As an ex-Townsvillian, Roz Pappalardo is now a crucial member of the Cairns creative scene.
From programming the city’s Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns Festival and newly-opened Munro Martin Parklands, through to continuing her stint as one half of the entertaining Women in Docs, there was barely enough time for us to catch her free for a chat.
But when she did stop to talk, it was unforgettable. Roz is one of the Queensland songwriters bringing The Soldier’s Wife to Townsville, in collaboration with Full Throttle Theatre Company, in May – a compilation of songs that have been composed from the stories told to them by wives and families of those who have been involved in wars or conflicts.
We spoke to Roz about the show, which has been touring on and off since 2014, and how she became involved in a project so different to the almost-parodical Women in Docs.
Tell me a bit about The Soldier’s Wife.
The Soldier’s Wife is a really beautiful project whereby six songwriters based across Queensland – I’m up here, we have a songwriter in Western Queensland, and developed relationships in other regional centres with other songwriters and a number in the South East – developed a residency model and worked with women and families who have partners or lost partners involved in wars or conflicts – what we’re trying to do is look for the unheard voices. That voice and strength of the women and families left at home is quite passionate and powerful, so we’ve discovered a lot of learnings from these women we’ve written with. It’s been quite inspirational and I consider myself very honoured to have worked and written songs for and with these families and women.
You were saying you were all a bit spread out, how did the partnership come about in the first place?
It began in 2014 when the project manager, Deb Suckling, who is based in Brisbane, contacted me and hit upon the idea. She considered songwriters who have had careers in the music industry telling other stories, because she really wanted to embrace the songwriters she knew could work in communities well. I’ve done lots of work in community situations like working with Indigenous kids in Arnhem Land, Sudanese refugees in Toowoomba, Iraqi refugees in Brisbane, and helping them tell their stories through an artistic and creative outlet. I do projects up here in Cairns where I’m based with young Indigenous kids in communities telling their stories, so all of that was important because she wanted to ensure the songwriters working on this project were comfortable in that space, telling other people’s stories.
She approached us individually and as groups, so we were all very honoured to be a part of it because a) it’s a great new leg to our career and arts practice, and b) it gives us such great networks in our State – I’ve met the most inspirational women and families as a result of this project and they’ll remain close to me for, I’m sure, the rest of my life. These people just share the most loving and intimate stories. And because we’ve got a guitar in our hands or are sitting next to a piano, it seems like the music we’re making breaks down communicative barriers. Any barriers that are there break straight down because we’re all speaking the language of song. It’s quite fascinating to watch unfold.
How does the songwriting process work here, telling their stories?
There are no hard and fast rules to the process. I have a process that I like to work to but at the same time, you let it just fly out the window when the situation demands. Mostly I’ll sit with the women or the families and the song will come in that session in a couple of hours. Deb Suckling, another writer, she’ll write a song in 10 minutes because you get stuck on a phrase or a term of reference that families use and it’s in your head, and you write the song almost right there in front of the family, and it just sweeps everyone away. Then there’s other times that you have a wonderful conversation, laughs, a cry, a cup of tea, and then the song comes later. The lovely thing about the project is there’s a real collaborative nature to it. I’m writing with songwriters I’ve never written with before and never thought I would write with. That’s a really great creative outcome as well.
Are you still seeing the same reception as The Soldier’s Wife received back in 2014?
More so, actually. Since we launched in 2014, we now have a coffee table book outlining a whole ream of stories with a photo or a picture associated with each, and the songs are on a CD in the back of the book. That’s garnered a lot of traction among community organisations that we never would have thought would have found interest, and there’s now international attention too. I think it’s because it’s such a unique mode of therapy – not that any of us are therapists or psychologists or social workers: we’re songwriters and we’re professionals. Like I’m a trained teacher and all the other women have professional qualifications as well. But this project has found itself in lots of different hands like the PVA – the Partners of Veterans Association, which is a lovely organisation that exists to support families who have lost partners in war. There’s lots of other great organisations that have become involved too, so it really has had a ripple effect. As I said, a lot of it has happened in locations I couldn’t imagine we’d have this effect in.
For those who may not know what to expect with The Soldier’s Wife, what’s one of the stories we might hear?
The stories range from family-based to friends to, as I said, strangers we didn’t know. One of the first stories I had the pleasure of writing was connected to my family: my Italian grandparents on my mother’s side. My grandmother was left alone for seven years in Sicily when my grandfather was sent to war, and at war he was caught and sent to New York City as a prisoner of war. My grandmother spent seven years raising her family in a little tiny community in Sicily. She worked at the train station, and would go to work every day – her job was to lift the chain up which allowed the trains come in to port, so while she was raising my mother, everyday she would watch to see if her husband, my grandfather, would disembark the train. Every day she didn’t see his face and every day she’d go back to work and do it all over again, hoping and praying. Eventually, after seven years of no notification, he did come home. He walked off the train and the rest is history.
That sort of resilience and those sorts of stories of hard work, faith and resourcefulness just keep resounding through every story. But that one’s a pretty special one to me being so close to it. The funny thing is a lot of the initial stories we wrote did come from family – we quickly identified there were a lot of family war stories just within the group of writers. That was a good thing to discover.
Did you get to perform that song for your family?
Oh yeah my family have seen it at the Sydney Opera House and it was pretty nice, to have that story and associated song. It was a touching moment, really special; I rarely get through that song without bloody crying on stage let me tell you! That’s one of many, and since then we’ve done lots of residencies with lots of amazing women and families, and lots more songs have developed for me and for the other writers as a result.
It’s a bit of a complete change to things like Tin Roof and your other work with Women in Docs?
Yeah! As much as Women in Docs is really big on my artistic calendar, it’s such an honour to take the focus away from you and your experiences as a writer and to kind of embody other people’s experiences, and you have a bit of creative licence over the stories, but in lots of cases you don’t need to impose that because bloody hell, the creativity and the story is there waiting to be told. It’s a nice change and it’s only made me better as an artist and a songwriter, so am bringing that back to all my other projects, Women in Docs included.
Catch The Soldier’s Wife at the Old Courthouse Theatre on Saturday, 27 May. Tickets are available through Local Tickets or fullthrottletheatre.com.