Killarney musician Shane Howard says the timing is right to pass it on

THE sun might be shining through a line of Tibetan prayer flags above the garden but Shane Howard says the lights are growing dim. 

Former Goanna frontman Shane Howard (centre) mentors young musicians Yolngu singer-songwriter Yirrmal Marika (left), from Arnhem Land, and Alesa Lajana, from Queensland, in the garden of his Killarney home yesterday.   141003AM10   Picture: ANGELA MILNE

Former Goanna frontman Shane Howard (centre) mentors young musicians Yolngu singer-songwriter Yirrmal Marika (left), from Arnhem Land, and Alesa Lajana, from Queensland, in the garden of his Killarney home yesterday. 141003AM10 Picture: ANGELA MILNE

Age doesn’t seem to have slowed any plans for the iconic artist but with his 60th birthday looming next year, it’s something he’s wary of.

Yesterday afternoon Howard is sitting in a green corner of his Killarney garden. 

To get to his seat beneath the flags one has to walk past a makeshift studio, stepping over guitar cases and electrical wires and other home DIY bits and pieces scattered about.

Today there’s a few extra guitar cases in the hallway and a few more vegetarian pies than normal waiting on the table.

Alesa Lajana had heard a few tales about Howard before they shared a panel about political song writing at the Woodfood Folk Festival.

“It was a lovely meeting. We talked about doing work together,” Lajana recalls. 

They met again at a music festival in Mildura and made firmer plans. 

“I brought some cords down that I found on the banks of the Lachlan River. I carried them in my little bag all the way down to Wentworth and then I came here and we wrote the song in the studio,” she says.

This week she’s arrived in Killarney ahead of a show tonight at St Brigid’s Church Hall in Crossley.

It’s just one stop in dozens for the 30-year-old singer-songwriter from Mount Tambourine in Queensland. 

She’s not the only new face in the garden. 

Yirrmal Marika couldn’t be further from home. 

The sand dunes beyond the house represent the end of the Australian continent for the 20-year-old from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land.

“Yothu Yindi country,” Howard chimes in. 

For the last four years Marika has lived in Melbourne where he studies contemporary jazz. 

“He’s a great role model in music,” Marika says of Howard. 

The promising performer has also been mentored under Lake Bolac musician and Warumpi Band founder Neil Murray.

“I wrote six songs with him and with Shane I’ve done three of four for the EP next year,” Marika says.

For Howard who sits at the cultural crossroads of Aboriginal and Celtic culture, songs are akin to double helix strands in DNA.

Play something special enough and it will pass down generations. 

“The treasures are there for all of us in this country. We have access to the oldest human archetypal stories on this earth in our backyard. The treasures are compelling and at my age I am still going deeper and deeper into that world and the revelations within that,” he says. 

He’s also dividing his time as a mentor for younger artists.

The folk song might be timeless but music’s business model has been well and truly smashed.

Where it’s going is guesswork for Howard. 

“Everything is changing rapidly. About two years ago digital album sales were 15 per cent and now they are 50 per cent,” he says. 

Howard isn’t too keen on streaming services such as Spotify either, which he says will do little to support artists until play returns are lifted. 

His vision is more clear on guiding the songwriting. 

“It’s a beautiful thing to be coming to the end of your road and seeing the lights are getting dimmer but being able to pass the torch on to a younger generation coming through,” he says. 

“The thing for me growing up, when I was Yirrmal’s age ... all this music was coming to us from America and the UK. One day as a songwriter I went ‘all the action’s happening in other parts of the world’. No one is singing about this place.”

Richard Clapton’s Goodbye Tiger and Kerryn Tolhurst from the Dingoes were among a few who moved Howard’s imagination in the years of Goanna.

“They were singing and writing songs seriously about Australian subject matter. That really spoke to me. 

“I feel Goanna emerged out of that tradition. We wanted to be an Australian band that sang about Australian subject matter in a serious way,” Howard explains.

Today those bands and artists number a few more. 

“The territory has definitely opened right up. Even what Yirrmal is doing now is unimaginable 40 years ago, to come down from Arnhem Land and engage with the Melbourne music community,” Howard says. 

This week he’s helped polish Marika’s demo that will form the artist’s first EP. 

Lajana can stand on her own two feet but seeks out Howard’s guidance and “to keep tabs” on her. 

“I think we’re pretty lucky. I get the feeling when Shane was starting out they were kind of doing something really original and we’re receiving a baton from an older generation of songwriters in Australia,” she says.

Alesa Lajana will perform her Hidden Histories project at St Brigid’s Church Hall in Crossley tonight at 8pm. 


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