Music photographer Michelle Grace Hunder and filmmaker Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore have collaborated in creating multi-sensory artistic exhibition Her Sound, Her Story, that features photographs and video interviews of over 40 iconic Australian female artists. The exhibition will feature as part of Melbourne Music Week, opening with a curated concert on Friday, November 11th and running through to November 24th.
Over two years, Hunder and Sangiorgi Dalimore spoke to emerging and established musicians — including Kate Ceberano, Tina Arena, Missy Higgins, Julia Stone, Montaigne, Vera Blue, Mojo Juju, Nai Palm, Ecca Vandal and Ella Hooper, to name a few — to reflect on how the Australian music industry is changing shape for women. After interviewing a diverse range of artists, the collaboration has evolved into an audio-visual installation that opens narratives and gives space to voices that have traditionally been under-represented.
We recently caught up with Hunder and Sangiorgi Dalimore to discuss the shifts in the Australian landscape, intersectional feminism and inspiring artists who are changing the conversations around gender divides in the music industry.
How did the idea come about?
Hunder: My previous project that I worked on, that came out two years ago, was called Rise, it was a photo documentary on hip-hop in Australia. At the end of that I was reassessing the whole process and looking at what I wanted to do next and I realised that I’d worked with 180 people over two years and ten of them were female. And I was like, “okay, there’s something going on here”. There’s all these conversations happening about the [gender] split across all genres in music so I wanted to explore that further. I thought that just photos wouldn’t do that justice, and I really wanted to give a voice to the women, so I asked Claudia to come on board to do some interviews, and that’s where it all started.
What were the initial responses of the artists like? Were they on board straight away or were there any hesitations?
Hunder: The majority were really responsive, and we got a few big names on board quite early — people like Missy Higgins and Tina Arena — but there were definitely a few hesitations of ‘do we still have to have this conversation?’ We went to them in terms of what we’re trying to do, a whole conversation around their personal experience, and whether that was positive or negative. It opened up a different narrative.
Sangiorgi Dalimore: I certainly think after each shoot, there was an even more positive response of women expressing that they were grateful to even be given that space.
It seems like blending the photography with the video gave the project an extra dimension and maybe distilled some of those hesitations that you mentioned. Claudia, for you, what did you see as the best way to just let these women speak as openly as they could?
Sangiorgi Dalimore: I guess having no wall, no agenda, and being quite open myself, and really running the interviews more like a conversation meant that it was pretty easy to slip straight in. I was asking questions that some of these artists have never been asked before on topics that are really important to them. Mojo [Juju] I remember surprised herself, during her interview she went “wow, I’ve never spoken about this stuff”. Beautiful moments like that. And with all the younger artists coming through now, [there’s] a real excitement too, to share their more celebratory or easier path into the industry, that was really lovely.
Hunder: The landscape has definitely changed in the last 10-15 years. It’s not just all doom and gloom. It’s not so incredibly hard that women can’t succeed, because these are the women that are actually doing it.
After speaking to all these artists, what do you guys see as the biggest change over the last 10-15 years?
Hunder: I think women are more supportive of each other. You’ll speak to women back in the ’90s, or even earlier like Renee Geyer or Tina Arena or Kate Ceberano — often they were pitted against each other. There was only allowed to be one dominant woman at one time. Claire Bowditch spoke about that, it could only be her or Missy Higgins, or there couldn’t be a group of women at once. That I think has really changed. There’s definitely more space for women to be doing more things.
Sangiorgi Dalimore: With the progression of the internet and technology, people’s experiences are completely different. Renee Geyer would’ve just had a band and an amazing voice. There was one line to get her to where she wanted to go. Whereas now there are so many different ways of becoming an artist. By nature of how the world’s progressing, things are freeing up for artistic expression to come out in all kinds of ways.
Did the final product change much from the vision you had initially?
Sangiorgi Dalimore: When we set out into this Michelle said “I’m gonna make a portrait series,” and I said “I’m gonna film some interviews,” and they were our outcomes. They were very simple. The exhibition at the Emporium Melbourne was a really wonderful opportunity that was presented to Michelle. It’s now become this small installation where there’s gonna be audio soundbites from the interviews played inside the installations. With the concert, the same thing again. All of the women are playing but some of them are playing together in very new collaborations. That extension of the outcome was about creating the community and getting the women together and feeling connected. There’s also a 12-part video editorial or vignette series on 12 of the artists. That will go out in a couple of months and also onto a free cinema screening as part of Melbourne music week. So we’re trying to work out really creative ways of how this can spread.
What were some of the biggest obstacles for you guys throughout the process?
Hunder: The fact that this was all self-funded meant there were limitations in what we could do artistically. Originally I had these really grand ideas and dreamed up all these sets and stuff and it just wasn’t possible. Having said that, it’s kind of turned out really in the nature of the whole project. If we had’ve had this budget maybe it wouldn’t have been as authentic or raw or as beautiful.
Sangiorgi Dalimore: I feel like if I was to reflect on the main obstacle for us, personally it was the amount of times I thought “why are we doing this? Can someone remind me why we’re doing this again?”. And then all it would take would be for us to have another interview and experience that conversation. Even just as individuals and as women, Michelle and I had the privilege to go through those conversations and reflect on those points ourselves in our own lives and careers and artistic endeavours.
“One of the conversations I’m sick of is when there’s a festival line up and there’s two women on there, and then you see this conversation of ‘there’s not enough great women making music’. I just think that’s such bullshit.”
— Michelle Grace Hunder
What were the most resounding barriers?
Sangiorgi Dalimore: I would put it down to self-worth, a really big one which relates a lot to women’s portrayal of themselves, what they feel they need to do or show to be in order to receive love. Love can come in the way of fans or acceptance or whatever. And then I go into a space of there not being enough visibility — some women not seeing themselves reflected and not feeling like they can be where they want to be.
Hunder: That’s why it was so important to talk to women like Mojo or Dawn Laird or Simona Castricum, people that are not always so visible because they might be a larger woman or they might be a lesbian or they might be transgender. These women who have never seen themselves represented are actually inspiring other girls, whether they realise that or not. That visibility is really important. And individuality — what’s really beautiful about these women is that they are so individual. They are not a cookie cutter of anybody else. That’s within look and sound and all that stuff is cutting through, and that was really interesting to me.
Clearly representing a diverse range of artists was important to you, how does intersectional feminism play a role in the exhibition as a whole? What kind of nuances does it add to the stories?
Hunder: Especially in the landscape of the Australian music industry, it’s giving a voice to women who don’t feel like they always have a voice. People like Kira Peru, people like Emma Donovan or Thelma Plum might not always have huge visibility, but it’s important to be able to give them a voice and give their stories light as well. I’m really outspoken in that space.
Do you feel like that’s a changing face of music at the moment as well?
Hunder: Yeah 100%. You’ve got people like Sampa The Great, who in hip-hop is so inspiring. Not only is it really hard for women to be accepted in hip-hop in general, but for a black girl to come in from Africa and be so dominant and so welcomed and so secure in herself — she’s a trailblazer. She’s changing the whole landscape. She was really exciting to talk to. She’s one of the 12 vignettes we’re doing and for a person her age to be speaking the way she is, it’s pretty amazing.
What do you hope will be the biggest takeaway from the exhibition and from the video?
Sangiorgi Dalimore: I hope people are able to touch on the feelings that Michelle and I experienced when we were in those conversations. Things like feeling inspired or having a sense of belonging or faith in yourself or faith in women or faith in music. It’s one of those things that are quite hard to articulate, it’s quite magical. We’re bringing it back to music and that’s the core of this entire thing — how that makes you feel and the fact that music is the soundtrack to our entire lives. And some of the songs that these women that we’ve spoken to have made have been soundtracks to so many people’s lives, and so many amazing moments in their lives or really hard moments. They are incredible artists who make incredible music and without that we are void of a soundtrack.
Hunder: I really hope it shines a light on these women. One of the conversations I’m sick of is when there’s a festival line up and there’s two women on there, and then you see this conversation of “there’s not enough great women making music”. I just think that’s such bullshit. I feel like going ‘here’s a list. You can choose from any of these 50 amazing women.’
Did you have any favourite stories or experiences?
Sangiorgi Dalimore: There’s the stories of the privilege — getting to sit down with someone like Renee Geyer, and two young artists coming in and asking her questions. It could’ve gone either way.
Hunder: I think there’s some really funny things. One of the questions Claudia asked everybody was “was there ever a moment that you felt like, “this wouldn’t happen to me if I was female?'”. And nearly all of the answers talked about sound checks. There would be a male sound guy being a dick. Even to the point where Missy Higgins was like ‘I did a gig recently, and the guy was like ‘nah babe it sounds great'”. And she’s like “it’s not right”. And he said “nah, I don’t know what you’re talking about” and she said: “I’m telling you, it’s not right”. And a few years ago, she might not’ve had the confidence to say “no, listen to what I’m saying”. I found that amusing and also I guess kind of frustrating.
Sangiorgi Dalimore: One of my favourite shoots to work on was going to speak to Mojo. She spoke so beautifully and so openly with me. Shortly after that, we ended up with her running a bubble bath, fully clothed, reading a 70s playboy vintage magazine. Michelle had to strip down to her undies in the bath towering over her with the camera and I sat on her toilet filming it all. There were these beautiful moments like that where we felt quite lucky.
Hunder: I knew that the angle I needed to get, I needed to be in the bath, and I had the skinniest tight jeans on and I couldn’t roll them up, and I was like “okay, I actually need to take my jeans off,” and Mojo responded: “okay we’re just gonna go with this”. It’s one of my favourite photos. It’s so beautiful and awesome.
Top Photo: From left, Sangiorgi Dalimore and Hunder. Credit: Oli Sansom.
‘Her Sound, Her Story’ exhibition runs from November 9th to November 24th at the Emporium Melbourne, as part of Melbourne Music Week, with film screenings scheduled for Saturday, November 12th. More information here.