Penelope Swales: Folk That.

26 August 2002 | 12:00 am | Eden Howard
Originally Appeared In

Gourd Blimey.

Penelope Swales plays Griffith Uni at midday Thursday, the National Hotel, Toowoomba Thursday night and the Paddington Workers Club on Saturday.

“An hour, or even two or three hours of original music is a lot to take in, especially when there’s alcohol around,” explains Victorian songstress Penelope Swales. In the finest of folk traditions, Swales interacts with her crowd on a very personal level, giving the audience a background behind her songs. She continues to explain her rationale.

“About a third of my songs are love related – and they’re fairly easy to follow – especially the two main themes which are: “I just got laid and I feel great!” or “Oh bugger, it’s all going to shit!” But I sing about a lot of other topics that are more complex, politics, social commentary, etc, and a bit of explanation makes a lot of difference to how much people will get out of it. How much they enjoy them, and how warmly they respond.”

Swales currently spends upwards of six months of each year on the road, splitting her time between Australia with jaunts to New Zealand (her next destination after these Brisbane shows), Canada and the United States. As well as her touring commitments, she’s put five albums as well as the recent Archive package, made up of demo recordings put together since the mid nineties. Swales and her band have once again found time to enter the studio for a full-length recording.

“My band Totally Gourdgeous (named for their instruments, each handcrafted from gourds) have just finished our second album and we’re really excited about that – we’ll be in town to launch that at the Zoo on November 28. I’m currently working on a new solo album that will be quite different to anything I’ve done before.”

Are you more comfortable in the studio, or on stage?

“Tough call. I love recording more than almost anything, but I’ll only enjoy it if I’m well-prepared, don’t have to rush and like the engineer. Stage work can be fantastic, or it can be a real grind, and that mostly comes down to the audience. If they’re into it, they’re listening and they’re giving something back, it can be absolutely magical and extremely rewarding.”

What is your ideal gig? Who’s on the bill; who’s in the audience?

“A big gig at Woodford, packed to overflowing with Kristina Olsen, Rory McLeod, Bruce Cockburn, Kev Carmody and me, of course. Audience? Everyone who thinks that sounds like a damn fine bill.”

Are you still happy playing material from your earlier albums? Do they still represent who you are as a performer or as a person?

“My feeling is that if people still respond to those songs, they’re still saying something relevant and they’re still good songs. And I’m grateful that I have them, because some of them I couldn’t write now – I’m at a different stage of my life. I’m still basically the same person with the same convictions, but I’m older and I do see everything as being a lot more complex and subtle than I once did. I’m not as judgemental, nor as self-righteous, nor as angry. I’m a lot more compassionate, but I’m also a lot more cynical.”

“In a way, that makes it harder as a songwriter because people are conditioned to look for simple answers and I’m pushing against that. I’m trying to encourage people to think, to look beneath the surface of things, at the underlying factors that influence our lives whether it’s love, politics or sociology. In a way, I think I’ve evolved from the passionate young protest singer into something more like a musical journalist or even an anthropologist. I worry about getting too obscure, but people are still coming to the gigs and they are still responding well to new material, and that’s reassuring.”

“It’s good to have both, because it means I can appeal to a wider range of ages than I used to, and I’m proud of that. People often bring their parents to my shows, and they sit there looking patient at first, but they get drawn in, and I get a kick out of being able to win them over and offer them something thought-provoking. I love it when people come as a family, and everyone in that family can get something out of the show.”