Aussie songstresses sing from a country branch

Fortuitously gracing one stage in one night, the crowd were entranced by the authentic storytelling and songwriting finesse of two of Australia’s female singer/songwriters at the top of their game in a much anticipated all women’s Double Bill showcasing their fine art under the Western Reserve Big Top.

Attuned and intuitive acoustics beside pop up bars and merch, this was an intimate way to open the Festival.

Autumn in the renown ’smallest country town’ just up the Calder Highway of Castlemaine always means one thing- Festival time! Running biennially since 1976, Castlemaine State Festival the longest running flagship regional arts festival and conveniently located to us in Central Victoria. Loads of national artists kickstart their touring year with the event and it’s a great place to see them up close and personal.

Ella Hooper performs at the 2023 Castlemaine State Festival 29/03/2023. Photo: Brendan McCarthy 29/03/2023

Both country-raised women,  Ella, of famed 1990s pop-rock band Killing Heidi, and Jem, the daughter of country rock icon Troy Cassar-Daley, come with big bios. Maturing as independent artists, on show were songs from their newest releases the introspective Small Town Temple, and I Dont Know Who To Call.  Returning to touring post-COVID, their joy and energy for performing and meeting their audiences was palpable.

Highlights of the evening- aside from their genuine enthusiasms about hanging out in Castlemaine and Central Victoria!- were Cassar-Daley’s By The Sea and Standing Still, a personal song about catching up with an old acquaintance with an unforgettable hook, and Hooper’s The Basics And Stuff, evoking her country childhood, and Long Gully Road featuring the recorder playing of her recently deceased father – the crowd were held breathless lost in a moment in time. Her Oh My Goddess! was fun with powerful lyrics. 

Jem Cassar-Daley live at Castlemaine State Festival

Jem Cassar Daly performs at the 2023 Castlemaine State Festival 29/03/2023. Photo: Brendan McCarthy 29/03/2023

Both artists revealed songs of a reflective tone, showing the B Side of life and experiences with wry and intuitive insight in the tradition of women songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, and Carole King. Hooper relocated home to Violet Town, North Eastern Victoria, during COVID and, sadly, lost both her musician parents during this time. Her album reflects on dramatic changes and the reflections such experiences foster through an Australia Council grant.

A highlight of Hooper’s blues-rockabilly set was the talented band she brings with her with notable excellence from drums (Al Barden), a Castlemaine local on bass guitar, and violin/vocals(Kat Mear). A well worked band performs well and we were the lucky beneficiaries of skilled musicianship, adding depth and texture to the songs. Dancing was warmly encouraged by Hooper and band.

Ella summed it up when she said “Im in love!” in relation to Jem’s music and composition, something felt by many pleased to see original songwriting of such calibre unfolding before the our eyes. Jem’s craft telling ordinary tales in personal ways and Hooper’s move to embracing her personal depth and maturity and sonic direction change with jazz/country overtones demonstrates these women are moving in the right direction- away from pop celebrity and continuing the work of true artists – to explore life, form and their own artistic journey to the listener’s delight. 

The Festival runs March 24- April 9 – check out the program so you don’t miss this country culture bash!

– Sarah Wallace

is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, Melbourne.  A dance and English literature graduate of VCA, UOM and Deakin, she has a flair for bold, non-traditional performance platforms. An active contributor to The Melbourne Shakespeare Society, on the street, or in the box seat, she is always looking for quality works that push the envelope.

Castlemaine State Festival runs 24 March – April 2023 in Castlemaine across various local venues. Ella Hooper and Jem Cassar-Daley performed 30 March at Western Reserve Big Top. 

Purchase tickets here. Accessible ticket available.

Images: Courtesy of  Brendan McCarthy and various.

Disclaimer: The Plus Ones were the guests of Riot House Publicity.