“We’ve got to look af­ter each other”

Singer Ma­halia Barnes has a big voice – and she is us­ing it off­stage to speak out for so­cial change

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy CHRIS MOHEN In­ter­view NAOMI CHRISOULAKIS

Spurred on by dad Jimmy’s child­hood hard­ships, singer Ma­halia Barnes is us­ing her pub­lic voice to ac­tion so­cial change and re­duce home­less­ness.

Ma­halia Barnes may boast the lin­eage of Aus­tralian rock roy­alty thanks to her fa­ther Jimmy, but de­spite an up­bring­ing amid the trap­pings of priv­i­lege and pros­per­ity, the 35-year-old singer says she has al­ways been aware of how eas­ily it can all van­ish. “My fa­ther grew up with ex­treme poverty and didn’t al­ways have a safe en­vi­ron­ment to sleep in,” she tells Stel­lar. “Quite of­ten, as a nine-year-old boy, he’d sleep out in the field across the road from the house that he was liv­ing in – be­cause it felt safer.”

His sto­ries of the bad old days, along with her own ob­ser­va­tions, made sign­ing up as an am­bas­sador for Mis­sion Aus­tralia’s Sleep­out fundrais­ing cam­paign – which is mark­ing its 30th year – a no-brainer. “I know far too many peo­ple who have al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced home­less­ness, ex­treme poverty or have been at risk of home­less­ness, so it is a very im­por­tant sub­ject for me per­son­ally,” Barnes says. “I also be­lieve we have got to start look­ing af­ter each other any way that we can. The re­al­ity is that thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple don’t have a fixed ad­dress. That’s not OK; we can’t have fam­i­lies sleep­ing in their cars. This is one of the luck­i­est coun­tries in the world, with

amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity and amaz­ing ac­cess to health­care… it is crazy that peo­ple are right on the brink of be­ing pushed into home­less­ness.”

Barnes counts her­self lucky that she’s able to make a liv­ing from mu­sic. She and her hus­band, mu­si­cian Ben Rodgers, play to­gether in Ma­halia Barnes + The Soul Mates; they re­leased their lat­est al­bum ear­lier this year and reg­u­larly travel the world play­ing shows. The pair re­cently shifted their fam­ily – they have daugh­ters, Ruby, eight, and Rosetta, al­most two – from an in­ner-city sub­urb of Sydney to NSW’S bu­colic South­ern High­lands, where they both grew up.

Barnes says they are em­brac­ing more space and the coun­try life, which means they now raise chick­ens. “It’s so beau­ti­ful,” Barnes tells Stel­lar of their new life. “The main rea­son we moved back is be­cause both of our par­ents live [there]. The sta­bil­ity for the kids – and hav­ing that sort of con­nec­tion – has been a big help and re­ally im­por­tant.”

All that strong fam­ily sup­port and a thriv­ing ca­reer aside, Barnes is mind­ful that the very na­ture of mak­ing a liv­ing as an artist gives her a spe­cial in­sight into life’s more pre­car­i­ous cor­ners. “I still have weeks where I don’t know when my next gig is and I don’t know when I’ll be get­ting paid next. I’m not in a po­si­tion of risk right now, but I know a lot of peo­ple who are. And all it would take would be one ma­jor set­back – whether it was a health-re­lated is­sue or not enough work com­ing in – and they would be sleep­ing on peo­ple’s couches for a while. And where does that lead to?” she asks. “I think we re­ally un­der­stand, as artists, what it’s like to be in a vul­ner­a­ble po­si­tion. And the na­ture of what we do is emo­tion­ally con­nected. Se­condly, if you do have a pub­lic pro­file and a pub­lic voice that can be heard, I be­lieve you have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to use it.”

Along with her Mis­sion Aus­tralia com­mit­ments, Barnes is also in­volved in the NOW Aus­tralia or­gan­i­sa­tion, fight­ing sex­ual harass­ment, abuse and in­tim­i­da­tion in the work­place. “My par­ents are in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous, and they are very em­pa­thetic peo­ple. My dad has been through a lot in his life. Peo­ple see his in­cred­i­ble suc­cesses, but he’s worked re­ally hard for that and he’s also been through a lot of trauma in the process, from early child­hood deal­ing with do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sex­ual as­sault, fam­ily vi­o­lence and ex­treme poverty. They would go to school with no food and they would put card­board in the bot­tom of their shoes to block the holes so their feet wouldn’t get too wet.”

Jimmy Barnes was born in Scot­land, and her mother Jane is from Thai­land. So for a first­gen­er­a­tion Barnes of mixed race, the things she has seen and heard – in­clud­ing racist re­marks di­rected at her on­line – have in­formed her pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cacy for in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity. “At the end of the day, we are all hu­man be­ings. Every­body has their dif­fer­ences,but I’m a big be­liever that dif­fer­ences make us stronger. And dif­fer­ences should be cel­e­brated. Both of my par­ents are im­mi­grants who have a lot to of­fer – and have of­fered a lot to our so­ci­ety. They de­serve no less than any other Aus­tralian.”

Just as her par­ents taught her the value of em­pa­thy, Barnes says she is try­ing to raise her two girls to know how to walk in some­one else’s shoes. When the fam­ily was in Philadel­phia for work over win­ter a few years back, Ruby used her Christ­mas money to buy lo­cal home­less peo­ple,who were fac­ing freez­ing weather, cof­fee and food – and in­sisted on giv­ing her leftovers away. “She would ask, ‘Why do they have to sleep there?’ I be­lieve that chil­dren have em­pa­thy built in,” Barnes says. “I think that as we get older we tend to turn a blind eye to our own em­pa­thy. It’s im­por­tant that we recog­nise there are not many peo­ple out there who in­her­ently hate or don’t care for other peo­ple. It’s just some­thing we’ve got to nur­ture. I per­son­ally can’t imag­ine not car­ing about those causes. I can’t even imag­ine not act­ing and not speak­ing out. I’ve got a loud voice and I’m not afraid to use it.” For more de­tails on Mis­sion Aus­tralia’s Sleep­out cam­paign and Home­less­ness Week (Au­gust 6–12), visit act.mis­sion­aus­tralia.com.au.

“I can’t imag­ine not speak­ing out. I’ve got a loud voice and I’m not afraid to use it”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.