You could be forgiven for thinking that the last thing Australia’s cultural arena needs is another bloody writers festival. Today’s big city festivals and their regional counterparts use the same formats, are expensive, predictable, safe and reek of easy privilege. It’s a space that has required reinvigoration for some time.
Enter A Rock & Roll Writers Festival, at The Old Museum in Brisbane on April 1 and 2. It’s the kind of festival that fills your goodie bag with candy and mini-bar-sized bottles of Jack Daniels to kick in the tone. A festival that set out to celebrate the synergy between music and words and creativity and has managed to do that very well.
The most impressive aspect of this heady two-day submersion of words and rock was the considered and dynamic curation of panels. Every writer has a horror story about being flung onto a writers festival panel where the connection between what they actually write about and the topic is arbitrary or non-existent. As guest author Liam Piper said to me over a champagne on day two, you spend half your time on these things trying to “Kevin Bacon” your book back into the conversation.
Rock & Roll Writers Festival founding director Leanne de Souza and producer Joe Woolley approach curation differently. It’s all about the work, what the artist brings to the table and the kind of sparks that can fly when you rub the right people up against each other in just the right way. The weekend was full of these moments of frisson.
On a panel brilliantly titled The Male Monster from the Id, Aussie rock royalty Adalita of Magic Dirt fame, Tim Rogers and US writer and biographer Holly George Warren wrestled their way through the big rockstar stereotypes. When Adalita rather modestly declared she’d never had groupies, none of us believed her. Holly wanted to know if Tim had ever been cast in plaster and they unpacked what it was like getting older in rock and roll, when the words demand more from you and every crack in your skin is a sin worth living in.
Everyone in the building fell in love with Cash Savage’s deadpan delivery. On an academic panel designed to unravel the intersection of music, writing and social commentary, jazz singer Leah Cottrell deconstructed the raw emotive power of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse’s lyrics – how audiences rolled around in that soup vicariously while the artists themselves drowned.
Indigenous author Melissa Lucashenko described listening to the soundtrack from Rolf de Heer’s 2002 film The Tracker on her headphones while writing her novel Mullumbimby and how the hypnotising tones of Archie Roach singing in Bunjalung playing on loop fed directly into the writing – a conjuring of country.
On a free panel specifically designed for 14-to-17-year-olds, entitled Everybody Hurts, Amity Affliction songwriter Joel Birch laid his demons right down to a room full of teenagers. Kind of horrified but tuned in, they were hanging on his every word – an unflinching account of his history of mental illness and suicidal tendencies.
At the festival there was less of a division between punter and player – usually writers speak and then get whisked off by publicists tapping on Blackberrys to private shindigs. The scene in The Old Museum in Brisbane was more fluid, the writers and musos wandering the spaces between the bars and high ceiling rooms, listening to each other’s sessions supping on beers and bloody marys made on tequila, smoking in spontaneous posses in the garden under the fig trees.
It was real and unpretentious and very rock and roll. A much-needed mega shot in the country’s literary arm. We didn’t get burned, we got healed.
A Rock & Roll Writers Festival – Tour Edition will be in Melbourne on April 9.
Sally Breen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.