A sense of self
A sense of self
In an industry where image often comes before talent, Katie Noonan is forging her own path to success.
Published Selector Spring 2007
The journey has been long my friend
Katie Noonan has the poise of a performer, that air of self awareness that comes from being in the spotlight, even when dressed in ‘civvies’ and with her six-month-old baby perched on her hip. As she shakes hands with the photography, hair and make-up team, her professionalism does not give way to the fact that the baby is hungry and feeding him is definitely her first priority. So with introductions out of the way it’s straight upstairs to satisfy his appetite.
This may not be the Katie Noonan you remember, but the 18-year-old who shot to fame as the lead singer of george has grown up. She’s married, has two beautiful sons and has just completed her first solo album, Skin. Promoted as “an intimate portrait”, this latest achievement is, as Katie describes, “about shedding skin, and ushering in new chapters. It’s intimate, but above all it’s a joyful record.” Talking to Katie and listening to the album, it’s clear that this is a 30-year-old woman who’s arrived at that point of fulfilment that so many women of the same age find. The angst of adolescence and the teething years of adulthood have created a calm yet intensely creative, non conventional beauty, who’s ready for the world to really know who she is.
Having the confidence to embrace who you are both physically and emotionally is something that eludes many young women but Katie Noonan decided early in life that she wouldn’t be pressured to conform. She’s not a size 8, her hair is as it comes and you’d be hard pressed to find her wardrobe mimicked in the weekend fashion pages.
Growing up and then trying to work out our spot in this strange place
However, shunning the norm creates a difficult path through adolescence and refusing to fit in with the large school mentality posed problems for Katie. She particularly remembers the incident that provided the impetus to find a more supportive sphere: “One day the Principal came up and pulled the ribbon out of my hair, quite hard and said, ‘We’re all normal here Katie, it’s about time you understood that’ ” She decided to leave straight away because she thought, “What’s normal? I’m not normal!” Thankfully for not only Katie, but also Australian music, she was able to move to a smaller school where individuality was encouraged and her musical talent was nurtured.
Support was something she certainly never lacked at home where Katie has always been surrounded by music. Her father Brian’s music was a constant aside to his career as a journalist and her brother, Tyrone, is currently forging his own solo career after having joined Katie in the success of george. However, it was her mother, Maggie Noonan, one of Australia’s great classical sopranos, who instilled in her daughter the true nature of being a musician. As she describes, “watching my Mum taught me how to sing but she also taught me about the artistry of performing, the focus involved and the discipline, the dedication to understanding a song. From that I formed my own connection with music.”
The year after leaving school, Katie took what was to become a life-changing step and became a founding member of george. By 2002 the band had released its debut album, Polyserena, which shot to the top of the ARIA charts and led to them winning Best New Artist at the 2002 ARIA awards.
Facing the glare of critics and fans requires very adult skills and while Katie assumed she had these at the time, looking back she realises it wasn’t that easy. “I was such a baby in george, you think you’re so grown up, but then you read things you said and you think, ‘Oh my God, did I really say that?’ It does make you grow up because a lot of people suddenly have an opinion of you, which is quite confronting because I was still forming an opinion of myself and of course I would get misunderstood and misrepresented.”
However, like many an artist before her, Katie has learnt that the fastest way to failure is to actually listen to the critics, “I guess at the end of the day I just try to let my music speak for itself as much as possible and I stopped reading reviews a long time ago. The minute that people’s opinions start to even begin to effect your creative process, then it’s over.”
I’m so lucky to have someone to love, like a canvas painted by the hand of God
Growing up is about milestones and the last few years for Katie have been about three of the most important – marriage to her “soulmate” Zac Hurren and the birth of her two children. The emotion of these events is a recurring theme throughout the lyrics on Skin, with songs such as “Love’s My Song For You” which is “about lying in bed with your lover, the lights are off, time stands still and you share your stories, dreams and aspirations”, along with “Little Boy Man” inspired by Katie and Zac’s first born, Dexter, who is, according to Katie, “amazing, a beautiful little soul.”
Motherhood has become life’s “greatest joy” for Katie and keeping her boys close involves a fair bit of logistical juggling. However, the complications of this far outweigh the alternative of being separated from her family, another invaluable lesson taught by Maggie. “There’s no mistaking that family is my number one priority and music is a close second and my Mum was always the same. I never felt threatened by her career in regards to my sense of safety. She always made it abundantly clear that her career worked around us and I’m the same.”
So the team, “a gypsy family of four”, hits the road together, taking the concept of home away from the physical, cementing it in the emotional instead. This is another idea expressed on the album through the song, “Home” with its line, “No matter where I am, in your arms I’m home.” Katie’s well aware that not all working parents are as fortunate as she and Zac, “I’m lucky in that I can take my family with me, I’m at a level where I can afford to do that or I choose to afford to do that – there is a difference! And my record company’s also very supportive, as is my management, they know I’m a mother first and a musician second. As long as you never confuse that, you’ll be fine”.
We all just don’t talk to each other anymore, straight through the front door – don’t catch anybody’s eyes
The sense of good fortune that Katie’s found in her own life provides a stark contrast to what she sees going on in society. The song, “Send out a Little Love” conveys the idea that “people don’t know their neighbours any more and there’s a bit of an ‘us and them’ mentality which I find quite uncomfortable. There are a lot of lonely people out there and sometimes I wish society was a bit more…I wish we were a bit warmer to each other generally.”
Sincerity like Noonan’s is an oft missing entity in the music world with an ever increasing number of manufactured musicians pouring off the industry production line. There’s a lot about the industry that Katie finds confounding, “I watch a lot of video shows and it’s basically soft porn. Particularly with females, it’s questionable whether they’re actually a singer or whether they’re a model or whether they’re a kind of actress. It seems that music is not what they’re selling a lot of the time”.
What do we have but ourselves? Who are you at the end of your day? What do we need but ourselves? Who are we at the end of our days?…
Superficiality is rife in mainstream music and Katie’s grateful that it’s her very individual approach to music, rather than her ability to ‘bump and grind’ on the dance floor, that’s allowed her to find fame. “Thankfully I don’t have to participate in that side of things, I never have and I never will, I’d be terrible at it!” she says with a laugh.
Performing live is what gives Katie her greatest thrill and she’s shared the stage with some of the world’s best. As well as being part of george and the jazz trio, Elixir (with husband Zac and Nick Stewart), Katie’s accompanied the Sydney Symphony, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Adelaide Symphony, West Australian Symphony, Queensland Orchestras and Oscar winning composer Howard Shore. Also, in 2005 Katie worked with Australian jazz great, Paul Grabowsky on an album called “Before Time Could Change Us”. The lyrics were provided by poet, Dorothy Porter and the end result was so impressive it resulted in her winning a second ARIA. While she describes her fellow musician as a “genius, a freak of nature”, Grabowsky is equally as effusive in his praise. On working on the album he commented, “Well, what can I say about Katie Noonan, except that a finer musician/vocalist would be hard to find anywhere.”
But at the end of the day, working with her brother and mother have provided her favourite moments, “I have such a beautiful relationship with my brother now which comes from working together full time for almost ten years and sharing the stage with my Mum was really very, very beautiful”.
Looking to the future, Katie’s hoping for more of the same, “hopefully I’ll still be happily married, being a mother and hopefully doing music. Actual finer details? I don’t even know what I’m doing next week!”
Lyrics: Time to Begin, One Step, Return, Send Out a Little Love ©K.Noonan
Who Are You? – ©K.Noonan/Rollo Armstrong.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.