Katie Noonan and Karin Schaupp
Brisbane musicians, singer/songwriter Katie Noonan and guitarist Karin Schaupp have been orbiting one another for years. They finally come together to present a collection of songs from the British Isles spanning 400 years; from Dowland, Vaughan-Williams and Britten, to Nick Drake, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and traditional Celtic folk tunes.
"We've known each other from around the traps over the years," says Noonan. "We admired each other from afar for ages," says Schaupp. "We worked out it was six years ago, we played together at the Huntington Festival. It's one of those things: when you play together you don't know how it's going to be. It was a really joyous experience for both of us and just a really magical musical connection."
When it came to setting a theme, Noonan and Schaupp had a lot to choose from. "It was really fun because a guitar and a voice together can do just about anything; Katie's incredibly versatile and the guitar as an instrument is very versatile. To put it into a framework we decided that we would restrict ourselves on this occasion to music of the British Isles," says Schaupp.
"Basically we just selected a theme that we thought would really suit the nature of what we were doing," says Noonan, "The songs of the British Isles is such an amazingly fertile repertoire to choose from, because of all the gorgeous folk stuff and all the awesome classical music, through to some of my favourite contemporary musicians like Peter Gabriel and Radiohead and Kate Bush. For such a small land mass, they just have such an incredibly diverse amount of music."
The repertoire crosses many genres, but it's not a major consideration for Noonan. "I don't really think about genre with music," she says, "I just think about communication and the story of the song and just connection. I think genre in music is pretty much irrelevant. I don't think it matters at all. My whole thing has been trying to work in different styles with different musicians."
The final set list has been whittled down from a very long list of contenders. "We chose very carefully and we went through and both had suggestions," says Schaupp, "We didn't leave anything in the program that both of us didn't love." What was left was a range of music, as Shaupp says, spanning "The lute songs of [John] Dowland, from the renaissance time, to Radiohead. We had some wonderful composers reinvent these songs for us just for guitar and voice." An Arts Queensland grant assisted in engaging Australian composers Richard Charlton and Jeremy Alsop to arrange the songs for guitar and voice. "Most of the songs sit quite naturally on guitar," says Schaupp. "Because we had these wonderful composers reinventing them, some of them made some quite difficult guitar parts. When there's a whole band being represented by me, some of the guitar parts are quite busy in terms of I'm playing [a representation of] the bass and the guitar and the keyboard and whatever else. We've rehearsed them all and we're really happy and we've actually recorded half the program for the EP."
As a songwriter, Noonan has found the experience of performing material she hasn't written provides an insight into the creators and the craft. "Most of the time I sing my own music so I don't have to worry about connecting with it, because I wrote it, but with this it's different. I basically just had to really love the song and find a little bit of myself in the lyrics so that I could relate it to my life," she says. "One of the exciting things about this tour for me is that I get to play music and really intimately get to know people I really admire like Elvis Costello and Nick Drake and Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. I get to really understand their songwriting more, which is exciting for me and hopefully I'll learn from them about writing good songs."
Katie describes herself as a quiet singer, and so although the sound on tour will be quite acoustic in style, she will be slightly amplified. Incidentally, it's the softness of acoustic guitar that attracted Schaupp to the instrument in the first place. "The quality of the sound, the sort of almost vocal quality and the fact that it has a very lyrical and very soft, I don't mean quiet, I mean soft around the edges sound, an intimate sound. I remember my mother was a guitarist and just loving the voice of the guitar, it's still the thing I love, the sound quality," she glows.
Noonan has played the large hall at Melbourne Recital Centre but for this tour, the smaller salon is the perfect venue. "It's really intimate and this tour is all about really beautiful, intimate, gentle stuff, because it's just me and Karin playing duet. It's very mellow in terms of sound and it suits the more acoustic space," says Noonan.
For Schaupp, it's a return visit. "I'm very familiar with [the salon] because I recorded a CD there with another Melbourne group, The Flinders Quartet. With a CD, you get quite at home in the room you play in. The salon I think is the smallest venue we're doing on the tour. It's the perfect space for it. It's going to be nice for the audience, but also for us. There's something special about being at really close quarters with an audience; it's very much a communal experience."
Both Noonan and Schaupp have young children and along on the tour will be Schaupp's daughter. "She is [with us] for most of the tour. She's two and a half. You just try to have a balance of being away and also being at home. Luckily I have a wonderful mother who is prepared to come with us as a nanny." Even Noonan's school-age children will join in for some parts of the tour. "There's no such thing as a normal family; every family is pretty abnormal really," says Noonan. "I do think that modern parenting does tend to wrap kids in cotton wool a bit… my kids, they've seen opera, they've seen dance, they've been around the world; they're exposed to a lot of different people and music and culture and I think that's really important."
Opportunities for new friendships don't come up as often in adulthood, but Schaupp and Noonan have a lot in common, and have formed a firm friendship though the project. "Especially as mothers and working mothers you don't have a lot of time to meet new friends," says Schaupp. "I think the wonderful thing about spending time with Katie is that we have so much in common, having had this quite unusual lifestyle that we've both experienced over the past few years and both being mothers and both living in Brisbane and both having been taught by our own mothers, we have a huge amount in common.
"Even apart from that, I just really like her, so we could have all that in common and still not like each other but in fact we do. When you know you have to work with someone and you're preparing for a tour and so on, it really helps if you like each other and I think that's something that will stay with us beyond and outside music."
Katie Noonan and Karin Schaupp play Songs From The British Isles at The Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon on Thursday May 12, Friday May 13 and Saturday May 14 at 7pm. Tickets are $45/$35 concession from melbournerecital.com.au or 9699 3333.