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Gina Williams is a Patron of Fairbridge Festival and an iconic contributor to Western Australian music. She works passionately for the preservation of the Noongar language. Though she will not be performing this year, she shares some inspiring gems about the role Fairbridge has played in her career, making friends with idols, her relationship with songwriting, and diversity in the arts. Williams spoke with EMMA STOKES, an emerging artist who performs as Daisies Net and can be seen across the weekend debuting at the festival this year. Fairbridge Festival takes place from this Friday, April 20 to Sunday, April 22 at the historic Fairbridge Village an hour south of Perth, near Pinjarra.

You’re a Patron of Fairbridge – what does that mean to you exactly?

Well I think it means you’re someone who gets to champion this amazing event. It means I have an opportunity now to give back. I feel very lucky to be associated with them and I feel very lucky to be a patron.

Personally, I’m not very career oriented when it comes to my music, but festivals like Fairbridge are viewed as a stepping stone for exposure and bigger opportunities for emerging artists. Was Fairbridge a big thing for you when you first played there?

What I love about it is that you have this opportunity to sit in intimate venues and see world class performers and we’re kind of in the same place together. It’s not just about what goes on onstage, there’s lots of other things that go on around you. And the moments of magic often come out of the things that happen offstage, so the collaborations and practices, and you get to meet people. You get to see acts that – I mean I was a really big fan of Desert Child ­- and I’d done Fairbridge a couple of times, and years later I get to work with Guy Ghouse (of Desert Child), so it’s pretty remarkable.

That’s so true what you say about… ‘networking’ is a really stupid word but, friendships that can be formed?

Yeah you make friendships with people and build relationships. What I really love about Fairbridge is that the audiences are really discerning, they’re there because they want to see you, not because they’re just taking a punt. That’s always really special when you’re an artist, you really appreciate having a listening audience. Like, the chapel at Fairbridge is probably one of my favourite places on the planet to sing.

Yeah, everyone’s there because they want to be there. They haven’t just breezed in…you can’t really just breeze into this plot of bush… (laughs)

Yeah that’s right (laughs) you have to be fairly deliberate about being there.

Conversations about diversity, especially in the arts, are gaining momentum lately, at least in the circles I’m in. Your identity as a Noongar woman is clearly very important to you as a woman and an artist. Fairbridge is also an entity that prides itself on diverse line-ups – in your experiences has it always been this way? Have you always felt comfortable there?

Yeah, I’m very lucky in that I’ve always felt really loved and supported. Fairbridge is special, they gave me my first gig – and I know there are a few others around town who would probably tell you the same thing.

I think the programming is always done really beautifully and it’s always really sensitive. I know Rod Vervest the Artistic Director has reached out a lot to local [indigenous] community to make sure there’s engagement which has been really wonderful. I think that as far as being inclusive… it’s an incredibly inclusive festival.

Gina Williams, left, with Daisies Net’s Emma Stokes

So I was reading about your life in preparation for meeting you, and the process you undertook to reconnect with your heritage. It seems to me that your music is very intertwined with your cultural identity…

Oh absolutely.

You began learning Noongar at a TAFE course when you were 40 years old? Were you a musician before you started learning language?

I released an album back in 2005 and it was all English. The album reflected on meeting my biological Mum, changing foster homes, the suicide of my sister, death of my father, my own battle with anxiety and depression, and it touched on stolen generations. It felt like I’d said everything I needed to say in that one album. I kind of thought that was it for me… I wasn’t going to write any more songs. It took Guy years of going, “you should write songs in Noongar, you should do this”, and I’d go, “Guy, I can’t”.

It wasn’t until I went to the UK, I spoke to the national director of the Eisteddfod of Wales and he was talking about random acts of civil disobedience as a way of turning the Welsh language around because their language had been decimated by the establishment. They basically graffiti stuff. I said, “that’s great for your mob, but where I come from, we would get locked up in a heartbeat.” He said, “oh, you don’t have to do enough to get arrested, you just have to do enough to get noticed. You have to work out what it is that you love more than anything, and how can that apply to language; and you go for it- you pursue it.” And it was a no-brainer for me, I thought, obviously I have to write songs.

I got home and Guy asked how UK had been and I said… “I’ve gotta write songs in language!” and he looked at me with this big grin. I said, “yeah okay, you can say it.” He smiled and said “I told you so” (laughs). I feel very lucky that I get to combine the two great loves of music and language in a way that provides a legacy for my kids and the generations that follow. Our language has been reduced to a whisper but I can be a part of a movement that changes that. I’m hugely invested. It’s deeply personal, you know. I guess for as long as I draw breath I’ll keep working towards those things.

That’s amazing…

It occupies a lot of my thoughts. If I’m not actually on stage I’m thinking about what more can we do? Is what we’re doing representative of this language. Is it the most beautiful/compelling way we can deliver something. Does it give it integrity? I was never thinking those things when I was writing songs in English.

If it’s occupying a lot of your thoughts I think it’s always an indication that it’s the right thing. If you’re so consumed by it…

Yeah as long as its not at the expense of everything else. I just want my kids to feel loved enough and know it’s all for them, and for their kids.

Yeah and it absolutely is for their kids. In your questioning of that, do you know what more we can do to preserve language?

Yeah, I do. When Guy and I were on the road we were doing this interview and it suddenly dawned on us… if every single person learnt five words… like if you go to a dinner party and there’s a French person there, you can’t wait to bust out a few French words… if we could do that with the languages of the land we’re whacking around on, our languages would be secure.

And then if people learnt just five words they would realise how beautiful these languages are and they would learn even more.

Five words is not a very big ask….

Yeah, and it’s a great hashtag… #fivewords

(laughs) The technical age is taking over all of our thoughts…

Yeah, I don’t have any issue with that, I think that’s powerful and how we survive, cos if we sit around waiting for the institutions and government to move, then we’re dead in the water. We’re finished before we even start. It’s up to us to figure out what we can do.

What advice would you give to yourself if you could zoom back in time and have a cup of tea with Gina 20 years into the past in relation to music?

[immediately responds] Be brave. It all works out in the end. Just be brave, work out what makes your heart beat faster and pursue it to the end of the earth.

That’s really great advice. Do you feel like you already kind of knew that?

I mean inherently I knew, but I was never game to actually act on it, never game to actually back myself. But I’m getting to the point now where [when I struggle, I have to remember] I’m the last person that any of this is for. Less than 1% of the Indigenous population identifies as a language speaker. 40,000 noongars identified, less than 400 actually put their hand up and say “I’m a language speaker”. We don’t have the time, we don’t have the luxury of cowardice. So I have to be brave.

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