Fred Schepisi's movie, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith , based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, is one well worth checking out.
In a way, the Aboriginal's social landscape was pretty well off limits, unless you were working for the government in a social services field, belonged to a study or religious group or if you'd found a way to be accepted into Aboriginal society by some other routeeither way the conditions wouldn't have been too comfortable, physically or socially. The opportunity for creating any kind of dialogue or having any real social contact would have been difficult to find.
For cross-pollination to exist you first off have to have a need, then you have to have two willing and interested participantssadly neither existed. Before British colonization, Australian Aboriginals had been a nomadic people for more than 20,000 years. As was the case with the American Indians, Australian Aboriginals suffered brutally at the hands of the newly arrived British and Europeans; that brutality continued into the middle part of this past century and even beyond. In some cases entire tribes were wiped out, as was the case with the Tasmanian Aborigines.
It's taken a long time for Australian Aboriginals to gain access to support networks that would help redefine who they are in the 21st century, not just to themselves but also to the rapidly changing main stream culture. Opportunities have finally started to open up. That people of Aboriginal descent can now openly and proudly express their worth through their art and music is testament to their strength of spirit, courage and endurance, but so much was lost. How much and to what extent our forbears, their governments and even present day Australians are implicated, has been widely documented.
To this day it casts a very dark and disturbing shadow across both Aboriginal and European antipodean landscapes. Obviously in bush settlements, far away from the semi-urban and urban fringe, Aboriginals found opportunities to preserve and nurture their sacred rites, rituals and beliefs as they had been doing for thousands of years. However the urban fringe dwelling Aborigines often lived below the poverty line on the fringes of country towns and inner citiestoo many still do.
Though there have been some triumphs, after centuries of brutal treatment and mostly or almost entirely forced assimilations, many Aboriginal communities still remain shattered and dangerously vulnerable to all kinds of chronic social and physical diseases with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
I had spent my early years out on the road in some pretty rough environs. There were very few Aboriginal bands or musicians performing to white audiences at that time, they mainly played in pubs and bars restricted to Aboriginal patronage only. At this time in outback Australia or country town Australia, way north and west of the Victorian border there was still an unspoken form of apartheid in placecertainly not South Africa in scale, though perhaps as devastating.
Hotels and bars out in the country, far away from the major cities where the majority of Australians live, were absolutely segregated. I'd heard only a handful of Aboriginal musicians at that time and they were playing in establishments owned and operated bywhite Australians. They were certainly not performing any of their own indigenous music in these environments nor would they have been encouraged or even allowed to do so.
Perhaps even Aboriginal people didn't want to play or hear their music at this stage. On the contrary, as a very young singer touring the country what was commonly heard wafting out from these bars was most often some pretty sad country and western musicmuch of it American based, believe it or not. It was weirder than weird as I just knew that the Aboriginal people had their own real music, it just wasn't valued in either culture for many and varied reasons. Either way it was invisible to most of us or remained hidden.
In the early '70s it would have been difficult to find anyone, Aboriginal or otherwise willing to openly speak or write about what was really going on, that offered us any real insight into the value and depth of the culture. From the outside so much of it had been decimated. Aboriginal music was attached to sacred ritual and therefore privately held in high esteem by them alone. As the oppression continued, its intrinsic value became more and more private and hidden from Australians and tragically also from many fringe dwelling Aboriginal communities. It would be a whole other story out in the bush settlements, certainly would be great to be a fly on the wallor should I say fly on the cork at one of those hangs.
Out on the road, in outback country Australia, we were all working in separate venues, but the cities were a whole other matter. I never ever met an Aboriginal musician playing in an urban setting, not in the '70s or '80s at least. I'm sure it's a whole other story now.
The didgeridoo has a real distinctive sound and plays a very specific role in Aboriginal culture and ritual. I remember bringing up its use in a jazz context as far back as the late '70s, but there was very little support, understanding and appreciation for doing this at the time. So much has changed, but back then the suggestion just brought blank looks. Now it's used widely. I realized much later that you needed one for each key. It wasn't like everything was wide open in Australian societyit was hard to even find anyone willing or able to meet with you. The awful fact is that you were more likely to hear the didgeridoo played by some white TV personality than to hear a person of Aboriginal descent playing it, though I'm sure it was being played out in the bush settlements.
Most Australians including myself never heard an Aboriginal musician playing their music on their instruments, not in the '70s anyway. Although interestingly enough, one of the earliest memories I have at long distance writing was at around the age of 11, writing a 200-page story about a young Aboriginal girl's plight to survive in the big city after leaving her tribe and family behind. I have no idea where I got the inclination to imagine that scenario.
At the beginning of my singing career, I played with a bunch of New Zealand Mauris, their ethnic heritage being of Polynesian descent. They made up a very large percentage of the entertainment community in Australia (and still do), working on the show band circuit, a kind of Las Vegas type non-jazz scene. New Zealand Mauris have a tremendously strong music tradition, along with being real soulful musicians and singers. I have many fond memories of those early experiences, some of them very funny indeed, they sure know how to get a groove on and party!
Over the past two decades, Aboriginal art, artifacts, music, musicians, story tellers, actors, writers and most recently athletes have really come into their own. These particular aspects of Aboriginal culture have become very much a part of what sells Australia to the rest of the world. Though in real terms, I am not sure how much this kind of commerce benefits Aboriginal culture or its people directly, if at all. Of course their art and music has been around for more than twenty thousand years. I know the wonderful film composer and pianist, Paul Grabowsky, who heads the Australian Art Orchestra, has recently recorded an album of music featuring several Aboriginal artiststhat's great news.
That Australians now encompass Aboriginal sounds and instruments into their music is not surprising. However, for me finding Aboriginal and Australian musicians forming partnerships and bands is a much more inspiring notion. It would be great to see many more Aboriginal artists attain notoriety. I think in a strange way, the current influence of Hip Hop culture may have helped accelerate the plight of the Australian Aboriginal in modern Australian culture and also helped bring about a forum for Aboriginal people to organize and politicize their voice through art and music. It just so happens that thecoming out for young Aboriginals has happened at a time where access to media has really accelerated that leap forward and if it has helped in any way, it's a very good thing.
I haven't lived in Australia for close to 19 years? I do know that a lot has changed but nothing changed for centuries so there's been huge losses on both sides; the casualties profoundly and almost entirely suffered by Australian Aborigines.
We come back to music and how it speaks a universal language to us all. The music that builds bridges between cultures and people, that acts as a conduit. The drive and passion has to come from both cultures as does the desire, the will, the resources and the opportunity. Musicians and artist are like the bees. All these things work in tandem. If cultures are separated by huge distances; the voices of the disenfranchised silenced for too long or not heard; if these cultures and communities remain hidden away from view or entire communities are forced to live away from other cultures, it take a lot longer for those lines, those song lines to intertwine and connect, to plug into each other.
Right now the musical voice of the Australian Aborigines is still threading its way out of some enormous and deep suffering. When its voice becomes loud enough so everyone can hear, perhaps then, all the other sounds will bow to its haunting power. The music that comes from suffering comes like a raging river. A cross-pollination of a kind has begun, whether it will build to universal status is not for me to second guesswe can only hope so. In the end no one can speak the music for you; it has to come from the heart and soul and willingness of the people, the musicians and singers and artists who can find the source.
Willfulness, purpose and respect can help facilitate that journey, but in a way, for there to be any real freedom or truth in the music, the journey has to be made together. It's been happening very slowly. In Australia, the rivers run very dry and sometimes for long periods of time, sound travels slowly down a dry river bed.
There is Aboriginal power all over the Australian landscapethe land and the Aboriginal people are joined eternally. It would be hard to imagine this powerland and Aborigine not having entered the soul of at least some Australians of European descent. Has it influenced who I am as an artist, how I feel, I'd say most definitely.