In her own words, Billie McCarthy is in the throes of a “dirty love affair” with Neo Soul. Born in Tamworth and an alumnus of the Newtown School of Performing Arts, Billie is a singer, songwriter and comedienne whose work has been heavily influenced by the country and blues traditions of northern New South Wales.
With a soulful voice and her unique brand of comedy, smokey jazz and cabaret, Billie has made a name for herself as one of Sydney’s favourite live performers. Her musical stylings have even garnered the attention and praise of soul music legend Jill Scott.
Recently she’s been appearing alongside soul powerhouses Alphamama and Ngaiire, with whom she performed at TEDx Sydney in June. She’s also a regular on the festival circuit, having graced the stage at the Brisbane Festival, Sydney Festival, Byron Bay Blues and Roots and Java Soul National Festival in Jakarta.
We were delighted to work with Billie as part of the Festival this year for a photo shoot where she donned one of Shaun McGrath’s spectacular, and gravity defying headdresses. We spoke to Billie about performing in Sydney, writing across genres, and the power of storytelling.
You’ve lived and performed in Sydney for many years now, how big a part do you think the city’s played in your creative development?
Sydney is a hard city in a way. Not NYC or London hard but about as hard as this privileged part of world gets. It costs a lot to live here and people can be driven by money and the buying stuff so the Arts often feels like an afterthought. That being said we have some of the best artists in the world and the scene is small so everyone knows everyone and we all benefit from the beautiful things people make here. I still work with people I knew when I was in high school and we have all grown up together. Even in this challenging time for live music in Sydney there is still a soul there that is not like anywhere else.
You already have an impressive back catalogue of festival appearances, how does Sydney’s festival scene compare to the other cities you’ve visited?
We need more events like Sydney Fringe Festival! Events that push Sydney out of its safe, staid, work-and-go-home-and-watch-My-Kitchen-Rules sort of lifestyle. Sydney's festivals feel very highly regulated. I feel like the festivals that happen in NSW in general are often overrun with police and have a lot of requirements that often seem ridiculous such as sound restrictions for the Sydney Opera House outdoor events etc. Sydney is an international city and we need to have more and more venues and funding to support and showcase the incredible home bred talent we have here.
In what sort of venues do you most like to perform and why?
I love intimate venues. I like to be able to look my audience in the eye so small rooms are ideal for me. Venue 505 is great for having an attentive audience and yummy food. Play Bar is also a nice supportive place. Fridas and Lazybones are also lovely venues.
You’ve written jazz, funk, folk, soul and musical comedy, how important do you think it is not to be constrained by a single genre?
I come from a pretty varied background of musical styles so I've never really thought about it much. The various members of my family played Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Funk, Soul and ClassicaI music, so it was always varied. I try to write to the style the subject matter dictates. Or I write to whatever I'm being paid to write to! Its often as simple as that for a lot of performers.
What is it about jazz and soul that really excites you as a songwriter?
Soul says it all really. Its got soul. It comes from a deep place and it feels good. Jazz harmony is always a combination of beautiful and baffling so it's forever gonna be appealing to me as a writer as I dip my toe into that huge sea of knowledge.
You’re also heavily influenced by blues and country music with their strong traditions of narrative storytelling. As a lyricist what stories are you drawn to most?
I often write at times when emotions are running high or to work through a problem. Love is often a problem so love is often a theme. Blues and Country pull no punches when it comes to emotion. It's balls out, in your face emotional storytelling. I think of myself as a storyteller so If what I'm doing as a performer isn't serving the lyrics then I'm not doing my job.
A lot of your lyrics are also incredibly funny, how important has comedy been for you in allowing your audiences to get a sense of your personality?
Thanks. I'm a total dag. I really haven't thought of myself as particularly funny but the nature of how I speak seems to make people laugh. I also swear a lot.
What do you want to see more of on the Sydney music scene?
Funding and support. I want my musician friends to have venues and financial and governmental support to produce quality artwork. I want Sydney to get its nightlife back and lose the lockout laws. I want new ways and incentives for the business world to engage with the Arts.