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Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips catches up with singer songwriter Katie Noonan who enjoys the rare opportunity to chat about her piano playing.

Katie Photo copyIn a 2013 poll of Australian vocalists to determine our top 100 singers of all time, Katie Noonan was rated in the top 20 by her peers. It’s no surprise, Noonan’s voice is one of the most pristine you’ll ever hear. It’s one of the reasons why so many artists want to collaborate with her and why she is able to find so many varied and exotic projects … everyone wants to work with that voice. The attention began in 1996 with George, the ARIA award winning band she formed with her brother Tyrone. She’s been equally successful with her two other band projects, Elixir and The Captains. Then there’s her solo career, her collaboration with classical guitarist Karin Schaupp and the occasional work with dance and theatre companies.

Last year Katie released Songbook,  a stripped back, re-imagination of some of her most loved songs. In between several other projects, Noonan has been touring Songbook to  adoring audiences since its release. So special are Katie’s songs to her dedicated fans, that many of them are used for significant life events such as births, marriages and funerals. Katie never tires of hearing their stories. “It is such a wonderful gift for a musician to hear those stories,” says Katie. “That is why we make music, for the purpose of making a connection. I heard from one fan, an army officer who said he listens to my music everyday, just to start his day in a positive way. That’s the other thing … people who you don’t expect to be fans … I look out at the audience and think who are you and how did you find my music?”

Not only does Katie cast a spell over her audiences with that distinctive voice and her heartfelt melodies, but her piano playing is superb too,  an aspect of her talent often overlooked.  In fact it was an association with the piano brand Kawai, which led to the creation of the Songbook album.
“The people at Kawai very graciously offered to loan me a piano at home,” she explains.  “It’s been wonderful and pretty much led to the inspiration for the Songbook album, which was just me and the piano and string quartet. I’d never done an album that stripped back before. So the piano became the inspiration for the album and the book … which was the music and a selection of photos and stories. Then amazingly, while I’d be on tour, I’d show up and there would be a beautifully tuned Kawai piano there. On the album I played a Shigeru, which is their top of the line concert piano.  My first piano was a Kawai and I have always loved the darker, creamier sound of the Kawai grand. It was beautiful to record on and just incredible to play. When you have such a beautiful instrument, you play differently too. Most people think of me as a singer and not a piano player, but it’s nice to be thought of as a pianist as opposed to being just a singer. Piano is my first instrument and I have been playing since I was three.”

It was inevitable that Katie would become a pianist,  it was the soundtrack to her life growing up. Her mother Maggie (who she also recorded an album with in 2009) was a home-based piano teacher and singer. If it wasn’t the home piano filling the air, it was Bach or Vivaldi emanating from the home stereo.
“I’d have to say my mum was my main influence though,” Katie reflects when asked who were her piano heroes.”I remember at one point I was into Richard Clayderman, I’m embarrassed to say but I thought he was a bit of a spunk. The other pianist I really admire is Keith Jarrett. I listened to a lot of Glenn Gould’s Bach stuff. There’s a local pianist Stefan Cassomenos who is just amazing too, he has a great trio called Plexus. Watching Stefan play is quite a revelation. People have said to me why didn’t you become a classical pianist but I am not the kind of person who could practice ten hours a day on their own in a room. Plus I’m more interested in collaborating than being a solo artist. A concert pianist’s life could be really lonely I imagine. So I realised that wasn’t for me.”

While Katie often tours with an electric piano for  her smaller gigs, she’s not really interested in taking full advantage of the technical features a digital. “I don’t get into the tech side of things much,” she tells me. “I use the Rhodes and Wurly sounds a little bit but I’m just trying to emulate the acoustic pianos sounds. I must say I am a bit of a technophobe. I have seen in my career technology overcome lives a bit and they become tech heads rather than musicians. I know you can mix technology and music really well but I decided early on in my career that I wouldn’t get into that. I’d choose a real piano any day. The main thing I am looking for in music is the warmth and depth and integrity of the sound. Whether that is coming from a piano or saxophone or whatever instrument, and the uniqueness of the sound. I think you can tell when it’s a Kawai piano too. I was listening to a piano concert last year and it was very obvious to me the sound of the different piano brands. The Kawai piano has a really lovely warmth and a darkness that I love … and the touch as well.”

To many, Katie is a musical inspiration, particularly for young, aspiring female musicians. Touring as much as she does, I wondered if she has ever found herself in the presence of her own musical heroes? “The two biggest ones I met were Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell,” she recalls. “Bjork too. I’m also a really big fan of the English group Elbow. I met those guys and I was a bit star struck. I was like a little teenager. I also met the Radiohead boys. You know, anyone I have met like that, you just realise that they are all just normal people. The people that have made it, have got there because of an extraordinary amount of hard work, dedication and focus and will. When they do make it big, they are usually grateful and happy for what they do. I think you find that it’s the big fish in a little pond that have all the ego. I mean there is a confidence to it but I am just not interested in people with large egos.”

The remainder of 2014 and early 2015 presents a ridiculous amount of interesting and diverse musical projects for Katie. She recently received a grant from the Australia Council to commission ten of  her favourite composers to write a song based on the poetry of Judith Wright, whom Katie is a huge fan of.  “I’m excited to be recording that with The Brodsky Quartet,” she mentions. “That’s underway and I have a wonderful list of composers including Carl Vine, David Hirschfelder, Paul Grabowsky, Paul Dean. Also I’m going back to my band sound a bit and writing an album, I guess a solo album but more of the band influence. Plus  I’m producing an all female project called Songs That Made Me with Australian female artists performing songs that made them and that’s for Women’s Cancer month and coming out in October. I’ll be touring that as well. Then I am going to China in a few weeks, apparently playing with a 500 voice choir playing in an ancient castle where very few westerners have been. There’s  a project with the Sydney Dance Company that we want to take to Europe too but next year I want to go back in the studio and get some songs out of me.”

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