Making it Rain: Magpie Diaries and Steve Smyth on Giving Back to the Community

Image: Magpie Diaries – supplied.

Author: Melody Menu

Born out of the creative influences of The Gum Ball festival umbrella and his own music-making, Matt ‘Magpie’ Johnston’s new project is a communal affair. The music is what you would expect for the founder of Dashville Skyline festival – a fun and wholesome mix of alt-country twang complete with brassy horns and bright blues rock, backed by family and friends. For Matt, the band’s formation was incredibly organic, a creative outlet formed as a result of almost ten years of focusing exclusively on his series of music festivals.

With the first Gum Ball taking place in 2005 on his parents’ property, Matt found that turning an ideal into a reality was hard work. ‘I had not really done anything like that before. It was a lot of work and I put a lot of time into that; it pretty much just consumed me for a long time.’ Ten years on, and The Gum Ball is a creative and cultural success, spanning a series of music festivals, the most renowned of which being Dashville Skyline, a celebration of alt-country and psychedelia from near and far. Boasting a striking view of the Milky Way, Dashville has come to be known as an engaging arts community showcasing up-and-coming and established acts ranging from local outfits Spookyland and All Our Exes Live In Texas, to industry heavyweights including The Waifs and CW Stoneking.

The influence of Dashville has had a heart-warming impact on Matt, becoming more than a festival, but also a record label and a way to connect with like-minded people. ‘Dashville is a very big part of me and it’s amazing the community that has evolved around that.’ Equally important has been the philanthropic and socially conscious aspect of the festival, which has been a mainstay of Matt’s creative projects. Most notably, Dashville has raised funds for Black Dog Institute, as well as contributing to a new Make It Rain compilation featuring forty of last year’s showcasing artists, raising close to $9,000 for drought relief donated through the Country Womens Association of New South Wales.

‘I guess in a way, I was a part of something that was definitely much greater than the Dashville kind of thing; it’s Australian music in itself I think, we’re all keen to try and make a difference where we can.’

Matt speaks passionately on the struggles of farmers Australia-wide, but is also conscious of the issues facing his immediate community, namely mental health concerns such as depression and suicide, the awareness of which remains a high priority at his festivals. ‘I feel like we’ve done some good stuff here; really made a difference. There were some stats that came out recently on depression and suicide rates around the Hunter Valley, because of the amount of shift work and stuff; there’s people that are working some pretty dodgy hours all in the name of capitalism. So that’s why The Gum Ball was such an obscure thing to be doing back when we started; there weren’t any events back then and it took a long time to get an audience. It was only through curiosity that a lot of people checked it out. We’ve definitely grown by word of mouth and that’s how the awareness has worked as well; people talking about things more. And so we’ll just continue to do that; it seems to be the way forward.’

To Steve Smyth, folk-rock renegade and old friend of Matt’s, Dashville Skyline is what a festival should be: ‘full of salt of the earth people, thought-out lineups, duty to care. Loose to let everyone lose their inhibitions; organised to let the fun unroll.’ It’s no surprise, then, that the two have embarked on a tour together, curated by the Dashville record label, and the first Australian tour of Smyth’s in a number of years. ‘That was a fortuitous thing that happened earlier on,’ remarks Matt. ‘I had a bit of a tour organised and [Steve] was doing a similar thing at the same time and because we’re old buddies, we just decided to join forces. Magpie Diaries is obviously a new thing for people, so it’s nice to be able to join with someone like Steve who is an exceptional artist; a testament to a hard working musician.’

The chance to play these shows on home soil since relocating to Barcelona is a ‘sincere pleasure’ for Steve and he lauds Matt as an ideal co-conspirator. ‘To be honest, you don’t set up [Dashville] without having a solid grounding of it in yourself. Matty has it in spades.’ The tour has been well received, from a stint at Woodford Folk Festival which was an honour to play for Matt, to playing in Steve’s own hometown. ‘Tomerong was magic, it’s a hall I did some of my first shows in as a whippersnapper. My sister put on the food, people splayed out on each doorway and the music drifted out to the swaying gums. I got to see old faces again; we got to piece [together] old memories by making new ones.’

Steve is complementary of Matt’s efforts through Dashville et al in raising awareness for issues that relate to the greater community, and points to a tendency for musicians and creatives to give back to their community through their work. ‘I’d like to think we all try to do our bit, in our own way. I guess it’s whatever becomes a conviction, to see something we want to ease the contrast on or completely wipe off the social map. Some things you can’t un-see anymore. Some write, some scream, some tell it in a soft whisper to let it find its ground. I think art has been the witness and will constantly change the barriers of human perception of conformity.’ For Matt, nowhere is this more apparent than within his own community: ‘It’s good to be evolving with the festival; trying to incorporate a bit more of a healthy industry vibe to it. Everyone is pretty keen to always come back to Dashville, which tells us that we must have something going on up here.’

Magpie Diaries and Steve Smyth are touring nationally.

Purchase Make It Rain here.

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