Charlie O’Brien talks Heaps Decent, giving voices to those who don’t have one, and keeping the ball in the air
Ten years ago, DIPLO, NINA LAS VEGAS and LEVINS joined forces to create HEAPS DECENT. A charity organisation that works with young people from marginalised and disadvantaged communities to provide a means by which they can tell their story in their own way. Heading out to remote communities across Australia, they facilitated workshops with Indigenous youth in schools and detention centres, bringing the likes of M.I.A, LADY SOVEREIGN, A-TRAK, LYKKE LI and many more to work with kids across the country and make music for them to tell their own stories.
Ten years on, and Heaps Decent is still running regular workshops across Sydney, as well as focussing on returning to the places they’ve been working in over the years. Now with a couple of different staff members in place (Nerida Woods as general manager/CEO, Charlie O’Brien as Project Director and Grace Cooper as administration assistant), and with Nina Las Vegas and Levins now on the board among others, the faces of Heaps Decent might be different to those of the early days, but the message has stayed the same: helping young people who need it to tell their stories their own way.
By using contemporary music such as hip-hop and pop, Heaps Decent workshops empower their attendees, providing them with the tools they need to discover talents and skills they might not have discovered before. Over the years, Heaps Decent has released music from some of the artists that have emerged from these workshops, resulting in triple J and FBi Radio play, as well as critical acclaim and even opening Parklife one year for one particular artist named ICEY.
At this year’s Electronic Music Conference, one session. titled “You’re The Voice; Electronic Music And The Marginalised”, aims to discuss and explore how music gave marginalised groups a voice and a community to belong to, and how the electronic music sector can play a role in educating the wider community about marginalised people. Heaps Decent‘s Charlie O’Brien will be on this panel, so to get to know him and the organisation he works for a bit better, we had a chat with him ahead of the conference. Check out our interview with him below, or catch the panel on Thursday, November 30 as part of EMC’s two-day program at Giant Dwarf. Tickets are on sale now HERE for EMC, or HERE for”You’re The Voice; Electronic Music And The Marginalised”.
Heaps Decent has been around for 10 years now, starting with Nina and Levins and Diplo. Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved and why Heaps Decent is important to you?
In 2009, Heaps Decent had expanded to a point where they needed some more staff to run the daily operations and to carry out the workshops they’d been organising. I came on board as a part-time staff member and I’ve been there ever since. It’s been a real labour of love at times, it can be a pretty time-consuming job and there’s lots of travel and stuff like that, but I’m very passionate about the reasons why we do it and also about using my skill set in a cool way.
Has there been a particular highlight over the past couple of years that has stood out to you?
There have been a number of things stand out. The first time we went to Wilcannia was really special, that was a place I’d heard a lot about and had never been. The first time we went there, it was super rewarding to see the impact we can have on these young people with such a simple task [like making music]. Another amazing one was heading out to Santa Theresa, which is just near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Again, that was incredible just being out in the desert in the middle of Australia with incredible people. It was a really beautiful place with beautiful people, so that was amazing to be a part of as well.
Obviously a huge part of this is for the kids you’re working with to be able to tell their story their own way. It’s such a small thing when you first look at it, but I imagine it’s actually so major for some of these kids.However, you also need a certain confidence to be able to speak your truth – how is this confidence created or nurtured in these kids through Heaps Decent?
The main thing is that we’re using an art form or a voice that’s really relevant to them. Instead of getting up and reading a poem to their class or writing a short story or something like that, we’ll make a beat that’s actually really relevant and it might be similar to a song they’ve heard on the radio or their favourite song at the time. We can make something that sounds like their favourite rap song or pop song and it’s kind of evoking this voice from a medium that is really familiar. Instead of throwing them in the deep end, it’s really instantly familiar and recognisable and they can feel a lot more comfortable and know the formula.
Totally. Instead of putting them in a choir, they’re able to make something that’s their own.
Exactly. It’s just being hyper relevant to their tastes.
You’ve been in the music industry for a while now, and over the past few years in particular, the conversation around marginalised groups in music has grown louder and louder. From your perspective, have you seen the industry change for the better or worse in recent times?
It’s hard to say. I would say for the better. In my time doing this, I’ve been growing increasingly aware of more and more organisations that are trying to do really good things out there, and some of them have come from a record label level or places like APRA or something like that. There’s definitely a growing interest in that sector for sure.
Do you believe that technology has enabled you to provide this kind of work in a much bigger way?
100%. It just creates a much lower and easier plain. You have these barriers of entry with traditional music where you have to know it and it’s almost like another language, and you’ve got the physical aspect of playing an instrument as well. So with the technology that we’ve embraced in our workshops, the young people we work with can have a far easier access point. We can give them something and it’ll make a sound instantly, and there’s far less right and wrong answers. We put in processes like sampling and using digital music instruments to make it a really easy process where you can start and make a sound instantly and not be daunted by this process that traditional music has.
Do you think that because of that and because it’s so much easier then, it’s obviously a lot easier for the kids to then express their emotions in a creative way and when that happens, you often find people open themselves up to a new community then. That’s obviously a huge thing for what you’re trying to achieve, right?
Absolutely, I 100% agree with that.
Do you then see the kids with a new sense of community, either through the workshops or when they’re getting out of detention?
I believe they have a new sense of being able to achieve something that they might not have been able to achieve before. For a lot of these young people, it might be the first time they’ve been proud of something they’ve achieved and I think that can be really encouraging for them to go after something they might not have gone after before. Whether it’s electronic music or not, it’s multi-disciplinary so it can transcend electronic music and lead into other parts of their lives.
I can imagine running a not-for-profit is definitely a challenge in and of itself, particularly for 10 years. Just recently, you held an auction that raised about $30,000. How does that feel to know that community support is still there, 10 years on from when it first started?
It’s pretty amazing, and it’s fairly humbling. We’ve had a really tumultuous time, as I’m sure you can appreciate in the arts industry, trying to secure money for our projects, and it’s been really, really tough. To turn around and receive support like that is very humbling and a very welcome one as well.
You’ve got some impressive goals listed on the site. Are there any goals that you feel you have achieved, or that you’re close to achieving? Any that are particularly important to you, personally?
There have been a couple that we’ve come really close to and sort of achieved. We had a studio for a little while, but due to unforeseen circumstances we had to pack it in for the time being, so we have got some of the way there and I think in the future it would be amazing to properly achieve that. We have a large-scale AV installation that we really want to get off the ground, and I’m optimistic we’ll make that happen at some point. It’s kind of hard making these kind of goals in this really dynamic landscape, but we’re optimistic for sure.
Can you tell me a bit more about this installation?
It’s to share the dialogue between people’s locations. The grand idea was to have installation in regional towns as well as in cities with opposing stories being told at each location, and you can interact with the stories and the sounds and landscapes being shown in each. The large-scale installation would be projected and you can actually interact with it by hitting buttons and make sounds or make visuals appear. We’ve kind of got the frame work already.
That brings me to my final question then, what can we expect next from Heaps Decent?
We’re planning pretty short term at the moment and just trying to keep the ball in the air. We have some pretty awesome stuff happening. We’re all about securing the current work we’re doing and making that go for another ten years. As an organisation, we’re pretty heavy on sustainable practices and returning to the places we’ve started projects at, so we’re all about making those keep going and maybe extending if we can. For the time being, we’re all about keeping it going.
Electronic Music Conference 2017 visits Sydney’s Redfern for a two-day program seeing international music leaders and industry experts appear across an array of panels, talks, workshops, parties and masterclasses on November 29-30. Tickets are on sale now via electronicmusicconference.
Interview by Emma Jones