Natasha Shanks looks happy as we chomp down on cheese toasties while watching a bevy of swans careen through Hyde Park Lake.
Early-morning joggers huff past behind us as I squirm, somewhat guiltily, in the haze of a hangover. On the other hand, Shanks is bushy-tailed and raring to talk shop. Having played one of Little Lord Street Band’s last shows of 2018 the night before, she’s busy relaying some insight Scott Adam, our previous TAFE lecturer, shared on the fluctuations of success in music.
“There’s dopamine that comes from working in the industry,” Shanks explains. “There’s a rush from performing as an artist and it sustains you, because you feel like that dopamine equals success, happiness, winning. We’re results-driven.
“So, when you’re not earning those results, that dopamine, are you succeeding? If you’re having some time out writing and recording an album, not getting that dopamine, does that mean that you’re unsuccessful? How do you break that down as an artist? Just because I’m not getting my fix, doesn’t mean we’re not doing things.”
With Little Lord Street Band going into relative hibernation in early 2019 to record their first album, it’s clear that retreating to a place offering less immediate gratification is on Shanks’ mind. Fair enough though; they’ve had a behemoth year. The Little Lord Street Band spent three solid months of 2018 touring Australia, which included the usual flurry of pub gigs and festivals, but also BIGSOUND showcases and an APRA AMCOS SongHub. The band also nabbed coveted WAM Award and Song of The Year nods, with Shanks managing the whole hullabaloo sans alcohol.
“There’s a clarity that’s come from my sobriety” Shanks says, reflecting on her recent one-year anniversary of not drinking. Our toasties are now finished and an industrial lawn mower beside us is making my head throb dully from the night before. I want to ask her how this all clicked; what was the tipping point that stopped her from drinking those damn riders. Alcohol, after all, is a huge part of the musical economy. In pubs, festivals and even in sponsorship deals: alcohol is so tightly bound to the music industry that it seems almost perilous to start pulling at the threads, lest the whole mess unravel completely.
“I was starting to feel very uncomfortable with how I felt in a room full of people who had been drinking,” Shanks explains. “There were a few personal things that happened for me, so going into an environment where I was in the company of inebriated people en masse, I felt so unsafe that it was giving me a lot of anxiety. So, I would have a few drinks to try and make myself comfortable. When that stopped working, I became aware that alcohol wasn’t the thing that was going to help. If anything, I needed to take that away. I needed to be alert so that I could manage my safety and security in spaces. There was a burred line and I wanted to erase it. I couldn’t afford for that to be an issue in my workplace.”
There’s still some tension though, in how Shanks’ current sobriety fits into a life of playing in pubs around the country for a living.
“I found myself curtailing the conversation,” Shanks admits, reflecting on how she introduced herself and negotiated riders in unfamiliar venues during tour.
“There were two reasons: I didn’t want the branding of the band to be synonymous with sobriety and I didn’t want that conversation to be the thing to remember us by. I wanted to be remembered by the music we were playing.”
Shanks joins an ever-growing number of mid-career musicians forging paths that decentralise alcohol from their practice, performance and business. From Fanny Lumsden’s Under Our Hills Hoist and Kasey Chambers’ Campfire tours, to Parlour house concerts, artists around the country are finding new ways to connect with audiences on their own terms.
“Lumsden’s definitely paving the way for finding new spaces,” Shanks says. “That concept was so incredible, because they’re towing their caravan half-way ‘round Australia – it has that appeal, doesn’t it? It’s as easy as creating a space wherever you want it. If you break it down and think about your art and how you’d like to share it, you can find a space anywhere. Then, it’s just about educating your audience on coming with you.
“Jimmy (Rogers, vocals/guitar) and I weren’t shy when we did the North West tour about sitting around the caravan grounds with a guitar. The people in our immediate camping area would come and hang and we got to know our neighbours. Some of the better nights were just playing there when everyone else was comfortable – that was a very easy exchange of art.”
After breaking more than a decade-long cycle of playing music, late nights drinking and managing hangovers, Shanks says, “I find joy – never thought I’d say that – in driving and making sure everyone gets home. I’ve never been so excited about a cup of tea and toast in my life!”
Jokes aside, there’s a deeper intent behind Shanks’ new approach to making and sharing music. When it comes to other artist’s probing questions into how she got sober, Shanks concedes, “People want to know, they need to know, and I want to be as transparent as possible because it’s fucking hard, the industry. Find what makes you work. Find what’s possible in your art and don’t convolute it; don’t bury it in alcohol and drugs. Be honest and true to your source of creativity, and then be true and honest when you’re preparing to share that with your friends and family.”
It seems so obvious now; sitting on the park bench, everything pleasantly dappled with mid-morning sunlight from the plane trees above us. For Shanks, living without the immediate gratification of constant gigging and the industry consolation of free alcohol is a kind of honesty she’s ready for, but her real story isn’t about sobriety or learning to take some time out – it’s what she makes because of it.
Check out The Little Lord Street Band’s summer dates here – www.facebook.com/pg/thelittlelordstreetband/events