Billy the Rabbit (alive and singing)

Gyan Michael side stage

When singer /songwriter Gyan returned to Australia after eight years away she was a little bit broken; a little bit lost. ‘I came back from the USA pretty burnt out,’ she says, ‘and musically I didn’t know which way was up for me’.

Gyan  Michael side stage
Gyan & Michael Leunig

While she was trying to find her new direction, Gyan turned to Michael Leunig’s books. ‘I’d always travelled with Michael’s books as some sort of solace and over a period of 12 months, I started to put his poetry to music.

For Gyan, Leunig’s prose has an inherent musicality. ‘It’s metered; there’s a melody attached to it,’ she says. ‘All I had to do was listen.’

She went through 40 years of his work and interpreted pieces she liked, incorporating music and turning them into songs.

A friend who had worked with Leunig encouraged Gyan to send the songs to him – and when she did, Leunig loved them. In a letter to her he said, ‘I’m completely enchanted, honoured and amazed by what you have done with my poems. I hear my own words afresh, mirrored back to me by an angel!

He suggested a show and the performances scheduled for the Melbourne Recital Centre on 10 and 11 November 2012 form the most recent chapter of the work. It’s been performed and recorded before but audiences will hear new material and the show has been invigorated with a larger ensemble, new material and more focus on a combination of jazz and classical music.

Event details: Saturday 10 November 7:30pm & Sunday 11 November 3pm Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. See more >

The performance includes a suite of songs inspired by Leunig’s work. Leunig draws and speaks to his drawings, sometimes heading off into a trademark Leunig rave, or ‘dissertation’. That can segue into something unexpected.

‘Michael is a kind of visual jazz artist,’ says Gyan. ‘He doesn’t like to be scripted. In fact he’s a bit of a daredevil. As much as you’d like to plan, Michael would rather walk a tightrope. We offer the scaffolding in that there’s a set list and there are opportunities for improvisation, where we veer away from song form and build a different type of picture.’

This ‘veering off’ comes naturally to improvising musicians and she has a number of well-known jazz players in the project, including Lloyd Swanton (bass), Sam Keevers (piano) and Simon Barker (drums). ‘Simon Barker is like a builder to me, not a drummer. He builds sculptural rhythmic patterns and he and Michael feed off each other. Those moments in the show are unbelievably beautiful. We do of course have the songs, and Michael draws as the songs evolve.’

Her own musical apprenticeship had her working with jazz notables such as Hamish Stuart, Greg Sheehan the late, great Jackie Orszaczky.

Gyan has attempted to get Leunig to sing on a couple of tunes. ‘He was in a band in the early sixties, so he can’t get away with saying he can’t do it. It’s sort of exciting because we don’t know if he’s going to do it.’ He may be inspired to create a kind of ‘word jazz’ and she will weave the melody around it.’

The improvisational component of this project inspires Gyan. She says her own writing is probably ‘as simple as nursery rhymes’ for the musicians involved, but she admits that ‘sometimes the simpler something is, the more challenging it can be’. She loves how this show has turned out.

‘I’m the happiest I’ve ever been with this show. We’ve done it a couple of times, but this is the first time we’ve felt so connected. It’s so nice that we have the right palette here. The musicians are attentive, even to songs they’re not playing, and sympathetic to the line that Michael is drawing. Michael may suddenly want to head off in a direction and everyone who’s on stage can actually do that.’

The musicians have screens at their feet so they can watch what Leunig is doing and respond.

Sam Keevers, who plays piano in this project, acknowledges there are unique challenges to improvising while Leunig is drawing. ‘It’s similar to improvising to film (which I’ve done frequently) however the image in this case is changing, growing and expanding in real time. It’s not easy.’

The project combines classical and jazz musicians, and most of them have worked together in various other projects, so there’s a rapport between them that makes fluidity possible.  And admittedly, says Gyan, ‘the music is structured – more structured than improvised. The improvising is in just a few moments where we just let it go. There’s definitely what Michael calls a ‘mud map’.’

For Gyan, it’s been a healing, unifying experience. ‘Everybody loves Michael so there’s a unified appreciation; we’re all operating like some sort of shamanic group. I don’t want to sound gushy but it does go to a place where it’s kind of beyond entertainment.’

Sam Keevers concurs: ‘The most enjoyable thing really is just the obvious…  The songs are beautiful and honest. I’m playing with my favourite drummer on the planet. Lloyd is incredible and hilarious. All the musicians are great people and players and Michael Leunig cuts through it all so beautifully with humour, candour, a big heart and that Leunig melancholy we all love so much.’

Micheal Leunig on the web

Gyan on the web

Billy the Rabbit on Vitamin Records

Gyan is releasing a book of her own poetry Bear in mind. Find out more on her website.

Event details

Saturday 10 November 7:30pm & Sunday 11 November 3pm
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall

Tickets Premium $70 A Reserve $60 ($50 concession) B Reserve $50 ($40 concession) C Reserve $40 Under 15 $30 (Sunday performance only) Presented by Melbourne Recital Centre
Bookings or call the Box Office on 03 9699 3333.

Michael Leunig spoken vocals / texta / drawings / ipad
Gyan vocals / piano / songwriter
Sam Keevers piano
Lloyd Swanton double bass
Simon Barker drums
Simon Greaves acoustic guitar (musical director)
Cleis Pearce viola / violin
Sallie Campbell viola / violin
Eugenie Costello  violin
Katherine Philp cello
Paul Winter flute / trumpet / clarinet