During FRINGE WORLD, it’s always good to be prepared for the weird and the wonderful – not just in the spiegeltents, but where you might least expect it… like in the Kaos Room, a rehearsal space at The Blue Room Theatre. Walk through the normal looking door, and you’ll find yourself in a yurt. And not just any yurt – this one is handmade of recycled materials and its name is Grr. It also happens to be the temporary home of SJ Finch, writer, editor, publisher, and performer. Grr is playing host to thirteen different events as part of The Blue Room Theatre Summer Nights and FRINGE WORLD, one of which is Ships in the Grr.
Ships in the Night is a quarterly event where a selection of the finest wordsmiths bring their words to life alongside talented musicians. In its special FRINGE WORLD incarnation as Ships in the Grr, we’re promised spoken word and music from artists responding to “themes of apocalypse and rebirth, shipwreck and rescue, ecological collapse, and unfathomable repair.” This fits in nicely with the other acts in this intimate performance festival known as Grr Nights, hand-picked by SJ for his beloved Grr.
This next interview had me chatting to the second round of performers at Ships in the Grr: the wonderful and multi-award winning theatre-maker Stuart Bowden and delightful folkgazer Sarah Tout. They have some similarities: the theme of loneliness pervades both their work, and they both happen to find inspiration in musician Bill Callahan. But Stuart has dreams of tending a vege patch and retiring to pursue an unusual hobby, while Sarah is busy experimenting with unusual sounds in her solo work, a contrast to the infectious pop melodies of her other project, Simone & Girlfunkle.
Who or what would you say is your main influence in making work?
Stuart: The storytelling of Hugh Hughes, the writing of Bill Callahan, the clouds (mostly the lazy ones), the music of Advance Base, birds (especially the ones who have something to say), survival and sometimes thunder (usually the first crash when you didn’t even know a storm was on its way and you’re like “was that… quick! Get the washing!”).
Sarah: I am inspired by so many artists from Jose Gonzalez to Built to Spill, Bill Callahan, Low, Alela Diane, Mia Doi Todd, Gareth Liddiard, Cat Power… There is no one main influence; I like to soak up a plethora of incredible artists and then rather than try to copy or mimic what they do I just want to learn what I can and see how I can let that inform how I might express something authentically myself.
How do you approach your writing?
Sarah: I try to get out of the way. I make my best songs when I sit down, start playing what I think feel like interesting chords and start singing. Then doing my best to try to remember what came out.
Stuart: Usually, I write with a mixture of terror and excitement, I often have a pressing deadline that drives me. In that pressure I try to find joy and lightness.
What themes keep coming back time and again?
Sarah: Hmmm maybe not thematically but there is certainly a recurrent sense of wanting to reassure, I feel compelled to write something very honest that I hope might make others feel less alone. There’s too much loneliness. I think vulnerability is a theme that I return to a lot.
Stuart: Loneliness, grief, survival, apocalypse.
Stuart, you’ve been living and working in London for five years. What’s it like to have moved back home? Is Melbourne still ‘home’?
Stuart: Melbourne is teasing me, I can’t wait to feel settled but I haven’t actually unpacked my bags yet. I’m touring a lot, I’m heading back to the UK twice this year and Perth, Adelaide and Auckland. I really can’t wait to do something like plant a vegetable then eat it in Melbourne.
Sarah, as well as being a solo artist, you’re also a member of Simone & Girlfunkle. What’s that like? How does your solo work and writing process differ?
Sarah: It is completely different. With Simone I am part of a seven person thing where everyone has a role to play and my role is to enhance songs that Bridget has brought to the band by adding harmonies or acoustic guitar parts. It’s about interpreting someone else’s idea and finding a way to really feel that and express it honestly and meaningfully so that the idea can continue to grow and be realised as a big, lush, harmony-laden very melodic beautiful thing.
Whereas my solo project is much more minimalist and it’s becoming a lot darker I think as a response to making pop music and folk songs with the band. I’m more interested in having this solo project as a space to explore more experimental ideas and rock sounds and very raw and unpolished feeling song ideas. It’s very yin and yang.
What do you get up to when you’re not performing? Do you have, dare I say it, a day job?
Stuart: I’ve had a really great few years working full time writing, directing and making theatre and the rest of this year is looking pretty busy, who knows I might be able to retire next year and pursue my hobby of figuring out how to make the numbers on calculators spell boob.
Sarah: I work at RTRFM 92.1 making radio and teaching other people radio skills through running workshops for the community, and coaching and feedback sessions with our volunteers.
What will you be performing at Ships in the Grr?
Sarah: You will have to wait and see!
Stuart: I will be performing bits that have been cut from previous work, things that I love but had to be cut.
You’ll be performing in a yurt named Grr. What other unusual places have you performed or worked in before?
Stuart: I perform a show with Wil Greenway in people’s lounge rooms and we’ve toured that show to so many strange places, a mansion in Oslo, a bank after hours in Adelaide, a basement where the floor was covered in plastic sheets in Edinburgh.
Sarah: I once played in an alleyway by a pizza joint. And I played in a playground for Nannup’s music festival.
The Grr is described as being “a poetic response to our world’s ecological collapse.” Grr Nights is “a mini-festival of intimate eco-theatre performances.” So with themes of sustainability inevitably being part of your performance at Ships in the Grr, what comes to mind when you see the following words?
Stuart: It’s a pretty scary subject. I get worried.
What are you looking forward to this Fringe?
Stuart: You know, the classics: seeing friends, being inspired by art, going to the beach, warm nights, falling asleep in the park on a dormant sprinkler and waking up with a waterlogged ear, the classics.
Sarah: I’m looking forward to seeing weird things, having my ideas challenged, being shocked by the gruesome and the extraordinary, having excellent belly laughs at comedy shows and lots of outdoor garden socialising under the stars in balmy summer night air.