DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET, we are going totally vintage today, necessitating one of those commercial TV voice-overs telling us that “Bek-Jean Stewart is brought to you live via satellite”. Here we are navigating the fluctuating internet service in this relatively isolated corner of the north coast of New South Wales, in a house shared with their partner and another couple, and as that eye in the sky is an unsteady one, voices are not always steady back on earth.
This is not the only throwback in a conversation with Stewart who has released a very old school 18 track record, Fierce Attachments, that back in the day would have been called a double album. And one that might have then been called country rock, soul rock, or maybe regular rock with a side of west coast singer/songwriter, but now would qualify as Americana.
“A lot of the time I feel like I wonder what I’m doing here in 2022 because it’s just too fast and too loud,” says Stewart, who uses they/them pronouns. “I can’t handle all the noise of the world. Just life. I remember as a kid in the ‘70s and ‘80s that life just wasn’t noisy: there was a lot of space.”
Six albums and a couple of decades into a career that flourished in the same inner Sydney circle that gave us urban storytellers like Tim Freedman and Perry Keyes, that must have come as something of a shocking recognition.
“I think what has happened to me as I’ve gotten older is I know at a really deep level that I need solitude, and solitude can be really elusive. I only get solitude when I’m on my own, on the land, the animals are here and it’s just nature, on a bushwalk or certain places I go to,” they say. “I was driving back from recording yesterday going, my God if we could just send it back 50 years, so we were slower and didn’t have so much distraction.
“There’s so much coming at us which leads to us not having very long attention spans with anything, and bringing that into my music you have to have a certain amount of attention span to get through one of my records. It’s not going to be an instant ‘yep’, it needs time and space.”
Has getting out of urban living given them that escape from this noise? It’s off the track but it’s hardly off the grid.
“I still struggle,” Stewart reveals. “There’s not a lot of noise here but where I live there is a lot of logging going on at the backs of these beautiful, beautiful state forests. Untouched, old growth, beautiful. When I hear the trucks, I get really triggered and affected. I feel like I’m really sensitive to the world, I’m sensitive to the bombardment on nature and the stripping which equals noise. So I do struggle.
“There’s a joke with me that ‘Beej needs a hundred acres and to live in the middle of it’ so I have this massive buffer and I can’t hear humans,” they laugh. “But anything with nature, it just gets me at such a deep level and I can find myself, I can find my purpose, and things come out of me. I don’t know where they come from, but they come out. I think that you could say with me that I am in that collective grief of where we are as humanity. Most definitely.”
As sensitive as they are to the impact of humans on their life, Stewart is equally sensitive to the ways and means of people. Maybe too sensitive. On this new album there is an acute sensitivity to how people are coping or not coping, post-relationship or pre-apocalypse. Some of them are Stewart, some of them are not, it doesn’t really matter: feeling is what we understand and in the folds of their voice, in its deep reach inside, Stewart conveys a lot.
But how can you be so sensitive to and yet so sensitive about people?
“It’s like a split personality thing that goes on with me,” they say. “Because I tune in. As well as the really hard side of me that’s just like, ‘fuck that, no, they can all just get fucked’ when I’m overloaded, later on I’ll go in and find the source, come back to the space through my heart and not my anger. But that’s a really hard place to live you know.”
A hard place to live, a bloody hard place to exist as a performer where “I’m overloaded” could be a daily occurrence, especially when on tour as Stewart is about to be again.
“Even coming down from the shows I’m super aware of how much I can handle and what I need to do to be able to give myself in a show. I think I’m in myself enough to understand that if I am there to play shows, then I’m putting on a show, and whether I’m crying all day and then I have to play the show, then that’s what will come with me. I can’t censor it,” they say. “I do get worn out from all the energy and picking up everyone’s stuff. I can feel it all in this like, oh my God. It’s hard walking that.”
Of course, that question – How can you be so sensitive to and yet so sensitive about people? – is asked as if it’s a contradiction, when in fact it’s a complementary state of being. Just like this next implied question is asked as if it’s important, but if it was a male-identifying artist it probably would never have occurred to anyone to even notice. Every song on Fierce Attachments is written about or from the perspective of a woman or a non-male character. This was not accidental.
“Everything has been going on with me throughout my life, with my gender stuff, the comfortability now with …” there’s a pause, a recalibration. “Look it’s just been a really hard road not fitting in. Like, ‘well you’re female so you fit there’ and I’m like ‘I don’t fit there’. I feel like I’ve never fitted into anything until I actually started taking ownership back and going, ‘this is where I fit, this is the record I needed to make, this is me’. But that’s taken years of moving through a lot of stuff.
“So this record, yeah, I feel like I’ve had just massive amounts of anger about how are we ever hear is the straight white male perspective. Something clicked in me a few years ago and I was like, fuck, I just can’t listen to one more thing, I can’t see one more thing: I’m overloaded and I’ve had enough.”
What happened next is these songs started coming out, drawing on everything bottled up or pending. Everything began to change then.
“The very personal songs on Fierce that are about me, I was going through a marriage breakup as well. It all came out. It was kind of jumbled and then it started making sense, after being able to process what was happening.
They explain that after battling various addictions throughout life they have been clean for 18 months now and “I just feel like I’m different, viewing the world through a different lens” without those “crutches” they once had. Which does raise one question, is songwriting a crutch or is songwriting a place for them to be? Or both?
“I think that it’s a place for me to be more than it’s a crutch, but it has been used as a crutch,” admits Stewart. “When I’m deep in myself, in my truth, the songs just come out. I mean, thank God for songs, because I don’t know where I’d be because without that expression I’ve struggled in the world to express just with my speaking.
“Coming from a really dysfunctional family I had a really hard childhood, so I grew up with a lot of trauma and as an adult I was a lot of the time scrambled. I couldn’t find my centre, what I really needed to say, but the songs would come out and they’d say, partially, what I needed to say, and the more I’m on this journey to my truth and healing all these wounds inside me, the more they come out. They’re like little pots of gold.”
The little pots are still coming as she has already recorded a follow-up to this 18 track beast, that burst of inspiration far from ebbing. What may be a whole lot more surprising is they describe this new batch as containing a “free-form Freddie Mercury thing”.
Excuse me? Stewart who in one song on Fierce Attachments cites inspirations like Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen and Patty Griffin (none of whom to my knowledge have ever appeared on stage or filmclips in skimpy shorts or a pushup bra and vacuum cleaner) now claims to be Queen, or at least Freddie Mercury-inspired? Mind blown, I tell them, which induces the first laugh of this interview.
“Look, I feel like the more I am connected with myself, the more these things come out. I’m singing falsetto on the new record [breaking out into a falsetto midsentence in a manner that does sound Mercury-ish I must admit] and it’s like, ‘the song has to be that, I can sing it any other way, that’s the way it came out’. I’m just going with it.”
Who knew that when Freddie Mercury sang “I want to break free” he was preparing the ground for Bek-Jean Stewart.
“That’s it. I’m breaking out everywhere,” they say. “Thinking about the film clips for this next record I’m excited because I made a lot of film clips for Fierce Attachments but all I wanted to do was dance. I feel like I’ve just been this repressed person but what I want to do is take the guitar off and … I just want to dance. It’s bigger than me.”
Fierce Attachments is out now through Society For The Lost Independent Records. Read a review of the album here.
Bek-Jean Stewart plays: Never Never Mind, Dorrigo, November 19; Lazybones Lounge, Marrickville, November 30; Brass Monkey, Cronulla, December 1; Servo Food Truck, Port Kembla, December 2; Urunga Originals, December 10.