Jenny M. Thomas, Dan Witton and Chris Lewis are Bush Gothic … You’ve probably never heard anything like them before, but once you listen to them perform, you’ll never forget them. Evocative, haunting, this internationally renowned band explores our colonial past from a unique perspective. Fiddle singer Jenny Thomas shares some insight into the band and its music, ahead of their upcoming performance at our local iconic convict-built church, St Thomas’ …
Hi Jenny. How did you, Dan and Chris come together to form Bush Gothic in 2009?
I’m very picky about who I work with! With Chris, I had to wait almost a year for him to finish being on a world tour with Circus Oz. And with Dan, I held a series of bush band sessions every Saturday in Melbourne, and I’d try out different musicians who’d come along and play. I didn’t really mind what the instrumentation was, but I needed to have the right kind of person! Dan played, and then he sang – and he’s an extraordinary singer. That’s when I knew I’d found the band!
Yes, I believe you all actually have a background that involved performing with Circus Oz at some point?
Yes, that’s how I met Chris. He was my boss – my musical director, and Dan also has a background in theatre as a dancer and an actor.
This theatrical background certainly comes into how we present the songs and the stories behind them.
Your third album, Beyond the Pale, is due to be released soon. What’s the expected release date?
We’ve actually decided to delay the release until next year, so we can release it in Australia and the UK at the same time.
Our new single Jim Jones was released earlier this year, but the album will be ready soon!
Tell us a bit more about Beyond the Pale and the perspectives it shares.
The new album involves stories from colonial Australia, but very much from the female perspective. They’re all very much traditional Australian folk songs …My background is of a Celtic-Anglo heritage, and we look at how rich that heritage is and how many thousands of years it goes back. We also look at how this affected people who were suddenly cut off from that heritage when they were transported to Australia, even for those who came here as free settlers – and how this still affects people who live here today.
The title of the album is all about how music can help us reconnect to our lost culture. Living in such a multicultural society, where we often have this fabulous focus on where people came from, we don’t often think about the Irish, Scottish or Welsh people who were sent here and how it affected them being separated from their native land.[“Beyond the Pale” is a phrase that dates back to the 14th Century, when the part of Ireland that was ruled by the English was outlined by a boundary of stakes or fences, known as the “English Pale”.]
How much research have you done into Australia’s penal history and settlement?
That’s been very much an ongoing thing for years. When we tour, I’ll go to visit libraries – like the British Library in London, or the National Library in Canberra.
For every song we introduce, we do a lot of research – whether it’s on bushrangers, cross dressing shearers (women who dressed up as men in Australia). We tell some of these stories on stage …
We toured in Ireland last year, and that definitely had me looking more closely at the connections between Ireland and Australia. We’re going back to Ireland next year, so that research will continue.
I’ve been to a lot of festivals – I was a specialist in Indian Classical violin, actually! I’d hear a lot of Australian songs done in a very simple, straightforward way, and I thought the stories were so fascinating behind them, that they really needed to be brought out and worked on. My interest in showing these perspectives kind of developed to go hand in hand with the reality that Australians are very good at forgetting our history. Not only have we forgotten the calamitous time of invasion and how dreadful that was for our Indigenous people, but also how traumatic it was for the white people. I guess … we just dredge this all up and take a good look at it!
How has your single, Jim Jones, been received?
It’s been received really well – particularly because it has a video clip attached to it, which contains a lot of Australian animals. We were looking at how we could share our music visually and represent the Australian bush and its animals in a way that wasn’t cartoonish or funny, but was very dignified and magnificent.
The song was released in the UK last year, and it got lots of great airplay over there.
I directed the video … the band controls all of our video and audio. It’s all linked and it’s all about how we see ourselves as Australians in this extraordinary land of ours. It’s so beautiful here! Australians think deeply and we live our lives with curiosity, and this is not necessarily represented well in mainstream media.
How do you manage to play the violin and sing at the same time?
(Laughs). It’s just practice! It does take a lot of coordination. You just have to work at them separately, then put them together.
I studied as a Classical violist for many years, and part of that training was learning to be as dexterous as you can on the instrument.
Have you visited us in Port Macquarie before?
No, we’ve never been there before! It’s very exciting for us! Our Port Macquarie performance is our last one before we head off on our international tour, where we’ll be playing in India and England.
Pic this page: Bush Gothic/Michelle Mjarni.
Pic contents page: Bush Gothic/Peter Tarasuik. Interview: Jo Robinson.
The Bush Gothic Concert at St Thomas’ convict-built church is a creative, community collaboration between Wauchope Community Arts Council, St Thomas’ Anglican Church, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council and Port Macquarie Museum.
Bush Gothic: Saturday, October 6.
Refreshments for sale outside St Thomas’ from 6pm. Concert at 7pm. Tickets $25 adult / $20 members or concession / student $15.
Ticket price includes shared cheese platter during interval. Book online at trybooking.com/xqyu