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Holly Norman - photo by Daniel Grant
Holly Norman - photo by Daniel Grant

Holly Norman is what happens when government doesn’t invest enough in the arts. Even though the arts, in particular music, add so much more to the country’s bottom line than that favourite pastime of the publicity-hungry politician, sport. I didn’t see any politicians mugging the cameras from the front row at Norman’s EP launch earlier this year. Mind you, Norman probably didn’t have any politicians on her invite list, either. Maybe it cuts both ways, this dance between the arts and government?

Norman…is a writer of pure, honest and beguiling stream-of-consciousness songs

As a musician, Norman is as complex a human being as you would ever want to meet. She exudes an air of competence, even confidence, but sit down and talk to her and that dissolves away in her ocean of self-doubt. At one point during our conversation, Norman said, “I’m not even a very good feminist because I prioritise being a mother to my daughter these days.” Things got a bit combative at that point as I suggested that motherhood is one of the purest and most enduringly feminist acts and Norman wanted to maintain the line that a true feminist should be able to have it all, motherhood and career. When a woman can feel guilty about being a mother, something is gravely wrong with society. I don’t know how we fix that.

When a woman can feel guilty about being a musician, as Norman also does, that’s a much easier fix.

“I limit my music practice to one day a week, now,” Norman said. “I’m going away soon on a retreat to write music, but I don’t feel good about the time that will take away from the other things I do.”

Those ‘other things’ include journalism, teaching yoga and wellbeing, particularly in the context of the arts, tertiary studies in counselling, music management and event promotion. That’s a lot. I felt lazy just listening to Norman speak about the breadth of her professional interests. And, sitting across from Norman, I have no doubt that with all that breadth, there also is depth. Norman is not someone to do things by halves.

Starting her career as a classical percussionist, Norman has difficulty with the label ‘drummer’, shrugging it off with, “I don’t know if I’m really that good.” Of course, this is typical of musicians, self-effacement is a mandatory component of an existence on the slippery slope of for ever putting in and never really getting anything tangible back. Yet, as a drummer I have seen Norman turn up to a gig on the back of one rehearsal and play her part seamlessly. She is definitely a drummer. And, before you start with the stereotyping — she’s just a woman and drummers are just people who hang out with musicians — Norman also is a writer of pure, honest and beguiling stream-of-consciousness songs; a vocalist; and, though she does her best to play it down, a multi-instrumentalist. “I’m learning how to play the ukulele,” was as much as Norman would admit.

Norman also has presence. You know when she’s in the room. You know when you speak with her that you’re with someone extraordinary. She’s smart, capable, strong, talented, warm and open. She’s also restless and conflicted. Listening to Norman it’s easy to imagine that she does her creative work in bursts of intense energy, sticking with things until she has exhausted her ideas and herself and then moving on to the next thing once she’s picked herself up off the floor.

“I just have so many interests,” Norman said. “I like to follow my passions, and I have an intense interest in people. As far as the music industry goes, there’s a lot of issues with mental health and wellbeing and people sometimes struggle with the parts of it that are not about creating music. If I can help people with that, that’s a good thing.”

That’s how Norman got involved with Support Act, a charity that was established in 1997 to provide crisis relief, mental health and wellbeing support to musicians and music workers across the industry.

“I saw what they were doing during lockdown,” Norman said, “and I thought maybe I could do something to help, get involved.”

Norman’s latest article for Support Act explores the idea of boundaries as part of maintaining healthy relationships with self and others. She also is a presenter for Support Act, speaking at their mental health events. For Norman, this is a way of giving back to an industry that she obviously loves. The question is, does the industry love her?

I asked Norman about success in the music industry and her response was pretty standard.

“I don’t measure my success as a musician by the money I earn,” Norman said. “I write and play music for myself so my success is tied up in my satisfaction with my practice as a musician.”

By standard, I mean that Norman sidestepped the idea that success should involve a measure of material return for her investment in herself as a musician. That’s what every musician when asked the same question will say, even those who are doing quite nicely for themselves. The idea of material success in the music industry is complex, because so few ever see a return on their investment. Any musician who has earning a living from their music as a goal is more likely than not to fail and being a musician is legitimately about so much more than filthy lucre.

But, there is another way and Norman is as close as you could get to being the poster child for the alternative, though she may not yet know it herself. During the 2020 national Covid lockdown, corporations like Qantas were gifted terrifying amounts of money by the government, which also supported sports like the AFL and NRL to continue apace. At the same time every live music venue across the country was boarded up by order of the same government, which handed a pittance to Support Act as a sop to the musicians they so obviously did not value. The iniquity was startling and, I’m guessing, was part of what drove Norman to lend a hand.

Post Covid, the music industry has come back to life and, on the surface, little seems to have changed. All over the country, musicians like Norman are writing, recording and playing music again and audience numbers have returned to their pre-Covid levels. However, no one in the industry is questioning whether there could be a different way, and the government’s take away seems to be that they can cut the music industry off at the knees any time it’s convenient for them, destroying the careers and incomes of thousands, with impunity. The music industry still relies on charity and, while that continues to be the case, talented artists like Norman will continue to add to the cultural fabric of our nation without sufficient recompense. This is patently unfair and governments have to be taught a better way.

With her diverse interests and capabilities, perhaps Norman could be the one to spark change?

“I know I won’t always get paid what I’m worth as a musician a musician, at a level that reflects the hours that I put in,” said Norman, “but I do expect to get paid something. I don’t work for free, but what I earn rarely reflects my investment. It’s very difficult to put on a show and break even, let alone earn a living. I make music, I play music, because it’s part of me.”

Maybe, if they were taught the true value of contemporary music in our community, the economic, cultural and social benefits, the government might consider paying musicians like Norman a living wage? Then Norman and musicians like her could focus their lives on developing their talents, adding to our nation’s cultural bottom line, without having to constantly worry about putting a roof over their heads and food on their tables.

Now, that would be something.




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