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A Bonza Sal Kimber: On Indi, and connecting Intellect and Heart
20 / 09 / 2013
This post-election edition of a Bonza Sheila features singer/songwriter and banjo-extraordinaire Sal Kimber, who regularly rolls up and down the Hume Highway to the area where she grew up – in the federal seat of Indi. Sheilas Editor (and fan of the band ‘Sal Kimber and the Rollin’ Wheel’) Sarah Capper has a chat with her ‘bonza’ friend about the band, recently getting involved in Cathy McGowan’s campaign for the Seat of Indi, and other adventures connecting heart and intellect.
Sal re-wrote and sung Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ for McGowan’s campaign launch.
Sarah was at the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre where Sal performed on election night on 7 September, during which swings going against the tide of the rest of the country increasingly showed Cathy McGowan keeping pace with the sitting incumbent Liberal Member Sophie Mirabella. The excitement reached fever pitch when McGowan arrived at the Centre, and spoke to a sea of orange supporters of all ages, following which Sal perfomed a rousing version of Cathy’s campaign song, which had the whole crowd singing and swaying with every chorus. It was, in Sarah’s opinion, quite simply what you would call a ‘magic moment’.
SC: Sal Kimber thanks for being the September Issue’s Bonza Sheila. I want to start with your relationship with your Dad, Andy, who’s also a musician and from what I can tell, a bit of a cheeky story-teller like you. Can you describe how your Dad helped nurture your interest in music growing up? Was music a constant presence?
SK – Yes, music definitely had a constant presence in my family. My Dad grew up with music in his house, and he passed it onto his family – out in the hills, in Tallangatta. It wasn’t unusual for us to be sitting around as a family and be writing a song – and to not be consciously doing it.
One night I remember my chips were stolen off my plate. I was about four or five and I was so distressed. So Dad wrote a song about it, called ‘The Chips Were Gone’ – and that was a family hit for awhile. And I forgot about the fact my chips were stolen – that was Dad of course, he stole my chips.
I guess the thing about Dad was that when he was in his early 20s, he was pretty progressive and he was living in rural Victoria. He was writing songs about topics such as climate change long before it became a catch phrase – he wrote songs like, ‘It aint going to snow no more’. Not that people out that way thought he was a greenie or a hippy, but I think it was a lot more palatable if kids were singing it! So often we would be singing on his records, ‘It aint going to snow no more, no more’.
Music was always there and we were often singing about things much bigger than chips.
Dad writes lots of songs and is the creative director of the Wangaratta Ukelele Collective. We do a lot of writing together. When I reworded the song ‘From little things big things grow’ for Cathy McGowan, I sat down with Dad and we reworded it together. It was a beautiful day, I’d come home (to Wangaratta) for the weekend, and we sat down and put pen to paper and that’s the stuff I love doing with Dad.
SC: You play in the band ‘Sal Kimber and the Rollin’ Wheel’ – playing banjo, electric and acoustic guitar, bit of harmonica, and of course, singing. One of those ‘wheels’ in the band is your sister Beth or Buffy. I’m curious about where the ‘rolling wheel’ came into being – or is just a reference for the many hikes up and down the Hume [Highway], between Melbourne and Indi?
SK: I was never a lead singer. At school I always played rhythm guitar and did harmonies. And then my Dad entered me in a Port Fairy Folk Festival songwriting competition, and I won an Emerging Artist Award and they asked me to come back the next year with a band. So I just got my friends together to play with me, pretty much, and by default became the leadsinger because I wrote the songs. And truly, it just rolled from there.
We have had the same line up in our band for nearly five years. In the early days I talked Buffy my sister into joining the band – she was a great piano and accordian player, but never thought of herself being in a band. I had to talk her into it.
SC: Yes Buffy just seems to personify that classic reluctant musician up on stage. Janet from Spiderbait had that kinda quiet geeky vibe going on, too.
SK: Yeah, I totally had to talk her into it! And it’s funny, because initially we just grew up with playing music as a family, it was just something we did. It was never about making money or about being on a big stage. I had to convince her it would be fun, and again it just rolled from there.
A couple of years into it, I named the band the ‘Rollin’ Wheel’. We’ve all got jobs and we never really pushed it. We’ve got determination, and we’ve put a lot of love into it, but we’re not out there chasing fame. Whatever happens, happens, and we just roll with it. That’s kind of the philosophy behind it.
SC: So it’s a working title-
SK: It sounds a bit daggy but it helps us connect back into our vision as a band. When we are planning a tour, or we don’t feel like we’re doing enough, we just kinda check back into that and ask ourselves, ‘is enough momentum happening organically or do we need to push it?’, that sort of thing.
SC: Your songs are really steeped in narrative in that classic folk story-telling sense. The ABC’s Richard Glover has said your songs “are marked by an unusual pairing of passion and wit, and in [your] hands, somehow neither steals power from the other”. Can you describe the writing process and how that intersects with the band – are you the primary songwriter? Or wordsmith?
SK: Everyone has their own taste in music and that’s why I love the musicians in the band. Our drummer Cat Leahy is really passionate about different rhythms. If I write five songs in a row in the same sort of genre it won’t keep her engaged. So we try to mix it up. I’ll go to her to see if we can come up with something together.
Sometimes she will come up with a groove – or our bass player will come up with a chord progression – and I’ll go away and write something down, but usually the process is I’ll hear a story or feel the vibe, or I’ll be in the car, and I’ll write some lyrics or some music and then I’ll take it to the band, and they’ll flesh it out into something cool that we can hopefully play live.
SC: And the content, you mention writing in your car –
SK: I sing about country. I sing about sense of place, and often those stories entail rural landscapes. Sometimes they’re urban, but mostly rural.
SC: You sing about country but do you think of or classify your music as being in the country music genre? Because you’ve got such a mixed sound – encompassing folk, country, blues.
SK: That’s the thing. We happen to have a double base and a banjo, and that tends to classify us as ‘country’. When we play at a country music festival, they think we’re folk, and when we play at a folk festival, they think we’re country – but we don’t mind that, because we mix it up.
SC: So you did rewrite ‘From Little Things’, with your Dad. One thing that always interests me is the political activism expressed in a creative sense. Or the political story behind creative expression.
SK: This one was easy to write, because of the strength of the Voice 4 Indi story.
SC: Obviously the ‘Orange People’ were increasingly gathering in numbers across Indi, but how did you hook into the movement, how did you first get involved in Cathy McGowan’s campaign?
SK: My Dad was connected, so he was already part of the Wangaratta crew. But probably the main reason I got involved was because of Matty Grogan, one of my best friends, who worked at Mittagundi with me. Cathy McGowan quoted Mittagundi in her election speech.
Matt has been involved with the [Voice 4 Indi] group from the early days. He called me up one day and said ‘Kimber, you’ve got to get involved, and we need a campaign song, – what do you reckon?’
SC: And the song?
SK: The song was easy to write – I find writing real stories into song easy to do. We knew the song would be potent if it had a chorus that everybody knew – that everybody could join in and sing. That’s the thing about humanbeings, music and familiarity – if they hear something they know, they are more likely to connect to it, emotionally invest themselves in their listening, and hopefully even sing along, which they definitely did in Indi.
So it was either ‘You’re the Voice’ by John Farnham –
SC: [Laughs] Which Julian Assange instead appropriated during the campaign with that bizarre karaoke video–
SK: Yeah! I know. But it was that, ‘You’re the Voice’ by John Farnham, ‘Solid Rock’ by Shane Howard, or ‘From Little Things’ by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody.
We’ve written a few more songs since then because obviously, as part of the campaign, we’ve done singing on the streets of Indi, singing on the campaign bus.
SC: So after the launch you physically boarded the bus and went out with campaigners on some of your weekends?
SK: Yeah. This included a trip to Murrindindi, which covers Yea, Marysville, Alex[andra], and Kinglake. Murrindindi was previously part of the neighbouring McEwan electorate until the last election. The electoral boundaries were altered so that this area was now part of Indi for the 2013 poll – so obviously the people of Murrindindi had less knowledge about Cathy and the other candidates.
And I guess for Cathy, she’s not physically located close to that part of the electorate, so I think it took a little longer for the word to spread out that way. The band and I have a few fans out that way, so I thought we may be able to make a little difference. I spent three days in Murrindindi with some of the campaign crew in August, talking to locals and using music as a tool to engage. I played a song or two in the local Alex café, at the pub, at the art gallery and at the Cathy meet and greets.
The song sort of planted a seed to engage people so we could then talk to them about Cathy and local issues. It seemed a less invasive way of going out on the streets with a megaphone screaming ‘Vote Cathy!’.
Denis, Cathy’s brother-in-law, liked to say that music is a great way to connect intellect with heart, and in politics that’s important –
SC: And presumably any politician who can connect intellect with heart has a winning combination and will be in power for a long time-
SK: Exactly. And music helps make that link in all sorts of facets of our world. It helps us understand things. And it can be an easy way to access people.
There was this older woman in Alex, and she was a staunch Greens voter and she’d been through the [Black Saturday] bushfires and she’d lost friends and her home, and I had a chat with her about Cathy. Denis invited me to sing the song, so I sang her the song, she was the only one in the café I was singing to, but by the end she was taking Cathy postcards.
SC: And you got the endorsement of your version of the song from Paul Kelly, the writer (with Kev Carmody) of ‘From Little Things’?
SK: Yep, we got Kelly’s endorsement. When he heard last week that Cathy had a chance of winning, he threw his fist in the air. He was really excited.
SC: As well as your Dad and your friends and people you knew in the community getting involved in Voice 4 Indi and Cathy McGowan’s campaign, did you feel that it aligned with your personal politics?
SK: Absolutely. I think when you grow up in the country.
SC: And you’ve always been in the Seat of Indi-
SK: Yeah, I was there until I was 18 and then I went overseas and moved to Melbourne, but have then moved back to Indi. It’s always been like a lover in a way – in that I can’t let that lover go! I always go back to Indi.
I’ve got a great job in Brunswick, but I’m currently saving up money because I want to buy my own farm in Indi, that’s the plan, and –
SC: That’s right, and the writer’s retreat will be built next to the recording studio and I’ll move out there too- [laughs]
SK: Exactly, exactly. But the thing for me about Cathy – when you’ve grown up in Indi, and you know the people out there, and you sort of know the way people think, whether they’re extreme right in their views, or whether they’re extreme left.
What I think works out there is finding a bit of a middle ground. Somebody who can communicate to people of all leanings and levels and work out how to work with everyone. It’s challenging, but I think Cathy is able to do it. If anyone can do it, it’s Cathy. I know some people think it’s perhaps a really utopian idea to have an actual ‘Voice 4 Indi’, but I believe it’s worth striving for.
I think for me being a country girl at heart, and sensibility, I know that if you’re too far left it just doesn’t fly. It just won’t. And for her, she’s pro-same sex marriage but she doesn’t scream that to the hilltops. She’s into sustainable farming and she’s into improving rural mental health and she’s into looking after community. She wants to make Indi a more comfortable and livable place.
SC: Your Performance on election night. I know I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, particularly in a modern Australian political sense. But the room seemed brimming with so much hope and optimism when you performed that night. And not in a naive way. In a smart, savvy, involving all ages, multi-layered way. Was it as special a gig for you?
SK: Well it was interesting the first time I sang it at the campaign launch. When I performed that, I thought there might be 50 people there. There were 450. And I suggested they join in and sing, and everyone sang! And that was that moment where I was thinking ‘Woah’.
Everytime I’ve sung it, people don’t hold back. They sing the chorus. And on election night, the same thing. When I got up there, everybody was just singing so loudly, and not embarrassed to sing. It is really beautiful and it was really special that night.
A few months ago I was actually wondering what I was doing with my music. You know we put out these albums, we’ve made these funny, entertaining film clips, but it would be great to be effective in a really positive way. And when I then got involved in the campaign I thought ‘Far out, this is why I play music’, it was great. The last couple of months have been so very affirming. If the campaign had to go for another six months I’d be playing each weekend!
SC: [Laughs] Well, it might only be another day or two [said on Tuesday. Mirabella conceded the following day]. You are a social worker and do youth work with Moreland City Council. How does this fit in with the music, how do the two complement one another?
SK: Well the work I do in my day job is handy because a lot of it involves music too. I mentor lots of young people in organising music events. I do lots of youth development work. And often I find the best way to work with young people can be through music.
I’ve tried being a full-time musician. I’ve only tried it once, and it was really challenging on my ego, waking up everyday trying to play music for myself, to make money – it just seemed a little challenging for me. I love having a day job where it’s not about me, it’s about the young people.
SC: And I dare say if I was a young person and you were my youth worker, I’d be pretty happy [laughs], I think you’d be inspiring. So who inspires you, Sal Kimber, and why?
SK: Ah, Cathy McGowan [Laughs]. Actually the whole Voice 4 Indi team are amazing. Some of them have taken whole months off their work.
Yep. They’ve absolutely inspired me.
SC: And musically?
SK: All the good folk singers. Paul Kelly, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell. And Shane Howard. Out of all the singers I love the ones who are writing story and song to keep culture and country alive. And I love that about Indi. Whenever I’m home and I can write about those beautiful hills, I’m there.
SC: Your last self-titled album came out in 2011, produced by Shane O’Mara, which followed the album ‘Sounds Like Thunder’ in 2008. Are you working on a new album?
SK: Yeah, we’ve just started recording, and one of the first songs we’ve recorded is called Burrawang Child, which is Indigenous for the Ovens River, and it’s about connection to the River and how it is so much bigger than us. So hopefully I think the new album will have connections to Victoria’s north-east.
We’ll probably plan to release something in March.
SC: I look forward to it. Sal Kimber a sincere thanks for sharing your insights, especially in light of this unique ‘people power’ campaign in Indi – and thanks for generally being Bonza too. Roll on – Roll well.
Click here to watch Sal perform ‘From Little Things’ at Cathy McGowan’s campaign launch.
Sal Kimber is a singer songwriter, who plays with her band ‘Sal Kimber and the Rollin’ Wheel’.
She won the APRA Darebin Songwriting Award (2007) and the Victorian Female Vocalist of the Year Award at the Victorian & National Country Music Awards (2010). The band has two albums which have both been met with critical acclaim.
She’s passionate about Victoria’s North-East region and singing about country and culture.
You can like ‘Sal Kimber and the Rollin’ Wheel’ on Facebook, here.