When I speak to Luke O’Shea he is out of breath and running around with his children somewhere in Cronulla where they live. I’m speaking to him for a couple of reasons. One of which is the fact that this year he took out three Golden Guitars, his second consecutive APRA Song of the Year award for his track Three Brothers (the Great War). He also and joined Slim Dusty as the only other Australian to win three consecutive CMAA Heritage Songs of the Year.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Luke O’Shea is an accomplished musician and well known within country music circles so I start with what might be a stupid question to someone more familiar with his music. Has he always been a musician? He laughs. “Yeah, I have been, actually,” he said. “The usual apprenticeship of high school bands, dodgy pubs and busking on street corners that really helped to sustain an income as a mad traveller. I went away for six months and eight years later came back.”
The other reason I’m speaking to Luke is because he was recently arrested, along with his 71 year old father for trespassing and hindering machinery. One day he wins three Golden Guitars at Tamworth and two days later he’s being hauled away in a paddy wagon for locking himself on to a giant pump drawing water from the Namoi River. Located near the town of Boggabri, the pump is used to wash coal at the controversial Whitehaven Maules Creek coal mine.
Luke and his father have a strong connection to the property they were protesting on.
“The pump and giant pipeline that we locked onto is directly behind the house where my father was born,” Luke told me. “Directly behind the shearing shed and the house that was built and worked by my grandfather and great grandfather. Our connection to that land goes back five generations.” He tells me that the land was sold when his grandfather died and is no longer in the family but that they’ve been visiting since he was a kid “to sit by the once mighty Namoi River and pay our respects to generations past.”
So what happened to ignite such a radical action? Luke says it he was doing that very thing – visiting the river – one time when he was tailgated and harassed by Whitehaven security.
“And then immediately afterwards I was pulled over and scrutinised by the police – whilst Whitehaven security watched on.”
He began to ask questions as to what was going on out there. He says what he learned was frightening
“Right now war is being waged on so many Australian rural communities where long established industries and communities are being destroyed, bullied and silenced,” he tells me passionately and specifically describes the area around Leard Forest and the Maules Creek Mine.
“Almost every environmental and ethical law has been completely ignored and broken, as have the pleas and protests of the local farmers, the traditional Gomeroi people and pretty much every environmental lobby group.”
“We are witnessing the most unconventional invasion of Australia ever with giant multinationals purchasing vast areas including our best farming lands and putting our food and precious water reserves at risk – all with the aid of councils, politicians and our very own police force that in turn fight against the people they swore to serve.”
“The current frenzied expansion and land grab for coal seam gas exploration and mining and ever expanding coal mines has completely steamrolled over ethical, environmental, cultural and moral principals that we in Australia have long fought and died for.”
Luke said the people on the front lines fighting against these giant corporations are the ones that inspired the title track on his award winning album Sing You Up.
“And these aren’t your radical hippies,” Luke said. “These are people from every socioeconomic background, every age group, every religion, colour, cult, creed. Basically it’s anyone who wants to listen and learn about what is happening in Australia right now – once you find out you cannot help but get involved!”
Sing You Up has an accompanying video that reflects Luke’s inspiration and concerns.
“Dad and I aren’t anti-mining but we are certainly anti-greed,” Luke said. “Any industry that poisons and destroys our rare river systems and ground water or cuts into our prime agricultural lands or areas of significant cultural and environmental value – as is happening in the Leard State Forest and the rich black soil Liverpool and Breeza plains,, we are dead against!”
Clearly both song and video resonated with people as the video was nominated for 2015 Video Clip of the Year and the song went onto win Luke 2015 Male Artist of the Year.
“Obviously I was stoked with the wins but also because it helped to get the integral message of the song out there,” he said. While also admitting that sometimes it takes more than words to get the message out there.
“Actions will always speak louder. I truly believe it would have been the height of hypocrisy if I had not used the intensified media spotlight from the win to shine a light on the plights and issues facing so many remarkable Australians still out there fighting.”
And he’s not alone in that ideology. Luke tells me that in the last year or so there have been 350 other arrests on the Whitehaven Maules Creek Mine blockade alone.
When Luke O’shea isn’t on tour or getting arrested, he’s a high school teacher. Of boys! I ask him how his students respond to having an activist country music star in their classroom.
“Look, boys don’t want to give praise anywhere,” he laughed. “But they give that resentful respect. Some of my videos they get a bit of a kick out of, especially when I’ve borrowed staff members to star in them. It thankfully reminds them that teachers have a life out of school.”
We talk about having to combine two careers and Luke laughs again. “Yeah, because music pays so well.”
“Teaching is all about the service of others. I’m very respectful of all teachers. It’s a thankless job – Australian society would be lost without them,” Luke said.
Luke will be in Queensland next month for the Gympie Muster. I ask if he’s been to many in the past and of course he says yes. “For many years.”
“It’s one of my all-time favourite festivals. It’s a real experience on every level. Be it the weather, the camping, the people, the multiple stages, the wide range of national and international artists. It ticks ever box and it’s just awesome,” he said and then recalls one time he saw John Williamson. “He was just sitting there with a guitar and footstomp, entertaining 30,000 people who were in complete silence. That’s powerful.”
We speak about the Muster and all things country and Luke is quick to point out that although he’s a country musician, he is also an Australian musician.
“When people ask what sort of music I play, I say Australian,” he told me. “The primary job for any Australian country singer songwriter is to sing up the land and its people.”
“It’s not about clichés, it’s just stories about us and this land we live upon. I do love those traditional instruments of country – they resonate with me and my Irish DNA,” he said. “Still, there’s nothing better than having an electric guitar and full drum kit driving your sound sometimes!”
At the Gympie Muster, Luke is on the main stage playing with some of his favourite musicians. He says they call it playing for “maximum joy.”
“It’s about having as much fun as we humanly, possibly can. With a big sound, and great music,” Luke said. “Then there will also be the songwriter shows, just me, stripping the songs back to a very raw and intimate manner and connecting with the audience on a completely different level.”
We go back, very briefly to speaking about Luke’s action on that water pump at Maules Creek. I ask if he was ever worried about losing some of his audience and he says he reckons about 98.5% of the response is positive.
“You do get a bit of a backlash – usually from people that aren’t well informed,” he told me. “But that’s the job of any teacher and artist – you want to challenge them to think a little bit differently.”
“People are becoming aware of what’s happening out there,” Luke said. “And they are using their vote – look at what happened in the north coast of NSW and in Queensland – that’s a direct indication of this.
Never underestimate the power of your voice and your vote!”
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Gympie Muster is the largest charitable camping and music festival in Australia, raising millions of dollars for charity since it began 33 years ago. This year’s event will run 27 – 30 August in Amamoor Creek State Forest with some 60,000 usually attending. Luke joins a lineup which includes Adam Brand, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Troy Cassar-Daley, Amber Lawrence, Ian Moss, Catherine Britt and others. More at www.muster.com.au.
Luke recommends contacting Frontline Action on Coal, Lock the Gate or Our Land Our Water Our Future for more information about Whitehaven Maules Creek or about the issues surrounding the expansion of coal and coal seam gas in Australia.