Ahead of the 2016 Melbourne Music Prize submission deadline (July 11). Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with 2013 winner Stephen Magnusson to chat about the benefits of his win

“The fact that you can just focus on your ‘thing’ for a little while, is so important,” Melbourne based guitarist-composer Stephen Magnusson tells me. “Sometimes it is nice to just do that one thing that you really want to do and not have to worry about other stuff.” He’s talking about the consequences of winning the Melbourne Music Prize in 2013. Sure, there was a great deal of money involved, a travel component and a lot of press attached to his win but to Stephen, the most important benefit of winning first prize in the Outstanding Musician category, was the time it gave him to focus exclusively on a project, the recording of his band Magnet’s second album. “It is nice that someone appreciates what you do and it also makes projects possible,” he adds. “You get some press which was fantastic. There was a flight, a voucher from Qantas which allowed me to go to New York to do some research on music. It gives you opportunities to achieve your vision. Think about your favourite people on the planet that do their thing, most of them just got to do that  … most of them. That’s important. Think about someone like Stravinsky, he just wrote music, almost every day of his life, between 3 and 4 hours a day or more. How great would it be to just do that and The Melbourne Music prize allows you to do that for a while.”

We’re discussing his 2013 win because the music competition, which has a three year cycle, is back again and entries are now open, closing at 5pm on July 11th this year. It’s open to all music genres, includes performers and composers and offers $130,00 in total prizes in 5 categories, which includes;

$60,000 MELBOURNE PRIZE FOR MUSIC 2016 is for a Victorian musician, or group of musicians, whose work has made an outstanding contribution to Australian music and has enriched cultural and public life.
$30,000 OUTSTANDING MUSICIANS AWARD 2016 – plus $2,500 Qantas international travel is for a Victorian musician or group for a recent work representing outstanding creativity and skill.
$25,000 BELEURA AWARD FOR COMPOSITION 2016 is a new category for a composition of outstanding musicianship, skill and creativity.
DISTINGUISHED MUSICIANS FELLOWSHIP 2016 is a new category supported by the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM) providing a commercial engagement with the VCA and MCM to the value of $20,000.
$16,000 DEVELOPMENT AWARD 2016 is for an early career musician or group, 30 years of age and under, demonstrating outstanding musical talent with the potential to develop their professional career – comprising a $6,000 rrp. Yamaha Music Australia music instrument and equipment grant and $10,000 cash
• plus there’s a $4,000 CIVIC CHOICE AWARD 2016 supported by Readings for the finalist with the highest number of public votes.

So for Stephen Magnusson, it was the second Magnet album, SOM which he was able to complete and release in November 2015 with the assistance of the prize. “It was fantastic to receive that support from such an amazing organisation” he says in appreciation of the people behind the Melbourne Music Prize. “It’s so healthy for the music community. If you have the opportunity to receive a prize, you are very fortunate. It was such an honour to be nominated with such amazing peers. It was like a movie. I’d never won anything before and then they announce your name and you think, that’s not me. I was so nervous to speak in front of people.”

Magnet is just one of many projects which Stephen dedicates his time to. Other recording and performing projects include MAG (a trio), Elixir (with Katie Noonan), Kinfolk and Boundaries to name just a few. He also teaches guitar and informs me that he has done so since primary school. In fact Stephen was intrigued by the guitar and music from a very early age. “I always had a fascination with the instrument,” he says. “Probably seeing it on TV and I associated it with the music in my mum and dads record collection. My uncle owned a guitar too, so I saw that and wanted to play it. There was also this guitar I saw in a music shop in Bulleen. I would have been five or six and I just wanted to look at it and touch it.”


In later years, Stephen was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and was fixated on knowing how to play the song. “I got some music and learned how to play it. I went through different stages though, rock bands like The Angels and AC/DC and that lasted a year or two. When I got into my early teens it was The Police and Andy Summers. I was into Ian Moss and Chisel. I loved his playing. Then because of the lessons I was getting from my teacher he opened me up to others things like improvised jazz … George Benson, Larry Carlton, Wes Montgomery, Lee Ritenour. I’d buy guitar magazines and discovered Eddie Van Halen but at the same time, Al Dimeola. That led me on my way to learning about improvisation and I was going to a jazz school by then, I was at VCA.”

Like any young Australian Musician, Stephen paid his dues and endured some unpleasant gig experiences amongst the more enjoyable.  “There was this one gig in Shepparton where we were playing Santana-style, latin stuff but they expected us to play that song which was a hit at the time, ‘Lamabada’,” he tells me. “People were booing and throwing things and the venue people said, stop the show, we’ll pay you but you have to leave now.”

Eventually Stephen’s thirst for knowledge led him abroad. “I went overseas in 94, that rites of passage thing where you want to see the world,” he explains. “I ended up going to Amsterdam because Bill Frisell was playing and I wanted to see him. I had a friend living there, so I saw Frisell and then ended up seeing heaps of gigs. A couple of other music friends said we have a contact in Zurich, let’s go there. I stayed in Switzerland for a couple of years, then I came back and got a work permit to work officially as a teacher in Zurich. I taught at that school for two years and tried to get some gigs in Europe. I lived there until 2001 and came home.”

While Stephen has quite a collection of music gear, unlike many others he’s not obsessed with the acquisition of more. “I’ve had the same guitars for quite a while now,” he says. “The electric guitar I have is a PRS custom. I snapped the headstock off a couple of years ago and it’s been glued together and looks crusty but sounds amazing. I’m one of those people who … if it works, don’t fix it, don’t change it. That’s my workhorse guitar. I have a nylon string guitar made by Jim Matheas, a Melbourne luthier and that sits on the couch and I play it a lot. Amp-wise,  I’ve had a Vox AC30 for 5 or 6 years and I love it. It probably needs new valves but if it sound good, don’t change it. I just want to play the notes and not worry about that stuff.”

The ever-popular Magnusson is constantly working, whether it’s with one of his own bands or other equally skilled musicians such as James Sherlock or internationals passing through town like Paolo Angeli. He will also soon be participating in Melbourne Music Lab’s upcoming Winter Masters Series, in which eight great Australian guitarists including Slava Grigoryan, Geoff Achison, Doug deVries, Bret Garsed, Fiona Boyes, James Ryan, and series organiser Lucas Michailidis, each lead a 2 guitar hour masterclass. The Winter Masters Series begins on June 21st.

In the meantime, Magnusson is looking forward to seeing what talent emerges out of the 2016 Melbourne Music Prize as it heads towards its July 11 submission deadline. “I think I just read about it online,” recalls Stephen of where he first heard of the Melbourne Music Prize. “I thought it sounded fantastic.  I submitted but didn’t win. Genevieve Lacey won it that year in my category and she’s amazing. Then in 2013 I thought I’d submit again and I got it. It was very humbling.”
Stephen Magnusson’s website:

For more information on the Melbourne Music Prize click here

Information on the Winter Masters Series:

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