Sweet symphony of songs and stories

2 April 2023

An actor, a singer and a symphony orchestra walk into a bar. What happens next is a tale full of unexpected delights, writes Julie Hosking.

String Sessions with Joel Jackson and Katy Steele, Perth Symphony Orchestra 
The Rechabite Hall, 31 March 2023 

In one corner we have an award-winning actor, in the other a lauded singer-songwriter. All that apparently holds them together is the superlative string section of Perth Symphony Orchestra. 

The beauty of PSO’s String Sessions – an intimate evening of stories, strings and symphony – however, is that you never know what you’ll discover.  

After hosting the inaugural event last year with jazz chanteuse Jessie Gordon and Noongar singer-songwriter Phil Walley-Stack, the affable Blake Williams returns to guide the audience through the music and lives of Joel Jackson and Katy Steele, encouraging them to share a little of themselves along with their songs.  He strikes just the right note, ensuring plenty of laughs as he teases Jackson to come up with something he can’t do well and tests Steele with a mini Rockwiz about her own history (one out of three ain’t great, Katy).

Joel Jackson is thrilled to be performing with the orchestra. Photo: Callen Dellar

Jackson grew up in regional WA, trying to entertain his family enough so they “would watch me rather than JAG” and dreaming of becoming a singer (Jack Johnson specifically). He is clearly pinching himself tonight, the privilege of performing with the orchestra not lost on someone predominantly known for his acting.  

His tall figure bounds up the small stage, where 15 members of PSO have somehow created enough space to manouevre their instruments, in this case violins, cellos and bass, with the skill we’ve come to expect.  Jackson wears his acoustic guitar with ease, opening with the whimsical Bicycle Song. It was written, he tells Williams in one of two armchair chats, for a mate who demanded a song about the girl he’d seen riding around Rotto by herself on a tandem bike in exchange for advice about a PA system. 

Runaway is a much deeper proposition, written about Jackson’s journey to forgiveness after an almost-fatal car crash he had as a teenager that left him racked with guilt. It’s a moving, almost mournful song that suits the feather-like string arrangement. 

Jackson has a chilled sound reminiscent of Jackson Browne or James Taylor and he favours that kind of musical storytelling, too. Currents is about the ebb and flow of life, a song that he also recently recorded with a string trio. PSO pares back the strings accordingly to lead violins and cello, beautifully demonstrating how less can often be more.

My Window in Brazil, which the former exchange student sings partly in Portuguese, and the playful Apple of My Eye round out an enjoyable set.  

Katy Steele sings in sweet harmony with Perth Symphony Orchestra’s string section. Photo Callen Dellar

Steele is part of WA music royalty; dad Rick is a blues legend, brother Luke is of Sleepy Jackson and Empire of the Sun fame; they even have a music room named after them at Steele’s former high school, Mt Lawley. The former lead singer of Little Birdy grew up going to gigs, so it seemed inevitable she would become a muso. Not so, she demurs in one of her armchair chats. She wanted to be a filmmaker and was making videos for bands until the then teenager realised she could make better music than most of them. 

What a waste of that distinctive voice it would have been had she stayed behind a camera. Dressed in fire-engine red, with hefty emblazoned boots to match, Steele opens with Rescue Boat, an aching, reverberating ballad from debut solo album Human.  

She then introduces the title track from Big Star, an album three years in the making that will be released in June ahead of a national tour. While we are told the album has more of a synth vibe, the song and Steele’s ethereal voice are well suited to the lush strings that waft and swirl around her like pixie dust. As she says, it’s “a banger” and is quickly followed by the equally rousing first single off the album, Come and See Me

We get a soulful take on Dolly Parton favourite Jolene – a missed beat or two simply smiled away  –before Steele delights long-time fans with a captivating closer, Beautiful to Me from Little Birdy’s 2004 debut BigBigLove. It sounds incredible with the orchestra.

When Jackson and Steele return to the stage, the audience is eager to see how their disparate voices and styles will work together. The answer? Choose a classic – Ben E King’s Stand By Me – play to your strengths and add some hilarious improvised dancing. 

It’s an endearingly geeky and thoroughly joyful end to an evening of discovery. String Sessions is a lovely reminder that people can’t be put so neatly into boxes and of the magic that happens when they are willing to step out of them. 

Perth Symphony Orchestra’s next performance is Disney 100: The Concert on 21 April at the Riverside Theatre 

Pictured top: Joel Jackson and Katy Steele join forces for a charming duet. Photo: Callen Dellar

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

Past Articles

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