Katie Noonan talks Transmutant, the Sydney Dance Company & more!

As far as Australian vocalists go, Katie Noonan has always held a position as one of our best and most beloved performers. As both a solo performer and as part of the various collectives and projects she’s been involved with over the years, Noonan’s talent has always stood out as being honest, brimming with quality and moreover anything else, she’s remained incredibly accessible and approachable.

Recently, Larry caught up with Noonan while she was in the middle of her latest gig, working with the Sydney Dance Company and their production, Triptych. Along with ACO2 , Noonan’s provided the soundtrack to a trio of dance pieces by Rafael Bonachela.

“I’m really lucky,” Noonan said of her role in the production. “I have the best seat in the house, I’m at the back of the theatre and I’m surrounded by the chamber string orchestra and the dancers are right in front of me.  I literally have the best view in the house. It’s really meaty music for me to sink my teeth in to; it’s not easy music, so it’s a challenge every night to do the music justice.”

As it happens, Noonan’s relationship choreographer Bonachela stretches back further than just this Triptych  concept. Music and dance are two artistic mediums that obviously blend together effortlessly in many ways and as the songstress describes, her work with Bonachela has developed as fluidly as choreography to certain music pieces.

Katie Noonan/Triptych - GETTY

“I met Rafael Bonachela about six years ago,” she remembers. “He was newly appointed to the artistic directorship of Sydney Dance Company. We had a mutual friend in Noel Staunton, who is the former artistic director of the Brisbane Festival. Noel got together with me because we were hanging out in Brisbane one time and he said, “You should meet with Rafael, I think you guys would be a good creative match,”. We met not far from here actually, had a cup of tea and it just felt like I had met an old friend. Not long after, he came and saw me sing at the Opera House when I was doing a chamber orchestral version of my stuff; he came and enjoyed that and thought, “I’d love to have you sing at one of my shows,” so I did a show of theirs called Landforms, which was beautiful, then I did another show called Shared Frequencies.”

In amongst writing new music, touring and life off the road, Noonan still managed to successfully work with Bonachela and the SDC in delivering a sell-out debut season of his Les Illuminations work at the Sydney Opera House in 2013, a tribute to the compositions of Benjamin Britten. Again, it proved that Noonan’s creative mind is one that has the capacity to remain active in more than one field. Her new album, Transmutant, is reflective of this idea of change and constant transformation; as a writer, musician or live performer of any kind, transformation – whether good or bad – is a must. Noonan describes the response to Transmutant since its July release and the connection fans have had with her new material.

“It’s been beautiful.” she says. “I was reading this thing the other day, an article in The Guardian UK last week, I remember reading this quote [by Imogen Heap], “Music without an audience is kinda like a joke without a punchline” – it is. You make this music because you need to make it and it comes from you and it has to come out; it reaches its full formation when it means something to someone else, that’s kind of the ultimate thing. So for people to take the time to write to me and say this record has meant things to them and it’s been relevant to their life is incredible and very exciting. It’s been received really warmly. The album is called Transmutant, so it’s about transformation and change and it feels like a lot of people have been feeling the same things that I’ve been feeling. A lot of growth, necessary growth and not particularly easy growth, but good growth; I’ve observed it in my life and my friends life and lots of people. It seems to be a common thing which seems to connect with people, which is awesome.”

Single “Quicksand” is perhaps one of the pieces of music featured on Transmutant that has captured the attention of many as a standalone track, but the film clip which was delivered further solidified this new phase of Noonan’s artistry explored on the record.

“I always had a pretty strong visual narrative in my head when I was making the record,” she says, remembering the making of the song. “I thought that would be the main track that we’d go with. So that was one of the first ones that I demoed with Colin Leadbetter, who I co-produced the record with; I feel like we created a really nice sound world that gave me the green light to work with him on the whole record, really.”

Noonan praises the work of featured dancer in the music video, Charmene Yap and choreographer Cass Mortimer Eipper, two performers she had first worked with during her work with the wider Sydney Dance Company.

“I particularly love Charmene’s dancing, she’s incredible,” Noonan enthuses. “They’re all incredible, but her partner Cass is starting to do more choreography, so he choreographed her. I always imagined her in the clip and I was just trying to find a director who would support the vision, but also bring their own thing to the table. Gavin Brown, who’s this fantastic director from ZSpace, he really got the vision; he realised that I wanted to do something very beautiful. I wanted to make a $30,000 film clip without having $30,000. He amazingly pulled together a great team of people who are all experts in their field and I worked with my favourite DOP Tony Luu, who I’ve been working with for about 20 years – he did all the george film clips. So as I was saying before, that kind of inspired the hair change, because Charmene has such beautiful, jet black straight hair, I thought it would be kind of nice to have that juxtaposition in a black and white clip. Also, it reflects the change that I’m talking about in the record as well.”

Fans will be able to see the new live show Noonan and her band have been busy crafting over the next two months, as she travels the country with Transmutant, playing different festival sets as well as her own headline dates. Noting the slight changes in musical direction on Transmutant and how it has affected the live set up, she’s excited about the different new elements she’s been able to incorporate into the live shows people around the country have loved for years now.

“I think the nature of me and my band is that we’re always searching.” she admits. “We’re never gonna play the same set every night. We’ve all studied jazz, not that we are jazz in any way, but it just means we have the spirit of improvisation, so anything can happen at a gig. We’ve got a new guitarist, Peter Koopman, a fantastic young guitarist from New Zealand; he’s really great and having a lot of fun exploring the sound world of the record.”

“We did a warm up tour – the Peace Is My Drug Tour – but we didn’t kind of do the whole record then, so this [tour] will definitely be the whole record. I’m rockin’ out a guitar for the first time ever, rockin’ an electric guitar with my big muff pedal. That’s one thing that’s quite nerve wracking and different; I did actually play the guitar on the record as well, but it’s kind of a big change.”

“I’m excited about taking MKO SUN on the road with me,” Noonan says of her national support act. “I think she’s really quite phenomenal and I’m looking forward to seeing my audience kind of fall in love with her. I remembered when I first took Missy Higgins on her first national tour 15 years ago; I remember thinking people were going to fall in love with her and they did. I’m looking forward to seeing that happen on this tour, she’ll also be joining us on stage for a song in our set as well.”

Incorporating more electronics into the set doesn’t necessarily mean Noonan is ditching her roots at all, but it is indicative of an exciting approach to live performance that we might not have seen much from her in the past. Always an endearing performer, seeing things jazzed up and electrified a notch on stage with this material is an opportunity we’re keen to see realised.

“Every night, it’s slightly different,” she hints. “We’re really trying to incorporate the electronic world, so we’ve got samples and drum machines and stuff but always in a way where we’re the master of the machines, not the other way around. I must admit, I was at BIGSOUND and I saw some great stuff, but I was a little disappointed with quite a few acts I saw who were playing to track. I was just like, “Really?”. Fuck, I could never do that because there is no chance of improvisation and there’s no chance to stretch the time. I was just really surprised. I mean for some electronic music, I think it’s kind of necessary, but even still, when I’ve done some live electronic stuff with cln, it’s all live. We do it totally live so that you can, you know, make it a thing. I just don’t see the point in playing a track at all. I think it’s a very foreign concept to me.”

“I’m very much into electronics, but playing them live,” she says. “If they stuff up, the gig still goes on, it’s not like you’re reliant on it. I hate having laptops on stage, the chance of shit going wrong is a little bit too high, so we’re just trying to incorporate that electronic and cinematic world. A lot of the sounds on the record like the boy soprano, french horn and all this kind of orchestral stuff we’ve sampled, so we play them live, which is cool.”

Definitely not resting on any laurels, Noonan’s already looking ahead to 2016 and unsurprisingly, there aren’t many quiet periods on the horizon. Transmutant remaining very much as a priority tour-wise, she gives us a quick rundown on just some of the projects she has on the go once the New Year comes round.

“I’m going to London in January to make a record with the Brodsky String Quartet, which is very fucking exciting.” she reveals. “I first discovered them with Björk and then with Elvis Costello records. They’ve obviously done a lot of very heavy classical stuff as well, but they’re very much into non-classical collaborations. They’re just open minded classical musicians, which is exciting. I’ve commissioned nine of my favourite Australian contemporary composers to set the words of Judith Wright to music, so I’m just starting to get the music in for that now. I’m starting to learn all of them, it’s going to be an amazing record. Then we’re touring April/May next year.”

“I’ll [also] be making another record with classical guitarist Karin Schaupp, getting back to a bit more classical stuff. Then I’m sure we’ll probably do another tour for this record, I’m hoping to put it out on vinyl, so we might do that then. My other long term thing is I’m making a record with Elixir and Michael Leunig, so a few things on the boil!”


October 15th – Grand Hotel, Mornington | Tickets

October 17th & 18th – Foxtel Festival Hub, Melbourne Festival | Tickets

October 22nd – The Triffid, Brisbane | Tickets

October 23rd – The Byron Theatre, Byron Bay | Tickets

October 24th – Spicers Hidden Vale, Grandchester | Tickets

October 25th – Majestic Theatre, Pomona | Tickets

October 28th – Fremantle Town Hall | Tickets

October 29th – The Gov, Adelaide | Tickets

October 30th – John Painter Hall @ Australian Institute of Music, Sydney | Tickets

October 31st – John Painter Hall @ Australian Institute of Music, Sydney | Tickets

November 2nd – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine | Tickets

November 5th – Brass Monkey, Cronulla | Tickets

November 6th – Street Theatre, Canberra | Tickets

November 8th – Spicers Vineyard Estate, Hunter Valley | Tickets