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Stories from inside life's big top.

Everything louder than ever: Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016
Everything louder than ever: Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Raw Power: Killerbirds

Posted on August 28, 2016

Earlier this year a music dream was realised: I got to see the Killerbirds play live.

 

I know one of the ‘Birds: Prue Allan. I count her as a friend, a beautiful, wise, hilarious person with a giant heart, and, a rocking good yoga teacher. I got to know her over the five years I spent living in Bendigo, frequenting her yoga classes for some much-needed respite and restoration.

 

We hadn’t known each other long before I kidnapped her to take A VERY LONG DRIVE to the outer south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne (read five hours in the car together.) Travelling in my sardine-can-sized Getz, we drove there and back in one day, me fuelled with the kind of drive-by ‘buying mission zeal’ that can only come with an impending wedding (mine, in a week’s time), with understanding Prue up for a marathon chat as we stared down lonesome highway after lonesome highway.

 

Completing the four-hundred-km round-trip in record time, during it I discovered that in addition to being a yoga teacher and well on the road to becoming a clinical psychologist, Prue was also a musician – the bass player for Killerbirds no less, an accomplished, kick-arse, heavy, all-grrrl three-piece, which had previously toured and played amazing gigs all over the country since forming around (then) six years prior.

 

And, while they were on a bit of a break, they were talking about playing again…

 

It would take a while, but reform they did. My timing was out but: as I prepared to exit Bendigo for Berlin, the band was arcing up again. To my dismay, after waiting four years to see them play – in that time hearing more and more great things about their live gigs and love of stoner rock – it looked as if I was going to miss out. I staved off the kind of regret-tantrum saved for missing awesome live music opportunities (eg. Talking Heads at the Melbourne Entertainment Centre, 1984. With ticket in hand, I was too sick to go courtesy of a plateful of hash cookies I’d consumed not knowing of course that they were hash cookies. “I thought they were muesli?” Hilarious to my friends…)

Golden: Killerbirds at the Vine. Photo: (c) 2016

Golden: Killerbirds at the Vine. Photo: (c) 2016

Luckily the stars aligned on a visit back to Australia earlier this year. It coincided with not only Prue’s birthday, but a rare gig by Killerbirds at one of Bendigo’s old music haunts. I’d get to say happy birthday to my lovely friend and finally, finally, get to see her and the band play.

 

Killerbirds didn’t disappoint: muscular heavy rock with harmonies. Yin/yang, light/shade, night/day, feminine/masculine: their music and presence took possession of every cell of every person in that room. No-one stood still: we twitched and cheered and punched the air as they fuzzed and slammed us into submission. I fell into a kind of music-induced swoon, one I’d rarely found myself in since the riot-grrrl 90s – a time when all-women bands finally got to shed their ‘otherness’. Like Sleater-Kinney, The 5.6.7.8’s and Bikini Kill before them, Killerbirds were mesmerizing: short, sharp, cranked, and inspiring.

 

They made me feel very alive. I loved every second. They were indeed “killer”.

 

Killerbirds are Bindi Masterson (guitar/lead vocals), Prue Allan (bass/vocals), and Nadine Muller (drums/vocals). Front n’ centre fan grrrl that I am, I bailed two of them up for an interview.


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Axis of awesome: Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: How did you first meet? And could you please give is a bit of a snapshotas to how the band came to be, and what motivated you to form it?

 

Bindi Masterson: We all grew up in Bendigo. Prue and I knew each other from school, and I knew Nadine as our families are friends. Nadine approached Prue to play bass in a band after being suitably impressed with her air guitar, then they asked me. We are all very musical and had the same taste in music, so we gelled from the start.

 

Prue Allan: Nadine approached me when I was working at the skate/music shop my partner and I owned (and ran very badly) at the time. I had only briefly met Nadine at gigs where her band “The Strays” played. Their set comprised of Stooges and Radio Birdman covers, so I really dug them. Hence, I dubiously agreed, but told Nada if she found someone else to play bass that I wouldn’t care.

 

I have pretty bad anxiety, so the thought of playing gigs stressed me out a lot (it still does.) Nadine’s dad [Dean Muller, drummer from Cosmic Psychos] once told me he builds an imaginary wall when he feels nervous on stage. This seems to work for me. I also have a ‘grounding ritual’ I do in the girl’s dunnies before a gig.

 

CF: What do you do for day jobs?

 

Bindi: Nadine is a freelance hair/makeup wardrobe/ stylist in TV and film, and I am a set dresser for a TV show.

 

Prue: I have been teaching yoga for about 16 years. I have recently finished my post-grad Masters of Clinical Psychology after a long stint of full-time study. It was synchronously a head fuck and the most invaluable experience, to put it mildly. I am still ‘pathologising’ myself: apparently it comes with the territory.

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Yogi on bass: Prue Allan, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What are your individual music backgrounds, and do you have any music mentors or teachers youd like to acknowledge?

 

Bindi: I’ve played in bands since I was about 16. Both mine and Nadine’s families have played in many bands, and been involved in the music industry our whole lives. So they have been our mentors and huge influences – it was natural we followed suit. Killerbirds was Prue’s first attempt at playing bass in a band; as soon as she picked up the bass she was a natural.

 

Prue: I had a piano teacher who was my mentor. I started lessons with her when I was six until I was about eleven. I didn’t like practicing but I used to improvise a lot and make up my own songs in minor scales. I loved going to see my teacher; she is still one of my best friends. She cultivated my love of classical music and took me to the opera. My parents didn’t often listen to music. Their record collection consisted of Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Nana Mouskouri and Demis Roussos. The best they had was Hot Chocolate, and Elton John, who I still love. I guess I learnt to harmonise with these records. I’ve always loved to sing the harmonies of anything. I am always looking for them in any piece of music.

 

Mum and Dad did have a Skyhooks record but I think that was in there by accident. It did get a flogging by me though.

 

CF: After initially forming and playing, you had a bit of a break; what made you come back together, and why did you decide to reform?

 

Bindi: We had a break around six years ago. There was always talk of us getting back together for a gig at some stage. Then two awesome friends of ours from Adelaide came to visit Prue in Bendigo and got matching Killerbirds tattoos on their arms. So we thought we’d better get across to “Radelaide” and play for them! Since then we have been gigging around a bit, and writing new material.

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Killerbird song: Bindi. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

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Nadine Muller, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Prue: It feels more cohesive now; we are really enjoying making music with each other. My bass playing has improved so I can provide more support and input. We also laugh a lot! I laugh so much I get asthma.

 

Bindi: Killerbirds to me is having a great time with my best friends, and being able to create music we love. We have had some crazy times in the last 10 years, and I love every show we play. I love seeing how a song develops from a little ditty or riff I was singing at work, into playing it live and seeing people enjoying it.

 

Prue: [Killerbirds] are my extended family, and [an outlet for] creativity, self-expression and stress relief.

 

CF: You cite your influences as “grunge, doom, stoner rock, stoner metal, Sabbath and Motorhead”.. But your sound is distinct: how do you describe it? And evolve it?

 

Bindi: I guess you would class us as rock-slash-grunge? Prue and I are 90s kids so that has really influenced our music and songwriting. Between the three of us we have so many influences – I wouldn’t know where to start!

 

Prue: Yes, I would say our sound is grungy garage rock with pop sensibilities. Once I thought we were more sludgy and hard rock. I think I was kidding myself though.

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Shoegazer at work: Prue, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Hello ladies: Bindi Masterson, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Hey ladies! Bindi Masterson, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

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Killer drummer: Nadine, Killbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2916

As far as influences go, I agree, that’s a hard one. We all listen to music spanning various genres and time periods from The Shangri-Las to Pentagram. It is all very mood dependent…

 

Bindi: Our style now is a lot different from the early days. I think it just develops or matures over time, and is influenced by what we are listening to at that moment.

 

Prue: Bindi is the driver. She comes up with most of the riffage and lyrics. Nadine and I add our two cents worth. We develop the songs together.

 

CF: You’ve gigged a lot: where have you played in the early days, and more recently?

 

Bindi: In Melbourne we played the usual suspects – a lot: The Tote, the Old Bar etc. We also frequented Adelaide, Tasmania and Brisbane back in the day.

 

Prue: The first place we ever played was the Satan Soldiers MC clubhouse. I think we were too loud for them as most of them went outside and had a ciggie when we played. (Either that or they hated us.) The next gig we played, Bindi’s Goldentone amp blew a valve and caught on fire. That was visually impressive.

 

The first Melbourne gig we played was at the Greyhound Hotel in St. Kilda with Ian Rilen & The Love Addicts. Cathy Green played bass – I had a bass crush on her. They were really good to us. Some of my most memorable gigs have been at The Espy and St. Kilda Bowl [Bowls Club.] I liked playing in St. Kilda: we always got a warm reception on that side of the river.

 

Adelaide and Hobart are still my favourite places to play. They got what we were on about: there was no pretension or bullshit.

 

CF: Your live gigs are visceral – its kind of like watching a force of nature! When youre on stage together, how does it feel when youre in the thick of playing – and, what do you love about playing live?

 

Bindi: I love to be able to play loud music with two awesome humans, and zone out in our own little world…

 

Prue: As aforementioned, I shit my dacks every time we play. I shoe-gaze mostly… But I agree, I do love it when you get into that zone and everything flows together. There’s an inexplicable euphoria in that. Gets the neurons on the pleasure/reward brain pathways firing, releasing the dopamine which effectively creates the same effect as snorting cocaine. Oxytocin (a bonding chemical) is also stimulated.

5678: Bindi & Nadine, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

“5678”: Bindi & Nadine, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Maybe that’s why you develop a deep connection with people you play music with. They become family. Even with bands that don’t like each other. Which is not the case for us ; )

 

CF: And which do you consider some of your most memorable Killerbirds gigs?

 

Prue: We have been fortunate enough to play on the bill with several seminal bands over the years including Magic Dirt, The Hard-Ons, The Lime Spiders, X, The Meanies, Ian Rilen, The New Christs, The Super Suckers and the Celibate Rifles. We supported The Living End in Bendigo one night, then drove down to Melbourne to play the 2am slot at Pony. That was memorable. It was packed and people were throwing their shoes in the air as a tribute (apparently).

 

One wild night in Hobart people threw roses on stage and into Nadine’s floor tom while women up the front flashed their boobs at us. (Nadine also played with a rose between her teeth.) We also supported the Pierced Arrows (Fred and Toody from Dead Moon) which was definitely a highlight for me.

 

CF: Prue youre in a couple of other bands: Vaginaballs and Affordable Repayments. What other bands or music projects have you been involved in? Bindi and Nadine as well?

 

Prue: Bindi has played in lots of great bands since she was a teenager. She more recently played in a phenomenal band called Dead River for a few years. They were well regarded in Melbourne and went on tour in the US. Bindi is currently working on a new project with some seriously noteworthy Melbourne musicians. I am really stoked for her, it is going to be pretty monumental.

 

Nadine has also played in several great bands over the years, including my favourite, a 60s garage band Wolfy & The Bat Cubs. She swapped the drum kit for the bass and was mesmerising to watch.

 

The only other band related stuff I have done was a brief stint on vocals in a 90s grunge band, back in the height of my Babes In Toyland/L7 [fan] days. We went to the Melbourne Rock ‘n’ Roll High School in Collingwood for a bit. It only lasted a few months unfortunately.

 

CF: Is there a story behind your band name?

 

Prue: At the time I wanted to be called “Killer Kane”, in homage to the bass player (Arthur) from the New York Dolls. He was such an unhinged, god-fearing weirdo, and I found him beguiling.

 

Unfortunately there was already a band with that name. We then drew from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 American horror film ‘The Birds’, where birds would violently attack people. We saw ourselves as attacking people with raw, unapologetic sound (I made that bit up). I guess you could interpret it in an Aussie bogan way – “those birds are killer”. But that was not the intention. We are not that conceited!

 

CF: What are some of the challenges female musicians especially female bands – face? Are there particular disadvantages even now in 2016?

 

Bindi: When I started playing live I noticed that the attitude towards women in bands was different than [towards] male musicians and bands. There were times when engineers would tell me how to use my amp, or how I should sound, which is frustrating when you’re not overly-confident, and can’t stand up for yourself.

 

I don’t notice it as much these days, as women are killing it in music, and well and truly hold their own as much as the next guy. I don’t feel the divide is as wide as it was.

 

Prue: I commend more and more female and male musician calling bullshit on the misogynistic culture of the music industry and inappropriate behaviour. For example, Melbourne bands like Camp Cope or High Tension who have highlighted threatening or sexist behaviour of punters, reiterating that it won’t be tolerated at their shows.

 

Some female-based bands or musicians are less impacted by sexism and inequality but I am sure all of them have at least one story. I have got quite a few but I don’t want to take up the whole interview dwelling on douche bags. But yes, it still happens.

 

One more generic example that springs to mind, is the countless times people have said “you don’t sound like a girl band”, as if that is supposed to be a compliment. Or [they have] compared us to other female-membered bands (who have a completely different sound or musical objectives), or tried to insinuate some kind of rivalry between us and them…

 

It’s like some people are inadvertently trying to maintain a derisory stereotype – that women are inherently threatened by, or compete with, each other. Why does this happen? I don’t know. Maybe to try and keep us separated and disempowered, or something…

 

CF: I guess technically are “a Bendigo band”, meaning based in a regional Australian city. What does that mean to you? And is it – and has it been – a supportive music culture or environment in which to develop?

 

Bindi: Bendigo is a town with only a couple of venues supporting live music – even less loud rock music. There is a very supportive network – and some amazing bands and artists – that need more venues spaces to play.

 

But if the venues aren’t making money from punters, they will can the gigs and replace live music with pokie machines or restaurants. This is not just a small town problem though.

 

Prue: I still live in Bendigo, the other two [Killerbirds band members] left years ago, so I think it’s funny when people still think of us as “a Bendigo band”!

 

There are not many venues to play in [in Bendigo], especially for punk/noisy-type bands.

 

However there are good bits: even though most people I know in Bendigo don’t necessarily have the same music palate as me, they will still come to gigs because they are supportive. So yes, there is a supportive music culture. Perhaps more so in the genre pockets of blues, folky stuff or metal.

 

There is a huge blues festival here every year. There is also a small but prodigious noise scene.

 

Terminal Sausage is my favourite Bendigo noise band.

 

Bindi: The biggest thing I noticed about being in a regional band is you have to work harder to get recognized and acquire better gigs in bigger cities.

 

By work hard I mean travelling from Bendigo to Melbourne a lot, go to see other bands, meet people… It can be exhausting spending every weekend away, but that’s was the only way to do it. It’s a bit easier now with the internet.

Killer: Killerbrids. Photot: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Cheers: Killerbrids. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: If you could imagine “a dream gig”, what might that be? And what’s next for Killerbirds?

 

Bindi: My dream gig would be to play a ’90s band cruise ship tour’! Don’t know if that exists, but it should!

 

Prue: Playing at a music festival in Europe. I would also like to play in Spain and in Japan.

 

Bindi: An album is on the cards, so hopefully that happens within five years. We hope to record by the end of 2016.

 

And we have a couple of gigs coming, but we’re staying low, working on new material…

 

Many thanks to Bindi & Prue from Killerbirds for the interview!


  • Interview: Prue Allan + Bindi Masterson (Killerbirds)
  • Words, edit + photos: Megan Spencer
  • Follow: Killerbirds on Facebook
  • Hear: Killerbrids latest demo
  • Listen: to Killerbirds on Last FM
  • View: my Killerbirds photo album
  • Read: vintage Killerbirds review
Ally Portee by Megan Spencer (c) 2016
Ally Portee by Megan Spencer (c) 2016

A Pilgrim’s Progress: Ally Portee

Posted on August 24, 2016

“Travelling: it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

– Muhammad Ibn Battuta

 

Ally Portee loves people. She also loves her Christian faith, travelling and telling stories.

 

It’s no wonder she’s taken on the challenge of transforming her humble blog into a burgeoning online magazine, Seele (“soul” in German.)

 

With the tag line “Bridging Faith, Cultures, People” – and an academic background in history and international relations – Ally launched the independent e-publication in May.

 

Keen to use it to develop her writing, editing and storytelling, already she’s racked up readers from 80 countries, offering interviews with an impressive array of (mostly) women – from judges and social entrepreneurs to activists and filmmakers.

 

Hoping to eventually grow it into a going concern, she also travels any chance she gets, exploring the world and documenting it with gusto as her vibrant Instagram account attests. There you’ll find images from many destinations including California’s famous Napa Valley, the city of Mahon on the Spanish island of Menorca, Jerusalem, and the intoxicating city of Cairo in Egypt.

 

Now 28, Ally has spent the best part of a decade living away from her home in the US (Columbia, South Carolina), eventually making her way to Berlin, via Madrid and London.

 

Our paths chanced to cross this year during Circus Folk + Flower Punks, the performance photography exhibition Kate Seabrook and I co-presented between February and May at the Australian Embassy in Berlin. Ally had previously introduced herself, declaring on email that she was “passionate about women’s empowerment and the work that women around me are doing”.

 

Curious about my documentary work, she asked to interview me for for Seele. Curious about Ally’s journey to Germany, I invited her to coffee.

House Of Small Wonder
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As above and so below: Small House Of Wonder. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

We met in the middle of Berlin at the amazing Small House Of Wonder, an eclectic Japanese-American-German space designed to celebrate cultural diversity through the harmony of food. In these exotic, aesthetically beautiful surrounds (including killer wallpaper!) we discovered common ground within our ex-pat experiences and respective travels through life and spirituality. I found Ally to be gracious, open, and in possession of the kind of curiosity perhaps not so often attributed to those of deep religious beliefs, these days anyway…

 

She’s also an attentive listener: the best attribute to have if you’re in the business of telling the stories of others.

 

Ally’s just returned home after living in Berlin for three years. Enriched by her travels, she hopes to continue developing her magazine and engage professionally in social justice and business.

 

She’s finding her way. To borrow from author David Mitchell: “Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”


Ally with green tea latte. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Ally with “wondrous” green tea latte. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: From South Carolina to Berlin… I bet there’s an interesting story that goes with that journey!

 

Ally Portee: I came to Berlin to do an internship. Originally I’m from Columbia, South Carolina, the Palmetto state that produces the best peaches – even over Georgia, “the “peach state”!

 

I left South Carolina at 18 for university in Washington, DC. I spent a summer in Madrid, Spain before my senior year of university, then I went to London for a year and a month for my Masters, right after my Bachelor’s. After that I returned to DC for two years to work. Then I moved to Berlin, Germany.

 

I studied history for my Bachelor, specifically American History during the Reconstruction era, circa 1863-1877. And for my Masters I studied International Relations with a focus on diplomacy and negotiation during the Cold War.

 

In Spain I was an au pair. I wanted to do something different outside of the suffocating bubble of politics and government of DC. And in London I volunteered as a financial development researcher with The Parent House, a charity that helps lone parents gain qualifications through short courses so that they can find jobs. It was the first social justice, ‘unconservative’ job I’ve ever had. It changed my life to see how mothers were being empowered. I also volunteered in the British Parliament and it was a wonderful experience to compare that internship to my various internships on Capitol Hill (America’s legislative branch of government).

 

In Berlin I worked for a startup and venture capital firm. And I just finished working as an interim communications assistant at an international school in Berlin, where I worked on various communications projects. But now I am currently transitioning back to the US.

 

CF: Please tell us a little bit about your blog, and its transition now into an online magazine, Seele? What were your main motivations for starting both?

 

AP: My blog has gone through quite a few phases but initially it was born from a challenging time in my life when I was in a lot of pain and truly found Jesus. I got the idea to send encouraging Friday texts to my closest friends, and I did that for two years.

 

Someone mentioned [to me] that I should turn my texts into a blog, which I called Friday Fuel. I then got the inspiration to transition Friday Fuel into something that was more than just one day a week of posts, into interviews. So I changed the name of it to “Meine Seele Singt” (in English it means “my soul sings”), based on Matt Redman’s song, ‘10,000 Reasons’. In the German version there is a line that has the line “meine Seele singt” in it, and I loved it!

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Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

A year later I decided to transition the blog into an online magazine and shortened the name to Seele, which means “soul” in English. Seele is a niche Christian publication that profiles inspiring men and women, also including some who are not Christian.

 

I still have my Friday posts (which I have written almost every Friday for three years), plus lifestyle pieces, tips, monthly recipes, book reviews, a monthly book club, with a section dedicated to women.

 

And why a magazine? Because why have a blog when you can have a magazine!

 

CF: “Faith, Cultures, People”: what intrigues and interests you about these areas, in particular? And are there many publications or forums out there that look at all three and how they are interconnected?

 

AP: I’ve always been interested in people. Growing up I only read biographies, memoirs, autobiographies, and watched documentaries about people. I can’t get enough of biographies. I just can’t seem to get into fiction books (except Harry Potter!) I also have a heart for the nations: I love learning about various cultures and making friends from all different backgrounds. I love hanging around them and understanding them.

 

I have a Christian-based magazine that bridges faith, cultures, and people, which I think is unique. There are quite a few Christian magazines, but I don’t see too many stepping out of the Christian ‘bubble’ and writing about topics Christians don’t really talk about.

 

Seele‘s content is geared toward Christians. But Christians have been called to be in the world and not “of it” – to go out and mix and mingle with all kinds of people, and that means people who aren’t Christians. While Seele is Christian, it embraces all kinds of people and faiths to inform the reader about intriguing stories of other faiths and other kinds of people: people who are Muslim, Jewish, gay, disabled, Christian, vegetarians, HIV-positive, meat eaters – whoever!

 

I want all to feel welcome when they are on the site.

Seele magazine online. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

At Oranienburger Tor. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Ally at U-Bahn Oranienburger Tor. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Whose stories have made the biggest impact on you?

 

AP: I interviewed my cousin, Katie Nichols Harrod, who is a Family Law attorney and Administrative Law Judge in Buffalo, New York. I was so blessed interviewing her: listening to her journey from pre-law school to where she is now, 30 years later. The way she talked about God guiding her on her life’s journey was touching; I felt like I could relate. Also an interview I did with Hardy Wu, a Taiwanese music student in Denmark. It touched me for the same reasons.

 

I interviewed my mom a year ago: she’s the most kind, compassionate, and forgiving woman I’ve ever met. Over 800 people viewed the profile – it’s Seele’s most viewed profile to date, which is testament to the many lives she has touched in her part of the world.

 

Writing is a release: I have to write down the things God puts in my heart, and I enjoy sharing them with my readers. I’ve always been inspired by people and the interesting stories of their lives. I simply love sharing people’s answers and words of wisdom through interviews.

 

CF: What kind of perspectives have you ‘grown’ since leaving the States, and becoming a “world traveller”?

 

AP: I find it so interesting to study someone who is from a completely different culture to me: I realize that we’re more alike than I thought, while at the same time being different. We’re all humans: I find similarities between Spaniards and Southern Americans, Indonesians and Latinos….

 

I realize that the world is big, but not too big. I am more open, more understanding to various cultures, and less annoyed by a culture difference. When I first moved to London I thought the British would be like Americans because we speak the same language. Au contraire – we’re so different! And when I visited Israel a couple of years ago I wasn’t bothered by the gruff Israeli people: they’re tough but I didn’t get upset.

 

So I’ve learned not to judge a culture based on my own.

  

CF: How important is it do you think, for people to leave home and what they know, and to travel? What are the advantages of travel? And perhaps some of the challenges too, that you might have experienced?

 

AP: To live away from home is one of the most enriching decisions anyone can make. I see the world much differently from when all I knew was South Carolina…

 

I’m more open to different types of people and their lifestyles. I’m more accepting of different cultures: I no longer judge a culture based on my own. I learned that the hard way when I lived in London – to never expect another culture to be like Americans.

 

It’s important to live away from your hometown if you can because it will force you to have to handle and juggle problems on your own, away from your parents. I remember when I studied in London for my Masters, from the States I arranged for an apartment, and then paid the deposit. The day I arrived in London I got a call from the landlord saying that they could no longer rent out the flat to me. I didn’t know where I was going to live! It forced me to spend a whole night on Gumtree searching! Luckily I found a place the next day, but I had to face that situation on my own in a foreign country without my parents to solve the problem for me.

 

Because of experiences like that in England (and others in Germany – and oh, I’ve got some stories!), my faith in God has increased. Now I know that I can take care of myself.

 

So I don’t freak out or become anxious when life throws me difficult moments. Because I’ve had many challenges, God has gotten me through them.

 

CF: Travelling to places like Egypt, and elsewhere in the world, where other religions are prevalent, what do you learn and notice? And do you enjoy experiencing other religions and faiths, ‘in situ’?

 

AP: I love the fact that all my five senses are awakened at once. My eyes are taking in the donkeys pulling carts on the shoulder of the superhighway. My ears are taking in the sounds of the congested traffic. The air smells of humid desert air. I feel like I’m in an exotic land. And the spices of the foods awaken my taste buds. Istanbul and Israel were like this for me too.

 

I’m also reminded in Muslim, Jewish, or Catholic countries that the faiths are different, and that I must strive to understand faiths that are different from mine. I usually meet with an imam, priest or rabbi in that respective country, where a particular faith is dominant. I do this because I enjoy talking apologetics and various religions and their dogmas, so that I can understand and learn things I didn’t know. I haven’t been to Asia yet, but when I go, you can expect to find me at a Buddhist monastery or Hindu temple, speaking to their leadership on the tenets of their faith.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

In Egypt this year I met with four imams at a mosque. And though I was passionate about my faith, I was reminded that I must listen, understand, and respect the Muslim faith.  Respect goes both ways.  I could also see that Muslims really love God and have a high reverence for Him. They just don’t see Jesus as the same, but God is in their talk, in their tradition to pray five times a day through speakers that cite the call to prayer. I really admire how they really seem to be zealous, something that’s very different in the Western Christian world.

  

CF: You have been away from your home in South Carolina for a long time now… What did you love about living there? And what were some of the challenges?

 

AP: I’ve been away for 10 years now. It’s the people that make South Carolina great. Southerners are open, friendly and inviting. I miss that. And I sometimes miss the food (but not the waistline that comes with eating it!)

 

I don’t miss the racism. I don’t think I could live in South Carolina again. Sure, it’s getting better and I see more and more interracial couples when I go home. But Americans like to hold on to their racial views; Europeans are far more progressive. It was challenging in high school with the underhanded comments of racism. And it was challenging in Washington sometimes with the cliques of some people…

 

CF: Has your definition of ‘home’ changed as a result of travelling? Or does it remain a constant? It must be difficult living away from your family…

 

AP: Yes, home is where I am. I know where I am from. And I’m grateful that God made me be born in the American South, in South Carolina. I love that I know Jesus, I love the friendly and open culture, I love the food, I love the kind people that I know, and I love that I’m a black woman born and raised in the South.

 

I sure do miss my parents. I think if my parents weren’t in South Carolina I wouldn’t really feel the need to go back.

 

Because I have done a bit of traveling over the last ten years – spending very little time in South Carolina – home is where I am.

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Graceful: Ally Portee. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Who are some of your influences, inspirations or heroes?

 

AP: Firstly it’s Jesus. He’s the model of how I strive to live my life. He is constantly transforming my heart to love, forgive, have boundaries, to be open, and to be gracious.

– My mother because of her resilience to forgive quickly.

– My father for chasing his dream to run for public office.

– Princess Diana for compassion. She wasn’t perfect but she was gifted to show love.

– Jacqueline Kennedy for her subtle presence and iconic fashion influence.

– Francis Ford Coppola for making the best movies: The Godfather trilogy.

– Christine Caine for her ministry and heart of Jesus.

– Harriett Tubman for her courage to help guide slaves on the Underground Railroad.

– Oprah Winfrey for her journey and her soothing words of wisdom.

 

CF: Finally, what goals or dreams do you have for your online magazine, Seele?

 

AP: In time, I’d really like to grow Seele. My professional experiences now are preparing me to do this.

 

I also love film and documentaries. I’d love to start a media company of some sort. In Berlin I had some exposure to filming and editing as a form of storytelling, and I really enjoy it. But not as much as I do editorial and managing Seele!

 

Grateful thanks to Ally Portee for the interview!


© Megan Spencer 2016
© Megan Spencer 2016

Land of Balconia

Posted on July 6, 2016

Berlin balconies are spectacular – especially in summer. Look up and you’ll witness some of the city’s most creative spaces. You don’t have to be a poet or painter to live here: being a keen home gardener will do just fine.

 

Balconia: part-urban balcony, part-Narnia – a fantasy land just outside your window (instead of down the back of the wardrobe). A magical space to cheer you up on grey days (and there are many in Berlin), and on long, hot summer nights a paradise where you can find a cool breeze, a grill going and friends over for a feast.


In all likelihood Berliners like dogs more than they do people, but they dig their balconies, taking great pride in both their design and what they grow in them. And for the good many who prefer to take their summer holidays ‘at home’ (taking a “stay-cation” is also popular in the cash-strapped capital), balconia ain’t such a bad place to be.

Balconia tommies. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Balconia tommies. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Sunshine becomes a commodity in a place that is winter (or winter-like) for most of the year. And with average apartment size 70.6 square metres, having this outside “green space” can make all the difference between “cabin fever” and “yay” (especially when the temperatures begin to drop).

 

Balconias are also great sources of food. In addition to homes for spectacular blooms, they’re also easily transformed into vertical veggie patches, herb gardens and fruit plots. Pumpkins, tomatoes, broad beans, broccoli, chilli, raspberries, grapevines – you name it, virtually anything that can sprout from seed, in a pot, and within the “humid continental” climate, grows with gusto in spring and summer.

 

Balconias are Berlin’s equivalent to Melbourne’s Christmas Lights: during summer it’s not unusual for neighbours in the same street – nay building – to compete for the most outrageous Balkon, with grotesque garden gnomes, umbrellas, sculptures, flags, windmills, fairylights, sails, mobiles, signs and “whatever you’ve fished off the street” thrown into the mix.

 

Moving to Berlin from a sprawling, veggie-populated backyard in the middle of regional Victoria (Australia) as I had, I was a little worried about how I’d survive without serious edible greenery within arm’s reach. We ate out of that glorious garden for five years, six months of the year.

A fistful of geranium. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

I needn’t have worried: with the great fortune of finding a place with not one but two balconies, my plant whisperer of a husband got our balconia garden started before the ink had even dried on the lease.

 

It’s mainly a herbarium (curry, basil, rosemary, parsley, thyme, chives), with strawbs and tommies on the way. We could also open a florist shop tomorrow: geraniums, oleander, nasturtiums, carnations, lavender, marigolds… Most nights of the week we eat in the company of our flowers and plants, outside, listening to birds, traffic, people returning happy from the ice-cream shop (or drunk from the döner shop), and on the occasion of Germany playing in the European Championships (as they are right now), fireworks. It’s like living in the Northern Territory all over again.

 

The Magic Faraway Tree is right on our doorstep. A little piece of paradise two floors up, halfway between the earth and the stars.

 

My balconia keeps me from feeling too far from home – and, right at home.

 

How lucky am I. Thank you Oliver.

Thank you nature.

Thank you Berlin.

 

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Outside our window: the land of balconia. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

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Woman Of Substance: Vanessa Ellingham

Posted on July 1, 2016

Human rights journalist, magazine editor and social storyteller Vanessa Ellingham seems to regularly be mistaken for someone else.

 

It’s something which has beset her for the past five years, since “Jasmine Cooper” first got glasses.

 

“Jasmine Cooper” is one of the characters on New Zealand’s most famous soap opera, ‘Shortland Street‘. It seems Vanessa and the actress who plays the troubled teenager share eerily similar features: honey-brown hair, perfectly-manicured bobs and cat’s eye glasses, framing heart-shaped faces and delicate smiles.

 

Both call New Zealand home. And as I discover soon after meeting Vanessa at a writers group in Berlin (where she now lives), it’s a case of mistaken identity the 25 year-old is wont to write about in hilarious, excruciating detail.

 

Even recently a hapless Mac user mistook Vanessa as one of the faces of Apple’s newly-minted Twitter Support Team, reaching out to her in 140-characters-or-less.

As the saying goes, ‘you can run but you can’t hide’ – especially not on Twitter. “It’s happening again!” tweeted Vanessa, in bemused desperation, finally conceding, “[I] just have one of those faces, I suppose”.

 

#Surrender.

 

Be that as that as it may, there’s nothing generic about this “digital native”, whip-smart storyteller. While Vanessa’s default setting might appear shy and self-deprecating – upholding the stereotype of her “nerdy” doppelgangers – it’s cosmetic only. Get Vanessa onto something she believes in and you get to the heart of her: an articulate woman of substance with an ardour to rival the flow of her homeland’s mighty Waikato River.

 

Upping stumps from Aotearoa almost four years ago, she’s not only turned into a world traveler (making her a bit exotic back home), she’s also sought out social enterprises that make a difference. At Give Something Back To Berlin Vanessa works as the organisation’s blog editor, helping to tell the stories of the many refugees currently seeking asylum in Berlin.

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On the walls at GSBTB. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Founded by Swedish journalist Annamaria Olsson, the enterprise endeavours to connect more “privileged” immigrants (ie those in Berlin by choice) with those more “vulnerable” in the community, such as the ever-growing, diaspora of displaced peoples arriving in Germany, the country bearing the brunt of the EU’s “great migration crisis”. They do this via projects, programs and partnerships, the emphasis being on creating support, opportunity and community.

 

It seems fitting that the organisation’s HQ is in a converted church in Neukölln, one of the most open, culturally diverse and thriving neighbourhoods in Berlin. With meditation spaces, meeting rooms, workshop areas, a new communal kitchen and a beautiful rooftop garden (complete with modular veggie patches and fruit plots), it’s staffed with expats and locals alike.

 

Not only do they care, they actually do something to help. They take action.

 

It may not be very “Jasmine Cooper” of her, but you won’t find Vanessa Ellingham making a big deal about it…


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Vanessa Ellingham. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: A New Zealander in Berlin: could you please give us a snapshot of your journey to becoming a “Wahlberliner”, including a picture of where you are from in New Zealand?

 

Vanessa Ellingham: I’ve lived in Berlin now for just about three years. I never intended to live in Germany (I learned French at school, and when I left New Zealand I was headed for Denmark.) But I ended up here, and I’m so happy in Berlin I might never leave!

 

My partner, Andreas, is Danish, and we lived together in Copenhagen for a year before we came to Berlin. It wasn’t really working out there for me (job-wise, culture-wise), so we made a list of other places we could see ourselves living and whittled them down until we settled on Berlin.

 

We picked this city for its multiculturalism, arts scene, affordability and acceptance of difference, but most of that was based on what we’d heard from others. It turned out to be a very good choice for us.

 

I come from Wellington, once dubbed the “coolest little capital in the world” by Lonely Planet. It’s a tiny city known for its café culture and arts scene. New Zealand as a whole is pretty multicultural and that’s what I’d missed in Denmark.

 

Funny how I gravitated towards a new place with a spirit a bit like the one I left back at home…

 

CF: And you also have Maori heritage: could you please give us some details about your family background? And what it means to you, to have that heritage in your identity?

 

VE: My mother’s father was Maori, which makes us part-Maori. In New Zealand we say, “you’re as Maori as you feel”, and I probably feel more Maori the longer I live away from home.

 

I wasn’t raised with a lot of Maori culture or customs, but after my granddad died when I was a kid my family made an effort to learn more about that part of ourselves and that’s a journey we’re still on today.

 

To me being Maori is about being spiritually connected to your ancestral land. And it’s about being inclusive – we talk about the idea of whanau, something bigger than a family, more like a community of people who hold each other dear and support one another.

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Urban jungle: GSBTB’s rooftop garden. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Please tell us more about your work here in Berlin?

 

VF: I’m a freelance writer and editor. I cover a range of different roles.

 

Last year I edited an anthology for Slow Travel Berlin to celebrate their fifth anniversary. Slow Travel Berlin is an English-language city guide slowed down, with hidden places, not-so-familiar faces and long-form stories coming out of Berlin.

 

I serve as an editor and feature writer for FairPlanet.org, an online magazine about human rights and the environment. There I mostly write about migration and issues affecting indigenous peoples.

 

CF: And your role working with refugees at the organisation “Give Something Back To Berlin”?

 

VE: I work part-time editing and managing the Give Something Back to Berlin blog. It’s a work in progress: right now we interview members of our community, and produce general news about our organisation, but in the future we hope to have more writing about migration, politics and local issues affecting Berlin’s newcomers – that’s our audience.

 

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Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

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Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

GSBTB started three years ago as an answer to Berlin’s anti-gentrification discourse. We don’t claim to ‘fix’ the problem of gentrification, but serve as an opportunity for new Berliners to contribute to the city through volunteering, shirking that stereotype of hipsters who only came to town to party, make art and push up the cost of living here.

 

The volunteer work was targeted at the expat crowd, volunteering with elderly folk, in after-school care programs, that sort of thing, but we also became networked with the refugee rights movement at Oranienplatz, organising a weekly cooking event in the park and English classes for refugees.

 

When the number of refugees arriving in the city increased by what felt like a bajillion last summer, we were well positioned to show the city how it’s done: that ‘integrating’ people doesn’t have to mean a one-directional aid exchange, but providing spaces for them to come and forge genuine friendships with like-minded people, and also have the opportunity to contribute to the city themselves.

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Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

I wouldn’t be doing justice to my colleagues if I didn’t mention that we recently won an international award for this work. In April we won the top prize at the Intercultural Innovation Award from UNAOC and BMW Group. It felt like the whole world could suddenly hear what we had to say about migration – it’s been a wild ride!

 

CF: What have you learned from working in this environment?

 

VE: The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my time spent getting to know some of the refugees in our community, is something that I already knew but I’m being reminded of every day: that refugees are just like everyone else.

 

As a newcomer to the city myself, I have so much in common with these people: working out how to find a flat in Berlin, struggling to learn German, enjoying a good döner, missing loved ones back home…

 

Because I didn’t come up with the concept myself, I think I’m allowed to say that this is the real genius of GSBTB’s concept: it’s migrants supporting migrants.

 

A lot of people in the GSBTB community with refugee backgrounds are now volunteering themselves. Integration can be so much more than a one-way exchange. I think we’re proving that everyone has something valuable to offer.

 

CF: Just over one million refugees entered Germany last year, over a 12-moth period. What is your personal take on the refugee situation in German right now – especially in Berlin: what needs to happen? What are particular the challenges they are facing here, and is any ‘good’ coming out of the situation?

 

VE: Wooooo boy, how to answer that without taking five hours – and [without] getting really, really mad?!

 

The biggest challenge seems to be bureaucracy. My friends with refugee status all wait months and months for very small steps forward: whether that’s getting legal refugee status, getting help to find somewhere to live, getting into German class, or getting permission for family members back home to come and join them here. It’s painfully slow, and we know it’s because of the huge number of people who all came at once. But it would be wrong to say Germany hadn’t been warned that this would happen one day. Human rights authorities had been pointing to the potential for bigger migration movements for years.

 

I disagree with some of the housing plans for refugees. It may seem like a dreamy idea for refugees to be housed on the auspicious grounds of the former Tempelhof Airport, but mass accommodation – like the 7000 spaces planned at Tempelhof – isn’t healthy for anyone. It’s isolated, prison-like living, a breeding ground for mental illness, and human rights groups have condemned the conditions. As if these people haven’t already been through enough!

 

And those are just some of the issues affecting people in Berlin: what about all the people left behind when Europe closed its borders and said it was ‘full’? That’s never going to be the answer to this problem: it doesn’t stop wars, it doesn’t stop people dying in the Mediterranean, and in the end it won’t stop people arriving in Europe.

 

What good is coming out of the situation? I think many people who didn’t know much about the issues facing refugees have taken an interest for the first time, and that’s good news. I think refugees have been humanised in the media in a way they weren’t before, and that’s galvanised the German public.

 

It’s been a trying time for Germany’s politicians and services, but we’ve also seen droves of people turn out to volunteer who normally might not have. That’s a society I want to be part of.

 

CF: You call yourself a “digital native who doesn’t believe that print is dead”: what do you mean by that?

 

VE: I work mostly in the digital space but I’m a lover of old-fashioned print. The feel and smell of a new book or magazine simply cannot be replicated in digital media.

 

A few years ago some media people were saying “print is dead” but instead we’ve seen a resurgence of print media as coveted items to be treasured. You can see the same with radio and podcasts. Instead of dying out, print has been elevated.

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GSBTB’s international souvenir collection! Photo: Megan Spencer 2016

[One of my favourite things to do] to relax is to sit on my balcony in the sun and read a magazine (I’ve always got a pile of at least five that I’m hoping to make it through one day). When it’s cold I like to have a bath and listen to a podcast. Ooh, there goes that traditional media again!

 

CF: What is the most “unusual” writing job you’ve ever done – and most rewarding? And what is it that you love about writing – and freelancing?

 

VE: My most unusual job was my first job out of uni: I was the editor of a fishing magazine for six months while the regular guy spent some time overseas. The job came with a boat, which was totally wasted on me. I didn’t know a thing about fishing and I couldn’t drive a car, let alone a boat.

 

My most rewarding job is the one I have now at Give Something Back to Berlin. I don’t just get to be the editor of a blog where we tell really important stories about awesome people doing great things, but we also have a community that takes the time to read our stories and engage with us. I love it.

 

I love storytelling in general. I think I just picked writing because you have more time to craft the story. I also have a really nasally voice, so writing stops that getting in my way! As a freelancer I spend a lot more time doing financial stuff than I’d expected. Invoicing clients, or just staring at my budget with a look of terror. It’s hard yakka. The thing about being able to work in your pyjamas is true, however. And sometimes that just saves my day…

 

CF: You’ve travelled quite a bit; what has travelling taught – or given – you? There must be some things you miss about not being ‘home’…

 

VE: In New Zealand we talk about something called The Big OE – “The Big Overseas Experience”. For many Kiwi youth it’s considered a rite of passage, and most of my loved ones expected I would move overseas one day – they just might have expected I would’ve moved back by now.

 

I think I’ve learned that I can feel at home in really unexpected places. That it’s okay to call more than one place ‘home’.

 

I really missed how friendly Kiwis are to strangers, but when I went home for a visit I had to remember how that works: that every supermarket checkout operator will want to know how my day’s going, and then ask at least three follow-up questions, so I’d better have an answer ready. That’s just customer service back home, but Berlin has trained me out of that.

 

I love the beaches. I love how muggy it is. I love how people call out a thank you to the bus driver when they get off the bus. It’s awesome.

 

As for Berlin, I love the diversity of arts, culture and people. I love being able to ride my tricycle around my Kiez and these days I even see some people I know. I feel at home here now, too.

 

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Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

I do get homesick for the people I love. Sometimes I’d give anything for a hug from my mum. Preferably with a mince and cheese pie to eat afterwards.

 

[I miss] food and people. But mostly people.

 

CF: Do you have any long-term you dreams or ambitions for your writing and storytelling?

 

VE: I’d love to make and run a magazine one day. I know exactly what it would look like and what would be in it – I would’ve done it by now but it’s really expensive.

 

I think I’ll always be telling stories and it’s the minority voices that interest me. I’m lucky to already be doing what I really care about but there is plenty of room for my writing to develop, and my editing skills too. I’ve got my eye on some bigger publications I’d love to work for. It might take a lifetime!

 

CF: Please complete this sentence: “In five years Time Vanessa Ellingham will be…”

 

VE: Thirty! Oh my God. (Just kidding!). I think I’ll still be in Berlin. I really hope I would’ve gotten my German to a fluent level by then because I’d really like to get back on my Maori language journey and reconnect with that part of myself. I am sure I will still be telling stories…


Bordello of pod (thank you Sam for the bra.). Photo: Megan Spencer for 3WW (c) 2016

Notes from a Wicked Woman

Posted on June 29, 2016

Radio has been my first love FOREVER.

 

I made my very first program in the mid-1980s. It was the time of gargantuan shoulder pads, John Hughes movies and elbow dancing. Thankfully by then I’d discovered ska music, black Levis and brothel creepers.

 

In my second year of university, one lunch time I stumbled upon an “extra curricular” workshop paid for by my Student Union fees. The good folk at the Union had kindly put it on for misfits like me, desperate for distraction from what I was finding to be less-than-fulfilling paramedical “yoonee” studies. Radio production and reel-to-reel tape decks it was!

 

Run by a guy called “Paul” (veteran radio trainer Paul Vadasz as I later found out), he was recruiting students to make rookie programs for a local public radio station with an “educational” license.

 

The “station” turned out to be 3RRR-FM, and the moment a major turning point in my life. I instantly fell in love with making radio, jumping at the chance to become a part of Melbourne’s alternative broadcasting scene, which at that very moment was becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2015

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2015

A boyfriend in a Japan-knockoff band had introduced me to 3RRR when I was 17. I’d not long been listening to this lavish wild-child of the Melbourne airwaves, an uncompromising, non-commercial FM haven of “alternative” and “punk” music. It was vastly different from the diet of predominantly commercial bombast that 3XY and EON-FM had fed me throughout my teens via my beloved Hitachi three-in-one.

 

I couldn’t get enough.

 

Fast-tracking my transition from Australian Crawl, ABBA and Leo Sayer (yes, Leo Sayer), to Talking Heads, The Laughing Clowns and The Triffids, I’d happened upon an incredibly exciting, vociferous, world of opinion, art, culture, comedy and politics. It was far from anything I’d known growing up in the deep south of suburban bayside Melbourne.

 

All this. Without ads. I was a goner.

 

After throwing myself wholeheartedly into the workshop I careened into a five-year love affair with RRR, derailing my “paramedical career” in the process. For the next half a decade I would spend endless – countless – hours, late nights and weekends cranking out as many radio documentaries, live shows, stories, packages and programs as possible. Anything I could get my hands on.

 

All analogue. All as a volunteer.

 

L1050431I had my crap “day job” at a crap call centre. I had patience. And faith that ‘the long game’ would pay off some day, somehow. No plan. Just hope. That it would.

 

Both my parents thought I was nuts, bless their cottons. The fruit of post-WWII, Depression-era, struggle town upbringings, they were horrified at how I could chuck in my studies and “a good-paying career at a hospital” to work at a scungy radio station for free.

 

They spent the next five years telling me so, asking without fail each week whether I’d “earned any money from that radio business yet”.

 

With the arse literally hanging out of my pants, still no professional prospects on the horizon, yet a deep, unwavering optimism, in 1993 I decided the time had come to jump into ‘the real world’. I consummated my tenure at RRR by producing the comeback series of EEEK!, a much-loved, weekly, 90-minute live program with the guiding mantra, “Educate, Elucidate, Ejaculate”. Was there any other way to go out?

 

Hosted by trash and junk culture aficionados Bruce Milne and Philip Brophy (also old friends), it was underground radio of the highest/lowest order. My crazy, eclectic, immersive and illuminating DIY traineeship had finally come to an end. You couldn’t buy that kind of formative experience today – for love nor money.

Eeek! artwork by Philip Brophy. Courtesy Outre Gallery.

EEEK! artwork by Philip Brophy. Image: Martin Macintosh/Outre Gallery

(Recently, while hosting his late-night music show on – believe it or not – 3RRR, Bruce affectionately (?!) likened my production style “to that of a dominatrix”. Such were the ‘complexities’ of wrangling this collective of darling misfits, I took it squarely as a compliment. That behemoth of a show MADE IT TO AIR EVERY WEEK: no mean feat. Bruce – you slacker! You only ever knew the half of it! lol)

 

It would of course take another five long years before a “proper” job came along and any remuneration to speak of. But my time at RRR taught me something that others – who’d perhaps had a swifter pathway into professional radio via stand up comedy, a trainee-ship or national radio school – didn’t have: Resilience. Oh, and a shit-ton of Resourcefulness.

 

And I was Resolute. So be the three ‘Rs’.

 

Plus, once in 1988 Joey Ramone walked so close to me that I almost fainted right onto RRR’s stinky, sticky carpet. (Smoking and drinking in the building were allowed in ‘those’ days.)

 

Right then, I knew: this must be the place. Home.


Since 1998 I’ve been more or less ‘on the books’, mostly at the ABC: first at triple j where I had the great privilege to be the incumbent film critic and commentator for a decade. (Oh, and an arts reporter.)

 

I worked really hard there too. (I work really hard at every job I do. Another corollary from the early days…)

3WW podcast artwork RRR sticker

Pretty quickly it led to regular spots across a ton of different shows across all ABC networks: Local Radio, Radio National, Radio Australia, ABC Rural – even Classic FM, where I had one of my most fulfilling radio experiences ever talking for what seemed like hours (it was) about progressive film score music, on ‘New Music Up Late’. (Save for the latter, unfortunately 99% of those friendly “cross-network” specialist spots were very seldom paid. Yep. Volunteer work at the government broadcaster: alive and kicking.)

 

After being a full-time critic and commentator for ten years, I moved on to present my own programs on “grown up” radio (ABC Local) on networks in two capital cities (Sydney and Darwin), and one big regional one (Bendigo). Another “steep learning curve” when it came to learning the craft of presenting – and making – good radio.

 

After a wee break, my last ‘posting’ was at ABC Central Victoria (2013-2015) where for three years  I rose at sparrow’s every Saturday morning (and a good number of weekdays), to broadcast “Breakfast” to great swathes of my home state.  The hours were crap but it was a ton of fun, thanks in part to a big-hearted producer and a rare, kind-hearted manager. I fell in love with radio all over again.


A year on and I now find myself living in Berlin. I also find myself without a radio show. And I’m starting to miss it.

 

I look around and see every man and his Zoom is starting a podcast. “Yeah, I could do that,” I say. But what kind of ‘show’ do I want to make? I have no agenda, no broadcaster to work for, no “real” reason to.. What would it be about? What do I have to say? And who would care either way?

 

Turns out I know a bunch of very interesting people here, women especially – “wicked” you might say. And I’m in the right town to find them: Berlin, “Babylon on the Spree”, a city whose inhabitants once instilled “voluptuous panic” into the hearts and minds of Central Europe (as author Mel Gordon so deliciously coined its “Weimar era”). The grumpy, Deutschland capital where bohemians, punks and circus folk continue to flock, even as gentrification threatens to rot its historic hedonist foundations… Maybe they’d like to have a bit of a chat?

 

Unlike 1987, the hard work has been done. Now I have a voice – a point of view – and most importantly, experience. Fully formed. And somehow, most beautifully, as I come full circle, back to the starting point with nothing but a will to create, a makeshift studio, a laptop to edit on (instead of a reel-to-reel) and a drive to make something meaningful to listen to – IN A SEA OF NOISE – I find myself realizing that I can do it. With my eyes shut. I’ve spent over half my life making good radio and connecting with audiences. Listening to other people and what they have to say.

 

Still curious.

 

The hours are long again; the learning curve is steep, again. Frankly, it’s a massive undertaking, I’m a bit tired from all this ‘trying’, and just like 1987 it’s another ‘career gamble’… (My dear parents’ voices are in my ears again!) But arriving back at that place of possibility – to “begin again” – has its advantages. I now have the ‘long game’ perspective: I know what I don’t want to sound like. And I know someone who might want to co-pilot with me – hurrah! So much more fun than flying solo!

 

I can do it.

 

Radio’s my band: this is where I get to shred my instrument.

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“The Wickeds”, Megan & Sam, presenters of Three Wicked Women (3WW), the podcast.

The thing I love the most about radio is the dance: the dance between freedom and format, the dance between “you” and “the audience”, between your voice and their minds. Between music and talk; playfulness and solemnity. In real time. The present moment. If you can nail that, radio can be a truly empathic, enlivening exchange – and vocation.


One day, working for the ABC and presenting Drive, I was “invited in” to the manager’s office. At ‘peak hour’ I’d played Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control‘, urging people during the back announce to see “the mighty biopic about Ian Curtis and his tragic life cut short by his own hand.” (It was called ‘Control’ and had just come out on DVD). The manager scolded me, saying “you could harm the brand”. I got terribly upset: I thought she meant I was encouraging people to self-harm by playing Ian Curtis on the radio. When she finally explained what “harming the brand” actually meant – “Really?! That’s a THING?! OMG…” – I laughed in relief for FIVE SOLID MINUTES. Yep. I just wasn’t made for these times.


Maybe I can release my daggy, Sonic Youth-loving inner rock chick again. Dial up her volume up (instead of down).  There’s been a Wicked Woman lurking behind that mic for years. Time to let her out with the aid of an articulate, audacious co-host –  Samantha Wareing, a sister Wahlberliner who’s been embodying a kick-arse wicked woman of her own for several decades and just as eager to give her an airing.

 

So this is what we made: Three Wicked Women. We’re into it three episodes deep with another three to come. Lots of laughter, frayed edges and thoughtfulness. Seriously interesting people to chat to, listen to.. In our “bordello of pod” as I like to call it. One hour’s worth. Fully loaded, fully sick, fully voluptuous.

 

From my heart to your ears – and on behalf of my co-host Sam – I hope you have as much fun listening to this podcast, as we did making it.

 

“Don’t be afraid to start over, it’s a new chance to build what you want…” – Anonymous

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New Romantic: Stella Turner

Posted on June 22, 2016

“I love William Turner: that’s why I took ‘Turner’ as my performer name,” Stella Belinda Franke tells me as we walk down a busy Berlin street, looking for an impromptu photo shoot location.

 

Her eyes glint with inspiration as she speaks the Romantic landscape painter’s name. It turns out the artist now known as Stella Turner loves to talk about art, and music. As we dodge cars, dog shit and stinging nettles, she manages to cram a lot into our brief conversation. Her aliveness is palpable.

 

Stella Turner also loves to play music. I first saw her belt out a couple of well-honed originals late one open mic night in Berlin. While clearly in her formative stages, she had something special to share: a rich, confident voice, a flair for songwriting and connecting with an audience.

 

Which was just as well: gun shy from a misogynist spray by one comedian, hesitation had filled the room about “who” or “what” might come next (the blessed price of an open stage). Stella stepped up like a veteran, re-tuning the space with humbleness and an assured, graceful performance. Collectively we breathed a sigh of relief. Only later did I find out how nervous she was.

 

The next time I saw Stella play it was in front of a hundred fervent late-teens (quite possibly the entirety of her International School classmates), crammed into a club deep beneath a Kreuzberg street. She was support for rising teen alt-rock sensations Cardboard Hearts (also members of Stella’s school year.)

 

With her beloved ruby-red Epiphone in hand (“he’s called Aaron!”) she took to the stage in bare feet, smashing out self-penned ballads and the occasional cover (Radiohead’s discarded 007 movie theme ‘Spectre‘ being one on the upright piano against the wall). The place oscillated between vibrant cheers and hushed attention.

On stage at Junction Bar. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Three encores later – and a piano pounded into submission – a would-be Tori Amos was born. It was a long way from the family Christmas at which Stella had made her performance ‘debut’.

 

Roll-calling her influences between songs (a good number of rock stalwarts among them), somehow I felt  reminded of Nick Drake. Maybe it was the bare feet and over-sized guitar, or the vulnerability of her storytelling: that clear-eyed view of an inner landscape and the willingness to expose it to rooms across one of the grumpiest cities in the EU. I couldn’t help but be impressed by Stella’s courage.

 

“It is only when we are no longer fearful that we begin to create,” so said William Turner. Clearly it’s not only the artist’s namesake this young, British-Berliner has taken to heart…

Stella Turner. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: You are a rare creature – a ‘native’ Berliner!

 

Stella Turner: Yes, I was born and raised in Berlin seventeen years ago, with my mother coming from London and my father from Saarbrücken, Germany.

 

I also have an older brother called Sebastian. We’ve lived in the same flat all my life – I’ve only ever moved rooms inside the flat!

 

I absolutely love Berlin and definitely will come back to live here when I’m older. I’m bilingual, so both German and English are my mother tongues. But I do like to speak English more as I go to an International School, which involves being in contact with all sorts of different cultures. The common denominator is that we all speak English.

 

CF: When did you first start playing music? Are there any ‘formative’ music moments or stories in your life that you can share with us?

 

ST: I started playing the piano when I was five. When I was six, I decided to start playing the cello and for a long time I wanted to become a cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic, where both my parents work. (My mother sometimes plays in the orchestra and my father is a producer for the Digital Concert Hall.)

 

Since I come from a musical family, music is second nature to me and I was brought up on great music such as the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead and many more.

 

I only started playing the guitar when I was 14, after I saw Jake Bugg at a concert here in Berlin. It was a strange moment: as I looked at him I thought, “I am going to do that someday”. I borrowed a friend’s guitar and obsessively started teaching myself.

 

Without ever having touched a guitar or playing anything non-classical, since that night, I knew I wanted to become a musician in the pop/rock field! I wanted to become a musician since I was tiny, but it was only then that I found the right way to express myself.

 

CF: When/how did you first start singing?

 

ST: I was always singing when I was younger – I joined the school rock band when I was eleven and sang lead vocals. I also loved singing in the school choir, however was quite shy about singing in front of people.

 

I only properly started singing when I began composing and playing the guitar. I felt much more comfortable singing my own songs. Ever since January 2016, I have been taking singing lessons to hone my craft.Stella turner Photo: Mehan Spencer (c) 2016

Stella Turner, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Stella Turner, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What instruments do you play – and do you have a favourite?

 

ST: I actively play the guitar and piano; I played cello for ten years, and [also] play the bass guitar in a band with friends of mine.

 

I definitely like the guitar the most: as it has not been taught to me by a professional, [this] let me develop my own technique, and gave me a lot more freedom than [what] I got from classical training.

 

It’s also easy to whip out at a party – everybody can sing along. It’s basically a ticket to a good time! Also, it doesn’t have the ‘snobbiness’ of other instruments. As the basics are simple to learn, everyone can play guitar.

 

To me, it embodies the spirit of music.

 

CF: Are there any particular music teachers, influences or mentors in your life, who might have helped you along the way? What have you learned from them?

 

ST: There have definitely been a few people who have majorly inspired me.

 

Of course my parents have had the most impact! They educated me on what good music sounds like and gave me the opportunity and freedom to choose whatever instruments I wanted to pursue, as well as encouraging me to practice and focus on my instruments in a way that others would focus on sport or school.

With "Aaron". Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

With “Aaron”. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

My jazz piano teacher Wolfgang Köhler opened me up to improvisation and trying out different styles of music, which has greatly improved my capacity for playing in situations where I am outside of my ‘comfort zone’.

 

Another major influence is my first guitar teacher: he educated me about loads of music, gave me feedback on my songs, and helped shape my style. His name is Mihai Iliescu and he is part of the Romanian soul group Zmeitrei.

 

 

Colin Brown and Rebecca Carrington [Berlin-based UK cabaret performers ‘Carrington-Brown’, also featured on Circus Folk] have been a huge influence on me too. We started working together in late 2014 after I saw their show ‘Carrington Brown’. I decided to ask them to teach me because I thought their show was just incredible.

Stella in full flight. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Stella in full flight. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

They agreed and ever since have been helping me sort out my songs, taught me how to behave onstage, given me valuable advice in terms of singing techniques, and so much more. Colin has helped me work towards a full set of thirty songs and has been an incredible mentor in every sense of the word – I could go on and on and on!

 

My most recent influence has been my singing teacher Kristiina Hofmann Tuomi, who started teaching me in late 2015. She has taught me tremendous amounts about the voice and the body – I couldn’t believe there was so much to learn!  I feel I have improved greatly thanks to her. Seriously – I don’t know what I’d do without them!

 

CF: You write and perform original songs – how would you describe your own music? What do you write about? And is it a process that you enjoy?

 

ST: I would say it is a concoction of my major influences, mostly [of] the Beatles, Radiohead, the Rolling Stones, Tame Impala and [English alt-rock band], The 1975. [It’s] definitely guitar-based and very melodic. I try to keep the harmonies interesting and love to play around with modulation, but I also love a good, simple song – the thing the Beatles were ‘masters’ at.

 

In terms of what I write about, I go through phases… For the first year or so I mainly wrote about concepts in a more abstract way, as I was afraid of directly speaking about things that were going on in my mind.

 

Recently – and especially since I saw The 1975 perform in Berlin – I have dared to directly address things. Matthew Healy’s lyrics greatly influence me as I believe he captures the ‘vibe’ of my generation in a genius way.

 

I absolutely love the process: it’s my way of coping with all that goes on.

CF: Who are some of your musical heroes – and why do you admire them?

 

ST: I would say forever my greatest musical icon – surprise, surprise – is John Lennon. I believe he made music that was a universal language: not too intellectual but still incredibly poignant and intelligent. But I can’t mention him without the rest  – it wouldn’t have worked without Paul, Ringo and George.

 

Kevin Parker of Tame Impala inspires me massively in terms of his perfect production. Stevie Wonder for the soul. Matt Healy for the lyrics and sentiment. Freddie Mercury for the mojo and eccentricity. Thom Yorke for incredible emotion and atmosphere. Mick Jagger for stage presence and rawness; Debussy for the musical magic; Beyoncé for making me feel majestic and powerful. David Bowie for, well, David Bowie…

 

I wish I could name more women!

 

CF: What kind of ambitions or “dreams” do you have around your music? Is it something you would like to pursue professionally?

 

ST: I just want to be able to inspire good things in people: [to] make people feel okay to be who they are, make them feel ignited, feel alive. Make them feel how my musical heroes make me feel.

 

It would complete me to make it my profession. Fingers crossed.

 

CF: When did you start playing ‘publicly’ – and do you remember your first ‘gig’?

 

ST: I only very recently started performing publicly, and it was at open mic nights [Sunday Slips] at Lagari, here in Berlin-Neukölln. My first one must have been in February [2016].

 

However I also performed at my family’s Christmas party last year. I was extremely nervous as there were many very important musicians present.

 

(Don’t tell my parents, but there may have been some wine involved!)

Five leaves left: Stella Turner. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Five leaves left: Stella Turner. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What has been your best gig so far – and why?

 

ST: The best gig so far was one of the open mic nights.. But I’ve had many great gigs – it really depends on the crowd! I once had someone compare me to Jesus – so there’s that!

 

One time I found out that some people waited for me to play at the open mic, as they had enjoyed my performance so much the last time! I was very last on the bill and it was past 1am on a Sunday evening: that was special.

 

CF: How do you think you have changed as a performer over the time you have been playing?

 

ST: I have become much more confident: at a performance in front of my school I basically cried and ran off stage because my legs were shaking so visibly. I’ve learned to be relaxed and channel my ‘inner Jagger’. I wish!

 

CF: What’s been your best moment as a musician so far – and perhaps your most challenging?

 

ST: My best moment was probably when I performed in front of my grandparents, who are extremely critical. They said they truly believed I was onto something – the biggest compliment they could have payed me!

 

My most challenging was actually to decide to perform in front of strangers. I’m extremely shy about showing my vulnerable side and like to act quite nonchalant.

 

My challenge at the moment is to let go of the notion that I must be ‘self aware’. I believe that it is necessary to look past your ego in order to create something truly beautiful.

 

CF: What do you enjoy about being on stage and performing? And what’s the most important or significant thing you have learned so far, about being a musician and performer?

 

ST: I love feeling the energy that I get back, depending on how much I give. The more I give, the more the audience responds. That is the most satisfying thing in the world.

 

The most significant thing, for sure, is that you cannot compromise your vision. You have to do what you want to, and what you feel you have from inside yourself – to give everything you have.

 

CF: Could you imagine your life without music?

 

ST: No! I definitely could not imagine my life without it. It has simply always been there and always will be. It is a fact that everybody understands it. I react to it as if it were a drug – I get rushes, goosebumps and extreme highs just through listening so certain songs.

 

Watching someone fully embrace themselves onstage is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. I could go on like a madman – my friends know this already!

Giving everything. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Giving everything. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Who are you listening to at the moment?

 

ST: Well, mostly Tame Impala’s album ‘Currents’ – possibly the best album of 2015.

 

Also, ‘I like it when you sleep, for you are so unaware of it’ by The 1975. It speaks to me like few other recent albums.

 

I’ve also been listening to The Japanese House [20 year-old UK musician, 20 Amber Bain], Alt-J, Foals, Fleetwood Mac (song ‘Everywhere’), The Doors and Pink Floyd – ie, lots of psychedelic rock!

 

CF: Do you think Berlin is a good town for musicians and artists – especially younger artists, such as yourself?

 

ST: Yes, Berlin is great! Berlin is a young city, and more seasoned professionals are always offering help.

 

I’ve met so many fantastic, supportive people and have been given so many great opportunities in the short time that I have been performing in public.

 

Berlin has a great, supportive artists’ scene in which you can try out anything you want to with the certainty that someone will connect with you. That also means you see many things you cannot ‘unsee’… Many!

 

CF: Please finish this sentence: “in five years time Stella Turner will be…”

 

ST: “..Inspiring love and happiness.”


  • Interview: Stella Turner
  • Words, edit + photos: Megan Spencer
  • Listen: to Stella on Soundcloud
  • Visit: Stella Turner’s Facebook page
  • Read: more about William Turner
  • View: the full gallery of photos from the shoot with Stella.

 

Photos cannot be reproduced or published without express permission from the copyright holder. Please don’t steal! : )

Hearts Wide Open

Posted on June 20, 2016

This is my music video tribute to ‘the present moment’, in all it’s authenticity, goofiness, love, humanity, beauty and ragged wonder…

‘Salted’ by Cooperblack stars “Cooperblack” (then Jeremy Conlon, Simon Kormendy & Oliver Budack), and a rag-tag group of Darwin friends with playfulness and courage in their hearts. Recorded in 2009, before I even knew what mindfulness was – and meditation for that matter (I now study and teach both) –  I also layed claim to inventing a new genre: Music Video Diary.

 

It even got played on rage.

 

Inspired 1000% by Jeremy‘s exceptionally beautiful song – such an exceptionally talented musician and composer! – footage for ‘Salted’ was (mostly) recorded on one infamous Darwin balcony, in the heaving, sweaty climes of Northern Australia. Channelling Warhol (one of my biggest documentary inspirations), I asked my willing ‘non-actors’ to sit together, listen to the song “and kiss when you feel like it.”

 

Furthermore, “I’ll leave the room once I hit record. Just be yourselves. The rest is up to you!” Such was my sparing yet golden direction…

 

The biggest challenge was getting the song playback to work and not tipping over the wee camera! (I’d bought a very cheap, crap tripod.) Some months later, one afternoon, my talented, kind filmmaker friend Tom Salisbury drove several hours to edit it on my kitchen table. For nix.

 

Looking back at ‘Salted’, I still find it such a funny, intimate, moving clip. A series of moments unfolding in real time of people just being: being playful, being thoughtful, being authentic in ‘the now’… And trusting the music to support them in front of the camera and me ‘behind’ it (well, in the other room), whatever the hell they thought I was doing! Some people have moved on from Darwin; some from each other… The beautiful dog Chio is no longer with us. Jack the galah flew off into the bush. Yet there they all are, perfect – and perfectly themselves – embedded in a sweet, living, present moment experience, together.

 

It’s a tribute to love, actually. While it might be difficult for some to watch now, I feel so grateful to have been allowed to submerge this moment (and song) in the river of time (and video) with such a bunch of bighearted people, to one of whom I’m now married.

 

I’m also reminded that impermanence is a constant and vulnerability only a kiss away. And while a great physical distance now cleaves us, I  love that we’re all still in each others’ lives, somehow. This funny little clip unites us us together, forever. Much love and thanks to Jeremy, Oliver, Simon, Jess, Mega-Jess, Deb, Karen, Lauren, Aaron, Amy, Erin, Jack the galah, and vale Chio the dog.

 

Travelers, it is late.
Life’s sun is going to set.
During these brief days that you have strength,
be quick and spare no effort of your wings.

(Jalal ad-Din Rumi)

  • Words + video: Megan Spencer
  • Poem: Rumi

A Community Of The Spirit

Posted on June 16, 2016

Bubble Wizard I

There is a community of the spirit. Join it, and feel the delight of walking in the noisy street, and being the noise” (Rumi)

Circus Folk + Flower Punks was a performance and portrait photography exhibition at the Australian Embassy in Berlin, a co-exhibition between myself and Berlin-based Australian music photographer, Kate Seabrook (aka “Flower Punks”). On in the foyer space for three months, it celebrated the various musicians and performers we’d both had the good fortune to photograph over the years, doing what they do best on the stages of Berlin and Australia.

 

I chose 25 colour and black-and-white photographs to go up on those dignified walls. Opening on International Women’s Day 2016 (March 8), it ran until May 27, which in my estimation officially makes this Embassy “the most rock on the planet”.

 

The images I included enthusiastically embrace those among us who venture into the world high of spirit, with something delicious to say, dressed in the accoutre of the unabashed and the fearless. Regardless of which city they call home, the individuals pictured below share fascinating everyday stories that speak of the passion, inspiration and courage cultivated by their artistic calling. They beguile, bewitch and  enrich our lives; they entertain and engage us in the ‘tough’ conversations, often without much in return. They are a community of marvellous misfits, whose calling it is to connect us all, through moments of empathy, insight, beauty and mirth.

 

I’m grateful to all those I documented, and to the staff at the Australian Embassy in Berlin for the opportunity, and support. Many thanks also to my collaborator Kate Seabrook, my husband Oliver Budack for his endless encouragement, and to everyone who came along and supported the exhibition.

  • Click: on the photos for titles and complete credits.
  • Digital inquiries or photo orders: hello@themeganspencer.com
  • Words & images: Megan Spencer (c) 2013 – 2015
  • Copyright: all images are subject to copyright and may not be republished or reproduced without express permission of the copyright owner, Megan Spencer.
  • Feel free: to link to the images, but please don’t steal!
  • Read: ‘A Community of the Spirit’ in full.
Alessandro Eramo Amelia Jane Hunter Another_Other Bubble Wizard II Day of the Dead grrrls Hanna Nordqvist Hannah Day Hannes, Phia & Jonny Janni Froese_B&W Janni Froese_COL Jenny Divers Jeremy Conlon Leon Cole B&W Leon Cole COL Maria White Modern Secular Reasons To Sing 2013 copy Marie Hirondelle Molly & Liliana Oliver Phia & The Dienstag Choir Roc Roc-It Rosalind Hall The Cannanes Tim Peters Wasp Summer
Dream a little dream... Carrington-Brown. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016.
Dream a little dream... Carrington-Brown. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016.

A Recipe For Love: Carrington-Brown

Posted on May 29, 2016

I first stumbled upon Carrington-Brown as ‘civilians’ at an open mic night in Berlin-Neukölln.

 

As professional comedians, Kabarettisten and amateur storytellers came and went on that tiny stage (myself in the latter category), a giant baritone laugh filled the room.

 

During the break the owner of that laugh came over and introduced himself. Having only just arrived in Berlin I was horribly jet-lagged; in all likelihood I shouldn’t have been anywhere near a stage let alone jumping up with a somewhat serious, heartfelt, wordy tribute to one of my music heroes.

 

That night at least, it really was a comedy stage, and if I was up there it should have been to make people laugh. Clumsily broadcasting songs from my mobile phone speaker through the microphone only added insult to injury. I had no business being in show business – or so it felt.

 

But this friendly stranger came forward nonetheless. “My name’s Colin. I really liked your piece about Patti Smith,” he said with a broad smile.

 

“So did my wife – have you met Rebecca?” Her beaming expression also made me feel welcome – and as if the applause that had greeted my stage contribution that night wasn’t so ‘polite’ after all…

 

They turned out to be two of the hardest-working people in show business: English-born, Berlin-based music comedy duo “Carrington-Brown”, aka cabaret performers Rebecca Carrington and Colin Griffiths-Brown.

Avenge me not: “Carrington-Brown live” double CD cover art. Photo: supplied

Theirs is a love story underscored by a deep mutual affection for music, and of course each other. First meeting as performers at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, fittingly they have made their home in Berlin, Europe’s historical – and some might say spiritual – cabaret capital.

 

This year they celebrate a decade together as professional partners. Prolific in output, since officially forming as a “duo” their performance tally has yielded around 1200 shows (that’s 120 a year), with appearances on stages across Germany and Europe, and further afield to South Africa, America, India and Canada.

 

Executed in English and German, their shows take audiences on high-octane rides through real life and popular song. Their individual talents knit together perfectly: Rebecca is a gifted cellist, pianist, singer, humourist and beat-boxer, and Colin an equally talented dancer, singer, raconteur, actor and comedian.

 

They also share the gift of mimicry: Rebecca’s impersonation of Canadian screen composer Howard Shore – front and centre in their show Dream A Little Dream – was hysterically funny (and accurate). Recalling her time working as a cellist in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers film score orchestra, she summoned the genius composer’s distinctive slow-motion drawl and hilarious hesitancy with spooky accuracy.

 

Ditto for Colin’s reanimation of tormented jazz legend, Nina Simone. Clad in a luminous caftan and fluffy feather boa, only someone who’d studied her tragic life story could enact her historic disdain for audiences so palpably (and hilariously). Glowering at us from the stage as we laughed and gasped in fear, he narrowed his eyes and launched into ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ as if he had resurrected “Miss Simone” from beyond. (I laughed so hard every cubic centimetre of air left my lungs.)

 

Suffice to say Berlin is lucky to have them – and I got lucky when they agreed to spend some time inside the Circus Folk big top, recounting more of their story…

Rebecca & Colin: Carrington-Brown. Photo: Megan Spencer 2016

Circus Folk: Could you please give us a ‘snapshot’ of your respective musical and performance backgrounds?

 

Rebecca Carrington: I come from a musical family. My grandmother was a cellist who was very influential in my choice of instrument. My father became a professional singer, founding and touring with the UK A Cappella The King’s Singers for 25 years. Since 1994 he has been a full time choral conductor and became a professor at the New England Conservatory in Boston and Yale in Connecticut, US. My mother is a pianist and my brother a singer/songwriter.

 

As the story goes, when I was born I came out singing. I started on the piano at four years old but after my parents realised I was not going to be the next Mozart, I started the cello at age six (which my grandmother was hoping I would do!)

 

I continued piano studies till I was 22 and studied the cello up until 26, when I became a professional cellist performing with orchestras in the US, UK and Europe. I very much enjoyed my freelance years in London where I got to perform with the London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic. I also recorded on [film] soundtracks Lord of the Rings II, Harry Potter II, Gangs of New York and Hannibal.

 

When I was studying for a Masters in Classical Cello in Houston, Texas, I stumbled into comedy on a visit to New York. Somebody dared me to do a stand up comedy ‘open mic’ night as they thought I was funny! My first ever performance was without the cello; but when asked back to do a professional night I thought, to give my act a slight twist, I would take my cello “Joe” up on stage with me…

 

As I loved lots of different types of music I’d always had problems just focusing on classical music, [and] had always had the urge to perform on stage rather than in an orchestra. Comedy gave me a chance to do something different on stage, and also to explore a variety of musical styles, which became the basis of my music comedy.

 

After performing my one-woman show “Me and My Cello” at the Edinburgh Festival, since 2004 I have been a full-time music comedian!

Rebecca with her beloved cello and Colin with his beloved “dudelsack” (bagpipes). Photo: supplied

Colin Griffiths-Brown: I guess I would have to say that I secretly harboured the desire to be a performer all my life – right from the start. My mother – after initial doubts – encouraged me, saying that I would regret it if I did not take the opportunity when it finally presented itself.

 

My earliest memory of performing on stage – apart from the usual ‘nativity’ – was a solo spot in the school assembly singing a Welsh song (thankfully not in Welsh), with a Welsh accent about a Welsh steam engine. I became a celebrity in school for a few hours. I remember being quite hesitant at first, but I had always been the class clown – “the joker” if you will.  Encouraged by my teacher Christopher Robert Seaman, I took my first steps towards becoming the ‘world star’ that you now know me as…

 

The ability to entertain and make people laugh I no doubt inherited from my father (Wilton Melezan Brown): he was and remains to this day the funniest man I have had the good fortune to be near, dear and associated with (and call “Dad”!) He could reduce the whole family to tears with stories and anecdotes, effortlessly. He had a phrase for everything and was quite simply hilarious.

 

At secondary school I met the next big inspiration for my performing career: my music teacher Vivien Geraldine Brooks (née Smith), who I am thrilled to say I am still in contact with to this very day. Throughout my entire time at school she got me singing in the choir, performing in school concerts, musicals and performances. I had some talent and she nurtured it, supported me, and gave me the confidence to go on and ultimately have a career.

 

Around the same time I started to learn to play the bagpipes in a pseudo military organisation called “The Boys’ Brigade”. For two years previously I had heard this sound and it was love. I have seldom been so sure about anything in my life: this instrument captured 1) my attention, and 2) my utter enthusiasm.

 

I started relatively late but over a 25 year-plus period I have been involved as a performer in film, television, voice over, musical theatre, theatre, radio, comedy, music and comedy, opera and A Cappella. Unlike Rebecca, I didn’t come from a musical family – it wasn’t “written in the stars” that I would become a musician! I had flirted with the recorder – as we all do! –  but had little luck.

 

Enter John Howard Shone & Ian Reid Fleming: with inspiration and support from these two gentlemen – and the chance to be the first negro piper in the history of the 5th Croydon Boys’ Brigade band – I was determined to succeed. I achieved my aim inside one year and still play today some 40-plus years later.

 

English actor, director and writer Simon Callow gave me my first ever job in musical theatre. For 25 years or so he has been ever-present at pretty much every stage of my career. We are great friends and have done numerous jobs together over the years, including ‘Carmen Jones’ at The Old Vic Theatre, ‘Les Enfant Du Paradis’ at The Barbican Theatre and television production ‘Trial & Retribution’.

On stage and in full flight: Carrington-Brown. Photo: supplied

He has always been a great supporter of mine with all the twists and turns my career has taken over the years!

 

So I must here and now thank him in print:  Thank you Simon! He’s been a great inspiration and is the one to “blame” for my 25 career on stage, and as a performer…

 

CF: Colin and Rebecca, how did you both meet? And come together as musical partners, Carrington-Brown, ‘cabaret duo’?

 

Colin: I first met Rebecca in 2004 at the Edinburgh Festival. It was immediately clear to me that perhaps one day we would do something together artistically. Who would have thought that in less than three years we would achieve this with a good deal of success?!

 

Rebecca: I was performing my own show [Me and My Cello] and was trying to see as many other acts [at the Festival] as possible within the four weeks I was there.

 

I went to a show that made me laugh out loud and a guy behind me at the end said, “If you like this show you will love The Magnets.” So I went along the following evening not knowing ‘who’ The Magnets were. It was fantastic: six men singing A Cappella with microphones. One of them was an incredible beat boxer, and another a sexy bass singer (Colin). I was blown away: having grown up with my father who was in one of the most well known A Cappella groups around, these guys reminded me of a modern version of them!

 

After the show I didn’t want to go straight up to “the sexy bass singer” as I was feeling a bit shy! But later I saw Colin at the opening of the Festival party alone at the bar, so I thought to myself “You only live once!” So I walked up to him and the rest is history – well not quite! We talked, laughed and danced all night long. It was very clear that there was a special spark between us. We both realised it was love at first sight! We even discussed on that first evening doing something on stage together.

 

I invited him to my show the next day, which he came to. It happened to be a performance that was being recorded for CD. Colin has a wonderful infectious laugh that you cannot mistake and luckily he found my show very amusing, as we have a very similar sense of humour. So he is actually featured on my first CD before we even joined forces!

 

Colin: Rebecca’s career to this point had been relatively successful and she was building quite a name for herself on the English cabaret/stand up scene. But often as is the case, talent coupled with a new idea is often despised, not applauded and embraced. In my opinion, she was not getting the attention or appreciation she deserved.

 

Our first step towards [working together] was with me as co-writer and director of Rebecca’s solo show.

 

I introduced Rebecca to the two agents from Germany for and with whom my A Cappella group had done a lot of corporate entertaining and solo shows. I presented her as someone who spoke German and whose act, in my opinion, would be perfect for the Kleinkunst [performer] scene in Germany. (Kleinkunst refers to the “independent” scene in Germany, not “small” as it is sometimes misinterpreted.) She joined and within one year she was winning important prizes; there seemed to be a real appreciation for her brand of entertainment.

 

Rebecca: In 2006 Colin was asked to go on the [Close Encounters] World Tour with Robbie Williams as a backing vocalist. This was a very exciting time for us both: for him it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a job, and I got to visit him on some of the tour. When it finished, the question was “what to do next?” Throughout the tour he’d still been directing my show but we both decided that we should perform together as he was too good to just be ‘behind-the-scenes’.

Colin: On returning from this tour, we decided we would work together for a number of reasons – not least of which was that we were now romantically involved!

 

Rebecca: Colin had never actually performed comedy but was a natural comedian. He’d had a lot of experience on stage as an actor in theatre and musicals, as well as the years with the A Cappella group and “Robbie”.

 

It was also something I had been wanting; having performed alone for eleven years, I’d found it quite a lonely life.

 

Colin: Having discussed our future – and the fact that Rebecca no longer wanted to work alone – “Carrington-Brown” was formed. Our first show was in early 2007 in a village hall in Kent, England, and was titled The Urban Myth. It was a mix of ideas from previous shows by Rebecca, and new sketches written for our first show together.

“Joe”, Rebecca’s 18th century cello. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

“Joe”, Rebecca’s 18th century cello. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Rebecca: Our show was getting booked more and more in Germany and Austria, so in 2007 we decided to make the move over here to Berlin.

 

We both love living in Berlin, and have created a wonderful life here.

 

CF: Cabaret seems to be having a resurgence around the world.. Do you agree that there is an upswing happening? Why might that be so?

 

Colin: I think you’re correct in Europe but not necessarily England. On the whole Europeans tend to be more open to crossing, mixing, fusing and producing new artforms within a given genre.

 

However the ‘hybrid’ artform has not yet been born in ‘the old country’. There is still a very puritanical approach to performance art, so you do not see – apart from at The Edinburgh Festival for example – new, innovative artforms that would attract an already pretty-single minded group of people. For a country with so many different and diverse cultures, it is surprising.

 

Rebecca: “Cabaret” is funny word: it means different things in different countries. In the UK many people think “cabaret” is burlesque – people doing the can-can wearing very little, or somebody singing songs from musicals.

 

I have always called myself a ‘music comedian’ who does ‘music’ and ‘comedy’. That is one reason we’re here in Germany; it was hard in the UK to be marketed as people were not sure which genre I fitted into. ‘Theatre’ was separate from ‘comedy’ which was separate from ‘classical music’ and so on.

 

I hope that cabaret is having resurgence: they always told me that in the UK. But I didn’t see much of it. Even in all the “going out” magazines there was never even a section named “Cabaret”. Berlin was the capital of cabaret in the 1920s – I think you could still say that it is!

 

Colin: I can honestly say that we would not – or could not – have had the careers we have had in Germany or Berlin if we had stayed in England. We’ve had more work in Berlin and Germany than we anywhere else! It was a new experience to play in Berlin and see your posters all around the city. With the help and support of others and various venues, we have managed to carve out a reasonable career. The Bar Jeder Vernunft & Tipi have been our main supporters over the years, and unlike various bookers and agents along the way, they never questioned us working together.

Architecture of a new show: “10”. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: So has it been a ‘challenging’ road getting to where you are now, as ‘Carrington-Brown’? I’m guessing you had to work hard to overcome a ton of hurdles, and cultivate tenacity and resilience in the job and on the circuit. Is that where working as a professional duo and life partners can help with the struggles performers encounter along the way?

 

Rebecca: Yes, it has been a challenging road. I started off here in Germany as a solo artist; [so] in the beginning it was not that easy to be accepted as a “duo”. We also got told by quite a lot of people that being a duo “is not easy” (what is?!)

 

Some people said I was better off alone: for example it’s an easier “sell on TV”, with the TV ‘formula’ being more focused on solo acts.

 

Colin: The road has been extremely challenging but rewarding. Learning how to work together as professionals and as a couple was the first real challenge. We have overcome this by being patient and allowing the passage of time to educate us about each other and allow the necessary space required artistically and personally for us to express ourselves without judgement. Knowing that we have each other’s support is so important. There were those who initially were not thrilled about our union professionally or personally and it is hard to speak about one aspect without the other, since they are so intrinsically entwined.

 

I think our personal relationship has definitely helped our professional one. What we have done is create an environment where we can actually do what we love as a profession, and get remunerated for it. There are not too many people who can say that!

 

Rebecca: Working on our fourth show [“10”] together it has certainly made us stronger – having also performed with a big band and an orchestra too! There is no doubt that I love sharing the stage with Colin, and would not have it any other way!

 

CF: What are the challenges facing cabaret performers in Europe?

 

Rebecca: Well you are always up against the more mainstream performers who can sell out the big venues, as generally they are ‘TV names’.

 

Colin: To my mind the main challenge facing cabaret performers today in Europe is finding a base [in which] to live, whilst having enough work to sustain your life and lifestyle. It’s one thing if you want to spend your whole life touring, but ultimately you want to have ‘a life’ at some point.

 

Rebecca: But having toured Europe over the last 10 years there are certain places where [you can] also have a bit of a following. Last October we performed in a 1000-seater [venue] in Hannover which was very exciting – although we still love playing in the more intimate venues like the Bar Jeder Vernunft here in Berlin.

 

Colin: The challenges differ from performer to performer: the physical artist knows they have a finite time, then they must find an alternative revenue stream because the body can only take so much – injury is also a constant concern! And the ‘non-physical’ artist must constantly come up with new ideas to stay competitive in the market.

 

CF: Who do you both look to, for inspiration, nowadays? Are there any ‘shining lights’ who keep you inspired?

 

RC: Yes – the grandfather of music and comedy, Victor Borge, my hero! He was a fantastic classical pianist but also a very funny comedian. His delivery was genius! He was originally from Denmark but made his name in the US after Bing Cosby discovered him. At one time he was the highest paid entertainer in the world! (As a marketing gimmick in the UK, people used to promote me as the “Victor Borge of the cello”).

 

Thank god for Victor!

 

Colin: My/our inspiration/s come from many different sources. We always start with music when looking to write a new show. People like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles, Bach, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Seeed and Madonna.

 

The stories are often tales from our own lives with a little embellishment for entertainment value. Then there are events from more recent times to which we give the same treatment – the “Carrington-Brown treatment”! From old folk songs, nursery rhymes and self-penned lyrics to songs that everyone knows – basically anything that we think will serve the work.

 

The list is endless – it’s always an assortment of ideas. Fragments from here a lyric from there… A full pallet of colours, you might say!

 

CF: As you say, in your shows you often take stories from your own lives, then translate them into cabaret texts using popular songs as the soundtrack to those real life ‘moments’. How long does a show take to write? And can you give us a bit of an insight into your process as you put a show together?

 

Colin: From inception to premiere a show will take about a year-and-a-half to write, rehearse and present on stage. It is important to let ideas breathe and develop organically. This is not possible without the necessary time. When I think back to my musical theatre days, a show would take five weeks to rehearse – Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm, pretty full on and intense! But that’s due to investors, premiere dates, ticket sales, producers and so on.

 

We are “all of the above”, so we work to our own schedule – hence the term Kleinkunst: “independent art”.

Carrington-Brown. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Comfy cushions and laughter: Carrington-Brown. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Rebecca: Since living in Germany we have become a lot more organised in our creative, writing, rehearsal process! We now have two people we work with who have helped us write, create, structure our ideas and direct.

 

In the last two months we have done some amazing work with a fantastic lady from Holland called Amber Schoop. It is the first time we have worked together but she works very well with the both of us. She is a wonderful performer, singer and actress herself, but also a great director. She has helped us enormously to structure our ideas and write the script. She even studied in Amsterdam at a Kleinkunst Academy.

 

Our other director, Arthur Büscher, is German but lives in Vienna. He will help us translate everything into German as at the moment it is written in a mix of English and German! He is also a wonderful choreographer and will be working on our ‘choreo’ and staging.

 

As a married couple it is very important to have someone who can work with the both of you but also ‘in between’ you. Plus it helps us structure our rehearsal times so that we have to do it rather than putting it off until tomorrow!

 

As Colin said, the most important part of our show is always the music. The musical process is often me having to see what might work with a cello, two voices, a keyboard – and in this new show, a loop machine!

 

CF: The relationship to the audience, especially in cabaret and music comedy, seems particularly intimate and intrinsic to what’s done on stage, in perhaps ways that might be less so if you were ‘simply’ a rock singer or a theatre performer. Do you have any memorable stories you could share that might illustrate that special relationship between audience and performer?!

 

Rebecca: They say in Kleinkunst that “the fourth wall” is removed – that is the wall between the performer and the audience…

 

Colin: Ah yes, breaking through “the fourth wall. Well we have been relatively heckle free down the years – it sounds like a disease, and for some it can be! The Germans in particular can be very vocal at times during a cabaret performance – and not necessarily is the spaces set aside for such ‘appreciation’!

 

We once played in Berlin and the people were so loud and vociferous in their screaming and clapping it caused one blessed fellow to call out vehemently that he found it ALL TOO LOUD! The same evening, another gentleman collapsed! It all happens when you come to see Carrington-Brown, such is the atmosphere we create…

 

Rebecca: I’ve always loved making people laugh, and having the direct connection to the audience can add even more material to the show!

 

I’ve had to really work on not reacting to the way that some of the audience look at you as you’re performing – it can be quite off-putting! Some people look bored or even close their eyes and go to sleep! But at the end those people can come up to you and tell you how much they enjoyed the show.

 

I remember once when I was performing solo at the Quatsch Comedy Club in Hamburg there was a rather gormless guy sitting in the first row with his mouth constantly open, almost drooling. I kept trying to ignore him but inwardly I was laughing; it was such a funny image. There I was on stage with the intention of making people laugh; it was generally working, apart from this one guy in the front row.

 

In the end I actually said (improvising in German), “That isn’t funny: I’m in a comedy club trying to make people laugh but all I get is this reaction in the front row,” (imitating his face). People started laughing and looking at him. After this realisation his face slowly turned from gormless to a smile, then to a full on laugh! That was satisfying: when the connection from the performer to the audience works, it’s a lot of fun!

 

CF: We’ve lost some BIG names in music this year. If you could each bring back one (deceased) musician, who might that be – and why?

 

Rebecca: Definitely Victor Borge, my biggest inspiration! I even once dreamt that I met him and he helped me with some ideas for music and comedy. I watch him still from time to time when I need a little inspiration!

 

Colin: The people I would love to bring back are Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald. They worked together a lot and had a very special relationship on stage – that doesn’t happen by accident and you cannot manufacture it. I am not sure if they were ever romantically involved, but they produced magic on the stage. I would love to question them both about how it was working together.

Weapon of mass entertainment: “Joe”. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What’s next for Carrington-Brown?

 

Colin: We are preparing our new show to celebrate our ten-year anniversary on stage. It will be titled “10” and premiere in Köln on the 22nd of September.

 

Rebecca: We are performing it for three weeks in Berlin from November at the Bar Jeder Vernunft.

 

Colin: We will [also] perform a school programme for a music festival in June, Ludwigsburger Schlossfestpiele

 

Rebecca: – With a class of 9- year-olds! Then touring around the area and recording this school show with the kids for a CD.

 

In April next year we will be performing our orchestra show at the Tipi in Berlin with The Swonderful Orchestra – we are really excited about it as this has been a big dream. The orchestra is made up of some friends who are very fine Berlin musicians, some of whom perform with the Berlin Philharmonic, Komische Opera and Potsdam Kammerorchester!

 

We have also been commissioned to write and compose our own operetta that we hope to get started after our new show premieres. And next year we would like to record a studio CD of all our favourite songs we have performed over the last ten years. It will be titled “Carrington-Brown: 100% music”.

 

Colin: So Carrington-Brown will be coming towards you in various different formats over the coming years. “Come one come all, come Carrington-Brown”!


A thousand thank you’s to Rebecca Carrington and Colin Griffiths-Brown for their generous interview and photo shoot!


  • Interview: Rebecca Carrington & Colin Griffiths-Brown
  • Words + edit: Megan Spencer
  • Photos & portraits: Megan Spencer (where credited)
  • Visit: Carrington-Brown’s website
  • Stay up-to-date: with CB’s tour dates and new show “10”
  • Like: Carrington-Brown on Facebook
  • Watch: more Carrington-Brown on Youtube
  • Listen: to Carrington-Brown on Soundcloud
  • View: the full Carrington-Brown photo gallery

 

Kirsty Stegwazi, The Old Bar. Photo: Kate Seabrook (c) 2010
Kirsty Stegwazi, The Old Bar. Photo: Kate Seabrook (c) 2010

Girl To The Front: Kate Seabrook

Posted on April 6, 2016

“Australia-born, Berlin-based photographer with a fetish for metro systems, giant strawberries and punk rock.”

 

With characteristic word economy, this is the sentence Kate Seabrook uses to describes herself in her photographer profile.

 

It’s spot on. And characteristically again, just as humble.

 

Since beginning her photography journey in 2009, Kate has had work published in a slew of Australian and international publications (Mess+Noise, Berliner Morgenpost, Tagesspiegel, Couch, Tip and the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Good Weekend’ among them.) And her epic, independent ‘Endbahnhof’ passion project (photographing the iconic underground stations of Germany and Europe), was recently featured in Berlin-based, literary travel publication, ‘Elsewhere: A Journal Of Place’.

 

In addition to ‘rockumenting’ music stages on two continents, Kate has a soft spot for photographing shelter cats, sausage dogs (especially when they’re racing), oversized strawberry huts, gaudy buildings and couples in their colourful living rooms. Her ‘eye’ is distinctly eccentric.

 

Kate is self-taught. She is married to one of the best punk rockers in Berlin and favours fabulous vinyl coats and sweet vintage frocks for her wardrobe, making her a pillar of colourful style in a city known for its glum hues. She also owns possibly the most-coveted pair of second-hand cowboy boots in Berlin (the kind you need to keep an eye on at parties if you’re in a “shoes off” household). And her hard-drive bulges with such an overwhelming back-catalogue of photographs it can only attest to her passion for the medium.

 

Kate and I ‘e-met’ when I was a Wahlberliner-in-waiting. As the storage boxes in Australia filled up with a lifetime’s worth of stuff, Kate was one of the helpful ex-pat souls kind enough to fill my inbox with answers to queries about navigating the Orwellian black hole that is German bureacracy.

 

In addition to providing priceless information (“as a freelancer you’ll need to start accumulating bits of paper”,) she also tried hard to convince her elderly, alt-Berliner landlord to consider my husband and I as worthy tenants for their soon-to-be-vacated wohnung. (Unfortunately it was not to be.)

 

After overcoming the worst of my jetlag we finally met in situ over several coffees in Kate’s beloved north-Berlin kiez. We unraveled a mutual love for ‘in the moment’ performance photography and found some synchronicity between our respective practices. Some months later, when the opportunity arose for a local photography exhibition, it was a ‘no brainer’ for me to invite Kate to co-exhibit.

 

On International Women’s Day 2016, our collaboration was officially launched: Circus Folk + Flower Punks, held at the gallery space of the Australian Embassy in Berlin. (Sorry, “E\m/bassy”.)

 

Kate is not only a strong visual storyteller, she has a way with words plus a great sense of humour. Girl to the front, if you please…


 

Kate Seabrook (Supplied).

Kate Seabrook (Supplied).

Circus Folk: What is your ‘Berlin story’ – how did you come to be here?

 

Kate Seabrook: I first visited Berlin in the winter of 2006. It was one of those “quarter-life crisis”-induced whims. I had no plan and very little money. At first I didn’t even really like the city. It was so bleak and grey; I couldn’t get my mouth around the word Entschuldigung (“excuse me”) and the Berliner Schnauze (“gruff Berliner attitude”) was a bit of a shock to my angsty, thin-skinned, twenty-something self.

 

In the first place I stayed, the gas heating broke for two days and I have never been so cold and miserable. Then I was struck down with the most hideous case of food poisoning and was too sick to move to my next planned destination (Leipzig). [Friend, DJ] Jimmy Trash kindly let me recuperate on his couch for a week after I overstayed my welcome at my previous crash pad.

“Berlin is just such an interesting city. I don’t think I will ever get bored of just wandering around observing the theatre of street life.”

In lieu of paying rent, I was assigned the task of unlocking the door at some ungodly hour when Herr Trash came home from whichever club he was DJ-ing at that night. He had a wonderfully peculiar Bavarian housemate who used to make instruments out of children’s toys.

 

Despite all the shitty weather and misadventures, something about Berlin intrigued me enough to return twice more on holidays and then finally move here with my husband Simon, in December 2011.

 

CF: What do you like about living in Berlin? And the community you have found here?

 

KS: Berlin is just such an interesting city. I don’t think I will ever get bored of just wandering around observing the theatre of street life – with or without a camera in hand. Also the fact that it is smack bang in the middle of Europe offers a dazzling array of travel opportunities. On Tuesday Simon and I are catching a flight to Budapest, just because we can.

 

Of course there is no shortage of interesting folks to meet here and everyone is generally pretty supportive of each other’s pursuits, whether creative or otherwise.

Courtney Barnett, East Brunswick Club. Photo: Kate Seabrook (c) 2010

Courtney Barnett, East Brunswick Club. Photo: Kate Seabrook (c) 2010

CF: What do you like about taking photos in Berlin? What kind of opportunities does it offer you, as an artist? And has it been easy to find photographic work?

 

KS: Berlin is a real double-edged sword as a photographer. It is an endlessly fascinating place, but most of the stories have been told many times over. This is now forcing me to look in less obvious places for inspiration. I’m still not sure how that is working out!

I have certainly had opportunities here that would never have presented themselves back in Australia. Like my relationship with the Australian Embassy, who are hugely supportive of creative Australians trying to make their way in a new country.

Elise Bishop, The Tote. Photo: Kate Seabrook (c) 2009.

Elise Bishop, ‘Elise & Jem’, The Tote. Photo: Kate Seabrook (c) 2009.

CF: What first attracted you to taking photos – as opposed to say getting involved in another mode of expression, like writing or drawing or making music?

 

KS: Mostly a complete lack of natural ability in any other form of expression!

 

I was obsessed with grunge and metal in high school and tried to play the drums very fleetingly, but did not have the co-ordination or patience to pursue it.

 

Writing is my profession, but when it comes to creative writing, I still flounder a bit.

 

What drew me to photography is that it allowed me to indulge in being a silent observer and to hide behind the lens, which is where I feel most comfortable. It also gave me a reason and purpose to be present in places that I otherwise did not feel cool enough to be!

 

CF: What do you enjoy the most about making photos? And the least?!

 

KS: I have a pretty terrible memory. Photography allows me to preserve moments both for myself and to share with other people.

 

I love lining up either obviously amazing or seemingly mundane visual elements in a frame, so people can see things they might have missed or otherwise forgotten.

 

What I really dislike about photography is the editing process. I have so many photos languishing in my image archive that I have not even looked at!

 

CF: There’s usually a story behind every photo: can you choose one or two faves from your Flower Punks series, and share them with us?

 

KS: The photo of Courtney Barnett (bottom left) was taken in 2010 at the East Brunswick Club in Melbourne. I had been hired to cover this particular event, which I later found out is where Courtney’s manager discovered her.

 

As a rookie photographer trying desperately not to screw up the task at hand – and only partially succeeding – her music was kind of the perfect soundtrack to that. What struck me was her knack for telling the tales of socially awkward dreamers in such a clever and disarming way. I got the sense that it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world caught on. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

The photo of Elise Bishop (above) was taken in 2009 at the much-loved and revered Tote Hotel in Collingwood. Elise is an amazingly talented musician – like a female Blixa Bargeld – as well as being a generally excellent human being. The sounds she can create using a bass guitar and a hacksaw (or any other number of random household objects) are quite gloriously unholy. She played in a number of respected noise acts around Melbourne including BadCopBadCop, Auxiliary Assembly and Elise & Jem.

 

Elise used to live in Ballarat and organised cellar gigs in a pub there. I once stayed overnight at her house after a gig and recall that she grew the largest squash in her vegie garden that I have ever seen. The last I heard, Elise was living in a lighthouse on a remote island making pottery and rock sculptures.

Kate's Igor tattoo, Sofa Salon. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2015

Kate’s Igor tattoo, Sofa Salon. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2015

CF: Kate, not long ago your and your pet cat were photographed for Swedish magazine, ‘Pet People’. It was a feature about you and your “rescue kitten” Igor, who sadly lost his battle with cancer just as we were about to open the ‘Circus Folk + Flower Punks’ exhibition in March this year.

 

Both you and your husband Simon shared a very special relationship with your cat; Igor put up an incredibly brave and surprising battle against his illness. He’s also possibly one of the most photographed cats ever! Would you share with us a bit about his story – and his relationship with your camera? Was he a part of your photographic life or “practice”, so to speak?

 

KS: Simon and I adopted Igor in December 2012, almost a year to the day after we arrived in Berlin.

 

Igor was rescued from the streets of Marzahn-Hellersdorf and had a tough time early in his life. He had a broken tail and a couple of scars on his face. We knew that if he could talk, he would have some pretty amazing tales to tell.

 

Many people remember Igor as our magical sitting cat, because he would sit on command like a dog. We can thank his foster mother Sophie for teaching him that trick!

 

Igor was such a bratty, demanding and hilarious cat with a very expressive face. As a first-time cat parent/photographer, I could not resist telling his life story through the lens. Things got pretty rough in the [European] summer of 2015 when Igor was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of lymphoma. He battled the disease very bravely for more than eight months and was mostly a very happy and normal cat during this time. He fully recovered from the initial emergency surgery to remove the tumour and well outlived his initial prognosis of just weeks.

 

But at the beginning of March 2016, the cancer returned and there was no more fighting it. We said goodbye to Igor the day before this exhibition was installed. Igor was just four years old, but we like to think he had a lifetime of cuddles in the few years he spent with us. I had one of my photos of Igor turned into a tattoo portrait of his face on my arm. You can see this in Issue 02 of ‘Pet People’ magazine [and pictured above.]

 

Kate & Igor in ‘Pet People’. Pic: Kate Seabrook

After everything that happened, I am so grateful I documented his story. Igor was a truly exceptional cat and taught us so much about life and love and death.

 

We might even write his memoirs one day…

 

 

With thanks to Kate Seabrook!


Circus Folk + Flower Punks  is the performance and portrait exhibition at the Australia Embassy in Berlin, which features work by myself and Kate Seabrook (March 9 – May 27). This is a series of interviews I did with some of the artists.