12 Feb 2016
If there is one thing I can tell you about life and success, it’s that no one really has it all figured out.
I’m the lead singer in a band called The Grates. We’ve released four full length albums and an EP, all of which were feature albums on Triple J, we’ve hosted Rage, had international record deals and toured the world. We’ve been nominated for ARIAS. We played at Splendour in the Grass five times(!) and I’ve been on the cover of Rolling Stone. This all sounds really impressive on paper, yet I still have those moments where I doubt myself.
I grew up in Wynnum, in a housing commission estate. My dad worked in the Cannon Hill slaughter house (or abattoir if you are fancy). It was actually at TAFE Queensland Brisbane’s Alexandra Hills campus, where I studied drama in year 11 as a way of dodging school sport, that I met my bandmates, John and Alana. After I graduated I moved in with Alana and we started the band. Pretty quickly we recorded a few songs on 4 track and burnt a couple of CDs. John was booking us shows and our coolest gig was the 2am slot at Rics Bar in The Valley.
John and I were studying Graphic Design so we sent one of our CDs, in a really cute DIY case, to Robbie Buck, who at the time was hosting Home & Hosed on Triple J. Within a matter of days one of our songs, Trampoline, was on high rotation at the station. We grabbed at the opportunity, we recorded more songs, and soon our second single, Rock Boys, was also getting airplay and people were digging it. All of a sudden we were a group of untrained, sports-dodging 20/21 year-olds from Brissie with 2 singles under our belts.
But here’s the thing, I wasn’t a singer. I’d never taken a singing lesson in my life. Because I also couldn’t play an instrument, I sometimes felt like I didn’t belong, like I was a fraud in the music industry. I’d compare myself with others, and convince myself that I didn’t have the right stuff. It’s only with time that I realise that everyone feels this way a lot of the time.
In the early days everything was a learning curve. How to pack the station wagon to make more space in the back seat, how to design and produce merchandise, what to do when someone in the audience is heckling you, and how not to kill each other after driving together to Adelaide. But that’s the easy stuff, the hard part is learning how to do everything outside of playing a show. Trying to negotiate with record labels was intimidating.
I wasn’t a trained singer. I wasn’t even a wannabe singer. I just knew that being in my band with John and Alana felt special.
Our first two singles were being played on high rotation at Triple J when we were approached by Just Jeans, who wanted to use our first single, Trampoline, in an ad. It was a big deal and we didn’t have a manager so we negotiated ourselves. They were offering $4000, and we wanted the cash to buy instruments, so we jumped at the opportunity.
From this we ended up getting a booking agent, landed a record deal with a great company, and then secured even better management. Us, The Grates, two instruments and a singer, were, and still are, managed by the same people who manage Powderfinger. Then our first album went gold. It was a lot to take in, in a relatively short amount of time.
My path to success hasn’t been a traditional one and that’s okay. From the time we are born, we have people telling us what is best for us and dictating what we should do. But you need to find the path that suits you.
Believe that you are capable of whatever it is that you want, even though you don’t know how to do it yet, and even though no one else in your family has done it
We learnt a lot of lessons in those few years about the music industry, performing, writing music and ourselves. We were often at the mercy of other people who were making a lot of big decisions, some of them brilliant and some of them not so much. There were times when I was styled for photo shoots and thought ‘what kind of band am I supposed to look like I sing in’? I hosted a new music show for a short time, and I remember telling myself and everyone around me that I wasn’t going to do anything cheesy, then in my first broadcast I felt a lot of pressure. Before I knew it, I had said a bunch of stuff about how good Britney Spears’ new song was and just hoped that no one cool was listening.
It’s easy enough for me to tell you to take advantage of opportunities but you need to believe you’re worthy of that opportunity, and for some of you that’s the biggest step. You need to trust that you deserve awesome things. If something good comes your way, don’t push it aside. Fake it until you make it. Believe that you are capable of whatever it is that you want, even though you don’t know how to do it yet, and even though no one else in your family has done it. If you want to start a fashion label, just start, just do anything. The more you do what you want, the more people around you start to believe it. I wasn’t a trained singer. I wasn’t even a wannabe singer. I just knew that being in my band with John and Alana felt special. I was a pretender who sung and then got better along the way. The more I faked it, the more opportunities I had to refine my voice and now I am actually pretty good. That’s the thing about believing you deserve opportunities – sometimes you need to fake that too. The more you tell yourself that you deserve your opportunities, the more you will believe it, the more the people around you will too. Sometimes that’s just about getting up and getting out there. Leaving the house and doing a course might introduce you to someone who ends up being your life long collaborator or supporter.
Sometimes that’s just about getting up and getting out there. Leaving the house and doing a course might introduce you to someone who ends up being your life long collaborator or supporter.
In 2012 John and I opened our café, Southside Tea Room, in Morningside. We were dreamers inspired by our time touring the USA. We took all of the experience we’d gained from gigs in bars, diner meals and late night food joints and we turned it into something of our own. Opportunities can present themselves in the craziest places. But starting a café was about so much more than believing we could. It was hard work. It still is hard work. It’s just as crazy as our touring days, but it’s ours and we can do everything on our own terms. If five years ago, during our song writing slump, you told me that we’d be running a cafe, a bar and a food truck, I would have fallen on my face.
Success comes over time. And sometimes that means doing overtime so you can pay bills, wages and our quarterly tax without having to dip into the home loan again. In the beginning it was more double shifts than single shifts, more stress than happy, more antidepressants and vitamins than fresh fruit; but we made it through. Success was when I was able to stop working because I was 30 weeks pregnant. It was hard, hard work, but it’s taught me a lot.
While this sounds like a dream come true, it didn’t come without struggles. There have been times when I’ve been crippled with self-doubt, and times when I’ve let other people’s opinions mould me. One of the hardest lessons for me, was understanding that at times emotions can be stronger than facts. I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks for 13 years, before finally finding the best psychologist for me. Only now can I look back and recognise that there were times I was so clouded by irrational emotions, that I let that drive my decisions instead of hard facts. That’s why it’s so important to be able to surround yourself with good people who you can trust, who believe in you and will push you to do awesome things. You might shape the early years of some tiny humans in child care, you might brighten the day of some old folk, you might install engines into jet fighters, you might stay at home and be the best damn parent you can be.
Use your time at TAFE to make friends who think you are great. Remember those people, have their backs and with any luck they’ll have yours too. Making a change is a big deal and it’s normal to feel a little excited and a little scared. Don’t worry about it, as Eddard Stark says in Game of Thrones ‘You’re only brave when you are afraid’.