Freedom. Or Perks?

It’s the time of year when we reflect on the past and look forward to the future. I’ve spent part of the past week at the Woodford Folk Festival and, unlike a lot of other festival-goers, for me it’s been a sobering experience.

Often we don’t notice the changes that occur in our everyday lives. The days slip by, the years flow on and we ease gracefully into other states of being. Well, that’s how I perceive it happening for other people. For myself any change is usually accompanied by much clashing and gnashing.

The first Woodford Festival I went to was a tribal experience. I drove up from Sydney with five others in a Kingswood called Gretel. We set up camp in amongst other people’s tent ropes and tarpaulins. I wandered wide-eyed and sleepless for the entire six days. I went to every jam session and danced all night in the Chai Tent. I joined the choir and made lanterns. I entered The Great Band Competition and circled every act in the program. I immersed myself in the Woodford experience and when it was time to resurface I couldn’t even remember my pin number.

My second Woodford Festival was spent as a performer. I played the Big Top and slept in the Performers’ Camp. I hung out in the Green Room and played in a few jams. I wore one of those coveted “access all areas” wristbands and got to watch packed out shows from the space beside the stage.

The next time I went as a radio announcer. It rained the entire time but I didn’t care. I was like a pig in the proverbial and there was plenty of that.  I interviewed as many performers as I could and when they played for me a crowd would gather. It was live radio at its best.

Since then I’ve produced and presented many national broadcasts from Woodford for the ABC. And when I became a published author I spent a couple of Woodfords on stage as a speaker. Every year I’ve had special privileges because of my position as a broadcaster, a performer and an author including parking spots, all-access wristbands, free tickets and speedy entry.

This year all that changed. It was the first year since that first tribal trip to Woodford that I’ve paid for a ticket. No access all areas, no special treatment.  At first I felt free; I had no responsibilities, no burden of care, nobody expected anything of me. I had no deadlines and no particular place to be. For the first time in almost twenty years I could experience the Woodford Folk Festival on my own terms. But when The Hubby and I had to park in the day parking area and catch the shuttle bus along with all the other punters, the reality sunk in and I didn’t like it. The truth is I enjoy being special. I love having perks and privileges. I scowled like a cranky toddler.

‘Don’t they realise who I am?’ I huffed.

‘Don’t you mean, who you were?’ The Hubby replied.

And it’s true. I love the freedom of retirement. Every day I’m grateful that I get to choose what I do, or don’t do. And after a lifetime in the public eye in one form or another, I adore the invisibility of anonymity. But freedom comes at a price. And for me that included the cost of a ticket and experiencing the festival as a mere member of the public.

So would I change anything about that experience? Would I shackle myself back to the burdens and responsibilities of a working life for the sake of a free ticket and more convenient parking?

I have had the experience of attending the Woodford Folk Festival in many different guises, and those roles of musician, broadcaster and speaker have suited me at the time. But times change and we change with them or we are doomed to a life of resentment and regret. Freedom is more important to me now than recognition, prestige and the perks of a media pass (even though, yes, sometimes I miss those perks).

So here’s to looking forward, to a life of freedom and choices based on that freedom. And if I get a bit huffy from time to time because I used to be someone, I hope I remember that I much prefer the someone that I am now.

Happy 2017.

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Burning Up

Black Saturday Fires, Victoria 2009. Photo: Jake Valance.

Summer on the Sunshine Coast. It’s hot, it’s windy and the first serious fire of the season saw flames leaping over three stories high through bushland in Mountain Creek. 

All of us who’ve been close to fire never forget it. I remember the heat and darkness of the bushfires that burnt Tasmania to the ground when I was a young child. A huge red sun low in the sky made our home feel like an alien planet. Our house was the last safe refuge at the bottom of Mt. Nelson. The lounge room was full of kids. Their dads were in the smoke battling to save each others’ homes armed with nothing more than wet gunny sacks and garden hoses. The women gathered in our kitchen talking in hushed and worried voices, not knowing whether they’d have a husband or a home to go to that night.

During the 1994 bush fires that circled Sydney, the band I played in was booked to perform at a festival in Byron Bay. We set off up the highway not knowing whether we’d get through or not. Flames were burning along the side of the road, licking at the bitumen. We could feel the heat through the metal and glass of our hired tour van and were acutely aware that we could be trapped by fire at any moment. The highway closed just after we passed through. 

The festival went ahead, with other acts having to be flown in and much borrowing of amplifiers and equipment. It was a relief to be away from the smoke and the big red bushfire sun that cast Sydney is a strange sepia-toned glow.

The highway was open again by the time we headed back to Sydney, five musos on the road, after a successful performance at the festival. Our career was going well and the future looked good. Not for much longer.

Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact moment when you know a relationship is over. It may not end right there and then but eventually it’s the reason the whole balancing act comes tumbling down in ruins. As we drove back towards a fire-devastated Sydney our bass player flicked her cigarette butt out the window. I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. I turned to another member of the band just to check what I’d seen. She looked as shocked as I did. It was a single thoughtless act that highlighted a hundred other thoughtless acts. Families had lost their homes, children had lost their pets, others had lost their livelihoods and that cigarette butt, smouldering on the side of the road, could start the horror all over again.

Three months later the band had a new name and a new bass player.

If only a home or a life were that easy to replace.

Outback & Overwhelmed

my-feet-in-the-desert_2Many years ago, when I was a musician, I travelled through the world’s biggest living dot painting to the Northern Territory, a bag in one hand and my guitar in the other. 

I paid my way by singing for my supper, songs I’d written about the sea. Being a coastal girl I’d never been to a place where there were no seagulls. 

I arrived at Yulara, the tourist town that leaches dollars from the grandeur of Uluru. The rock is a magnet for cars, tour buses and four wheel drives. It was hard to find a peaceful place in the middle of the desert.

During the day I would wander away from the resort and sit on a small dune, my pale bare feet digging into the red sand.  I felt as though I was in a postcard, with the rock to my left and Kata Tjuta directly in front. I loved the Olgas, they welcomed me with embracing arms. But I found Uluru overwhelming and kept a respectful distance.

On the last day of my desert adventure, a friend took me out to the gorges. We went for a walk. A gentle gradient to the top of a cliff where a ghost gum grew. There we perched like rock wallabies, watching the light shift and change on the range. Down below, birds were coming home to their water hole.

Time slipped by unnoticed.

I gazed at the rock face, the ancient hills and cliffs, always seeing something new. Gum trees clung in seemingly impossible places. Why did they grow there? How? They had no choice, they had to stay where they sprouted and make the most of it. I felt shiftless and reckless in comparison.

We were running late when I took the wheel of Nelly, ship of the desert. She was a big boat of a Kingswood, column shift, dimmer switch on the floor near the pedals.

I sped across the plain chased by a blood red sunset; the fingers of night creeping up and the darkness scurrying behind us, descending gloom and the threat of looming cattle on the road.

The evening star guided us, first through grey/pink clouds and then through the twilight suspended dusk.

The sun disappeared with a thud and leached all the heat out of the air as it went.

I knew the next day Sydney would slap me in the face but that was many hours away.

The night was restless, windy and warm.

What makes a girl fall in love? And out?

Petersham InnWhat makes a girl fall in love? Even more interestingly, what makes her fall out of love?

It was another great night at the Petersham Inn on Parramatta Road in Sydney, thanks to the enigmatic Duncan who booked the music and was the licensee. (Duncan died last month but his legacy lives on.)  The band was firing and the buzz about them was beginning to grow.  They were a long way from the multiple ARIA Award winners they’d become but all of us in the Pismo Bar sensed we were witnessing a legend in the making.

Now, I’ve been guilty of falling for a few boys in bands myself in the past but I was nothing compared to my friend Angie. All the excitement got her hot and bothered. She’d caught the guitarist’s eye and wanted to move in for the happy ending.  Neither of them had a car so I was coerced into driving them, and his guitar, back to her place. He and I chatted about music while she hung onto his arm and gazed into his eyes.

That was how it started and that was how it was destined to remain. They didn’t have a lot in common so whenever she was going out with him she’d ask me along too. I’d act as a kind of interpreter; they could both have conversations with me but were at a loss when it came to talking to each other. The three of us spent many happy evenings at No Names in Darlinghurst eating spaghetti while I acted as their go-between.

However, there was one area of their relationship where I couldn’t help them. It’s an area that doesn’t require much talking so I assumed everything was ok. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It became clear that after the initial rush of excitement something was dreadfully amiss. My friend was not happy. She didn’t mind that he was lost for words but she found it inexcusable that he was tongue-tied.

It’s been my experience that ultimatums don’t work but try telling that to someone with a bee in their bonnet. They can’t hear you, the buzzing’s too loud.  She borrowed a friend’s apartment to ensure privacy and cooked an amazing dinner with candlelight, wine and Peggy Lee. Lord knows what they talked about over dinner but I do know what was said at the end of the evening.  He took the “or else” option and opted out of her life.

She didn’t miss him, but I did. I missed our conversations about music, guitars, books, bags and bands. Was I ever tempted to go out with him? No way. After all, this girl could never fall for a guy who didn’t….have a car.

The Song That Broke The Band

There are some songs that stay with you, not just for the week that they might be on high rotation on the radio, but for a lifetime. Songs are highly emotive creatures. They plug into us for all kinds of reasons.

I was very young when I first heard this song and yet it’s stayed with me through the years.

I was reminded of the song and of the writer, Greg Quill, when I read this article about a new tribute album recorded in his honour – Some Lonesome Picker.

If you know Gypsy Queen you’ll know why it’s such a special song. If not this quote from the article might help.

Gypsy Queen is a song of the road no less than the poem Walt Whitman wrote a century earlier. It was a song about going on an adventure where your horizons would be expanded, and you’d live a larger life because of it.

But for me it has extraordinary significance. Why? This is the song that caused the demise of my band.

If you’ve read Sex, Drugs & Meditation you’ll know how devastated I was when my band broke up. The story behind the story is that we’d been playing together for years, touring and releasing CDs but we’d never really cut through. I had the idea of recording a cover version of this song, it was perfect for us with our line up and stunning harmonies. We’d never released a song written by anyone else – all originals up until that point – but I thought this song was worth it. It was such a brilliant idea that one member of the band quit. Why? Because she knew it would work, that we’d get airplay with it and therefore success and she didn’t want us to succeed. She wanted out. She wanted to pursue a solo career. And thus our band became an ex-band.

Ironically a few years later Adam Harvey recorded a cover version of this song and had a hit with it but by that time I was well ensconced in the world of radio and being a music director I got to decide what got played on radio and what didn’t.

When it comes down to it I’m grateful. If the band hadn’t broken up I never would have got into radio, I might never have started writing books instead of songs and I definitely wouldn’t have the superannuation that enabled me to retire early and have the freedom I now have – to write more books and to pick up my guitar whenever I feel like it.

And all these years later, I still love this song.

“I’m singing for the dark and lonely highway, I’m singing for the rivers and the trees, I’m singing for the country roads and byways, And I wonder as I go, Is there anyone I know, Who’ll sing for me.”

Yodelling. An art or an abomination?

I’m loving that Brad Pitt and Jimmy Fallon dig yodelling.

I’m sure Slim Whitman would have been proud. You may have heard the news that Slim died recently at the grand old age of 90. He was a man of many talents including yodelling. There may be some people who disagree with using the term “talents” to include yodelling. It is a topic that divides opinion.

I’ll admit it, I have a bit of yodelling in my music collection. Just one or two albums by MaryMary Schneider Schneider, the queen of yodelling. Her Yodelling the Classics, is literally a classic. The William Tell Overture has to be heard to be believed. And she’s one of us, a world-famous yodelling Aussie. If there were a yodelling Olympics, Australia would top the medal tally.

I saw Robyn Archer,another Australian, perform a while ago and marvelled at her yodelling ability. I had a chat with her after the show and asked whether yodelling was a learnable skill or if you had to be born a yodeller. She told me anyone could learn to yodel, all it took was practise and a sound proof room far removed from dogs and small children. Much encouraged I started on a brief but magical foray into the fine art of yodelling.

Let me tell you, yodelling is more effective at splitting an audience than any political debate. When I was playing in a band if we started to yodel – and yes it is catching so more than one of us yodelled, harmony yodelling is another acquired delight – half the room would smile with joy. The other half would be horribly embarrassed for us. They’d look at us with pity as if they were thinking, “Didn’t their mothers ever tell them.” Then they’d pretend to go to the loo until we stopped yodelling and started singing again.

I think our band’s highlight was harmony gargling. We did a great version of Turkey in the Straw. But for some reason gargling has never taken off as a legitimate form of musical expression. I like to think we were ahead of our time. I have no idea when the rest of the world will catch up, we may have to wait until other galaxies are discovered.

Yodelling, however, is a well recognised money spinner. Just ask Mary Schneider. Most people would think that you’d get paid to stop yodelling but no. Even I, a humble common or garden uvula wobbler, have been paid big money to rend the air.  Some years ago Yodellingnow,the call went out for yodellers to promote a particular Swiss beauty product. Unfortunately for them it was Switzerland’s 700th birthday and all the yodellers had gone back to their homeland to celebrate. When I got the phone call they were really desperate. Scraping the bottom of the barrel. So that week I dressed up in the Swiss national costume. I remember puffy sleeves and something like a corset on the outside. Myself and my fellow harmony yodeller, also looking stunning as a Swiss milkmaid, trotted around Sydney doing radio and in-store appearances. We sounded more like true blue Aussie sheilas calling in the sheep for a dip and a dagging than enticing alpine nymphs extolling the virtues of Swiss powders and potions. It didn’t matter to us, we still got paid.

Yodelling_0001

I’ve long since hung up my yodelling talents, much to the relief of all the dogs in the neighbourhood, but if I got back into training I reckon I could win a bronze or at least some milk chocolate.

And if you want to torture yourself and listen to some truly dreadful yodelling check this out. It was recorded on the same day for the top-rating radio station in Sydney at the time. Doug Mulray MMM yodelling stings

Ten Insights into Sex Drugs and Meditation

From an interview with Beauty and Lace

You have had quite a varied career Mary-Lou, what made you want to write a book?Sex, Drugs and Meditation  Mary-Lou Stephens

When I traveled overseas some years ago people asked to see my photographs when I got back. I had only taken twelve and they were on a disposable camera. A friend pointed out that photography clearly wasn’t my thing and suggested I write about my trip instead. I did. That resulted in being asked to write a weekly column for the local newspaper which in turn led to writing short stories and a novel. The instigation for this memoir came from reading self-help books. I always loved the case studies where people transformed their lives. I realised my life was one big case study and that people might like to read about it.

Can you tell us a little about ‘Sex, Drugs & Meditation’?

I didn’t go to a ten day silent meditation retreat because I was happy. I went because my life needed to change. Sex, Drugs and Meditation is told within the framework of that ten day meditation retreat. During those ten days I confronted the demons of my past; drugs, alcohol, food and religion…. and the demons in my mind; paranoia, self-loathing, fear and rage. I relived my time spent in Twelve Step programs, my years at acting school, the joy and heartbreak of my former life as a musician and the journey that led me to work in radio.

For ten days and nights I battled with my memories, mistakes and fantasies. The long hours spent meditating resulted in excruciating physical pain.

Facing the pain, accepting it and overcoming it enabled me to understand, on every level, the basic tenet of the meditation technique – everything changes.

When I left the meditation centre I knew I had changed. What surprised me was that within 2 weeks something so wonderful and completely unexpected showed up in my life that even I, the great doubter, had to believe again in life and in love.

What would you say was the catalyst for changing your life?

I’ve had many changes in my life. The catalyst for giving up drugs was the death of my father when I was in my twenties. I realised for the first time that I wasn’t immortal and as I was going to die anyway, why rush into it.
The catalyst for doing the meditation retreat that changed my life was my work. My dream job had become a nightmare. My new boss made my working life hell. I knew he wouldn’t change. I knew the company I worked for wouldn’t change. If I was to keep the job I loved, there was only one thing I could change. Myself.

What was the most enlightening lesson you took from your 10 day meditation retreat?

I had many realisations at the retreat; why I’d always had trouble with relationships, why I’d always resented my bosses, and why I’d always felt like a victim. But the biggest realisation was that I create my own misery by the way I choose to think – always churning over the past, always worrying about the future, and if there’s nothing to worry about I invent things to worry about! I make myself miserable for no good reason. I learnt how to stop creating misery in my life and let the joy in instead.

Music, Radio, Writing – how closely do you think the three are related?

I love radio. It combines all my skills into one. When I played in bands I used to play music and talk in between. When I first started in radio I used to play music and talk in between. Perfect. These days I work in a talk radio format and there’s a lot of writing involved. I love to write introductions and teases that will interest people and hook our listeners.mary-lou stephens

I wrote songs for years and sometimes I would marvel as to where they came from. It was as if a muse had delivered them to me.

Writing prose can be like that too. And then there are other songs and writing that take endless rewrites and much changing around until they are ready for the world. But all three – music, radio and writing are best when they connect to the heart of the listener or reader. To me that’s what it is all about – connection.

Different readers will take different things from your book, but if you had to pick just one thing what would you want readers to take away from Sex, Drugs & Meditation?

That we create our own misery and that meditation can help us realise that and change it.

How does your life to date compare to what you had planned for it as an adolescent?

My life as an adolescent was not a happy one. I pretended all the time to be someone I wasn’t. The only time I was happy was when I was acting in school plays or singing in the choir but I never thought they could be career options. I did at one stage want to be an archeologist which is amusing in hindsight given that with this memoir I am, in a very different way, digging up the past.

What’s been the most satisfying stop on your career journey up until now?

My journey into working in radio was truly amazing. After many years of banging my head against walls as a singer/songwriter, once I decided to get into radio all the doors opened. It was incredible. I describe those events in my memoir.
And I must say, landing a publishing deal after years of writing was a real gift.

What’s next for Mary-Lou Stephens?Mary-Lou Stephens, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, Courier Mail

I continue to work full-time in radio and when I’m not at work I am writing the sequel to this memoir. Sex, Drugs and Meditation has a happy ending. My next book is the truth about the happily-ever-after.

What does being a woman mean to you?

I have worked in mostly male dominated areas, the music industry and radio. I had an epiphany when I was 36. For once I wasn’t wearing jeans and for some reason was painting my toe nails. I was suddenly struck by the thought that I was a woman. I realised that I had been living my life as if I were a seventeen year old boy; no responsibilities, playing and living all over the county, shooting the breeze with the blokes, going to the footy.
It made me take stock of what was important to me – being a token bloke or being the real me, a 36 year old woman. I stopped trying to impress the men and started exploring what was important to me. Being a woman means being equal but different. Taking pride in those differences instead of trying to deny them.

Thanks for your time Mary-Lou.