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Tall Poppy Syndrome Left Tia Gostelow With 'Thick Skin'

27 December 2018 | 2:43 pm | Anthony Carew

How do you go about putting the most formative years of your life on record? Anthony Carew spoke to rising songwriter Tia Gostelow about navigating high school, dealing with tall poppy syndrome, playing "soul-destroying" gigs for old men sitting at the pokies.

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Tia Gostelow’s debut LP is, she says, “about the last five years of my life: being in high-school, moving out of home.” At 19 years old, the Brisbane-based songwriter is coming out the other side of the adolescent experience. And, her experiences gave rise to the record’s greater theme. It’s called Thick Skin, and features tunes amounting to a study of that most Australian of cultural phenomena: tall poppy syndrome.

“I experienced it so much in high school, and it made going to school very difficult,” Gostelow offers. “That definitely gave me a thicker skin and made me a lot more resilient to everything. Now, I can deal with that stuff, I can deal with people not being happy for what I’m doing.”

The songs, though, were a product of the feelings — from self-doubt to sadness to righteous indignation — that came from wanting to play music, and having friends or members of the music scene “make [her] feel like shit” for doing so. Doubly so once, at 16, her solo career started to take off. It’s a familiar scenario that plays out on both micro and macro levels in a country conditioned to be endlessly self-effacing and self-negating, and that resents those who aren’t.

“It’s such a shit thing,” Gostelow sighs. “Australians really need to get over this. We need to be more supportive of each other, have more of a sense of community. Whenever anyone succeeds, and they want to talk about it, there’s this compulsion to bring them down, make them feel bad about themselves.”

Thick Skin’s title evokes not just getting used to teenaged takedowns, but of Gostelow’s early experiences making music. As a kid, music was furthest from her mind: until she was ten, Gostelow lived on Groote Eylandt, off the coast of Arnhem Land, where she was “very outdoorsy”. 

“I loved riding my bike with my brother, going swimming, going fishing, playing tennis, all that kind of stuff,” she recounts.

But the discovery of Taylor Swift and her family’s relocation to Mackay turned Gostelow’s dreams towards music. She cut her teeth with her own strange version of a teenaged McJob: playing four-hour sets of country-centric covers in local pubs. “Every Friday, Saturday, Sunday I’d be playing these four-hour covers gigs... playing in pubs where there were old men sitting at the pokies,” she recounts. “It was really tough. It’s really crappy to be sitting in the corner of a pub, having spent so much time learning four hours worth of songs, and have nobody really listening or clapping at the end of it. I’d describe it as ‘soul-destroying’, and it really is. I hated doing cover gigs so much, it made me want to quit doing music. [But] it’s definitely been a great lesson for me, playing in front of crowds who aren’t listening. Especially learning that so young.”

Over time, Gostelow started slipping her own songs into sets, then just performing her own music. At 16, she released her first single, State Of Art, which led to her winning triple j Unearthed’s Indigenous Initiative. From there, Gostelow kept performing, writing songs, eventually building up to her debut LP. Its title also evokes those experiences. “You definitely need to have thick skin to be in the music industry,” Gostelow says. But her toughest critic, it turns out, is her mother. “My mum manages me. People don’t know how to take that,” she offers. “She’s not a ‘momager’, she knows what she’s doing. She’s actually my biggest critic. She’ll tell me I sound like shit if she has to.”

Gostelow is grateful for the support of her parents who were there for all those teenaged shows and who would “force” her to show up and play when she couldn’t stomach another covers set. She may only be 19, but Thick Skin is the culmination of years of labour which has, finally, led to Gostelow living her long-held dream. And now she's played a string of festivals this season, including The Lost Lands and Fairgrounds, and will see her head to Falls Festival too. “It’s very surreal,” she marvels. “Especially to be doing it so young. I always thought that musicians were in their late-20s. To achieve this dream already is amazing... I’ve waited for this point in my life for so long, and for whatever reason it’s happening right now.”