Image Courtesy of Jenny M Thomas and The System
Jenny M Thomas and the System perform traditional Australian tunes and songs. But probably not as you know them.
In my humble opinion, Jenny M Thomas and the System are refreshing; they’re young(er), and they provide a point of difference from the stuff of a thousand bush dances and performances that many of us have been to and enjoyed.
And as you’ll see, it’s not always for the purists or traditionalists.
Late last year I spoke with Jenny M Thomas on the line from Melbourne as she was preparing to do a mini-tour to Canberra and surrounding areas of New South Wales. Late this week, I did likewise to update where The System are up to as they head to Braidwood, Canberra and Wollongong next week/weekend.
Bill Quinn: Jenny, Bush Gothic, the album has been some time in the making, hasn’t it?
Jenny M Thomas: Yeah, three… three and a half years.
BQ: You’ve had a dabble at this before of taking Australian bush ballads and or traditional songs and giving them a bit of a deconstruct. Tell us about that process.
JMT: Well, the idea is that there’s a stack of really fabulous and scary, horrific traditional songs of ours in Australia. But usually when people play them – if they play them at all – it’s very jolly!
Oi doi day dah, we’re coming to Australia
And we’re gonna be tortured and murdered
And for me, that didn’t ring true at all. So we were looking at what the intention behind the lyrics are. And the true anxiety and fear. So we reflected that in the music that we’ve put to it.
And we’re all from Melbourne, so we call it an inner-city Melbourne treatment!
It’s just a contemporary treatment of bush songs.
BQ: Now you did this about five years ago on Farewell to Old England. Did you feel that were more of those songs that you wanted to have a bit of a play with?
JMT: Yeah, I really love working with these songs because they resonate so well with all Australians. It doesn’t matter who it is, if it’s a 90 year old grandmother or a young kid. They’re our stories about us.
So I felt they were really important to do. And they’re great songs! They’re about these criminals, and women that are really sneaky, and about desperate people, and people that are coming here on ships.
And so I just wanted to keep doing them.
BQ: Do you ever get purists who look through their monocles or down their noses who ask, “What have you done with our traditions?”
JMT: I do! I get told off sometimes, actually.
And that’s OK, you know? Each to his own.
But often the purists will come up and they’ll say, “Well, I don’t like it, but I think what you’re doing’s pretty good”.
And I’ve even played this stuff in England where they know quite a lot of the songs. And they’re so dogged – they so doggedly believe – they’re not going to let this Australian upstart sing it this way, that they will keep singing it the traditional way.
Despite what I’m doing with the microphone!
And it’s like a little battle happens!
To me, it’s about atmosphere, and my job is to create a really great atmosphere. Whether it’s on stage or whether it’s on a recording, and that’s where the gothic nature comes in. That’s why I’ve chosen these particular songs.
BQ: Speaking of recording, I was having a bit of a browse this morning and I see that you have a very nice recording studio plonked in your back garden.
JMT: I’m in at the moment, it’s my Mongolian yurt. It’s where we did all the recordings for the album. We recorded [the eventual album] at a really whizz-bang studio in Melbourne. But it’s a round Mongolian yurt that’s made out of felt. It’s terrific.
BQ: How does it go for acoustics, because can I hazard a guess and ask, is it raining down there in Melbourne today?
JMT: It’s raining – can you hear it?
BQ: I can, actually!
JMT: Yeah, I’m actually a bit stuck in my yurt. I was going to go back inside, but I can’t get out because of the rain! You get the rain, and it’s quite a dead sound. Which is good for musicians, because it’s not very forgiving; it gives you a bit of honesty!
BQ: Tell us about the stitching [album artwork]. Is it cross-stitching?
JMT: Some of it’s cross-stitching, so you’re on the right track. But some of it’s just plain embroidery.
BQ: That’s the word I was looking for: ‘embroidery’. I’ve got too many X or Y chromosomes – whichever one is chromosome ‘bloke’ – to know that sort of thing.
JMT: Well, I got right into ‘subversive cross-stitch’ for this album. Something came over me – the photo we’d taken for the cover, it was great, but I said, “Nah, it’s not right, I’m going to have to do some cross-stitch”.
It was the idea that women throughout the ages have always done these arts – these stitching and folk art – and it can be subversive, what you put into it.
And women are often forgotten and a lot of these songs are about women who are left behind or who are sent to Australia, and they’re lonely, so I was trying to get the real feminine aspect into it through the stitching.
BQ: Having talked about these songs being gothic and dark, one of the happier and clappier songs on the album – Track 10, for those playing at home – “Maggie May” – tell me about it.
JMT: Well, the first thing I’ll say is that people can download it for free from our web-site. The second thing I’ll say is that Maggie was a bit naughty. And she must have been a bit desperate, and she stole a sailor’s pants, and stole all his clothes, and then he got her found out and she was sent to Australia.
[I try to be objective when interacting with musicians and their musicians, but I fail so often on this score. “Maggie May” by Jenny M Thomas and the System is just simply one of my all time favourite songs/tracks/interpretations, and when I was on radio, our station copy of this CD was nothing but a pile of ground-down particles of plastic by the time I took my leave, so many times had I played Track 10.]
We now fast forward to 2012 to ask what has been happening lately for Jenny M Thomas and the System.
JMT: Lately we’ve been focussing on getting work in Europe, especially England because our work’s been picked up there. Because we’re very exotic; anything Australian is considered exotic there in England. We’re looking to get there next year.
We’re always working on new songs, new material for a single which we’re going to release at the end of the year.
BQ: So Bush Gothic the album has been out for how long now?
JMT: Nearly a year.
BQ: And? How’s it gone?
JMT: Really good. It’s been great. Lots of really good responses from people who are excited about these old stories coming back. And it seems that the more arty festivals are the ones that are booking us for next year. So that’s pretty interesting. It’s more along the line of where “deep” Australian culture lies, rather than “folk” Australian culture.
BQ: “Deep” Australian culture?
JMT: I think it’s the festivals that really explore where Australian culture is. Festival directors that are interested in that are the ones that want to explore it, and that’s really great.
BQ: What’s led to your music being picked up in Europe? What was the conduit for that?
JMT: I sent two CDs to friends. And somehow that got to the editor of F Roots Magazine. Don’t you know that magazine? It’s great! A really huge folk music magazine. That got onto radio and they wanted to hear the albums, so it was basically word of mouth.
BQ: So will it be like with a lot of other artists that you go once and that lets you put down some roots to go twice, and then build up.
JMT: Yeah, that’s the idea, to go over there and tour, and to get people to say, “Oh look, that’s Australian songs and that’s pretty interesting”, and then to hire us for the next time!
BQ: You’ve been to Canberra a few times; tell us about playing in Canberra.
JMT: People who go to gigs in Canberra are often very well-educated in folk. The couple of times I’ve played there, people will come up to me with extra verses of songs that I’ve never heard about. So they tend to be very educated in their folk music.
We tend to get a mix of that, and ABC listeners.
BQ: I was thinking about that this afternoon; will you go in and play on ABC 666 when you’re here?
JMT: Yeah, we’ll play there on Friday afternoon. Because they’ve got a piano in their studio!
So listen out for that on Friday 17 August sometime in the afternoon on ABC 666 Canberra, and get along to one of these gigs.