The pandemic’s rare shining light on Melbourne musicians

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The pandemic’s rare shining light on Melbourne musicians

Melbourne musician
Credit: Drew McCarty
Words by Jordan McCarthy

Glen Bailey had been playing and studying guitar for over 20 years before deciding on a career change, setting his sights on becoming a pilot.

After years of study and training Bailey earned a permanent role as an international pilot for QANTAS, yet he still felt “a little empty”. He missed playing music and regretted making the career change before achieving everything he wanted to as a musician.

“It was one of those things where I’m this artist and I’ve played this instrument and I’ve studied this instrument at university, but I’ve never had anything to show for it,” he says.

“It felt a little like being a painter that had never painted anything.”

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Since COVID-19 first reared its head, Melbourne has suffered through a record 245 plus days in lockdown, making Melbourne’s musicians, quite literally, the world’s longest suffering. None of that takes into consideration the personal impacts that a prolonged state of lockdown had on the financial, physical and mental health of musicians.

But what about the flipside to all the doom and gloom? Are there any positive stories to take from COVID, lockdown and all that it’s entailed for our local musicians? Dig hard enough through the pile of rubbish that is COVID’s impact on the music industry and there is the odd nugget of gold.

Bailey is one example. When COVID swept across the world, international travel was quickly banned, flights were grounded, and he suddenly had plenty of time on his hands.

So, he turned his eye back to music, using lockdown as a chance to turn 20 years of ideas and writing into something tangible to rid himself of this empty feeling.

“Making an album was really like a bucket list kind of thing for me,” he says.

“The majority of the ideas were already there; it was about linking the ideas up and finessing them. So, to a point, I didn’t have to rely on lockdown too much for the creative side of things. But what I did have to do was finesse parts, and to make lead guitar parts and work on vocal harmonies.

“From that perspective, COVID was really good because I had plenty of time to sink my teeth into it.”

The result, his eponymous debut Bayo: a collection of seven guitar fronted rock songs, including singles ‘The Bayou’ and ‘High-Water’ which are piling up the listens on Spotify. Bailey doubts he could have achieved what he has musically if it weren’t for his COVID induced layoff.

“Finding the time to rehearse and develop my singing, was nigh on impossible working full time,” he says. “The lockdown gave me the time I needed because I found myself hanging on every word and phrase.

“I realised I needed to work on phonetics and on the pronunciation side of things, which beforehand I’d never sort of given too much consideration. I quickly found out that I struggled while singing and pronouncing ‘R’ words, so I had to take some time and work on things like that.

“Thanks to lockdown, I had the time to expand on ideas that I already had and to make sure they worked and I’m really happy with the way things have turned out.”

Blue Mountains import Gaia Scarf is a Melbourne musician known for her soulful vocals and heartfelt lyrics touching on a number of topics including “identity, love, society and my own personal human experience”, who also found positives from her time spent in lockdown.

Scarf found the pandemic and lockdown helped her sound evolve.

“It felt like a bit of an incubation process, I had this sense of creativity where it was kind of coming out in a flow and what I wrote was so different to what I had written before,” she says.

“Because it arose from a completely different set of circumstances, my music feels a whole lot more vulnerable than it ever has before.

“There is this whole new kind of set list coming out of lockdown. I’m really nervous and really excited to show it to people because it showcases a whole other facet and it’s a lot rawer.”

Scarf like many others, also coming to appreciate those few hours you were allowed to spend outside each day.

“I felt like my time outside was a lot more intentional because we were limited in how much time we could spend outside,” she says.

“Getting that hour, two hours out and being intentionally in that time, absorbing what I’m taking in and absorbing nature and the surroundings and letting it kind of reset my nervous system really helped.

“That was a major thing that helped me with writing music as well.”

Freak-folk artist Tom Riccioni found himself back in Melbourne in lockdown fresh from a tour of Europe in 2019, just as things were really kicking off for his career.

The laid back, talented singer-songwriter whittled away the lockdown hours “playing lots of guitar and lots of piano” but also looking at other alternative ways to improve himself as a musician.

“It was a break and time for me to reassess how to be a musician, looking at how to market myself,” he says.

“I feel like I learned a lot regarding the business side of things because pre-pandemic I was thinking one goal at a time. That’s not a bad way to think about things, musically when you think about your career, but now I’m thinking on a larger scale. Now I’m like ‘Alright, I’m doing this thing now, but I can also be doing this and looking to the future.”

Music organisations also did their part for musicians in lockdown, putting together workshops and classes to help them develop their skills.

Riccioni stumbled across some of these and found himself participating in workshops with some of his favourite artists on the other side of the world.

“I ended up finding some resources provided by Music Victoria and Support Act and various other organisations to pass the time,” he says.

“I did a song writing workshop with Buck Meek from the band Big Thief, man that was crazy, he is one of my favourite songwriters. It was an otherworldly thing to connect with a song writer from the US, someone I idolise, and get feedback from them on some of my music.”

COVID providing Riccioni with a career highlight he may never have experienced otherwise: “things like that just wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have a pandemic.”

Check out Gaia Scarf’s music here, or Tom Riccioni here.