A yarn with Pirritu (Brett Lee)

As part of our latest series, Creative Interviews, we had the pleasure of having a yarn with Pirritu (Brett Lee), a Ngiyampaa man from western New South Wales who is a creative thinker, educator, storyteller and musician.

Tell us a bit about yourself/your story and what it is that you do?

I grew up on the coast of New South Wales on Worimi country, and finished high school in a town called Foster. I used to represent Australia as a triathlete when I was a teenager, and then I went to university to have a year of training before facing some injuries that led me to never getting back into it.

One of the first things I did when I stopped training was pick up the Ukulele and teach myself how to play music; something that I never really had the chance to do because I was so focused on sport. I found that it was something that I always wanted to do – to create music. It didn’t take me long to start creating my own tunes and writing songs.

I found it liberating and a powerful tool to express myself, being able to share those songs and stories.

Since living in Melbourne I have also worked various jobs, mainly with community. At the moment I am working with AFL SportsReady as a field officer and mentor. But I have always worked alongside being an artist.

Tell us about the space where you create your work. Is it at home, in a studio, in a garage?

One of the first songs that I wrote was on my old Nokia. I never really handwrote most of my songs; I used to write a lot of poetry on my phone for some reason when I was a teenager. I've found that traveling was a time that inspired me. It's never one particular place, often I might be traveling somewhere or in the middle of a meeting and something will come to me and I'll try and write down a few little words. So at the moment I've got just a whole heap of notes in my phone that I write down bits and pieces of songs. And then it might be a year apart where I'll come up with a chorus or a verse.  

When it comes to recording your music, is there a certain studio or place you’re always drawn to?

I've recently recorded an album at Hothouse Studios in St. Kilda, which is an amazing place to work. I'm really grateful for the energy there. Craig Harneth and Jez Giddings both provided the space and the environment to really make me feel comfortable.

What are you most passionate about in your practice? And what drove you to be an artist?

A lot of my inspiration comes from family and culture. I feel like it's a privilege to have the ability to do that and something that I want to pass on to my daughter and to my kids. And also honour the people in my family and my culture – honouring those stories and those people is one of the biggest parts of me wanting to do this. My passions are my community and music, and being able to use my energy to support other people is something that keeps me going.

Another thing is, I still see racism in our society. I feel like as an Aboriginal person writing songs, I have a responsibility to tell the stories of, to tell those truths of, our experience. I see every Aboriginal person has their own story and they're all valid and they're all important to that whole collective body of what it is, you know? And so, if I can contribute to that, then I think that's probably what I'm most passionate about and that's what I want to contribute into the world.

Is there anything exciting coming up with your creative work that you would love to share?

I've released a debut album and it's the first release that I've done at all under the title Pirritu. It's released on vinyl and digitally, and the cover is an artwork that I made at the Australian print workshop. It's a pretty cool piece of artwork that I'm pretty proud of.

The album is a collection of 10 songs, some old, some new, and they are definitely a representation of my whole journey. I'm really excited to finally get them off my chest and release them.  

One challenge for me as an artist is that I feel like when I haven't released a song that it's still in that work in progress stage. So I'm always tinkering with my songs, and that's where my creative energy goes instead of creating new stuff. I've already found that since May, when I finished the recording, I've already written a whole heap of new songs. I've already started that process of the next album.  

I was also a part of the City of Melbourne’s Flash Forward Project and it was an incredible opportunity to be a part of that. In terms of the album becoming real, I pretty much owe it all to Naretha Williams and Miles Brown for bringing me onto the program. The support that they have both given me was incredible. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. I also wanted to shout out Douglas McDowell and Luis Poblete for their amazing talents and energy.

What has it been like as an artist during COVID?

At the start of 2020 where I wasn't working or anything, I had taken a bit of time off to play music and focus on that. In the middle of that journey, COVID struck. So, I quickly realized that I was going to have to find some other way to bring in some income into the family home. That was a big shakeup and definitely a big shift in my focus of where I was putting my energy.  

Having the privileges that I've had in my life, I think it's allowed me to keep myself, and keep my head, above water through these pretty challenging times.

I definitely see that as a privilege, and to be able to work with young people and provide support and encourage where I can. Our mob have so many challenges that I think if in any way we're able to support, it's a positive thing.

It was sort of like two for one, this job that I got with AFL SportsReady, where I was able to get paid, but also support our community.  

Tell us a bit more about the other jobs that you do and how you manage a work-life balance as an artist?

It's definitely pretty tricky. I sit on the board for Songlines, which is a Victorian Aboriginal music corporation. So that brings a few time constraints along with your responsibilities of being on the board as well as working full time. And then trying to be an artist at the same time, and then a father and partner. So managing it, there's not much of a strategy. It's kind of ‘just do it’. When things come up you have to do what's needed. It's definitely a challenge, but a good challenge to have.

If you could give one piece of advice to an emerging artist, what would it be?

I feel like in the music industry, we can sometimes see what's going on, what's trending, and what's the sound that you have to have at the moment. And I've always felt that what music I love to hear, is what I wanted to create as well. 

Create the art that you like. Don't worry too much about the audience, focus on the story that you're trying to tell and make that the most important thing that you're trying to get across.

I find way more sustainability in that for me as an artist to keep going and keep creating because if I love what I'm doing, then I'm going to want to keep doing it. I think just staying in the game, thinking long game and make your practice sustainable for yourself.

I think it's also important to acknowledge Country in your work. Whenever I play a song, I always acknowledge where I wrote that particular song, or if it's inspired by Country somewhere, talk about and acknowledge that. 

By acknowledging Country, you can create a sense of inquisitiveness in people and help people come along on that journey.

I often feel like I'm preaching to the converted when I do my performances. There's always people nodding their head, but I find that if I say this song was inspired by Gumbaynggirr Country and then someone goes, “oh, where was that?” they might look it up and that might start their journey of learning and acknowledging the Country they're on.

Interview by Emily Behrendt. 

Find Pirritu (brett lee) online: