Peter Westheimer – Musician

Interviewed by Prue; edited by Mick

“To perform and share my music in a contemporary arena like Splendour is a total honour.” – Peter Westheimer

From a seven year old novice violinist to leader of the Victorian Youth Symphony Orchestra, to a degree in Medicine, to political street theatre performer, to writing and performing in bands, to composing music scores for film and TV, to a term as a councillor in the Byron Shire… Peter Westheimer’s list of achievements just goes on and on. Check out his website and you will get my drift. Also check out his latest project on youtube Tranzworld Express. Wow!

I met with Peter on a seemingly rare sunny day in Brunswick Heads for a coffee and a chat that lasted for as long as his bio. Clearly there was a lot to cover. Starting with the usual Very Byron question of ‘When and why did you come to the Byron Shire?’

Peter Westheimer

I came to Byron because I was interested in alternative culture, spirituality, and a hankering to reconnect with the land and country. I had grown tired of suburban Melbourne and after spending time in the warmth of Indonesia, studying Tai Chi and meditation, I chose to live in a warmer climate. When friends mentioned Mullumbimby I jumped on a train in 1974, not long after the Nimbin Aquarius Festival, and got off at ‘Mullum’. I eventually moved here in 1978 and after twelve months bought into an MO (Multiple Occupancy) near The Channon .

What did you do once you made the move?
I gained knowledge about the bush and building, and immersed myself in music full time. I wanted to venture beyond my classical music background so I tried Rock and New Wave… started playing in bands, writing and singing. Technology was beginning to emerge so I could put my music into the public arena myself, without a record company. I produced my first EP called ‘Laminex Lovers’ and it happened to get quite a lot of airplay on Triple J (Double J then). Then I enrolled in an Audio Engineering course at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology).

You already had a degree in Medicine. Wow, you must really like studying?
Not really. I was well and truly over it so I didn’t sit any of the Audio Engineering exams.  I wanted the knowledge, not the qualification. I even rebelled against reading music scores.

So did you ever practice as a doctor?
Yes, until five years ago I practised part time in the fields of occupational health rehabilitation and in the legal side of medicine.

Was it a good time in your life?
Yeah… Medicine gave me an income to support my music. I practised for about nine years and in that time bought a house, renovated it and built a home studio. I was also doing a lot of composing for TV and film in Sydney. One day a director friend did a video clip to one of my tracks and it was nominated as one of the Top 10 Australian video clips of 1985 by the producer of Rage – Mark Fitzgerald.

In 1992 you were also invited into the ‘Musicians As Artists’ publication. How did that come about? Do you also paint?
For my 1992 album ‘Transition’, I painted a canvas to reflect moods and concepts of each track and launched the album in an art gallery restaurant. A friend of a friend was putting the publication together in Los Angeles and he had a spare spot. He thought it would be good to have an Australian inclusion… a case of right place, right time.

Book - Musicians as Artists

What an amazing experience. You share equal space with legends… John Lennon, Carly Simon, Ron Woods, David Bowie… the list goes on. If you are struggling to read the above list of legends, click here for a clearer image… it really is a spin out.

Peter’s paintings appeared along side legendary names like John Lennon, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Ringo Starr, in the publication Musicians as Artists

So the creative process… when did you become aware of creating intuitively?
When I was a Med student I lived in a share-house near Melbourne Uni… lots of people would come through the house and we’d jam (me on the violin) and I soon realised I could create original music pretty easily. When I was in the right space, without getting too esoteric, I kind of channelled it. I use feeling and intuition for making music… I’ve rebelled against formalities of form and genre.

How do you get into the right space to create?
I simply spend time in my studio, or wherever, with the tools of songwriting… a laptop, good headphones, small mixer, decent speakers and good software.

I essentially do jam sessions with multi-track recorder software and overlay tracks… endlessly experimenting, adding and subtracting and ultimately honing  the sounds. For my current album, Tranzworld Express, I brought in Amir Paiss on Persian Santoor, and Parissa Bouas on vocals.

The creative splash of this album happened a few months after my mother died and I felt the need to look inside for a while. I took off across Europe for two months where I spent a lot of time on trains. It was then that I wrote Tranzworld Express… hence the strong train theme.

Publicity for Tranzworld Express

Interestingly, there is a train theme running here also – you arrived in the area by train and you are Vice President of TOOT (Trains On Our Tracks) … the local action group trying to get the Byron train running again. Have you always been a politically active person… is that why you became a councillor?
I‘ve been political since I was 21. At Uni I lead a protest about the way medical students were being treated. I also did a stint of funded political theatre. I was in a group called the The Portable Players, which was funded by the Australia Council and the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union.  We were paid to perform plays that questioned the establishment from an informed, and probably wholistic perspective, although that word was not in my lexicon then! I was also involved in street performance… protesting against the Vietnam War. When I came to this area I became involved in a variety of issues. In ‘92 I was part of the Suffolk Park Progress Association and we successfully took developers and Byron Council to court for over-development. I was also part of the Club Med push (a successful protest against Club Med building a resort in Byron).

Protestin for TOOT and Club Med
LEFT: TOOT lobbyists campaigning for reinstating the Casino to Murwillumbah train. Pic courtesy of toot RIGHT: Protesting against the Club Med development. PIC courtesy of John McCormick

I decided to run for Council because I was involved in so many local political issues I figured I may as well be on Council full time where I could be better informed and potentially have more influence on what was going on in the Shire. I also wanted to take a break from my music and be more involved with people. I had put out an album the year before I got onto Council… it was like a sampler, or taster for music to be synchronised in films, so it could do its thing in the background while I focused on my role as councillor.

What were some of the key things you hoped to achieve?
I wanted to support creative industries. I wanted to protect and enhance the environment… particularly biodiversity. I wanted to be a voice on Council to get trains back on our tracks, to build more cycleways and for public transport development throughout the Shire. I supported a Byron by-pass, but only if it was in conjunction with a Park and Ride system.

What was your greatest achievement as a councillor?
Getting the Mullum Civic Hall restored. It wasn’t part of my platform but I took it on as part of a personal initiative. It wasn’t the only thing I did but it took a good part of the four years I was there. The effort I had put in to make the restoration happen was enormous and the relief of its completion was very emotional. I am currently completing a stint as chairman of the Hall’s board of management, trying to introduce air conditioning, a portable stage, solar panels, improved acoustics, Internet capability and improved audiovisuals. Council staff obstructed these improvements when I was a councillor.

Was being a councillor a thankless task?
No, a lot of people thanked me. Some even gave me a hug. Generally I found it a positive experience. Not so much the hugs, but more the privilege of being a representative of such a vibrant, creative community. I have thought about running again but it is all-consuming… too many dealings with mediocre bureaucrats, too much mundane reading and too many sweet biscuits at too many meetings… and it’s stressful. You get paid the equivalent of the New Start Allowance… that’s a problem for many people who might consider being a councillor.

Do you think Australia is over-governed?
Definitely, Prue. My model would scrap the State Government tier and have larger regional councils answerable to the Federal Government. Too many local decisions are not understood and overridden by State bureaucracy. That sucks when your driving motivation for being on Council is your passion for the area.

Election Ads

Given Council elections will be in September this year, what advice would you give to a new, successful candidate?
Make the most of your first term. Choose two or three key areas in which you want to achieve something because as a councillor you are pushed laterally all the time… and be prepared to spend an inordinate amount of time reading material that’s not your core interest. Be positive, responsive and gracious with all the amazing people in this Shire. I did feel it was a privilege to be voted in… to have that amount of support. It was a great feeling.

One of the reasons I wouldn’t return to Council is I have found another vehicle, in the form of my music, to express myself politically. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been asked to perform at Splendour.

Do you consider it an honour to be invited to perform at Splendour?
Yes, absolutely. To perform and share my music in a contemporary arena like Splendour is a total honour. My show is evolving… it incorporates contemporary issues into the lyrics and partially fulfils my desire to speak out. For example, one track I’ll be performing is called ‘Change Now’. People don’t like change but the lyrics are all about it. Another track is called ‘Peace Dance’, which proposes if life is a dance then we might as well dance for peace.  I’m also singing about 100% renewable energy. I feel there is now a positive, achievable solution to this issue, so it’s worth trumpeting.

When are you performing?
I’m performing twice… at 9pm on the 27th and 28th July on the Temple Stage at the Global Village. The show will include videoclips of each track, costumery, masks and vocal overlays.

Bringing it back to Byron… is there anything else you like about living here?
I love the creative and political community and the extraordinary coastal and hinterland beauty. I do a lot of land and ecological restoration and I find every day I’m nurtured by this environment. It helps give meaning to my life. I like Byron, Bangalow, Mullum and Brunswick Heads for the urban fix, the people-part of life. I feel very fortunate. Generally I like the climate, except for summer…  it’s a bit hot.

Where in the Shire do you currently live?
I live on the land not far from Mullumbimby. It was pretty much all cleared when it was bought. I have been revegetating large sections of it… restoring the wildlife corridors with tree plantings and bush regeneration.

Are there any aspects about life here you find challenging?
One thing I still find challenging here, and why I remain politically active, is the terrible public transport. I grew up with good public transport in Melbourne and I have seen how effective it is in Europe… I’ve seen how disempowering the lack of transport is, particularly for the elderly and youth. I remain really passionate about that… hence my involvement in TOOT.

I am also guarded against rampant over-development. As beautiful as the Northern Rivers is, there is still a lot of degradation, and it is in our own interests, as well as tourists, to preserve and improve the natural attributes of this jewel in a challenging and challenged world.

What are your thoughts on tourism?
Tourists are inevitable… the question is how we manage them. The pressure of 1.5 million visitors a year on the Shire’s infrastructure is enormous. We don’t get enough financial support to accommodate the influx. I see good public transport as an essential.  A tourist bed tax would work too, if the State Government would allow it. They did it for the Sydney Olympics.

In the context of development, how do you see Byron Shire in 20 years time?
We are still operating under a 25 year state regional plan that started about 6 years ago. That plan sees neighbouring Shires ear-marked for growth, whereas Byron is not. We will still develop, I just hope sustainably… for example, where people aren’t so reliant on cars. I am optimistic that in 20 years time the Shire will be better than it is now more vegetated, cleaner rivers better transport and clean air.  However the newish NSW Liberal/National coalition could threaten the rural/village mosaic. We will need conviction councillors who are prepared to speak up for environmental protection, enhancement, and sustainable development.

Finishing up with some lighter questions… what’s your favourite local eating place?
Lulu’s (Mullum) for healthy and hearty food… The Poinciana (also Mullum) for ambience and the Top Shop and The Balcony for Byron ambience.

Do you have a favourite shop?
I’m a real fan of the markets. I go to the Mullum Farmers’ Market often. I like Santos and Edens Landing in Mullum for organic foods.

What’s your locals’ tip for tourists?
Oh, you must do the walk from the Pass to the Lighthouse via Little Wategos and stop in at either The Pass or Lighthouse Cafés… and Broken Head track from the caravan park is sensational for coastal views.

Cape Byron arial imageThis gorgeous arial image of the lighthouse (that has been graffitied by Prue – apologies Craig) is courtesy of Fotografx Photography, contact Craig Ching 02 6680 7977 fotografx@iprimus.com.au Top: The sensational views from the Broken Headwalking track

What’s your favourite thing to do in the Byron area?
I love walking in the hinterland bush and on the beach and having coffee with friends… and my music gigs… pretty simple really!

Simple huh? Well I should think so… with such a long list of achievements, I would be exhausted and seeking simplicity too had I achieved so much! Thanks again Peter for your time, it was incredibly generous, inspiring, somewhat overwhelming and a complete pleasure to meet you.

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Conversation with Renee Simone – The Blackbirds

“I was spreading myself too thin. I was in two bands, I was a youth worker in two different organizations, as well as building a house as a single mum…something had to give” 

We caught up with Renee Simone of The Blackbirds weeks and weeks ago at Fresh Café where the band plays every second Friday night. Whilst our coffee, tea and soy dandelion latte were delicious, the café was a tad noisy for recording an interview and consequently we turned some facts into fiction. Sorry Renee. We think we’ve got the transcript fairly well sorted now. By the way, The Blackbirds gig scheduled for October at The Great Northern has been postponed till December 9. So pop that date into your diaries now – their shows are a ‘must see’. We will also post a reminder of the new date closer to the time of the gig. And if you want to sample a taste of what you might get, check out their vids on YouTube

Now onto this amazing single mother’s inspiring drive and commitment to raising her child, building her own house and managing and playing in a band. Whoa – isn’t one of the above exhausting enough? Read on to be inspired and invigorated…

So Renee, you are of Jamaican descent with an English accent. Where are you really from?
That’s a tough one. I was born in England to Jamaican parents but I actually grew up in Germany because my stepfather was posted there when he was in the British Army.

But you have clearly spent time in the UK?
Yeah, at the end of high school I went back to England to do Uni and after that worked in London. 

What brought you to the Byron Shire?
I left the UK for a ‘working’ holiday in New Zealand and ended up in Australia. I had been living in NZ with an Australian guy who was a DJ. First up we travelled around NZ as a DJ and singer combo and then in 2003 we decided to come to Australia. We travelled from Sydney to Byron… and then we broke up. I carried on singing and joined a band called Radio Jupiter. Then I started working as a youth worker at Byron Youth Services, supporting disengaged young people… teaching them life skills etc.


Renee Simone, mother of all things

What was that like?
Well, put it this way, I ended up staying there for seven years. It was the closest thing I could find to Child Therapy, which is what I was trained in. I continued to play in the band and had a baby during that time too. My boss, Paul Spooner, was really supportive of my new motherhood role and allowed me to bring my baby into work so I could continue breast feeding. His philosophy was if we can’t support our staff how can we support a community? My time at the youth service was one of the best experiences for me. The young people I worked with were brilliant… I learned so much from them… it was an amazing way to reach the heart of a community. A friend took over my position and she’s really awesome so I knew the crew were in really good hands.

What’s your baby’s name?
Chilli and he’s not really a baby anymore he’s 5!

Why then did you leave BYS?
Um… to give up my day jobs really. I was spreading myself too thin. I was in two bands, I was a youth worker in two different organizations, as well as building a house as a single mum…something had to give.

Were you concerned about giving up the income and structure of your day job?
Part of me was, but after being there so long, it felt right…it felt like it was the natural end of that cycle. I tried rejigging the office and rearranging the furniture but that didn’t seem to work (laughs). After seven years I needed something fresh. Also, the house building was getting really full on at that time and I was constantly on the phone to builders and council about my house…I’d have the builder calling me asking urgent questions that needed on the spot decisions and I couldn’t make them because I was at work – I really needed to be focussed to pull off that miracle!

How did you start your career musically?
When I went to NZ I decided I wanted to develop my singing. I thought I wanted to study Jazz, but the teacher I ended up with… this gorgeous little old lady that taught from home had all this amazing old classical music in German and no one else had ever been able to sing it for her. She was really excited that I spoke German so she gave me the lessons at a really cheap price and she would play this amazing music so beautifully on her grand piano and I learnt to sing classically in German. It was sublime. She was really strict with me saying… ‘No, No, No… stop … that’s awful!’ But she really encouraged me to use my voice fully and I just loved it. Before that I had just been a bit of karaoke singer in the pubs in England. Then my DJ boyfriend encouraged me to sing over some of the tracks he was playing. I slowly learnt to sing my classical stuff over beats… it was pretty avant garde! Then other people joined in, rappers and the like – in NZ heaps of everyday people have these mad skills when you offer up the stage. The show became popular and we ended up running a radio show and became known around the place. We toured around NZ. It really helped build my confidence and I improved heaps. Then we decided to come to Aus but in Sydney they didn’t like our name ‘The Ghetto’. So we used the name ‘Skyrider’, which was awful. We kinda lost our identity there. So we left and got as far as Byron and you know the rest…


Renee’s lounge room…  complete with super cool retro sideboard and not just one, but two turntables

When did you start to play the ukulele?
I would pick it up after I had put Chilli to bed. I found it so therapeutic to just strum away, it’s such a gentle instrument… holding it against my body and gently strumming it until I hit a cord that somehow felt good and I would just stay strumming that cord. Then I would try and find the cord that went with it. Sometimes I would just cry. I would just sing or wail about whatever was going on at the time. It was like my own music therapy.

So onto the band… who are the other members and how long have you been together?
Benhur (the other singer) and Adi (on guitar and percussion)… we’ve been together five years. They had both been playing on the streets for years… so we started busking together and found the sound we were making felt right. There was a simplicity that really worked…  you could hear the harmonies and really focus on the vocals.

Originally we played together in a larger band called the Blue Hulas which was a Hawaiian themed band with ukulele, slide guitar and Ben and I singing. The band was really nurturing for me after just having had a baby. It was easier with a baby for everyone to come to my place to rehearse and it was like a really good bunch of friends would come around and we would just jam. Chilli loved it too. I could feed him while I was singing harmonies it was perfect. Then I’d pop him in a crib beside me and he would sleep right through the island lullabies. They were great days.

We played at markets and things and over time we evolved into the Blackbirds and became a trio. We dropped the whole Hawaiian theme and started busking in the streets for extra cash. People would come up and ask us to play at weddings and various events and we really started getting a name for ourselves. Then we made it onto Australia’s Got Talent and got a nation wide fan base.

What was that experience like?
Very positive… the people there liked us, which really helped because they can destroy you if they don’t. They were also very encouraging. I think though, if there was a next time, I wouldn’t let them dress us and do our stage set. We got a bit drowned out by all the TV glitz. Blackbirds is more simplistic.

But it gave us great exposure and it triggered the production of our first album. We had all these fans asking us for an album but we didn’t have any money to make one, so I got onto Facebook and posted “ If everyone who is requesting an album was to purchase it in advance we’d have enough money to make one… who’s in?” Within an hour we had 70 people deposit funds into our account… within 48 days we had made $10k.

OMG that is incredible, what a ‘truth tingle’ moment…
Yeah, it was amazing and it was all through social media…and not just from Australia either. We have fans in America, Japan, Canada, Israel, Sweden, the UK, France… all by people forwarding the YouTube clip to their friends or posting it on their Facebook pages. It was really powerful. I am a huge fan of social media because it is what made our band. We don’t sell out stadiums but we are internationally known and our music isn’t even on itunes. We have set up a shop on the website because we’re getting so many international emails with album requests that we need to make sales more accessible.

How many CD’s did you have pressed?
We had a limited edition of 500 done first…they were for all our fans who pre-paid…and we listed all their names on the inside of the cover thanking them for their support. Then we had another 2000 done and we’re nearly out of them.


Clearly, musical effects abound in Renee’s home

So, Australia’s Got Talent really launched you?
Well yes, but…if we hadn’t had a website or Facebook page then who knows what would have happened because as soon as we finished performing on the show we had people Googling our website. You could see the times the emails were sent and heaps of people jumped on literally as soon as we had finished singing. That’s what started our fan base. There were other musicians performing on the show who I really liked, but they didn’t have a website or Facebook page so I couldn’t track them down. That was really disappointing. But we had people asking us to perform at all sorts of gigs. I get emails saying “I was surfing YouTube and discovered your band and I’d love it if you could play at….”  We now get the plush treatment…  nice hotels with meals/wine included etc…  it’s a step up from my lounge room, that’s for sure. For one gig we were flown to WA for 3 days to play for half an hour at a corporate event.

And what about Chilli? Did he go with you?
No. He’s with his Dad when I’m working.


The wall between Chilli’s bedroom and Renee’s office has been removed so they can be together while Renee writes. Clearly, great works of art are produced from this arrangement!

Have you been back to England?
I’ve been back a couple of times but I don’t really enjoy it… a lot of people seem to have this weight on their shoulders…a weight that’s not visible here. It’s like they’re all on this city treadmill of wake up early, go to work in the dark, come home late in the dark, make dinner and eat it in front of the telly and do it all again the next day. There just doesn’t seem to be quality of life. I just want to rescue them.

Have you been to Jamaica?
Yeah, I went there with my family but couldn’t believe it when the locals all had a problem with a 19 year old girl wearing dreadlocks. Can you believe that? In the land of dread locks! I was already having an identity crisis because a year earlier I had spent time in Africa working on a community looking after disabled children. There they called me ‘Jamaica Lady’ because of my long hair. African women can’t grow their hair long. I thought for sure Jamaica would feel like home, so I was mortified when they treated me like that.

So where do you belong now?
Well then I went to NZ, and they go ‘hey sister… nice dreads’ and I’m kinda going ‘huh?’ But the Maories really identify with Jamaican culture and there’s a strong rootsy feeling there that I haven’t felt anywhere else… so I guess it’s the place I feel most connected to. I love lots of things about NZ…I love how the Maori culture is so integrated into society. I love the art, I love the geography… the beaches, the mountains, the snowboarding, easy roads to navigate, super hospitable people, amazing music… and I love how it is all packed into such a small country. I have travelled through about 25 countries and NZ is the one I love the most.


Renee feels a sense of belonging in New Zealand, despite looking like part of the decor in her Australian kitchen

How do you feel about Australia?
I love Australia too. I love the climate and I love how lifestyle is number one here…it is the complete flip side to the UK. Shops are closed on Saturdays because people are busy living… it’s hilarious! I love how people can get married on the beach here and how free and relaxed it is…people rock up in flip flops and without ties…in the UK everything is so structured.

Are you enjoying motherhood?  Did it come as a surprise?
It was completely planned. It has been the most empowering thing that has ever happened to me. Things you wouldn’t do for yourself you would do for your child. I feel like I have finally grown up… grown wiser. Before I had a child I was making all sorts of errors of judgement, but after, there was no way I would compromise our situation. I love being a mother.


Hmmm, whose room belongs to whom?

So it’s made you more aware?
More aware, more conscious, more spiritual, present, grounded and determined. I’m clearer on my boundaries… when it’s time for business and when it’s time for being a mother.

How has Byron been good for you?
People complain about the tourists but I love the fresh new energy, the way people are excited to be here on holiday. This is completely opposite to where I come from in UK where most people appear ‘over it’. I am the director of a Byron Bay entertainment agency www.byronbayexperience.com.au. There are so many fabulous entertainers in the region its such an honour to be able to connect them with visitors to Byron Bay. If we are able to give a visitor a good time through music and then they go home and tell their friends what a great place Byron Bay is… then that’s great. We (The Blackbirds) love giving people a Byron Bay experience… I mean the music and dancing in the streets is different from where most people live. It’s fantastic in town here on a Friday night. We play every Friday night at Fresh. People go away and then they email or Facebook us and say how when they think of Byron they think of us. So for me I feel really privileged to be part of all that love and connecting… and I get to do it through music… awesome.

Does Byron Bay challenge you?
I’m challenged by the lack of affordable housing here, that’s why I live in Goonellabah. It means I have to do a bit of travelling, but having said that, where I now live is a street where everyone bought land and built at the same time so we have this little community that looks out for each other. There’s lots of sharing… like if someone hires a bobcat for the day someone else can use it, or if someone is getting a load of mulch someone else can get some and pitch in to save on delivery costs etc. I have a communal veggie garden with my neighbour…so it’s kinda like an old England with an open door feeling. We look after each other… its very community and I realise I’m very lucky. So being forced to move out of Byron has actually worked for me in a way that I didn’t expect.


Sharing the love (and veggie patch) with the neighbours.

THE BYRON QUESTIONS

What’s your favourite Café in Byron?
I have two… for breakfast, Bayleaf… because you get the morning sun… and at night, Fresh… because they have live music.

Is there any one person in Byron Shire that has inspired or influenced you?
Paul Spooner. (Formerly Byron Youth Centre, who now manages Byron Community Centre)

What would we find you doing on a typical Saturday morning?
Scouring garage sales. I’ve always been busking on a Friday night so I have this bag of coins for me and my boy. I am looking for old vinyl (records) and he’s after toys. So when he finds something he loves and it’s only 50 cents he just thinks I am the best Mum ever (laughs).

What is your favourite shop in Byron?
Happy Flamingo… the retro shop next to the Bead Shop in Fletcher St

What’s your local’s tip for a visitor?
Leave your car home… walk.

And your tip for living?
I set my alarm everyday for 8am and when it goes off I give thanks for a wonderful life. I truly believe in the power of giving thanks.