With his trademark earth-brown fedora, perpetual crooked grin, and five o’clock shadow, Luke O’Shea is a fitting heir to the bush troubadours of centuries past. The punter can almost taste the dust and haze of eucalyptus oil that hang so vibrantly in the singer’s imagination.
O’Shea is poised to release his fifth LP, Sing You Up, in March-April. An evocative blend of nostalgia, autobiography, and fun, Sing You Up sees O’Shea furthering his overarching project of immortalising Australia, its characters, and what it means to live and love in the Great Southern Land.
After years spent travelling the globe as a young teacher, O’Shea is now an established artist and festival favourite in his native land. An inveterate showman of natural ease and considerable warmth and humour, Luke toured extensively in late 2013 before journeying north to play a particularly hectic Tamworth Festival in January. For several years now, most days of the Tamworth Festival have seen O’Shea hold court in the packed lounge of the Tamworth Services Club. Accompanied by long-time backing band Medicine Wheel (“the hardest working, cheapest band in Tamworth”), O’Shea has a masterful talent for structuring a set. And he has an ever-expanding Eldorado of material to draw upon for this purpose.
O’Shea’s albums to date have been distinguished by the singer’s exceptional songwriting talent, which is underpinned by genuine earnestness and warmth. Early releases with Medicine Wheel, No Day Like Today (2002) and Listen to the Words (2005) won O’Shea a strong following before the release of solo album Prodigal Son (2009) and the critically acclaimed The Drover’s Wife (2012). Through all this (and until very recently), O’Shea carried on his work as a secondary school teacher, teaching HSIE, religion and music. The influence of these subjects on O’Shea’s unique brand of Australian country-folk is all too apparent.
Raised to the Roman Catholic faith, a young O’Shea developed a love of the ‘multi-layered, cryptic stories’ that comprise the Christian canon. It is an influence that still finds expression in his musical output.
“The Bible is filled with master storytellers and it has always acted as a source of inspiration for songwriters and artists of all styles, regardless of their religious background,” Luke shared.
Like much-loved Australian poets Henry Lawson, Dorothea Mackellar, and Oodgeroo Noonuccal before him, O’Shea is concerned with seeking out and telling stories that are at once evocative and instructive. The result is a spiritually charged songbook that invites valid critical engagement. But while he draws much of his storytelling inspiration from his native land and personal sense of the infinite, O’Shea is also able to tap into his extensive experiences of people and creeds from distant lands.
“I do feel very privileged to have travelled and taught my way around the world, particularly the subject of religion,’ Luke tells me. ‘From my experience, at the very core of indigenous and all major world religions the message is the same – respect and love for each other – and sharing a good joke!”
Having a clear sense of purpose as an artist, it seems, has its earthly rewards. O’Shea’s path in music has been paved with accolades. He won the 2010 Independent Male Vocalist of the Year at Mildura and, building on this success, The Drover’s Wife scooped the 2012 Southern Stars Awards, netting O’Shea four awards including Artist and Album of the Year. To crown a great year, title track ‘The Drovers Wife’ took out the 2013 Golden Guitar for Heritage Track of the Year, and the inaugural Bush Laureates’ Golden Gumleaf in 2013.
Beyond stage and studio, O’Shea has been increasingly involved in a range of worthy causes. Luke penned the song ‘Santa’s Swag’ for national charity Street Swags in 2011, and was recently appointed the Councilor for Country Music on the Music Council of Australia (MCA). I ask Luke what he plans to do with this role.
‘Keep arguing!’ he tells me. ‘There is a lot that needs to be done, but thankfully there are many people out there giving up their time, fighting the good fight! Be it in attempting to increase the Australian content being played on radio or through protecting our live music venues from over zealous developers.’
Despite these commitments and the responsibilities of family life – Luke and wife Liz have three beautiful daughters – O’Shea brings thirteen exquisitely realised tracks to the table with Sing You Up. A raft of stellar musicians sonically shape the work, from Clare O’Meara (mandolin, piano, fiddle and accordion), to guitarists Michel Rose and Phil Doublet, and Aleyce Simmonds and Camille French share backing vocals…