A small shy truth: Katie Noonan shares the story behind Elixir’s new album

Australian folk jazz trio Elixir are celebrating the release of their fourth studio album, A Small Shy Truth, with a national tour. Formed in 1997, Elixir are made up of some of Australia’s most decorated musicians, including ARIA Award-winning saxophonist and composer Zac Hurren, Freedman Jazz Fellowship-winning guitarist Benjamin Hauptmann, and 5 x ARIA, and AWMA, AIR, and APRA Award-winning musician Katie Noonan. The album, which was released in October through ABC Classic, is based on the poetry of Melbourne poet and cartoonist Michael Leunig, who will be joining them on the road. Ahead of their arrival in Perth for two shows at Lyric’s Underground on Saturday, December 9 and Sunday, December 10, BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with Katie Noonan to find out the story behind the record and how they will bring it to life on stage.

Congratulations on the release of your new album A Small Shy Truth. How long has this been in the works for? And how does it feel to be getting it out there into the world?

Thank you so much! We planned on writing this album at a 10-day residency at Bundanon in January 2021, but of course covid had other ideas—so it has been bubbling away since late 2020. I am really proud of the intimate and gentle sound world we have created together and am super happy to share it with the world. I hope it brings succour and peace and provides a moment of gentle reflection.

A lot of these songs started as sketches at the piano by my husband Zac. Zac and I have been performing in Elixir for our entire partnership of 24 years, so it’s an integral part of our relationship and it’s really nice to connect in that way again. Basically, Zac and Benny would jam on the chordal structures and then I would come in with 10 or more of Michael’s books open at various different pages and see where the music took me. It’s a very special process and it’s great that Zac had such strong musical ideas to start with—then we could take it from there as a trio. Luckily, Michael gives me the freedom to do small edits and repeats and he has also written some extra words when a couple of the poems were a little too short!

The members of Elixir, including yourself, have been involved in a lot of different music groups and projects over the years. What do you feel is special about Elixir that has kept you coming back to create music together for over 25 years now?

I created Elixir in 1997 as I had a need to write gentle, acoustic folk-inspired music and wanted to work with great Australian poets and celebrate their writing.

Over our four albums, we have collaborated with three different poets. Our first self-titled album features the poetry of Martin Challis; our second album, First Seed Ripening, features the words of Thomas Shapcott; and our third and fourth albums, Gratitude and Grief and A Small Shy Truth, feature the poetry of our dear friend Michael Leunig.

Elixir is a very special musical place for me. It is gentle, it is free and improvised, and it is an integral part of my relationship with my love of 24 years, my brilliant saxophonist/composer husband Zac Hurren. I am not sure how to define it, but when we get in the room together and focus on this special sound world, the songs flow easily.

A Small Shy Truth is out now

As you mentioned, this album features the poetry of Melbourne poet and cartoonist Michael Leunig. Where did that idea come from? 

I met Michael about 15 years ago when he came to a concert I was doing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and we went out to supper after the concert. Almost every musician I know has a Leunig on their wall, and the minute I met Michael, I felt like I had met a true kindred spirit and friend. He is incredibly wise and childlike all at once.

I believe Michael has an innate ability to capture the human spirit and the human struggle in a beautiful and succinct way. His words are quite childlike in their honesty and yearning, yet they are profoundly mature and reflect the knowledge of a septuagenarian elder. I believe Michael’s words bring great spiritual succour and provide a meaningful connection with the natural and spiritual world. I think the sign of a great writer is if you yourself really wish you had written the words yourself, and I feel that way about his words all the time! He manages to sum up the complexities of life in a gentle and very true way.

And how did that make writing the album different? What were some of the challenges and positives of basing the songs on someone else’s work?

That has always been the premise of Elixir. I sink myself deeply into the words of our poetic muse and then find the snippets and stories that I feel speak best to our intimate, gentle sound world, as well as words that I can find myself in. It is a privilege to sing Michael’s words. They are profoundly beautiful, and it is my honour to sing them. I feel like he has written the words specifically for me; it is a very special gift he has. I know many people feel exactly the same, like he has summed up our thinking in a beautifully poetic and succinct way just for us!

You’ll be joined by Melbourne sisters Charm of Finches too. What made them a great fit for a tour like this?

I discovered these beautiful sisters of song when I programmed them at the National Folk Festival last year. There is something very special about siblings singing together; they have an innate sense of each other’s musicality and create a truly gorgeous folk world. Their last album, Wonderful Oblivion, is a really special body of work, and I can’t wait to hear them on this tour with us.

Are there any more exciting musical projects or tours in the pipeline that we can look out for?

I have recently started recording some new songs for my fourth album with amazing classical guitarist Karin Schaupp. This album will be a follow-up to our Songs of the Southern Skies album of 2012 and will feature songs by our favourite Australian women reimagined for classical guitar and voice.

In the meantime, I am continuing to work on the next song cycle for my recently formed a cappella band, AVÉ Australian Vocal Ensemble. We’ve recently released our debut album, Tumbling Like Stars, featuring the poetry of Queensland’s David Malouf and 12 extraordinary Australian classical composers, and our next song cycle features the words of the wonderful Queensland poet Gwen Harwood set to music by 12 of our finest composers. .

I have also written a new album with my trio, featuring my son Dexter Hurren on drums and brilliant bassist Steele Chabau. Dexter has almost finished grade 12, so we will start recording that album next year, also for a planned 2025 release!