Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Katie Noonan adds new strings to her bow

19 February 2022

An intimate concert with Katie Noonan confirms the breadth of her reach as one of Australia’s leading performers, and takes long-time fan Rosalind Appleby back to an earlier encounter.

It’s been two decades since a young Queenslander Katie Noonan and her indie rock band george performed with the WA Symphony Orchestra in Kings Park.

It was evident, as her voice spiralled over the orchestra, that Katie Noonan’s skills were broader than your average rock singer, and she has since traversed jazz, opera, classical music and more in her ascent to becoming Australia’s favourite songstress.

Or perhaps a more fitting moniker is the title some of Noonan’s Queenslander fans have bestowed on her: yellow-crested cockatoo (an apt description of her fluffy mohawk!)

On Friday night in the foyer of the Art Gallery of WA, the songbird is at her most personal and poetic. Her Perth Festival performances with the Sartory String Quartet (including a regional tour) provide vignettes of the musical worlds Noonan has explored thus far.

Singer Katie Noonan sits behind a keyboard as she sings into a mic. The woman wears a black t-shirt, red and white scarf and a yellow pair of glasses.
Katie Noonan wields her voice like a double-edged sword. Photo: Court McAllister.

Starting at the piano she leads us through some early songs “Quiet Day” and “Bluebird”, her entrancing voice – pure, breathy and agile – testing out the gallery acoustics with increasing assertiveness. There is almost a fragility to these opening jazz ballads, cushioned by the warm chords from the quartet as they wrap around Noonan’s emotion-laden voice.

Intensely personal songs, like “I Found You” and “Emperor’s Box”, offer glimpses into motherhood and soulmate love, arranged for piano and quartet by jazz luminaries Paul Grabowsky and Stephen Newcomb.

Noonan wields her voice like a double-edged sword, slicing with the precise clarity of a digital sine wave, then carving with vibrato-laced delicacy.

The horizon broadens in the second half, and we hear songs Noonan has commissioned from Australian composers, setting to music the poetry of iconic artists such as Judith Wright and Michael Leunig.

The restlessness of Wright’s poem Late Spring is captured in Elena Kats-Chernin’s unsettled string harmonies. There is a strength without harshness which epitomises both of these great artists, and Noonan and the quartet convey it masterfully.

The poetry of Oodgeroo Noonuccal (activist Kath Walker) is the inspiration behind a series of three songs for voice and quartet composed by Thomas Green, Robert Davidson and Noonan. The quartet – Pascale Whiting (violin), Susannah Williams (violin), Katherine Potter (viola) and Sophie Curtis (cello) – shine in these challenging works, which have an almost operatic breadth. Emancipated from the piano, Noonan sculpts the music with her hands, articulating each line with detailed artistry.

It might be nostalgia, but my favourite is the closing number “Breath in Now”, from Noonan’s double platinum 2002 debut album Polyserena. There’s been another seven platinum albums and 27 ARIA Awards nominations since then, but there is a youthful passion immortalised in this indie rock power ballad. The strings capture the rhythmic energy with pizzicato plucking and Walker’s cello sings in counterpoint with Noonan’s trademark stratospheric soprano.

Noonan possesses an incredible instrument and what makes her artistry even more impressive, as she takes her place as one of Australia’s great musicians, is the way she utilises her renown to give also voice to poets, composers, musicians and Australia’s First Nations people.

Katie Noonan performs at AGWA on 19 February and Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre on 20 February.

Pictured top: Katie Noonan and the Sartory String Quartet. Photo by Court McAllister.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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