ON THE outskirts of Nundle, the cool air carries the scent of roasting chicken.
The rivers are dry and the sun provides little warmth against the winter wind.
At The DAG Sheep Station, aspiring artists, the newly divorced and the creative arrive apprehensive but excited in the Hills of Gold.
In the front office, owner John Krsulja welcomes each newcomer with vigour and walks them down to the mess hall – where well-known artists are grabbing lunch.
At one of the long tables, country music artists Brad Butcher and Luke O’Shea sit and chat. They’ve both been to the Songwriters Retreat before.
“Sometimes life gets in the way, but here you’re able to focus on nothing else but writing a song – you can shut the rest of the world out,” Butcher said.
And, with zero phone reception, he’s right – the silence is a welcome escape.
Luke O’Shea has known The Dag’s owner since he was a child, and said being able to carve out five days to do nothing but focus on your craft was incredibly rare.
“Everybody is at a different level with their instruments and poetry, so you do really figure out where you’re all at,” he said.
“It’s about seeing what’s on the table in front of you and allowing the magic to happen. You still have to have the discipline in order to see it through and work hard at it.
“It’s like an invisible jigsaw puzzle: you have to keep shifting around the pieces until it feels right.”
And there’s more than just songwriting on offer. O’Shea will work with the students to develop stage presence – others will talk songwriters through life in the recording studio, how to pitch their songs to radio, understanding copyright and vocal coaching.
Over the week, artists will play their works-in-progress to the crowd, usually over a glass of red wine by the fire.
Butcher said finishing a song wasn’t easy. Anyone could write a line or a verse, but not everyone had the discipline to see it through. O’Shea agreed.
“If you’re passionate about it, you’re willing to suffer for it – and you certainly do that, but a place like this gives you a whole new vigour to attack the next mountain,” he said.
Tackling writer’s block head-on
By the fire sits Ben Leece. He’s come to The Dag Sheep Station to get past a bout of writer’s block.
Leece finished writing an album with Shane Nicholson at the end of last year.
“Since finishing this last recording, I’ve been pretty dry,” he said.
“I’ve written maybe three, four songs – I try and read a lot.
“I journal in the morning; as soon as I wake up I write for half an hour – stream-of-consciousness sort of stuff.”
Before now, he’d written 50 songs in three months, so he’s come to the songwriters retreat for some guidance.
For him, songwriting is like a muscle: the less you flex it, the less it can be used.
“I grew up in Quirindi so it was an excuse to come home, but I’m just open to anything – I’m really getting into the craft and I’m interested to know how other people do it.”
He’s never cowritten before, but Leece said the best songs came from three chords and the truth.
“I’m of the school that’s a bit more traditional, where strong songs sometimes come from a place of oppression,” he said.
The woman by the window
With long blonde hair and calm demeanor, it’s hard to miss Aleyce Simmonds sitting quietly by the window.
She’s only missed one songwriters retreat at The Dag Sheep Station since its inception.
“It’s just a really inspiring environment. Up here, not only are we out of service but we’re detached from the world a bit,” she said.
“For some people it really has changed their lives: it’s connected them with like-minded people but given them something to work towards.
“We’ve had people out here that don’t sing or play an instrument but want to learn to write a song – if anyone is looking for a creative outlet, it’s perfect.”
And the experience isn’t just transformative for the 32 aspiring songwriters. It has a profound effect on the tutors also.
To write a song, Simmonds will delve into their past, find out what their hopes are and get to know her students well – usually over a glass of red wine.
“Maybe they’ve been through a divorce or just want some time out,” she said.
“Delving inside the writer is about finding out about their childhood or where they’re from, then something might spark a title or a line.
“Of a day it’s hard work: we put in long hours and it’s like you’re running a marathon over and over because your mind is being drained.
“But of a night it’s great because we have an opportunity to sit down together, look at what’s been written and listen to people play.”
The Songwriters Retreat wrapped up in Nundle on Tuesday.