I suppose I have always had a creative streak in me as I recall making up poems from a quite early age as well as putting on a Christmas show, full of music and madness, with my younger sister and brother each December for family visitors to our house. My mother was a major role model, being a poet herself whose poems when younger were often published in The Argus, including one about the King’s death which was also read over the radio at the time. Encouraged by me in the 1960s on discovering her talent, she undertook a CAE poetry writing course and subsequently had many more poems published in various magazines before her death in 2007. I also had a couple of poems published (one, hilariously, in three books in 1989!) but soon realised that I found more enjoyment and satisfaction from writing songs, as the blending of melodies with words has always fascinated and challenged me.
My father had no particular poetical bent but was an incredibly good whistler, and I clearly remember following him around his beloved garden, trying desperately to emulate him as he whistled merrily among the veggies and flowers. My lifelong love of whistling all stems from this and two tracks on my first CD (‘Roller-Coaster’) bear testimony to this.
However, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that I wrote my first folk song – ‘The Creeper’s Curse’, which burst forth in a fit of rage at my landlord once again chopping down my vines at my tiny rented house in North Melbourne. The song then became part of our repertoire in our early 1980s band, ‘The Squatters’ (formed with Bruce and Jill Watson and Benjamin Lindner). Moreover, this song has at last, nearly 40 years later, been recorded on my new upcoming album entitled ‘Baloney’. Being in a band was an incredible experience and loads of fun. As my house back then was very near Victoria Market, we decided to launch our newly formed band by busking at the market after meeting and tuning up at my place. And unbelievably, on that very first day of busking – with our repertoire of Aussie/Irish/Scottish songs and tunes plus our lagerthrone (an old wooden toilet seat) and my grandmother’s chamber pot to hold the money, in line with our Squatters title, we struck gold. Not only were we asked to play at a bush dance for the 9th Mordialloc Sea Scouts but we were also offered a job at a nearby restaurant called ‘The Odd Couple’……which they were! We kept them going for months by bringing along various friends & family to dine there on Saturday evenings, but soon after Bruce & Jill Watson left for America and our band stopped playing there, they folded.
A brief ‘Squatters’ reunion in America with a few house concerts followed – “Say something more; I love the way you Australians talk….” then a couple of other bands – ‘Drover’s Dog’ and ‘The Woop Woop Shrub Band’, before the long hard haul of sole parenting of three children began, reaching an all-time low in 1998 with the sudden death of my partner, Peter, and my ensuing four year legal battle. Needless to say, my musical activities plummeted during those years, although I did still keep working as teacher/librarian and I did still keep penning the occasional song or tune. One highlight was writing all the music for an amateur production, ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’, which was performed firstly by Hartwell Players and later by Moreland Theatre Company as part of Melbourne’s Fringe Festival. Another buzz was performing my ‘Breastfeeding Blues’ (also on my new album, ‘Baloney’) at a Nursing Mothers’ conference up in Bendigo – with other mums, using breast pumps as unconventional percussion instruments!
As far as instruments are concerned, having learned the piano as a child, I was able to teach myself to play guitar and tin whistle as an adult. On my first trip to Ireland in the mid ‘70s, I fell in love with not only Irish music but also the mandolin, so had a few lessons back home then hooked up with a couple of mandolin orchestras, with whom I played and occasionally sang. I also discovered, to my amazement, while hitchhiking around Ireland, that I could play by ear – sitting by the roadside playing a new mouth organ, all of a sudden I was playing ‘Swanee River’! However, my heart was more and more with folk music so I found myself doing the odd gig, e.g. a joint parenting concert with Bruce Watson, floor spots with Maureen Beggs at the Melbourne Folk Club, and possibly more importantly, I started my very first solo album in the early 90s. Due to the ups and downs of parenting and life, this took me forever to complete, but being in some ways a typical Scorpio (supposed to finish what they start), I eventually completed and released ‘Roller-Coaster’ in 2013.
Since then I have, through the Victorian Folk Music Club, become more involved in both the folk music and spoken word scenes. I have performed at many folk club gigs (e.g. in the Billabong Band at Woolshed Balls) as well as at various folk festivals. In 2015 I released a joint CD with Stephen Whiteside entitled ‘The Two Bees’ which mostly comprises poems by C.J. Dennis that I put to music. I have also over the past couple of years set many of Mary Gilmore’s and John Shaw Neilson’s poems to music, and hope to record these in the near future. In addition, Stephen and I have worked up a children’s show which incorporates music and poetry, all original material by us both, with a strong focus on audience participation. We presented this show in 2016-17 at the National Folk Festival in Canberra as well as at Newstead Folk Festival, where we are again performing in 2018.
About Maggie Somerville
Maggie Somerville is a Melbourne-based singer/songwriter, who has been writing and performing in bands, duos and as a solo performer, for over thirty years.