“FOLK – it’s a big, beautiful word and for me, it’s the sound of the stories of the room,” Katie Noonan says.
“I consider myself just a storyteller,” Noonan tells me at the Mitchell offices of the National Folk Festival, where she’s taking over the reins as artistic director.
“For years I’ve been writing stories, and I consider my band Elixir, which I formed in 1997, to be a folk band.”
The daughter of an opera singer and trained at Queensland Conservatorium, Noonan is one of our most famous singers. With five Aria awards, the 2019 Australian Women in Music Creative Leadership award and the APRA AMCOS State Arts Luminary Award under her belt, she’s ranged over jazz, opera, symphonic music and pop/rock for over two decades.
She’s collaborated with Tim Finn, Don Walker, Josh Pyke, poet Tom Shapcott, classical guitarist Karin Schaupp, the Brodsky Quartet, with whom she sang at the Canberra International Music Festival in 2016 and Michael Leunig – “a folk philosopher”, she says.
“But I’m not into genres,” she says.
“Journalists love to turn music into genres, but while my first love was classical, Vivaldi and Bach, I’ve done lots of pop and rock.”
Noonan admits she came to folk late, but suspects that’s simply a matter of definition, saying, “If you look at the music of Tim Buckley, David Crosbie and James Taylor, it’s a fine line between pop and folk”.
In fact, it somewhat amuses her that “the hackles go up” between pop and folk lovers, and yet Dylan went electric very early, and who’s to say an electric guitar isn’t folk?
Over her 25-year career, two of her biggest influences have been English folk singer-songwriter Nick Drake, and Joni Mitchell, of whom she says, “they are poets”.
Once while mixing a record near Mitchell’s home in LA, Noonan hung around at the deli hoping to catch sight of her. No such luck, and sadly, Joni’s never played a public show in Australia.
Some people were surprised at the National Folk Festival’s recent announcement that Noonan would head up the big Easter event at EPIC for two years, but in fact she’s a seasoned operator who was music director of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2018 Commonwealth Games and recently finished a four-year stint as artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival, a huge state-wide event staged in 49 different locations, including Aurukun and Cunnamulla.
“One thing that was great about that is that although the Queensland Music Festival was founded in Labor times, it is a bipartisan construct… allowing me to set up a festival that believes music is about community, a welcoming place,” she says.
“Now I’m coming to a place where I can dream,” she says of her new appointment.
“I’ve been talking about a new concept of festival with Helen [Helen Roben, the general manager of the National Folk Festival].
“I’m fiercely proud of Australian music. I want to remove the cultural cringe across the arts… we really are world-class leaders and it’s time we believe we are.”
Before deciding to join the Folk Festival, Noonan asked herself a few “true and honest” questions – “could it be all-Australian? Could it be in Canberra? Could it be a First Nations event? Could there be more women in it? Just asking the questions, not answering them.”
When it comes to women in music, she often thinks of Joni Mitchell, who had to give up her baby. But then again, as she and Roben have noticed, the Folk Festival always seems to have an abundance of mothers and children – a good thing. Nonetheless, she and Roben are determined to reduce any imbalance.
Noonan’s contacts are second to none. Robyn Holmes from the National Library supervised her research for her work, “Love-Song-Circus”, based on the National Museum of Australia’s exhibition of convict love tokens, while Roland Peelman, the director of the Canberra International Music Festival, trained her in Benjamin Britten’s “Les Illuminations”, performed with the Sydney Dance Company and musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Noonan will not, like her predecessors, live in Canberra. She lives with her musician husband Isaac Hurren and their two sons on the Sunshine Coast, but dashes around the country on a whirlwind round of singing engagements, so will visit us from her home each month.
She and Roben are determined to broaden the Folk Festival’s footprint by attracting the many diverse Canberrans who have not yet been to the Easter event and to take more action on the question of First Nations musicians.
“I think we can do better there,” Noonan says.
Noonan will present her first festival in 2022, after covid forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 festivals.