Esperance live music series Balmy Nights is set to return for its fourth year in 2021, hitting the Cannery Arts Centre, Esperance, on Saturday, November 20. This year features a lineup of artists headlined by 2020 ARIA Nominee Grace Barbé, who is joined by emerging Esperance musicians Bec Schutz, Mary Leske, and Darcie Haven, and well-established WA acts Oceanique, Joan and The Giants and Priscilla. Balmy Nights say the aim of the event is to celebrate women and genderqueer artists within the music industry, and to deliver an iconic event that becomes synonymous with Esperance’s and the WA live music scene. KYRON SMITHSON spoke to Grace Barbé to find out about her unique musical journey, and why Esperance can look forward to “lots of coconut shaking” on the night.
What can the Esperance audience, the majority of whom would have not caught a Grace Barbé band live performance, expect from your set?
Hello, and thank you for having us! We are very excited and very much looking forward to the show. Expect lots of coconut shaking! We give our audience an Afro-Kreol experience.
Your website has some absolutely rave live reviews on there, one saying “she had so much effortless class and attitude about her she made it look easy.” I bet that ability does not come easy though! What is your earliest memory of a love for music?
I have always been surrounded by music, being born in the Seychelles Islands. My Creole culture is a melting pot of so many subcultures, bringing a diverse blend of musical and cultural influences. Growing up in Seychelles before moving to Australia exposed me the richness of our music. I recall loving music from very early age, catching melodies and dancing.
How old were you when you wrote your first song and how do you feel about that first composition all these years later?
I think I would’ve been five years old when I wrote my first song. A song about building a wooden house but to build it we have to dance the Sega, which is one of our traditional and celebrated island dance. In the song I’m singing “My mum gave me a lot of wood, to build the house that is made out of wood…..ohh my dear, let’s dance the Sega, so we can build the wooden house” (laughs). I still recall the melody very clearly.
I was blown away by the quality of your vocals and ability to perform exceptionally complex bass lines while singing. Do you have any pointers for performers aiming to reach that level of expertise?
Well thank you. When I started practising and performing on the bass, I was already singing. So I didn’t drop the singing in able to learn the bass. I tried to understand the process of playing bass and applied this while retaining the vocal line. It wasn’t one or the other for me, I applied both until it became second nature. I don’t think too much about the complexities and how to coordinate the two. I will make a lot of mistakes otherwise! I think I naturally gravitate towards meshing the two and make them become one if that makes sense.
Practice, practice, practice. I spent a lot of my early adult years in my room practicing and falling in love with the bass guitar. It was either that or spending a lot of time going out clubbing!
For your Esperance show you will be performing as a three piece with Jamie Searle on guitar and Hardy Perrine on drums. Outside of musicianship can you give us some insight into individual characteristics that make for such an amazing band dynamic?
Jamie and I have been musical collaborators for almost 20 years now. He produced all three of my albums and we work well together. Although a bit on the reserved side, Jamie brings a wealth of expertise and experience to our musical projects, especially being from UK and having spent time in Africa learning from some amazing guitarists and mentors. He is well versed in reggae music. He also understands my “vibe” I suppose, and brings certain elements that I may otherwise not bring to the musical arrangement and production. We compliment really well.
Hardy our drummer, is from Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean. Myself and Hardy share similar culture, music and language being Creoles. Hardy brings that Indian Ocean Island flavour. He’s Mr Smooth (laughs)…hardy fits in very well and is a really awesome musician to work with. For those that don’t know, Hardy is also a qualified Chef!
While in Esperance you are set to deliver a songwriting workshop supported by WAM, Act Belong Commit and Mt Burdett Foundation free to the public at The Cannery Arts Centre. What can participants expect?
Songwriting structure, melodies, hooks, the story, how I write – as I’m very melody driven, writer’s block, what makes a song, arrangements and phrasing approach, especially writing in different languages.
Checking out your web I noted that you deliver an Afro Kreol workshop focussed on Kreol Cuisine. Can you give us a little background to this epic initiative?
My first Kreol Cuisine was at WOMADelaide Festival a few years back. I don’t know why I said yes (laughs)…but it turned out to be a amazing yet challenging experience. Amazing because it was at WOMADelaide Festival surrounded by a fantastic audience as well as artists who were flown from around the world to perform there.
A few artists were invited to showcase a cuisine from their homeland or culture. I chose to make a spicy Creole curry with rice and chutney. It was so much fun because I got to talk about the recipe, culture, cuisine, learning it from my mother, the band members helped and played some percussion in the background. Each artist received an assistant in case we got chopping the wrong thing (laughs)…I found it challenging because I was not on the stage that I’m used to, playing instruments I know. I was in a mobile kitchen in front of a big audience, chopping fish and carrots, while talking at the same time through a Madonna overhead microphone so I can move around! It was hilarious!
Which acts do you feel have had the greatest influence upon your songwriting?
There are so many. I would look at it like more musical influences rather than just songwriting as there are so many genres that contribute to my writing and musical styles. Fela Kuti, Tony Allen (Nigeria), Kaya, Cassiya (Mauritius), Phyllis Dillon, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Sly & Robbie (Jamaica), The Police, Betty Davis, Les Nubians (French), Madonna, Paula Abdul, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, Baster and Alain Peters (Reunion Island), and Oumou Sangare (Mali) to name a few…
Could you tell us your most influential moment within your music career thus far?
I would say having the late Tony Allen re-record one of our tracks from his Paris studio with his band as being up there. Receiving an ARIA nomination was also cool. So was doing an Australian national tour with The Cat Empire, and touring East Africa!
In 2020 you were nominated for an ARIA in the world music category, was the accolade entirely unexpected? Did you attend the awards night and if so best memory from the evening?
I wouldn’t say the accolade was unexpected as we have been working really hard consistently over the years and have contributed so much, especially towards world music here in Australia. It was actually exciting to receive the nomination alongside some amazing artists. Unfortunately, we could not attend the awards as we were in lockdown. So the awards night was virtual with limited guest presenters and performers.
It would’ve been amazing to attend. What we did do was record snippets of behind the scenes getting ready from WA. As they announced the nominees, we were tiled on a screen as they do at awards shows and if you win, they zoom in on your tile and you do a speech. We had Cinematographer Dave Le May prep us, attending the pre-award Zoom meetings to run through timings and logistics of the night. He decorated his lounge up with flowers and made it beautiful with me sitting in a lounge chair sipping champagne! It was quite fun as well.
Thanks so much joining us Grace, Esperance is absolutely stoked to have you down for Balmy Nights. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we leave?
Thank you for having me. See you all on the dance floor!