Talking Justice with Shane Howard

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Talking Justice with Shane Howard

Over his career, Shane Howard has forged himself as one of Australia’s greatest song writers and creative minds. However, he’s also respected equally for his commentary, activism and support of social justice issues. As he takes to the Talking Justice stage on May 21 in Bendigo, he’ll bring his experience to the forefront alongside journalist Martin Flanagan.

Hi Shane, thanks for taking time to chat with us, how are you and what are you up to right now?

I guess I’m always busy with work. Working live, solo, with my band, with my acoustic trio, producing and mentoring younger artists and the creative process of writing never really stops.

You’re always working toward the next project – a  lot of very diverse projects. Earlier this year we brought the production, Exile: Songs & Tales of Irish Australia, to the concert halls of Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane and a showcase in Sydney. It was a major undertaking and it was very rewarding to honour the story of my ancestors, here in Australia. I’ve been caught up lately with preparing the Exile recording for release.

You’ve been announced on the line up for the Talking Justice festival alongside Martin Flanagan, have you done much to prepare for the special event?

Yes I have. It’s not quite the same liberty as doing your own show. It’s much more specific and I’ve been trying to compliment Martin Flanagan’s fine words with appropriate songs and stories. Martin’s a great thinker and writer and he’s very thorough with his work. He makes me sharpen my thinking.

Throughout your career what do you think is the greatest contribution you’ve made to the discussion of important issues in Australian society?

I suppose it’s my deep interest in the idea of ‘belonging’. As a settler, or invading, culture we’re all migrants and we have to find a binding narrative for what it means to be Australian. I’ve been deeply influenced by Indigenous Australian culture and through my life I’ve tried to integrate all that thinking into my creative work and play a role as a kind of bridge between worlds. At another level, my greatest contribution is my children. They’ve grown up in their parent’s world and they have a much clearer understanding of what needs to change to make a better future. Many of them are adults out in the world doing remarkable work themselves. They stand on your shoulders and go further than you can yourself.

Would you say that it’s more important for an artist to represent themselves or speak for the community in their work?

I think there is a case for both. Sometimes you need to reveal a deeply personal truth and other times your role is to tell other people’s stories. You have to be yourself and find your own voice. What you create is inevitably drawn from what you think is of importance.

Who are some other artists and creatives that you think speak for the greater good through their medium?

I love the paintings of Graeme Altmann, Peter Hudson, Gabrielle Possum, Arone Meeks, Euan McLeod, Phillip Hunter and many more. They’re all contemporary painters whose work inspires. I have great admiration for Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as writers of moral force, like Isaiah in the Old Testament. Seamus Heaney’s poetry moves me, as do so many of the great poets. I think Martin Flanagan is one of the most important thinkers and writers in Australia today. I have great respect for Robert Manne and Tim Winton. There are lots of great artists out there doing inspirational work.

You recently did some work with Oriel Glennen, how did that come about and how did the project go?

I’ve known Oriel for a long time. We’re both from South West Victoria. I produced her first album, Two Pink Turtles. This second album, Dead Reckoning, took nearly seven years to see the light of day.

Oriel’s a mum and had to raise her family and she was only able to work on the recording when she had the time and the money. Because of that, there is a sublime beauty about this album that stands outside time and still moves me after hundreds and hundreds of listenings. They are truly beautiful and powerful songs with the ring of truth about them. They strike deep to the core of our humanity – in a deeply poetic way.

In 1981 you had your awakening after slowing down from work and visiting Uluru, do you think that’s still the biggest turning point in your life to date?

My experience at Uluru was a powerful time in shaping my understanding of this country and its first peoples – I was changed by that experience. It led me on to a lifetime of remarkable encounters and musical experiences. Even so, the biggest turning point in my life was having children. They are the powerfully transformative moments that snap you out of self-centredness. It’s an overwhelming experience to know there is someone in the world that you would gladly give your life to protect.

Being such a well-respected writer, in songs and other forms, we understand you also read a lot for inspiration. What was the last thing you read that inspired you?

I’ve been buried, for the last years, in Irish history, music and culture – ancient and modern. There was a huge body of reading involved in preparing for the Exile concerts. I love Dr. Daithi O’Hogain’s towering work, An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition. It’s a bottomless well of inspiration from another age, an age when poetry was more important than economics. I guess I always turn to the poets for inspiration.

Lastly, why do you think events like Talking Justice are so important to head along to?

William Carlos Williams wrote, “It’s hard to get the news from poetry, yet people die every day from lack of what is contained therein”. The Talking Justice event is a different way of getting your information. It goes deeper than a 15 second sound grab. This is not television or Facebook, it’s information live from people sharing their rich and deeply considered experiences that has time to unfold and also has a poetic and artistic dimension.

Tickets to all Talking Justice events can be found at

When & Where: ‘Justice, Change & the Creative Journey’ as part of Talking Justice at Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo – May 21