GETTING TO KNOW: DENIS CARNAHAN

Denis Carnahan is a multi-talented, multi-award winning professional musician with over 30 years experience in live entertainment, and almost 25 years in the television industry. Best known for his political and sporting satire, his work fits joyously from the sublime to the ridiculous, from biting parody to emotive songs and themes for film and TV.

Denis has worked for all the major Australian networks, as well as many cable channels, and radio stations. He has sung live at venues ranging from Sydney’s Olympic Stadium to inner city café’s and country pubs.

His show Rugby League The Musical has been growing a cult following and receiving rave reviews in Sydney, so he’s taking it on the road, starting at The Street Theatre on Sunday July 29.

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THE STREET TALKS TO DENIS BEFORE RUGBY THE MUSICAL COMES TO THE STREET THEATRE.

DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC.

Music is pretty much all I do, from writing for TV, radio, comedy or just for its own sake. I picked up guitar at 16, thinking with teenage boy logic that it would attract girls. It was a flawed strategy, but it drove me to diligence, and I inadvertently learned a whole lot of music theory just by playing.

I went on to study music at Uni, but dropped out when I got a job in a working covers to tour up and down the coast for years. I learn much more by doing than by studying, and singing 4×40 minute sets 5 nights a week for a few years is a great vocal teacher.

WHY SATIRE?

I never intended to do satire or comedy. The plan was to become a rock star, but it just didn’t work out. Being the youngest of five, I was always a mouthy little smart-ass stirrer, so taking the mickey kind of came naturally to me. I started doing satirical songs for fun. Still do.

I grew up listening to a lot of comedy records and tapes. I had as many Monty Python, Derek and Clive, Naked Vicar and Not The Nine O’Clock News type records as I did music records, so I guess it isn’t a surprise that I’ve ended up doing this.

WHERE DID THE IMPULSE TO CREATE RUGBY LEAGUE THE MUSICAL COME FROM?

Let’s be honest – it’s not a proper musical. Neither Todd McKenny nor Lisa McCune are involved. Nor is Fatty Vautin. It’s a collection of fun/satirical songs about the villains, heroes, controversy (and isn’t there some right now!!!!!!!) dramas, conspiracies and more villains of Rugby League.

It came from doing it for fun. I was a serious composer writing music for film and TV, but when my beautiful Raiders would get beaten by some bunch of corrupt, soulless mercenaries, I started writing songs about the depravity and dreadfulness of the opposition to exorcise my angst. Fox Sports cut film clips to a few of them, and they started getting traction. A couple even went viral before going viral was a thing. I ended up getting commissioned by clubs to write roast songs for retiring players, which gave me the idea of putting them all together into a live show.

WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED ALONG THE WAY?

I’ve discovered that making people laugh is enormously satisfying, and that laughter and humour really help you get through tough times. I’ve also discovered the only way to get anything done is to work and work and work.

I’ve found a surprising amount of wisdom from reading way too many Rugby League histories and biographies, such as these piano related lines from Roy Masters. They were both said in a rugby league context, but I think they apply to life in general:
“Playing Rugby League is like playing the piano, but it’s 1% Chopin and 99% piano removals”; “There are two types of piano removalists – one who walks in, puts his shoulders, legs and back into it and starts shifting the piano, and one who runs in, grabs the piano stool, and waves it around looking busy. Be the former.”

DO YOU HAVE TO BE A SPORTS FAN TO GET YOUR SHOW? WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT?

Certainly not! The show is for anyone with a sense of humour and a sense of fun. The themes are universal. Unless you live under a rock, you’ll know the majority people and incidents I celebrate in the show. If not, all the details you need are in the videos, so it’s self contained.

The audience can expect to get involved and sing along. It’s a pantomime, with villains and heroes. I want people yelling out, booing the villians and cheering the heroes. And for pity’s sake, if a villain appears on screen behind me, I need the audience to let me know!

Yes, there are some extra little morsels of humour for rugby league trainspotters, but if you love footy but don’t have a sense of humour, this isn’t a show for you.

YOU HAVE WRITTEN MANY SONGS FOR THE SCREEN. WHAT MAKES A SONG WORK SUCCESSFULLY FOR AUDIENCES?

Still working that out. Familiarity is a big thing, and accessibility. To be honest, when I write a song, I have absolutely no idea how it’s going to go. It’s the most nerve wracking thing in the world having someone listen to one of my songs for the first time. Really puts me on edge.

As a writer, you get so close to the work, and you know you’re hearing it through the filters of what you were trying to achieve and what you were hoping for. I write on my own, so there’s no-one to bounce off. I just have to trust my judgement, and hope! If I’m not liking it, I assume no-one else will. The same principles apply to ballads, love songs, satire and comedy. You just have to work and work to develop your judgement, then trust all the work you’ve put in.

YOU ARE A SOUGHT AFTER PERFORMER. HOW DOES SINGING IN AN INTIMATE VENUE COMPARE TO SINGING IN AN OLYMPIC STADIUM?

Singing in a stadium is a huge and fabulous ego trip, but also kind of weird, because you’re a long way from the people you’re singing to. Intimate venues are much more challenging and satisfying, as the people you’re performing to are right there – alive and reactive. You can see their eyes. You’re much more exposed, but you also get a lot more feedback, and that makes it so much more fun. The audience is very much part of the show, so no two shows are the same.

I started out busking, where you have to really win people over and give them something to get them to lob a coin in your tin. I still think that’s the best business model for a performer. Singing for your supper really keeps you on your toes.

YOU WERE BORN IN CANBERRA AND STUDIED HERE THROUGH HIGH SCHOOL. IS THIS WHERE YOU GOT YOUR FIRST TASTE FOR SPORT – OR MUSIC?

Both. My siblings all played sports and as the youngest I was dragged around to watch them. When it came my turn to play, I was a dud. I remember dad walking us up to Northbourne Oval to watch the Norths Greenies Rugby Club, which hasn’t existed for a long time. I’m a born spectator, rather than player.

Regarding getting a taste for music, I used to love watching The Doug Anthony All Stars busking in Civic on a Saturday morning. When when they left and became world famous, I had a go myself. It was terrifying to start with, but after one little show I did, a dear old lady came up and thanked me profusely, saying she had barely laughed since her husband passed away several years earlier. I think that moment is what made up my mind to pursue a career in music.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

The Raiders. Always. Not even being ironic. Watching them work, struggle, get dudded, fall over, fail, then come back and try again is incredibly inspiring.

The thought of bringing this show I’ve been working on for several years to people outside of Sydney is also really inspiring. I’m really I’m not so keen on the business side of being in the creative arts, but I love the performing side, and I love seeing people’s reactions.

When I’m completely down on creativity, the best solution is and has always been going bush and looking at birds and trees.

WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

My TV is currently being dominated by my son playing a hell of a lot of Fortnight. It’s either Fortnight or footy. NRL, AFL, Super Rugby, (The A-League is in hiatus).  I have more control over my reading. I’m going through a history phase at the moment. I’ve just finished Rob Mundle’s Cook, and am in the middle of Fatal Shore, in tandem with “An Act Of Bastardry” by Max Solling about the axing of the Glebe Rugby League Club. It paints an amazing picture of life and social structures in Sydney in the early 1900’s. Next up is The Biggest Estate On Earth, then it’ll probably time for some fiction.

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