It’s 2am in the week before Easter, and the sound of an ethereal voice accompanied by plucked guitar and soprano saxophone is wafting like some enchanted breeze along the deserted corridors outside an ABC recording studio in Sydney. Through the door and into the candle-lit room, and there we discover the unmistakeable presence of Katie Noonan, lost in the words, accompanied by her trio of 14 years, Elixir, and recording only their second album ever, and their first for ABC Music.
The mood of inspiration and rapt attention is obvious, the three friends locked away from the world, creating a mesmerising soundscape inspired by the words of legendary Australian poet Thomas Shapcott.
And now, with a national tour supporting Ron Carter and further festival appearances beckoning, Elixir’s First Seed Ripening has been completed. Downloads of the spell-binding advance tracks Snapshot and Circle of Moonlight are heralding the impending release of the entire CD on 5 August, with industry rumours circulating that it is Noonan’s most creatively-inspired, deeply-personal recording since her early years with the Brisbane band george.
Since their self-titled first album which became a best-seller upon its release in 2003, Elixir has been joined by Melbourne-based guitarist Stephen Magnusson – himself a major solo recording artist in his own right – while Katie’s husband Zac Hurren continues to provide his mellifluous, lyrical saxophone lines that are as distinctive a feature of the Elixir sound as Katie’s sublime vocals themselves.
‘Our aim,’ Katie says of the new album, ‘was to make gentle, intimate music, and it was all about freedom and spontaneity.’ Recording at an unhurried pace, the trio allowed themselves the time to explore every nuance of Shapcott’s subtle, deeply humane poetry that they have been working on with the Queensland-based poet himself for seven years. (Two tracks on Katie’s previous album Emperor’s Box also featured lyrics by Shapcott.)
‘When Elixir first played with me, I was thrilled with their expertise and with Katie Noonan’s singing and the way she made my words into something new – and, for me, strange,’ says the 76-year-old winner of the 2000 Patrick White Award. ‘Since then she has continued to surprise and delight me. Elixir fits around her like a glove.’
In penetrating deep into the heart of Shapcott’s words, the trio enlisted the help of string players from the Australian Chamber Orchestra (with whom Katie has worked regularly), and leading jazz players Jonathan Zwartz on bass and Simon Barker on drums.
From the very first notes of the opening, title track, it becomes obvious that this is an album like no other, conceived in the white-heat of inspiration but setting its own late-night pace, by turns reflective and brooding, and then ravishingly beautiful, transported by the moods of the moment.
‘It’s an album containing the most haunting musical melodies,’ says Robert Patterson, Head of ABC Music, who previously released Katie’s best-selling Two of Kind duets album with her soprano-mother Maggie. ‘Having this three-time ARIA-winner recording again on our label has been a joy, with the added bonus that Stephen is also a long-time ABC Music artist. Watching them and Zacworking together with such a special atmosphere in the studio really represented a beautiful welcome home for all of us.’
While the majority of songs on First Seed Ripening feature lyrics by Shapcott, there are also the kinds of inspired covers at which Elixir have always excelled. Joni Mitchell’s My Old Man comes in for particularly impressive treatment, while Split Enz’s I Hope I Never, composed by Katie’s song writing collaborator Tim Finn, makes for a particularly moving conclusion to an album that has been a long time coming but, in every heavenly note, has been worth the wait.