Tom Curtain is a singer-songwriter who recently released his fourth album, We’re Still Here. He’s also an entertainer, horseman, entrepreneur and spokesman for rural health, living and working in outback Northern Territory. The Territory gives the context for a lot of his work but it’s not his home ground. He grew up in Kingaroy, Queensland, on a property with his parents and four brothers, arriving in the Territory twenty years ago to work on a cattle station. The Territory got into his blood, he says, and inspired him to write songs. He’s lived there ever since and is now renowned for the Katherine Outback Experience, a tourist attraction that had a slow genesis.
‘I was training horses in Katherine,’ he says, beginning the story, ‘and initially I was traveling all around the Northern Territory, for 10 years breaking in horses on cattle stations. A lot of contract work every two to three weeks, breaking in horses and moving on to another cattle station. And then I thought to have a family, it would be more stable if I was in one spot. So I bought a place five Ks out of Katherine and set up the horse-training business. I got a lot of cattle stations to send horses in. It wasn’t really the done thing – the horse breakers went to the cattle station – so it was a big thing to get them to send horses in. So I had to make a really good job on the horses.
‘It was going pretty well until 2011, then the live beef export ban hit and overnight all the budgets were cut on the cattle stations. I was doing about 150 horses a year. I had them all banked up and then overnight that was just cut.
‘I was married back then. I had two kids and it put a lot of pressure on my marriage, as [it did with] a lot of other marriages and relationships in the Katherine region. So eventually that busted up and my ex-wife went with the kids down to Perth and I stayed on. I had to give kids horse riding lessons. I sang at the caravan park four nights a week. I did a lot of horseshoeing all around the area just to try to make ends meet. From the caravan parks, these people said, “Look, Tom, can we come to see what you’re doing every day. Because you’re singing about it. We think it’d be really interesting.” So one old couple came and they said, “Mate, you’ve got to get this off the ground because this could be really a big tourist attraction.”‘
With a laugh Curtain says that he started off with a horse and two dogs and no one turned up to the first show.
‘I was doing them three afternoons a week. One or two people would come and I just did the show for them. It’s all just a training shows. It’s not a polished shmicko show. It’s very much, we do half an hour working a young horse, trying to ride the horse. We’ve got a team of 10 working dogs, all different levels, that people give us, that they don’t like or get along with. So I train them on the go and then also sing a few songs and the stories behind the songs.
Around four years ago Curtain met Annabelle, his second wife.
‘I was training horses over the summer in WA. I was in a really tight spot, had to hitchhike for the first time in my life. After four hours, this old guy picked me up off the side of the road and took me back to his farm. And later that night I met Annabelle, his daughter. She was an urban planner in the middle of Perth. She was working there for six years. I eventually convinced her after 12 months to come up here and we got married last year and just had a baby, and somehow managed to win a best attraction in the Northern Territory for the second year running. So it’s pretty mind blowing. I’m very grateful to the people, the police, the locals, and the people come along to the shows that they understand the whole concept and keep spreading the word.’
Part of the buzz for Curtain is showing the audience behind the scenes of training horses – ‘how many hours go into getting horses to follow you around and have them running alongside you. So I purposely put young dogs with young horses that have no idea. And I say, “This is what we’re trying to get, but this is how we start off.” So people can see how long it takes and the patience you need to try to achieve that. And we related that back to how to treat other people, Dolly’s Dream messages and things. It’s themed all throughout the show, through the music and the animals.’
The patience Curtain has learnt working with animals has helped in all aspects of his life, including ‘relationships or dealing with kids … now for songwriting. An idea for a song, you can’t really force it. Even on the road in the truck, I’m driving along and I get an idea for a song and you’ve gotta be patient. But then also to make the film clips, that’s happened by accident, but over the years I’ve sort of got more and more involved and now directing the film clips because it’s got to look real to the viewers. So I’m often checking the camera guy’s shot down the lens. ‘Okay, what have you got in the background there, mate?” And the angles and the sunlight. And I’m just the horse trainer and I’ve got no specialty in all this camera stuff. But I think the latest one we just directed with a mate, “We’re Still Here”, everything had to look real. It cost very little. The bloke just came along to the show with a big camera lens and I asked him, “Mate, have you ever done one before?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well, let’s give it a crack.” But everything’s got to look real to the everyday viewer to actually convey those messages and make it all make sense.’
Curtain’s musical life has run in parallel to, and intertwined with, his work – and it started in his childhood, when, he said, he and his brothers had to learn piano.
‘We probably didn’t really like it,’ he says, ‘because we were doing Mozart, Beethoven, it was a bit boring for us kids, you know.’
After that he didn’t have much to do with music until he was working in the NT and found himself with ‘plenty of time to think about it on the back of a horse each day. And an old guy gave me a guitar and he said, “I’ll show you three chords and then you should start practising because I reckon you’ve got something.” So every night I practised.
‘I still only know about three chords,’ he says, laughing, ‘but I love playing the guitar.’
When he went out on horseback, working with cattle, he used to take a little Landmark notepad and pencil in his top pocket and started writing down lines that came to him.
‘Then it wasn’t until I was in the lead of a mob of cattle,’ he says, ‘and we’re about 2000 head of Brahman cattle. The wind was blowing and I must’ve been singing pretty loud, and the fellows right at the back, a few hundred metres away, could hear me sing. Later they said, “Hey, mate, what were you singing?” I said, “No, I wasn’t singing.” They said, “Nah, we heard you sing ’cause the wind was blowing.”
‘There were about 10 blokes around the campfire that night. They encouraged me to keep going and the next day [saying] what song was I writing? I went to the Kununurra campdraft and rodeo and they had a few beers in them and I had to get up and sing a song. I couldn’t play the guitar. Just by myself in between the band as they finished playing. The crowd could have easily booed me off. But I’m just very grateful that those people …. they’re probably hard up for entertainment out there anyway,’ Curtain says, laughing. ‘But they really helped me out and backed me.’
If it sounds like Curtain’s workmates basically forced him into becoming a performer, well, he doesn’t disagree.
‘I reckon I’m a bit of an introvert,’ he says. ‘I spend most of my days, still, just by myself, training horses, one on one in the round yard. But I’ve realised that for an hour or two you’ve got to come out of your shell and really push the limits, to market yourself and the music.’
Curtain, Annabelle and the team leave Katherine each year for several months to take the Outback Experience on the road; on the day of this interview they’d arrived in Cloncurry, Queensland, to commence the tour. Curtain has found that they’ve inspired many people with their training of the dogs and horses ‘in a safe, kind manner’, he says, and the songs have also inspired many a listener.
So, he says, ‘I could stay up there in the Territory and just kick back singing my own songs around the campfire and things. But just this morning in Cloncurry we sang about six songs at the Cloncurry State Primary School and talked about Dolly’s Dream and anti-bullying, and we don’t have to do that, but I’m here and I’ve got a bit of free time. So we’ve done that and it’s pretty inspiring to sort of pass that on.’
Dolly’s Dream is an initiative started by the parents of Dolly Everett, who tragically committed suicide at the age of 14 after an extended period of bullying. Dolly’s death affected many of those in the Katherine region who knew her and know her family. The work of Dolly’s Dream informs part of the Katherine Outback Experience, and Tom Curtain’s song ‘Speak Up’ is integral to that.
By performing ‘Speak Up’ around the country, Curtain effectively gives permission to people to speak up about their own mental health issues – the song provides the reason, or the excuse, to talk. And he believes that people in rural areas are getting better at speaking up.
‘It’s been very hard, he says, ‘but I believe the wheels are in motion and people are definitely starting to realise that it’s okay to speak up if they are in trouble. There’s definitely still a stigma out there in the bush, particularly with the older generation, that are sort of set there. But the younger generation, the 30s and 40s, definitely. It’s very topical at the moment, particularly with the drought, and travelling through these areas that earlier in the year that are affected with the floods and things like that. So people are more aware of it and more accepting, I suppose, to talk about it with their mates and to check in with their mates these days. I’m really big on pushing that at the shows where we travel through. So I definitely think we’re making progress.’
Curtain also engages younger Australians with the song – the video was filmed at a school south of Perth.
‘I just wanted to capture what actually goes on,’ says Curtain, ‘so that young kids through to adults can see or relate to the song and then again it’d become more of a talking point. And it seems to be working. At a lot of these schools the school bell ring is the “Speak Up” song, which is pretty phenomenal.’
‘Speak Up’ was recorded a while ago but appears on the new album; most of the other songs, though, were fit in around Curtain’s busy working life.
‘When we got back from the last tour, the Speak Up tour,’ he says, ‘that lasted for around 50 shows over three and a half months. I wrote a lot of the songs in the truck travelling around. We got back to Katherine mid-March. I had two weeks spare before the show started, 1st of April. So I just lined up with my producer, Garth Porter, down in Sydney, if I could shoot down there for two weeks, record the songs and then get out of there and get back up to Katherine. So we did that.
‘Then over the next few months I kept on mixing and mastering them. Then the opportunity came up with the song for Joy McKean [‘She Gave Us the Song’] with Lee Kernaghan and Sara Storer. So I flew back. Usually we have a Thursday off where we don’t do shows, we’re just training horses. So I flew out on the midnight flight on the Wednesday night, got down to Sydney for the day on Thursday and recorded that. Got the film guy in to film myself and the other guys in the studio, and got back to work. So it is very much full on.’
Curtain even took up his original instrument, piano, to record the title song.
‘I hadn’t played the piano for years,’ he explains. ‘And then my producer sent a demo. I played “We’re Still Here” on the guitar as I began to write it and then he’s a keyboard player so he sent a demo back just on the piano, quickly, and I said, “Man, that sounds awesome. So how about we keep the piano?” And he said, “Oh, but you don’t know how to play it.” I said, “No, no, I’ll relearn it. I know all my scales and things.” … So I bought a keyboard and practised the heck out of it so I could play “We’re Still Here” on the keyboard.’
Curtain feels the responsibility of his work, both with animals and in music. Taking on that role not just of writing and performing and recording songs, but bringing them to so many people around the country, is not something he’s done lightly. He applies everything he has learnt over the years – and he keeps learning.
‘I think it was sort of bred into me a little growing up,’ he says. ‘I’ve got four other brothers and they don’t hold back. They just tell you exactly what they think. And then with my songwriting, as I began to write more and more songs, I’d send them to my brothers and I still do record them on my phone, send them to my brothers individually, and then they give me feedback. Some will just say, “Nah, that’s a ridiculous song”, or whatever. But others would say, “Oh, that’s not too bad”, which really means, okay, this has got potential. But then as you come along, you’ve got to be exactly extremely humble. And I think working with horses, getting bucked off and kicked and bitten, you can never get too cocky. And so I think that has been awesome for me. Also my brothers keep me very down to earth.
‘But then you go to these shows and you just open yourself up, you come out, you talk to the kids beforehand, you get them up dancing. And afterwards you’re signing and you’re in front of parents. I’ve been very lucky, a lot of people are just very grateful that I’ve come to these towns and mums and dads come up crying, just saying thanks for getting the Speak Up message out there and things like that. But I think you’ve got to be open for criticism and, and getting better at things. It has definitely developed me as an artist and I’m still developing too.’
For the next few weeks Curtain will be spreading his message in rural and regional parts of Australia, then the wet season will end and he’ll return to the Territory. He doesn’t seem to tire of being on the road, saying, ‘I love small towns. I love communities. I love finding out the hub or the system that goes on within towns. Who the larrikins are … the history about each sort of town. There’s so many characters out here and the stories behind those characters, it really gives me a buzz.
‘You know, there’s some people doing great work right throughout this big country and don’t even really get much recognition for it. So I’m travelling around, spreading the Dolly’s Dream message and trying to get people to come in and talk about mental health and connect with people. And I’m in a bit of all the spotlight, but there’s so many other people on committees, Rotary clubs, footy clubs, cricket clubs that are doing the same sort of thing to get things going in their towns. And I really want to try to give them credit and really inspire a lot of them to keep on going ’cause it is working for a lot of communities out there to keep it all rolling along in this time of hardship.’
Curtain’s passion for the land, people and animals infuses his songs, making each album a collection of authentic, heartfelt stories that are connecting with Australians everywhere. There’s still time to catch Curtain and his show – for this season, at least – so head to his website for information.
We’re Still Here is out now.