Do Not Falter: Justine Wahlin on folk songs, friendships and creative spaces

Image: Justine Wahlin – supplied.

Author: Melody Menu

When I first meet Justine Wahlin over coffee and yuca chips in Surry Hills, she tells me how she’s teaching herself hand-drawn animation. It’s easy to imagine Justine being taken by a new idea or creative project; devoting days, hours, weeks to learning a new skill or crafting anything from a homemade film clip to a piece of music. Justine is dynamic – as a musician, a concert-organiser and creative mind, and you can see the creative projects fizz and crackle across her face. The latest of a number of projects is Justine’s second album, a collection of hazy country-tinged jams and folk-singer storytelling. A Pair Of Dreamers affects an organic and hopeful quality; serene and pared-down music belied by constant creative pursuits and collaboration through her home studio-cum-concert-space.

Lead singles ‘Falter’ and ‘Where Does Love Go?’ are key examples of Justine’s atmospheric songwriting, and demonstrate a versatility of moods on the new album. The latter is a dreamlike exploration of the title with gentle fingerpicking guitar and sombre cello, while ‘Falter’ is distinctly more grounded; a strident folk song and the product of a ‘songwriting marathon’ undertaken with friend Rachel Webster. ‘We sort-of thought one night that people don’t write a lot of love songs for friends. And so we went off on a little bit of a challenge to each other to write a song about friends. In the end, Rachel didn’t write one – she wrote something else. But I came back and I was like ‘I wrote my song!’ and my song ended up being ‘Falter.’ And it was essentially about the handful of friends that are with us through the ebbs and flows. The ones that talk us down from the ledge and sit there and listen to your crazy talk and just let you crumble through without judging you and catch you at the end when you’re at a vulnerable state.’

The song is matched with an equally striking film clip, a deceptively-simplistic premise of Justine performing the soundtrack to a silent film over her shoulder, which makes for dreamy viewing. The whole thing, Justine says, was a much bigger production than it first appears, incorporating silhouettes, shadow puppets and the first stages of a production team in herself and her partner Peter Fenwick. ‘I made the actual shadow puppets, I hand-drew them and cut them out of black cardboard, and my partner and I made a makeshift puppet theatre in the studio and mapped it all out and we filmed ourselves operating the whole thing. We almost killed each other by the end of the day, but we made it through! So all the puppets that were in the back of that clip were done by Pete and myself.’

The next layer of the operation was filming the ‘human puppets’ which tie the story together and add another element of magical realism. This took place in a studio in Petersham, where a large-scale shadow puppet theatre was erected for filming, before editing the puppets and people together in the style of a storybook. ‘And then we wanted to have that projected into the background of like the old-school style cinema where the musician would play live the music to the film. Like a piano player playing to a silent film.’

‘There was lots of different stages and at some point I thought ‘why am I doing this to myself? This is insane.’ But you know, I really love it. It’s simple but there’s a lot in it. And I think it’s true to the audio of the recording.’

In amongst various creative projects and songwriting, Justine also plays with her partner in their band CloudBird, where their music incorporates a wealth of influences. ‘We call our music crash-country-folk-psychedelic-dub [laughs] or thereabouts. Which is totally different from my solo music.’ Here, Justine and Peter are more collaboratively-focused, allowing greater room for the spontaneity that can come out of the studio. ‘I love how you can start to create a song and it starts to build in your mind and you think of certain instruments and where you might like something to go, and at the end of the day, depending on who comes in or starts to collaborate, it can take a completely different twist.’

Justine and Pete rehearse in their own Red Dog Studio, a place that also acts as a venue out of their home in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. Approximately once every few months, Red Dog plays host to a variety of curated bands that bring people together for a night of music and food, with Justine providing homely meals that have earned their own following. ‘I do think that people get the love through food as well, I think it goes straight to the heart, and that’s part of it too.’ The concert in its entirety is also filmed for Red Dog’s online Youtube channel, catering to mature and up-and-coming bands alike through the opportunity to play a home show to an existing community and providing useful online content.

Between Justine’s creative projects and opening up her home for nights of good music and good food, it’s little wonder that Red Dog has garnered such a community around itself, a haven and multi-purpose creative space where bands perform, people get the chance to socialise, and the night ends with an all-out jam – all things that Justine thinks are extremely important for community-building. ‘Quite often in Sydney, people get very stuck into their groups and tend to follow each other. I find it quite exciting when you go somewhere and you realise ‘oh wow, this is a cross-over point where everybody can come and mingle.’ And I think in those spaces you really create something different. You put that little seed of something in there, and before you know it, you’ve got this really interesting, new thing.’ And that’s exactly what Red Dog has become: a meeting-place and celebration of diversity in creativity.


Justine Wahlin will launch her album A Pair Of Dreamers at The Hollywood Hotel on Thursday August 29 with special guests.

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