Hailing from Darwin might be perceived as a disadvantage, given it’s as far from Melbourne as you can be while still in the country.
But Leah Flanagan has turned it into a distinct advantage.
Flanagan sings sweetly but wields a mean ukelele – as Darwin locals will attest, she’s been playing original songs to hot-blooded acclaim since she could swing a tune, and is the darling of the tropical north.
The release of her second album, Nirvana Nights, is not a tribute to that grunge band’s nocturnal habits, but to a small, defiantly seedy bar in Darwin where everybody plays. This testament to Flanagan’s home-town sums up the tone of the album.
Which is not to say it’s small-time – this is a beautifully recorded document of Northern soul, with full-blooded melodies and Flanagan’s voice – at times channelling Shirley Bassey, at others Lucinda Williams, dominating a succulent procession of profound musicianship from some of Melbourne’s finest players – Liz Stringer, Grant Cummerford, Matt Earl, Netanela Mizrahi, Mel Robinson, Emily Lubitz and Harry Angus.
Yes, she recorded it in Melbourne, where she travels frequently to play – when she’s not in Vancouver with the Black Arm Band, Berlin at the Popkomm Festival, Woodford Folk Festival, Adelaide Fringe or wherever else in the world she’s in demand.
The album, produced by Steven Schram (The Cat Empire/Little Birdy/Custom Kings) is a robust interpretation of her onstage persona – vividly human, quiet but possessed of a formidable strength and artistry. Bristling with gorgeous melodies and the kind of wry swing you might suspect of Tom Waits or Jolie Holland, there’s also the off-kilter catch of Martha Wainwright’s emotional torrent in Flanagan’s maturing, but already well-gravelled delivery.
But her home and family are foremost authorities – her grandmother’s acute effect on Flanagan’s world is registered in both Goodbye and Alyawarre Girl, whereas Nirvana Nights, the song, stories Darwin’s small but zealously hedonistic community.
This Alyawarre girl is taking her music beyond Darwin’s embrace to a wider world. Leah Flanagan’s second album announces a woman awake.