Liz Stringer

The Kimberley and Me – Ten Years On

I started writing the following in Perth, having just come from Broome after a very brief four nights up there. The Broome show marked the end of six weeks in Australia, most of it spent with my family in Melbourne, hanging out with my nephew and drinking as much coffee as I could physically consume. It also marked ten years since my first trip to the Kimberley.

I’m not convinced I can relay what the support from everyone over the last decade has meant. Here are a few thoughts that I scrambled down and have spent the last week putting into some kind of order, which may go some way to articulating my gratitude and to let you all know where I’m at. 

x Stringzy 

Adam May and me, circa 2009 (photo by Leah Flanagan)

Last night was the show at the White Elephant Bar with Stephen Pigram, a gig that I’ve been waiting to play, or at least hoping would one day happen, for many years now. My bestie Leah Flanagan introduced me to the Pigram Brother’s music, and by extension Steve’s songs, ten years ago when Flano and I first met in Leah’s home town of Darwin. We embarked on a tour across the Territory and the Kimberley to Broome in the dry-season of 2008, set up by our darling friend, Kununurra-born-and-bred songwriter, Tash Parker. We sang one of Steve’s songs, ‘Going Back Home’, at all of the thirteen gigs across that northwest belt of Australia and over those couple of weeks something in my spirit stirred and was woken by the country up there. It was a life-changing tour for me, an experience that sent gentle waves ahead of itself, carving the paths that would lead me back to the Kimberley and the NT again and again over the next ten years and allow me to form some of my closest and most important relationships. We took stints driving Flano’s old aircon-less Hiace in convoy with our tour-mates Ads and G, overcoming the lack of phone reception by using walkie-talkies that someone had acquired from a $2 shop between vehicles, as we blustered open-windowed along endless kilometres of road-train studded single-lane desert-country highway. Long languid evenings of coloured lights strung in up in frangipani trees, gin and soda-tonics dripping with condensation in the soupy Darwin heat, red dust on our feet and in our hair (I’m borrowing that line, Steve), and that indescribable dusk light of the Kimberley sunsets out on the Ord and later over Broome, padding barefoot across the cooling pindan, finally near the ocean. My new but growing relationship with the northwest of Australia began to teach me quickly how much I have (and want) to learn about the continent I was born on. And every time I’m there, my heart tangles itself in that country a bit more.

As I played with Steve last night I felt waves of energy running through me. I could feel my spirit filling up, I felt proud and understood and part of something. Steve and I talked about a lot of things over the unfolding of that Friday, way into the small hours of Saturday morning, along with a round table of old friends after the show, as we sat drinking wine and tea on a beautiful dark-wood porch under the banana trees. We talked about music, Steve told me things about Broome and the infinite complexities and nuances of culture and home, we played songs to each other, we learned each other’s tunes. And we talked about how hard it can be, sometimes, trying to make a career in music work. How financially pressuring, and how frustrating and isolating it can feel, things that have been weighing heavily on me recently. But gigs like the one that we’d just played together have the ability to make most things begin to make sense. Or at least they make the hard stuff not matter so much. Steve is a natural musician and it turns out he thinks musically very similarly to me, although he’s way better than I am (or anyone else I’ve talked to) at articulating the way he understands things musically. It was revelatory for me to hear someone make tangible the things that I had never been able to find the language to express. Music connected us like two old friends and I was so stoked that I not only finally got to play with this man, but that we made a musical connection that will, I’m certain, send its waves forward to form parts of my future for many years to come.

Since I stopped drinking over 18 months ago I’ve been going through the process of what I’ve regularly described to friends as ‘pulling my head out of my arse’. I loved drinking. And I was good at it. I partied my face off for years. Booze was my partner in crime for many of my life’s experiences, and just like the bottle I drank it from, every last drop from every moment was wrung dry with booze in my blood. It helped me relax, it took me away from myself. Often. But after a while things started to change (to quote my sister quoting Hemingway) ‘gradually, and then suddenly’. My drinking, and everything that went along with it, changed direction like the wind at a fire front, causing a sharp but insidious process of disconnection between every part of my internal and external world. A disconnection from myself, from the people I love, from my instinct and my innate knowledge of who I am, and from my own sense of personal responsibility. This process kicked up the already smouldering spot fires of precarious mental health and before I knew what was going on, the whole situation had ignited into a blaze that I was afraid was about to burn entirely beyond my control.

Since the moment I stumbled, bleary eyed and terrified, from the dark cave of my excesses, I began to see things in an utterly new way. And I’ve realised how at odds my behaviour had been with the way I moved through the world as a musician, and what an eroding conflict this incongruity had been causing in me for many years, even throughout the earlier days, when there had seemed so much less at stake. The potential for autonomy and an idiosyncratic way of living is what has always drawn me so magnetically to a life in art and yet I’ve only in the last couple of years begun to realise that I have more freedom to construct the best way for myself to live than I’d allowed myself to believe. I began to see that connection is what makes the music and the songs – the centre of how I understand the world – alive and make sense. And that, for me, drinking was like a bullying, over-protective sibling – ultimately trying to help, but in reality domineering my will to live freely, and smothering my ability to truly relate to myself and to the world around me. And as I began the process of emancipation from this increasingly oppressive relationship with a vice that I had loved so hard for so long, I tried consciously to tread new paths through the grassy fields of my psyche, stepping off those long trodden trails worn down and compacted by a consistent and relentless way of thinking over the last twenty-five-odd years. I’m so grateful for the teachers and experiences that the Kimberley has given me. And for every place in Australia where I can go, after years of touring, and sit down among friends, rest, fill up, learn, and laugh deep into the dawn. And that I can now fully meet all of those connections with a clear and open heart.

I work hard these days at being actively grateful in my life, and am trying to replace decade-long patterns of aggressive self-talk and a gnarly pessimism with positivity and service. It requires dedicated practice because my cynicism and negativity not only form part of the map of these well-worn neural trails, but they also comprise a large part my self-identity that I created over many years, along with always being up for a bender at a moments notice. The beginning of a sober life marked the beginning of my search for myself, for who I’ve always been, but who I had carefully (albeit subconsciously) obscured by constructing around myself a complicated series of fortified walls. Every section of those walls were of course on some level authentic – it’s not like I’m a different person now to who I was two years ago – I’m just more The Same As Myself than I’ve been, probably since I was a kid. The people that I’ve spent time with on tour following this shift, from all over the world, some new friends, and some the kind of road family who know how I am as soon as I pull up in a driveway and who gently and silently pour me tea on a porch and allow me to rest my energy with them, are the long bands of constellations that have filled my sky, allowing me to navigate my way back to who I am after years adrift on a shadowed sea.

Being back in Australia these last few weeks has driven home with deep clarity how grateful I am to the communities that have welcomed me and opened their lives to me for many years, grateful for the experiences that music continues to give me and all of the things that those experiences teach me, grateful for my family, for my safety, for my friends all over Australia and in other parts of the world, and for my forged family, who teach me about who I am and who fill up and comfort my spirit every time I get to see them.

With Leah ‘Flano’ Flanagan, Marrickville 2016

Continued two weeks later in Canada…

I arrived in Toronto where a lush greenness has exploded everywhere, the sun is up until 9:30 every evening, people are out and about wearing shorts and sipping beers on patios. The general ‘vibe’ around here is lighter, happier and more open than the hibernation-like qualities of the Ontario winter. I felt it as soon as I landed at the airport. And I am now revelling in being able to walk through High Park which is, gloriously, only a few hundred metres from where I’m staying. I explore the infinite maze of trails that wind through this enormous urban wilderness, gliding through cool air under a canopy of thick green woodland trees, staring longingly at other people’s dogs, in all of their delightful and hilarious variety, wishing I had my own furry friend to share these walks with.

And while I’m taking this break from performing my own stuff, Chris and I are finishing the record we started in February. Slowly and carefully. It’s nearly there, but I don’t want to rush it because these songs mark the significant personal shift that I’ve just touched on. They’re more vulnerable and profoundly more personal than any songs I’ve ever written, and certainly any songs that I’ve recorded or shown to other people… So we want to get it right. I refuse to put pressure on this process like I have done in the past. There’s no magic timeline to get this record out. Indeed the mobilisation that will be required to release it (maybe next year) is so immense I feel exhausted thinking about it. Which is a signal to me that I’m not ready to attempt to tackle it yet. I’ve put so much pressure on my songs and on my music for so many years that I’ve only just realised, since releasing the strangle-hold, just how long I’d been gasping for air. My instinct is being firm in letting me know that I need to let my art breathe and give it the space to be what it is. Starting from now.

And so this next part for me will be about reconnecting with myself and with the world I’m in. Listening more and yelling at myself less, learning to play other people’s songs and learning from their experiences. And allowing myself to be carried on the waves that began their forms at all of those various moments over the last ten years, letting them gently guide me towards where I’m meant to go. Wherever that is.

Toronto, 2018 (photo by Skye Polson) 










June 26, 2018

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