Why you need to know who Jess Beck is.
A couple of weeks back, APRA/AMCOS announced their annual Professional Development Awards where a handful of hard-working and gifted Australian artists receive some much needed funds to expand their musical horizons. Delightfully, sixty per cent of the recipients in 2017 were women! One such was South Australian singer/songwriter and front woman of indie pop/rock group Pirra, Jess Beck.
Jess has been working hard forging a music career and slowly and deservedly, her star is rising. She moved to Sydney from her family's sheep farm near Mt Gambier in South Australia a few years back and formed her band Pirra.
Jess is a Luritja woman and very proud of her heritage. In fact, her band Pirra (which means 'moon' in Luritja) was suggested to her by renowned music legend and Luritja man Sammy Butcher. More about that from Jess herself in a moment.
Earlier this year, Pirra released their first full length album Animal Kingdom. Pirra’s unique sound comprises of ethereal melodies as well as driven, vibey beats and punk-punch. Experimental and fun, it transcends environments - from your lounge room, to your headphones, to festivals, to pubs and sweaty clubs.
Jess spent some time with Music Love to reflect on Pirra's first release, and what it has been like getting to know her Liritja heritage after finally uniting with her great grandparents, sadly removed from her life until only a few years ago due to our nation's deplorable policy that led to the stolen generations. Finally Jess is learning about her family's language and culture and she couldn't be happier.
What does music mean to you?
I love listening to music as much as I love writing and performing it. Music is magic in a way and I love how quickly it can alter or enhance your mood or motivation. There is no greater feeling for me than performing original music and being praised by an audience member on how it has made them feel.
You’re originally from Mount Gambier in SA. Was a career in music always your plan?
I actually wanted to be an actor. I always loved music and singing at home and in front of my friends at school, but when it came to singing solo in public, I just couldn't do it. During lunchtime one day - when I was in year twelve - my drama teacher heard me singing and said, "How is it you've almost finished school and I only know how beautiful your voice is now?" He told me I had to sing at the end of year presentation night in front of 500 people and this was this first time I finally pulled off a good public performance. It was then that I started to consider that singing might be an option as well down the track.
You’re now part of a Sydney-based band Pirra. Tell us how the band formed.
I had been playing with the boys for a while in a jazz and folk style but we all realised that we needed to satisfy our eternal hunger for something harder and punchier. So we went with our love of indie pop, added in a little electronica, a dose of rock’n’roll and out popped Pirra. It gave us room to explore modern contemporary sounds and also gave the audience more room to dance and go off whether at festival or in a sweaty pub or club.
When you’re not involved in musical pursuits, what else do you do?
I have been working at the Sydney Opera House for the last ten years and hope to be involved there for the rest of my life as it's an inspirational place to be. I've done everything from artist liaison, production assisting, venue hire coordination, ushering, and event managing to now coordinating the graphic design studio.
Your Luritja heritage is something very special and you’ve been involved in national Indigenous festivals and awards. Has your heritage shaped your direction in music?
I'm really grateful to have been nominated for two Deadly awards and to have been programmed in indigenous festivals. Being the daughter and granddaughter of stolen generations meant that I didn't get to grow up with language or know much about my specific Luritja heritage. I always knew I was indigenous and was always proud, but it wasn't until 2011 when they confirmed who my great-grandparents were, and a family reunion was organised, that we discovered we were Luritja. It was a pretty exciting but also an intense moment for my grandmother, mother and myself to meet over 50 family members for the first time. I was so overcome with emotion for what my mother and Grandmother had gone through. Mum was fortunate enough to reconnect with my Grandmother when she was 30, but my Grandmother never saw her parents again after she was removed at approximately aged four. These life events haven't necessarily shaped my music, but they've shaped me and just made me more determined to connect with my heritage.
The band name Pirra means ‘moon’ in Luritja. Why did you choose this word for the name?
In 2012, I was lucky enough to represent indigenous Australia at the Festival of Pacific Arts Festival in the Solomon Islands. We performed alongside this incredible band from Pupunya (Central Desert) called Tjupi Band. Their father is Sammy Butcher from Warampi Band. My band members James, Curtis and I formed a special connection with Tjupi and Uncle Sammy over the two weeks. When Sammy realised that I was also from his Lurita nation, he was so lovely and taught me some Luritja words. Almost a year afterwards, when we were trying to come up with a band name for our evolved project I did a call out on Facebook. Sammy said we should call ourselves 'Pirra', that it meant moon in Luritja.
Pirra released Animal Kingdom earlier this year – how did that go? Any new works in the pipeline?
Animal Kingdom is our debut album and it feels great to finally have it out in the world. We were lucky enough to win an Australia Council touring Grant, which meant we were able to tour the album along the East Coast and to Melbourne, Adelaide and my hometown of Mount Gambier. We’re really happy with the response and it’s encouraged us to get stuck into another album. We have [made demos] for about three quarters of it already and we are recording the first single from this second album today! Our drummer Jeffrey is putting the drums as we speak.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
I'm actually frothing on Sydney band Rackett. I think they are smashing it right now with their live shows and will soon take the world by storm. They were the highlight at Electric Lady the other week at the Metro. We have been lucky enough to be support them at World Bar, Sydney.. I think Olympia is pretty rad too, her latest album really grabbed me. And the wonderful Leah Flanagan, who is not only a great artist but has also been a vocal supporter of both myself and Pirra.
What’s next for you?
To keep pumping out those tunes and keep those sweaty dancefloors moving. I was lucky enough to have received an APRA professional Development Award this week, so this is going to make a huge difference to what I’ll be able to achieve this year.
Pirra are currently playing at Sundeck Hotel, Kosciuszko National Park 2-5 August and 15-19 August. Tickets and times here