Being different is brilliant if you embrace it

By Charmayne Allison

Heather Stewart's music career began at her mother's knee and has evolved from a farm outside Echuca-Moama to a Parisian home and a red-hot ragtime act which is proving a tour de force in the world's most tour de force city. 

When Heather Stewart reflects on where her love of music began, she immediately thinks of her mother.

Growing up on the family farm 40 km outside Echuca-Moama, Heather and her siblings enjoyed days filled with laughter, scraped knees and fresh air.

And music.

Collapsing into bed, droopy-eyed, at the end of another whirlwind day, they couldn't go to sleep until their mother came in and did one more thing.

She'd tuck the covers up to their little chins, gently smooth the hair off their foreheads — and then she would begin to sing.

Sometimes it would be You Are My Sunshine.

Other times, the sweet lilt of Lover's Lullaby.

One song at first.

And then another.

And another.

Until their mother's soothing voice eventually sent them all off to the land of Nod.

Looking back now, Heather sees these lullabies as the beginning of her lifelong love affair with music. But she said there were countless other memories that saw this passion take flight.

Such as when the family held community sing-alongs at their home, everyone crowded together behind the piano, a wave of voices swelling as Heather's mum played.

Or the afternoons spent with her sister making music tapes and radio shows and writing songs — and attending countless live shows with their parents.

Heather was just six when she first heard a violin in a local production of Fiddler on the Roof.

From the first note, she was entranced.

“I told my mum that was the instrument I wanted to play for the rest of my life,” she recalls.

“I just loved the sounds of the violin. It was so expressive, it cried and sang and expressed so much beauty and pain.

“I had sung constantly from babyhood onwards, so the violin naturally joined me on that journey.”

While the violin had soared in Fiddler, Heather's first scraping notes were perhaps a little less inspiring.

Still, Heather's family didn't hold back the praise.

“It must've sounded pretty scratchy. But my family really helped me understand how special playing and sharing music could be,” she said.

“And my grandparents loved to hear me play violin.

“We lived on the farm together and they would ask me to play for them each day. I loved to see their joy when I did.”

Lucas Montagnier and Heather Stewart of The Dirty Ragtimers.

Echuca's June Edwards taught her to play piano from age 11, Helen Knight gave her vocal lessons and both Heather Thompson and Daniel Herbst taught her violin.

But as Heather grew, she began to realise this love of music wasn't shared by everybody.

And it wasn't long before she felt pressured by school teachers and fellow students to start working towards a 'real job'.

Eventually introduced to the South West and Border music camps, Heather was relieved to meet other kids and adults who were singing off her hymn sheet.

“It was a challenge being different from most people in my community,” she said.

“It took a long time to find people I really connected with.”

On graduating high school, Heather reluctantly left the fresh green spaces of farm life to pursue her dream career in the city.

After studying classical violin and voice and completing a Bachelor of Music (Hons) in violin and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Melbourne, she moved briefly to London, studying further and working as a freelance classical and jazz musician.

Eventually returning home, Heather continued graduate studies in jazz and pedagogy and worked for 10 years in Melbourne, building a career as a professional singer, violinist and specialist teacher.

She would become the member of several successful jazz and blues projects and was soon featured in small orchestral and opera gigs as a violinist and singer.

Along the way, she met a dashing double bassist, musician Leigh Barker, who would eventually become her husband.

While most of the journey to Heather's dream career was just that — a dream — it wasn't all smooth sailing.

Having played music for so long Heather suddenly found herself burnt out at 23.

And the performance anxiety which had simmered within her from a young age suddenly boiled to the surface.

“I had to be pushed on stage,” she said.

“And after I played, I'd be thinking of the three notes I'd missed in the three hours I'd played.

“One time a friend came up to me and said, 'That was amazing, the combination of the music was breathtaking.'

“I suddenly realised I hadn't heard a thing, I was only worrying about myself.

“And I thought, I can't do this until I can enjoy it again.”

Heather stopped playing violin professionally and set out to complete a physiotherapy degree.

But the notes floating around the back of her mind eventually became too loud to ignore.

“I had the major realisation that every minute I was doing physiotherapy, I wasn't doing music,” she said.

“Friends and family and fellow musicians encouraged me to get back into it.

“My dad was also very encouraging, in his own quiet way. He always said 'don't let fear stop you from doing something you need to do'.”

Heather slowly pried her fingers loose, letting go of her perfectionism and learning to embrace the process of learning — not just the result.

Before she knew it, her love of music had been rekindled.

But Heather faced another, much greater challenge in 2011.

Her mother — her key supporter and inspiration — died.

She was the one who encouraged Heather to follow her dreams. She was the one who calmed her down and taught her to laugh along the tough road to a career in music.

And she was the one who gave her the courage to move with her husband — musician Leigh Barker — to Paris two years ago.

“We moved for my and my husband's music careers,” Heather said.

“We wanted to live in the larger musical world. We love Australia, but it's so far from where the world-wide touring circuits are.

“I knew music would eventually take me away from my family.”

For their two little daughters Beatrice, 3, and Mathilde, 1, Paris is now home — to the point where (to Heather's mixed alarm and delight) they're beginning to babble away in French.

And it has also become a second home for Heather and Leigh.

A lot like the one in which Heather grew up.

“There's always music in the house,” she said.

“There'll be records playing on repeat as Leigh or I practice songs. The girls play instruments or tap away on 'Lego music'.”

And, for Heather and Leigh, this music also spills into their working lives.

Heather is now one-half of Paris duo The Dirty Ragtimers.

She recently met Ragtimers partner Lucas Montagnier at a small Parisian bar, where they jammed all night to a rapt audience.

“We realised we both shared a passion for acoustic fingerpicking blues, old jazz, blues and gospel singers and a huge range of music from the early 20th century,” she said.

Soon becoming a weekly fixture at Montmartre bar Chez Camille, the duo also began reeling in fans across Paris.

Last year, the Ragtimers captivated audiences on their home soil during their Australian tour — which brought them right here, to Echuca-Moama.

Which was a dream come true for Heather.

“I was so excited to see friends and family and share music with my hometown,” Heather said.

“We always appreciate what we have when we've been away from it.

“We'll always be Australian and it's so special to come home.”