Best known as the man behind Goanna, Shane Howard has a long and deep connection with Australia’s music history as well as its physical landscape. With 13 solo albums and 3 Goanna albums to his name, as well as two books, he’s a commercially successful musician who has absolutely not forgotten his working class background.
It’s been 34 years since he released Solid Rock, from Goanna’s album Spirit of Place. The song is embedded in the country’s psyche. But not without controversy. In July las year he was forced to write to Reclaim Australia in response to their use of the song.
“When I sent the open letter,” he told Blank GC, “I respectfully ‘requested’ that they not use ‘Solid Rock, Sacred Ground’ at their rallies.”
“I felt it was an inappropriate usage. The media reported that I had ‘banned’ the usage, which sounded a little more sensationalist.”
“I received a lot of threats after that. You need to be vigilant about the way your songs are used. It’s a bit like protecting your children. You can’t police everything of course. One time a beer company used Solid Rock and we had to ask them to cease and desist, which they did.”
Shane refers to himself as a whitefella in an Aboriginal country. The most recent time I saw him perform he was literally that.
It was May, 2012 and I found myself on Cape York – Burketown to be precise. Shane Howard was performing in the aptly named Morning Glory Park with a bunch of Indigenous school kids singing a song about said Morning Glory. That weekend he was Melbourne-bound to perform at the Melbourne Cricket Gound.
Shane said having a profile as an artist affords him the opportunity to do work that has meaning – both within Indigenous communities and elsewhere.
“I do a lot of work in reconciliation forums and workshops in schools and songwriting projects in Indigenous schools and communities, in urban, regional and remote locations. I’ve also had the opportunity to work as a record producer for Indigenous artists, all over Australia,” he said.
“Those projects fill your soul.”
Shane feels a great need to give back. He said his background is working class and his parents lived modestly to get all their kids educated and empowered.
“They were selfless,” he said.
“Indigenous Australia suffered terribly from the ravages of colonisation. How can we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters?”
“Mind you, I get as much back, if not more, than I give.”
I asked Shane if he ever felt the great contrast in his work was weird. One day on Cape York, the next at the MCG?
“Yes, it is. But it’s important to have a coherent and consistent philosophy,” he told me.
“What makes for a meaningful and rewarding life? Good personal relationships, family and community. We’re on this earth for a short visit. How then shall we live?”
“There is no real difference between performing in a concert hall or around a campfire in the desert.”
“Music and songs are the voice of the soul and you have to ‘give your spirit’ to the soul of the universe when you write or sing.”
“There’s the occasional ‘blockbuster’ events that are very high profile and they’re great but just as important are the community projects that give you the opportunity to give rather than receive.”
“My songs have taken me all around the country and all across the world. I feel very blessed to have been able to pursue my childhood dream.”
Speaking of childhood dreams, I’m curious as to whether Shane ever set his sights on the profile he has now. Widely recognized as one of the country’s most influential song writers – did he hever see himself in this position?
“No, not at all,” he said simply.
“I remember those early days in the seventies, in Melbourne and Geelong and hitch-hiking to Sydney and Brisbane, with no money, trying to get gigs in the folk clubs at that time.”
“The world seemed so immense and impenetrable that I could never have imagined having an influence.”
“But I had a dream and I suppose, a degree of self-belief that I had something to contribute. It’s a long, hard, road though. The road gets easier when others believe in your ability. You can’t do very much on your own. It’s also true that the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
And this man does not shy away from hard work. Last year he crowd funded $17,000 for his album Deeper South. The very first Goanna EP in 1978 was self-funded and since 1993 he’s been an independent artist. Not surprisingly, he says he’s very driven to retain artistic control.
“This is my work, this is my art,” he told Blank GC, adding that Australia is a tough country to do music business in: with small returns, and artists having to do just about everything themselves – from artwork, to recording, financials to cnotracts.
“You have to be across everything.”
“My partner, Teresa and I, are a small business or a cottage industry. I love the notion that what we do is bespoke. Each project is hand made, with love and care. We’re not a supermarket, we’re like a boutique winery,” he explained.
“Songs are no good without people to hear them, so you have to respect your audience and supporters.”
Crowd funding, he said, seemed a natural extension of those processes.
“My financiers were the people who support what I do. If anything, it increases the sense of responsibility to those supporters. It’s a very direct and real relationship.”
With such a “real relationship” with his fans, it’s no wonder the response to Shane’s last record has been positive.
“Our promotion is basically done through social media and live performances. We don’t have the budget to engage promotions people or publicists and that limits our capacity to reach a wider audience.”
“But our expectations are modest and if your costs are modest as well, that’s enough.”
“It’s important to reach out and promote yourself and find your audience but to pursue fame is an illusion.”
When Shane Howard comes to the Gold Coast next week, he’s bringing Dave Gunning with him. They’ve shared the stage but once and are on the road together for the first time. Gunning is known for distilling the essence of a nation into iconic and anthemic folk songs, traversing territory as diverse as hockey night, love, the pulp mill and grass roots activism with the kind of personal touch that has put him in the company of such Canadian luminaries as Stan Rogers and Gordon Lightfoot.
“I met Dave Gunning in 2012 at the Stan Rogers Festival in Nova Scotia and was immediately struck by his qualities as a writer and musician and as a human being.”
“I’m looking forward to working together and traveling the countryside with Dave, being a kind of guide through the Australian landscape.
“I haven’t played Soundlounge before but I’ve heard such great reports from locals and artists, who are delighted to have such a quality showcase venue.”
Shane Howard and Dave Gunning are both award winning singer songwriters, known for sharing stories of national history and community spirit with a decent dose of humour and political astuteness thrown in.
Shane Howard and Dave Gunning are at Soundlounge Currumbin on Tuesday 22 March.