That's the Spirit: Brad Haling - Gulargambone NSW
Although he always loved music, formal lessons weren’t an option for young Brad Haling while he was growing up on a farm in western NSW. Now, with more than a decade’s gigging experience and a teaching degree tucked under his arm, the popular muso has brought his twin passions – music and helping people – home to Gulargambone, where he’s teaching a new generation of local youngsters what he wished he’d known as a kid – that playing guitar is cool, and that there’s no reason a small town like his can’t be the centre of the musical universe. JEN COWLEY sat down with Brad and his guitar for a cuppa, a few tunes and a yarn about how music can change lives.
Jen: Has Gulargambone always been your home?
Brad: I grew up on a farm there until I was about 16, so that was close to 20 years ago now. Then my parents moved to Dubbo – they’d basically just had enough. We had years and years of drought then we finally had a good year and all the rain fell during harvest time, then it flooded, so it was a pretty tough life. I think they got sick of relying on the weather all the time and needed to do something different.
I went away to boarding school in Tamworth in Year 8, then to Robb College (University of New England) in Armidale. That’s where I learnt to play the guitar, at uni.
Jen: Had you always been musical?
Brad: I always absolutely loved music my whole life, it was such a big part of my life. I remember my brother and I used to sit in front of Rage for hours and hours making these mixed tapes on the VHS. It was always a massive thing and I always had a real interest in guitar, but I didn’t really have any access to lessons. There was no-one around who was teaching. And even when I went away to school, it wasn’t necessarily the “cool” thing to do. I played footy and cricket, so that was my thing.
One of my best mates at school played guitar and he used to muck around on it a bit. I was never taught – couldn’t play a song – but I used to just pretend I could. But then when I went to Robb College, my next-door neighbour – who ended up becoming one of my best mates – he’d just started playing guitar about six months before, so it was a real stroke of luck, really. He was a really cruisy guy and happy to help me and showed me a few songs.
Jen: And suddenly it’s cool…
Brad: Yeah (laughs), that’s really how it was. Playing guitar suddenly became a ‘cool’ thing to do. At an all-boys school, playing a musical instrument didn’t really get much traction.
Jen: Has it been an outlet for you?
Brad: It’s been excellent, amazing as an outlet for me. That’s one of the main reasons I want to pass it onto the kids (I’m teaching). The fact that no matter what you’re going through – you might be having a crap day or whatever it is – as soon as you get on the guitar, the whole world outside doesn’t matter.
Jen: So that leads to another question – what happened after uni? When did you become a teacher?
Brad: Throughout my uni days, I got fairly into the guitar and after I’d been playing for about a year, I started doing some busking. I learned a couple of songs, started singing – horribly, very horribly (laughs)! It was terrible. No-one wanted to listen, but I think people used to give me some sympathy money on the streets of Armidale – they’d throw a few dollars in.
Jen: (Jokingly, laughing) “Here’s two bucks if you’ll shut up!”
Brad: Yeah, pretty much! I have actually had that said to me before. It hurts! Not a good thing (laughs).
I was fairly into my music and my mate, the one who’d taught me how to play guitar, had just moved to Lismore where he went to the conservatorium. I would go visit him and I loved it up there, and really loved the music scene which was really nurturing. A lot of people were playing live music there and the audiences were encouraging. People would really clap and get behind you – even if you weren’t that good. It was a really good place to learn how to play live and having so many friends around who played as well, it was a really positive place for me as far as music goes.
So, I lived up around that area for about five or six years and that’s where I started playing in bands. We did pretty well, too. I travelled a bit, but ended up coming back to Dubbo for family reasons, and started doing some busking here.
There wasn’t a heck of a lot of people doing that at the time, but I noticed after a year or so it started to really pick up. It was really positive and really nice to play music here, and it was cool that you could actually just set up on the street and play. People appreciate live music here, they’re into it – they give you money and you get a lot of nice comments. It was really encouraging to see a lot of kids come out on the street and play and that kind of made it an “okay” thing.
Brad Haling, Gulargambone NSW.
Jen: Is there a feeling of coming home, like you’ve done a full circle?
Brad: There is a feeling of coming home, yes. That was something I didn’t really expect but you go away, you do your thing, you go see the world, you do whatever you have to do, but I think you’re just naturally drawn back to where you’re from – back to your roots. It’s a sense of belonging. I was living in Dubbo for a few years here and was travelling back to Gular a bit to see friends and family and it really just kind of got me.
Jen: What do you really enjoy about a small community? What makes it different to living in a bigger community?
Brad: I think there’s a greater sense of community – not that there isn’t in Dubbo, which is also a great community – but I think we’re particularly lucky in Gular, where there are a lot of people who are really striving to make the town a better place. There are so many art projects, the café, the races, the footy club… a lot of these things could have fallen by the wayside really easily. The town changed so much from the time I was last living there – say when I was 16, to now, so almost 20 years later. With the way farming has gone, I guess with technology and big machinery, there’s not the number of farmers there used to be. So instead of, say, a family of five being on one farm, one farmer might have to own four of those farms and they might not even have a family.
Jen: That changes the dynamics of the community.
Brad: It did, massively, yeah. We lost a lot of stuff. I remember growing up we used to have a butcher, a bank, we had a hairdresser down the main street, we had a newsagency, two supermarkets – which we somehow still have – we used to have two swimming pools. The community has changed a lot over those years since and it’s really needed those positive people bringing it along and keeping it going.
When you don’t have that critical mass, those who are still there just have to shape up, get in and have a go and keep going.
Jen: How embracing has the region been for you as a musician?
Brad: It really has been amazing. When I came back here, I had been up on the North Coast of NSW which is quite fertile ground for musicians, but honestly, the talent out here is right up there with anything you find around those other areas and there’s so many more gigs out here – which is kind of weird. Living in the North Coast NSW you think live music is going to be everywhere, but here, it’s amazing – everyone wants live music. I feel like I’ve come back here at a really good time. One of the first people I met here in the music scene around Dubbo was Mick Picton and he’d just opened (a bar/restaurant) when I first got back here so he gave me my first gig. That’s how I got started around other places. It’s been great, the publicans are really keen to put on events and gigs for the punters and people are really keen to see and hear live music.
Jen: Is it that people are grateful for the opportunity to see live music, so they’re really appreciative?
Brad: I think that’s true, they really are. It’s a completely different world to when I grew up here. I can’t remember seeing many gigs at all. I can’t remember anyone coming to Gulargambone or Armatree and playing a gig. These days, live gigs are pretty much everywhere. A lot of the pubs are really behind it.
Jen: And there’s a rich seam of inspiration in rural NSW – in the bush – for singer/songwriters.
Brad: Absolutely – there’s a lot of stories out here. People are going through the highs and lows of rural life, which are quite significant. Take the drought we’ve gone through, for instance. You see people and you know they’re going through a really tough time, but I’d go play in these small pubs – a place like Collie, for example, which was really badly affected by the drought – and you know they’ve been feeding their sheep or cattle for years and haven’t had any rain. What that does to one’s psyche is pretty tough, but you’d see these people and they’d always have a smile, they’d always have their chin up and they just somehow kept going. I think seeing the resilience of people out here is pretty incredible and then you see the untold joy when it actually does rain – everyone’s just stoked! (Laughs).
Jen: Do you think that playing in the small pubs, you’ve managed to get a following and a cut-through that perhaps would have been more difficult in a city? Almost as if the bush embraces you?
Brad: I think that’s true, and it’s kind of cool. Because I’m from a small town – Gulargambone/Armatree – I’m from a similar situation to many of those people and I feel like they kind of embrace me as one of their own. I think a lot of people are happy to see me do well and see me play, which is really nice. It’s that sense of community that we have in the bush. The sense that people really rally around each other and try to help each other out, which I’ve seen numerous times since I’ve been out here.
Brad Haling, Gulargambone NSW.
Jen: At school, you teach Years 7 to 12 and you’re teaching maths, music and geography – that’s a really interesting mix. How do you get your left brain and right brain talking to each other?
Brad: (Laughs) I don’t know. Maybe it’s a music thing? I’ve always really been interested in learning – it’s something I’ve always really enjoyed, so going into teaching was something that was easy and natural. I’m teaching subjects that I’ve never done before, but I really like it. I’m kind of learning as I teach sometimes. I had to teach science last year, and I had no idea really (laughs), but it was kind of cool. Having that other outlet there is huge for me, I think it’s really important to have that balance. It’s important to have your quest for knowledge and to think critically, but also to have that artistic aspect as well. That’s what music does and is for me.
Jen: It must be quite satisfying to be able to bring the experience of music to kids in a small community like Gulargambone – it’s a privilege.
Brad: It really is a privilege, and I’m happy I have that privilege. It’s kind of funny because there’s not a lot of music in the community so some of the kids are a little bit hesitant, and around the Aboriginal community there’s a big thing about “shame” (self-consciousness) – the kids don’t want to do music in front of the class. So, I’m always looking for new ways to try to engage them in ways they’re comfortable with It’s not as simple as getting a guitar, taking it home and working on it, because it’s not really a done thing unless there’s people around them – people in their community to look up to – who are doing music.
Jen: You’re having to think outside the square a little bit.
Brad: Yeah, definitely. There are a few kids who are really starting to pick up and get into it, and if that means me giving them access to the music room to work on their music in small groups by themselves where they don’t feel the embarrassment of everyone, then that’s what I need to do. I’ve started teaching a Year 5/6 music class this year as well, which is really good because I find that age group is still very open to it, they’re happy to just get in there and do whatever because they’re a little less self-conscious.
Once they get to high school, you see that self-consciousness come in.
Jen: And you had that experience yourself – it wasn’t “cool” to be into music. So you know what you’re up against.
Brad: Yeah, exactly.
Jen: Have any of the kids seen Mr Haling gigging?
Brad: Yeah, yeah (laughs) – there’s a couple of kids at school who live at Armatree and they’ve seen us play there, but before I was a teacher. I haven’t actually seen any of my (students) yet. That’ll be pretty funny, but it’ll be good – I kind of really want them to see it too, just to understand what you can do with music and what’s possible.
Jen: Gigging also has that “cool” factor too.
Brad: Funny you say that, because the kids who actually saw me gigging are lot more open to playing music and getting into it. The ones who have seen me play really liked it. So if you’re talking about finding ways to actually connect to the kids and making music actually seem cool, it’s great if they can actually see you playing live and seeing everyone getting into it and having a good time. It’s more effective than just standing up in front of a class.
But being kids, they don’t really get out to the pubs, so I’m trying to find ways to actually make it real and fun for them because yes, at school I had the same attitude – music wasn’t seen as cool, the cool thing was playing sport. It’s exactly the same at Gulargambone – the kids love sport, they’re really good at sports and that’s what’s “cool”. So that challenge is to introduce music as that new thing that’s also cool.
Jen: But you prove that it doesn’t have to be an either/or thing.
Brad: It doesn’t at all. And I think the world’s becoming more and more accepting of that too. It used to be that with our macho footy culture, it was considered a bit sissy to go and play guitar or a musical instrument. There was a clash between the two. But now that’s not so much a clash – we’re all more open to the fact that you can do both, and that both are cool. So to find new ways to engage kids with music is easier, but I still think there are challenges and the only way to do it is to actually give them the platform and say, “There it is.” So I’m teaching them the basics with things like drums and guitar – the basic stuff. I’m not going to force it down their throats and say, ‘You have to learn this. You have to do that.” It’s more about just giving them the platform as an introduction.
It has to be fun before they’ll actually embrace it. If I just put my teacher hat on it’s never going to work, especially with these kids. You need to make it seem cool, you need to give them a chance to actually want to do it themselves.
Brad Haling, Gulargambone NSW.
Jen: With the advent of technology, you can take music to the world and you can take the world’s music to Gulargambone. Is that something you’re exploring?
Brad: The benefits of technology are incredible, particularly in teaching the kids about music, even doing simple stuff like showing videos and listening to different music. As far as the technology goes, last year we were doing Garage Band which is a music-making program. We started mucking around with that a little bit which was really cool. We did a little thing where you make your own program on an iPad, then put your own rap to it, which was pretty cool. So they’d write their own verse – a poem essentially, but we don’t call it a poem in music because that’s not “cool” so we call it a rap (laughs).
Jen: Tell me about some of the misconceptions, particularly about the music world in regional Australia and the bush.
Brad: The main misconception is that it doesn’t exist, that there is no music scene. Or that there’s only country music. Mind you, a lot of people would be happy if it was only country music, because that genre has changed so much – it’s contemporary and it’s barely recognisable as the old-style country music. The lines of all the genres are getting more and more blurred.
Jen: So that’s a misconception: that there’s two kinds of music – country and western.
Brad: Exactly. People still love contemporary country, but I’ve learned that people also love other genres, so I cross a lot of musical boundaries. People here are happy to listen to other stuff – they just like live music, and they’ll listen to pretty much anything, which is kind of good. That’s the difference between city audiences and country audiences, the punters in bush pubs are more appreciative of just any kind of live music. Part of that is because they’re just happy to get out and forget about feeding sheep or whatever.
Or the younger ones who have been away to uni or to the city, where they got used to having access to live gigs, they’re happy to have something happening at the local pub or club or at an event. So it’s the social aspect of the live gig – they just want to hear music and they’ll give you a go and appreciate whatever it is that you’re doing.
Jen: It’s another thing that people may not realise about regional Australia – the fact that there is a thriving music scene.
Brad: And you can go to a place like the Armatree pub and see top live music artists, with great food and a top venue. There’s such a wonderful food, music and arts culture in the bush and I just don’t think we celebrate that enough. People also don’t realise that we have some really accomplished (visual) artists here as well. When you think about inspiration for creativity, I think being in the quietness and in the natural setting of the bush is a lot more conducive to creativity for many artists. Whether it’s musicians or painters, I think you can draw a lot of inspiration from the beauty of a natural setting…especially now that it’s a bit green, it’s nicer than staring at a dustbowl (laughs).
Jen: How important have you found music as an outlet for your own wellbeing, and how important is it, in general, for wellbeing in small communities?
Brad: It’s always been something to have there as a support for me. You kind of go through rough situations, whether it’s breakups or failing something or life just not panning out exactly as you want, but always having music there means you can block everything out just for a while and escape into music to have even just five minutes of peace of mind. If I just play guitar it’s almost like a meditation, you kind of just go into your own world and forget about everything.
I think it’s the same for other people, and that’s particularly valuable in the country. I’ve found that people have been coming up to me while I’m playing at country pubs or events and they’re saying they’ve just started learning, or have been learning, the guitar. The number of people who have said this to me since I’ve been out here playing is great, and I’d love to think I’ve helped a little bit with that.
I’m just really happy to see people turning to or taking up music because I know if you can have that five minutes of a break just to play guitar, have any kind of artistic outlet, I think, it’s five minutes that you’re not worrying about the drought and the farm and whatever else is weighing on your mind.
Jen: It’s a break in negative transmission.
Brad: Exactly, and we all need that. We all need to give our brains a break every now and again. We all need to switch off. I think with music, when you first start learning to play, you’re thinking about what you need to do and it’s all in your head, but once you get into it and learn a little bit, it just kind of happens – you get into it and you’re not consciously using your brain – the music just happens. It becomes automatic and natural, and that’s therapeutic.
Jen: Do you write any of your own stuff?
Brad: I do and it’s something I’m really wanting to get back into and I’d like to explore the electronic side of things a bit more. I’ve mucked around with (composing) on computers – playing live stuff as well but making the whole song. I’ve set up a studio at home which is really cool, so I’ve been mucking around with that.
Jen: You’ve set up a studio in the wilds of Gulargambone?
Brad: Yeah, I have (laughs). I have a studio at home so I’m always doing something. I try to make it a thing every day – at least spend an hour or so there after school.
Jen: So it’s quite conceivable that we will see a Brad Haling debut album out of a simple backyard studio in Gulargambone, NSW?
Brad: That’s the plan.
Jen: So you’re still confident in the future of a little town like Gulargambone?
Brad: Absolutely. I think people love it – people want to be here. Gular is home to a lot of people. You can move to other places but it’s never going to be home, and that doesn’t change for people. People want to go back there.
We’re very lucky that although we’ve lost some services, we still have things happening. People have fought for these things and that mentality is still there. That fighting spirit is still there. Because we have a few things happening there, Gulargambone will be fine. Ten years ago, I thought the town was probably going to die, like we’ve got nothing at all, but through the hard work of a lot of people, I think Gular’s a sustainable place. We can sustain.
Jen: And 10 years from now it’ll be the spiritual home of sound recording for regional NSW.
Brad: (Laughs) You never know. You just never know!
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Brad performing at the inaugural “Tracks @ The ‘Tree”, a musical fundraiser for NALAG at the Armatree Hotel in 2019.