Fem Belling, what is Kon Shes?

Kon Shes is a play of words.

People are asking me about and if we talk about it, it’s a conversation starter.
This project was always going to be about being conscious – being conscious in the world and being conscious about your decisions, about who is playing in your band and about the bigger picture, about the future.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be different than my other projects, but it is.

I went away around the world, earlier this year [ed.note — in 2018*], I had gigs in New York and London, I went to Cuba and South Africa, I did some jazz festivals as well, and I walked away feeling unbelievably angry at the world and upset and cynical – which is not me, I’m sunshine and flowers!

Jazz violinist and vocalist Fem Belling | Photo: Kevin Peterson

“But if you look around, you see that the world is in a very difficult place right now. Everyone is looking after themselves, no one is looking out for each other, governments are not looking after the people.

“So these songs started to come and they are all absolute diatribes on the state of the world and I was not expecting that to come out of my mouth. I did not expect the music that came out of me to be political, to be conscious jazz. I thought I would write a beautiful lovely AABA jazz standard that could swing. I didn’t realise that I was so angry or desperate. I didn’t realise I was so opinionated.

“I’m not sure that this project has its own sound yet, but I’m so proud of the people that I’m working with.I have worked a lot with Mina Yu, we are in a few different projects together and I also work a lot of with Tamara Murphy. We have chosen each other, we are friends.

“So I looked around one day and realise that the majority of my band is female, which is awesome. And I wondered if we can put together a majority female band without making it a token female band.

“I would love to raise the visibility of Australian women in jazz, but this is not the statement that I want to make. The statement from me is that I’m doing my originals for the first time – so far I’ve been singing mainly standards.

If you’re singing someone else’s music, beautiful jazz standards, you can interpret them and put your spin on it, but when you sing your own music, you are saying, ‘Here I am! Love me!’

“The more you do things from your heart, the more frightening it is. Totally.

“So I have this new project and the people who are playing are amazing and they happen to be female. And if I can inspire one female to go into jazz violin, that would be great.

But if the cause is to have more women contributing to jazz in Australia, there should not be just females in jazz taking it on – it should be men, it should be educators, everyone trying be conscious about the decisions that they make.

“I still struggle with this expectation of a jazz singer to look like something, the woman standing in front of the band and wearing something sexy, being the eye candy. Don’t get me wrong, I want to wear something amazing, but I really don’t want to stand in front of the band and sing; I want to be with the band and move around. I am a bulldog when it comes to contributing. I want to contribute, I never want to sit on the sidelines and see music pass me by, I want to be involved. So, if this is where we are at, I want in. I want to be part of that change.

“I’m hoping that my music goes beyond the jazz club. I would like to represent us on the world stage and I want to talk about issues. Yes, I want to write a song about these kids that are marching and changing the world.

“Never underestimate the power of a song to make someone think. If I’m writing a song about refugees coming to Australia and the awful refugee laws that we have in place, maybe that will make someone feel something, instead of just reading an article.

I listen to a lot of artists that have something to say, and I learned about a lot of issues I didn’t know about. Imagine if we could have political debates through music; instead of going to war, we would have some crazy free jazz solos. How good the world would be?”

Fem Belling presents Kon Shes [with Mina Yu on piano, Tamara Murphy on double bass, Cheryl Durongpisitkul on sax and Maria Moles on drums] on Friday 11 March at the Hawthorn Arts Centre. Get your tickets here.

*[This interview was originally posted on 7 December 2018]