Stewart D’arrietta is a musician, composer and musical director, well known for shows such as Belly of a drunken piano. Stewart shares the limelight with John Waters at the glasshouse this month, in a show that pays tribute to John Lennon …
What’s your background, Stewart?
I started learning piano at the age of 7, while at boarding school under the tutelage of a one-armed nun, named Sister Anthony. After her, Miss Henderson, and then at the age of 14, I gave up on the Classical and went headlong into Rock, playing in the band Picnic and then Liquid Three.
After school I did Arts/Law at Sydney University, all the time playing in various bands. After graduating, I went into business, ‘til I had a type of epiphanic event in my life, whereupon I decided to secure my future by becoming a professional musician. I have had a recording contract with Polygram for my solo album Side Effects, also with the band Big Storm with W.E.A.
I met John [Waters] in 1985 when I did a Lennon Show in Rockhampton. In 1991, John approached me about getting together and putting something together for John Lennon. So it was about December 1991 that I started working on the show. We did our first performance of the show in 1992 at The Tilbury, in Woolloomoolo. From there, the show took off. It was originally two-man and ended up being a full band situation.
We’ve had various productions over the last 20 years. During that time I’ve been involved in other theatre pieces, I’ve written musicals. I’ve got a band in America called America’s Least Wanted.
Since 2005, I have been living in both Sydney and New York, where I have been performing a show that is a homage to Tom Waits’ music, titled Belly of a Drunken Piano. This show has also played the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Edinburgh Festival, as well as a stint in London at the Riverside Studios. That’s a quick snapshot of my life, professionally speaking.
So why did you choose John Lennon in particular as the basis of this show?
Well, it was John Waters’ idea to do a John Lennon show. I loved the music of the mna, but John was much more of a fan than me – and he brought me into his love of John Lennon.
Having said that, Lennon was a great songwriter, a sceptic and a demonstrator for peace, who had the clout of being a very public figure and had the gift of the gab. Ultimately a tragic figure – namely, being cut down right in his prime, when he had finally got his s*** together.
The thing about Lennon, also, is that he wrote autobiographically, airing his own washing in a lot of songs. His songs actually tell his life story, from childhood, to being a father.
And let’s not forget he gave the cutting edge to the most popular band in the history of time – namely, The Beatles.
Now, all of this makes a great true story.
The 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death occurred last month – on December 8. Can you remember your reaction at the time when you heard what had happened?
I was in a studio in North Sydney. It was about 3 O’clock in the afternoon when we heard the news that John Lennon had been shot.
I remember that afternoon, because everyone was in an absolute state of disbelief that something like this had actually happened during our time.
It also made everyone become very much more aware of their mortality. And also, it indicated that our society is really sick, when someone wants to do something like that. It was just an extraordinary event. Everyone around us was crying – it was a very moving time.
What part do you actually play in the presentation of Looking Through a Glass Onion?
I play a few cameo roles. I play an old lady who gets drunk; I play a Chinese man – the usual stereotypical things (laughs). I drive the band behind the show – I have great musicians.
You did the musical arrangements for the show?
I did the arrangements in the mood and groove of Lennon and The Beatles’ approach. There is stuff in there that is mine, but it is always done in a Lennon-esque feeling. Paul Berton does the same with his guitar parts.
What can an audience expect when they come to see the show?
We’re dealing with his solo work, along with The Beatles’ work. It’s all great work. People are always coming up to us after the show and telling us how moved they were.
And that’s what you want to do when you come to a show like this – you want to come out feeling something. You don’t just want to come out saying, “Well, that was 2 hours spent.” You want to come out feeling somewhat moved by what you’ve seen go down.
John Waters is able to achieve this with the journey he takes the audience on. He brings the spirit of Lennon on stage, and in so doing, the audience is moved at the loss of such a great artist. His performance is sublime.
Where did the name of the show, Looking Through a Glass Onion come from?
It comes from a song – a song on the White album. It’s the concept of peeling back the layers of the onion, to reveal the inner core of the man. That’s why various facades and moves you see are just Lennon on stage, or a representation of Lennon. Of course – done superbly by John Waters.
And of course, peeling back the layers of an onion is bound to result in a few tears…
Laughs. Oh – absolutely!
So Stewart, have you actually visited the Port Macquarie area before?
Oh yes. When I was a young kid, going to the north of New South Wales was like the most exciting thing in your life! I love the North Coast – it’s one of my favourite places in the world.
I remember a wonderful pub in Port Macquarie, looking out to sea and the magnificent sunsets. There’s nothing better than sitting and enjoying a beer there late in the afternoon. It’s a beautiful spot, Port Macquarie.
Will you have much chance to get out and explore while you’re here?
No, unfortunately. It’s basically in and out. But I’m very much looking forward to performing at The Glasshouse; I’ve heard some fantastic reports about it.
Finally, when you’re not performing or writing music, what do you like to do on your days off?
Now, that’s a good question! Well, making love to my wife! The second thing, I like going out in boats.
I mean, it’s funny when you do music for a living, because you write music and you compose … I have 2 musicals being written at present, and one that’s already been written … There’s always something to be done.
I kind of like sitting around doing nothing sometimes, playing around in my head. I like to live in the moment, with my imagination. That’s part of being a musician … using the ability to make the imagination come alive. Music really takes up a lot of time in my life, which I really like. I really enjoy that very much. One of my favourite things is to enjoy sitting down with my mates and having a beer and talking about politics and things.
Good luck with the tour, Stewart, and thank you for chatting with us.
Looking Through a Glass Onion forms part of The Glasshouse’s fabulous Summer Fest 2011 program. See Stewart D’Arrietta and John Waters perform at the Glasshouse on January 7, at 8pm – tickets $65.
Visit www.glasshouse.org.au or call the Box Office on 6581 8888 for tickets.