Artist Feature: Leah Flanagan

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Words || Harry Fraser

Leah Flanagan is an Australian singer-songwriter hailing from Darwin. She is of Indigenous, Italian and Irish ancestry, more specifically the Alyawarre people of the Northern Territory and was raised in a melting pot of cultures. Graduating from the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide, Leah earned her degree in classical music and has since made her mark on the Australian music scene. 

Not only does Leah write and perform her music, she has been part of theatre production and major arts festivals. Collaboration is central to Leah’s art. She has worked with many notable musicians including Archie Roach and Paul Kelly and has toured widely in Australia in a career that spans over a decade. Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, Leah’s own show Midnight Muses at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and Shane Howard’s Exile: Songs and Tales of Irish Australia are just a few of Flanagan’s notable projects.

Despite these fabulous collaborative ventures, Leah’s career and work as a singer-songwriter are also noteworthy. Often wielding her trusty ukulele, Leah shares captivating and heartfelt stories to her audiences, shedding light on narratives often hidden by time and distance. A compelling narrative can always be found at the heart of Leah’s lyrics, weaving intricate and nuanced tales that have yet to be discovered. 

Leah has released two studio albums, first Nirvana Nights in 2010 and later Saudades in 2016, as well as several singles. In an interview in 2016 Flanagan herself advised against reading too much into her own songs, as despite their autobiographical vibes, they are not. That being said, Leah has released three singles in the last year that speak to key issues facing our continent and in my opinion, they provide a perspective that is interestingly absent from mainstream discourse. 

I should preface this as being my own interpretation of the songs; however, I would argue that such an interpretation is reasonable. Two of those singles, Love Like Water and Aralia, feature the Australian landscape as the subject of affection, longing and nostalgia. 

It is rare for a land, whose inherent character is wild and untamed, to be the subject of an endearing ballad. Owing to colonial influence, much of our relationship to the land is based on notions of domination and exploitation and so to stumble across an artist like Flanagan who redefines and humanises the Australian landscape is deeply refreshing. 

In a fashion similar to renowned Australian poet Judith Wright, Leah reminds us of the beauty of Australia’s harsher edges and does so in the form of crafting endearing ballads. In Love Like Water, released in late 2019, Flanagan addresses Australia’s water crisis. The line “who are you gonna turn to when the well runs dry?” is repeated throughout the song, and reminds us of the vitality of water and its role as a giver of life. In our sunburnt country nothing is more imperative than water. 

Aralia on the other hand, speaks to the nostalgic power of your hometown. Grounded in the natural world, the landscape is the main character of this song, the protagonist who undergoes a paradoxical evolution that reveals and hides its nature as time progresses. 

What defines Flanagan’s songs for me is the way in which she expertly shifts the lens through which we view the Australian landscape. She espouses a symbiotic and respectful existence with our nurturing continent. This is a perspective not often explored by the majority of artists and is one that provides an understanding of our country too often overlooked. It may be the key to a healthy and enduring presence on this sunburnt land of ours. 

To hear more music from First Nations artists, check out the Spotify playlist: Blak Australia.