Creative Central: Writing and making music are the keys to fulfilment according to author Siobhan O’Brien

While most people would have found home schooling three teenagers enough of a challenge during the COVID lockdowns, journalist and author Siobhan O’Brien felt the need to stretch herself just a little bit further.

First, she and her husband, accomplished wine writer, chef and accommodation manager Greg Duncan Powell, took up online yoga in one of the empty guest cottages he was managing at Bawley Point on the NSW South Coast. Then Siobhan decided it was time to learn to sing, so found a teacher and embarked on a year’s lessons via Zoom. In 2021, she celebrated her newfound skills by forming blues and roots band Minnie and The Moonrakers and reinventing herself as the lead singer, with Greg on guitar along with a drummer and double bass player. What began as a passion project has taken off and Siobhan, her alter ego Minnie, and the band are now performing four to six gigs a month.

In her “spare” time, Siobhan has been working on her first novel, All the Golden Light, which was launched in March. The book is a rollicking read set in the Shoalhaven region, where Siobhan and Greg have spent much of their adult lives. It begins at the end of WWI and Siobhan’s protagonist — a fiercely independent nurse — is dealing with traumatised soldiers returning from the battlefields. She’s also defying the conventions of the time by sewing in the evenings to fulfil her dream of escaping to Sydney to start her own dressmaking business. Siobhan says the book was a long time in the ferment, as she had dreamt of writing it for years and has numerous less successful manuscripts stashed in her bottom drawer. On the advice of a friend in the publishing industry, she was determined to make her first shot her best and embarked on several courses through the Sydney Writers’ Studio in the lead up to hitting the keyboard.

“I did two novel and screen writing courses over a couple of years,” she explains. “It was an imperative as writing a novel is a very different skill set to journalism. It’s all about the architecture upon which you hang your story and the mechanics of constructing the novel with the character arcs and turning points in the narrative. Sometimes it felt counter-intuitive to the creative process, but I would never have finished it if I hadn’t gone through the learning process.” In fact, Siobhan has been finding outlets for an abundance of creative energy all her life. Her parents hoped to channel her relentless drive by sending her to a French-speaking school in Canberra. When they moved to Batemans Bay during her final school years, she was sent to boarding school in Ballarat. Siobhan candidly confesses she was “a bit of a handful” and at one stage was suspended for sneaking out at night to listen to bands and stealing the number plate from the head nun’s car.

Writing and making music are the keys to fulfilment

After travelling for a year, she found her metier when she was accepted into a communications course at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst and subsequently moved to Sydney for a marketing role in a finance company. “I spent most of my time writing poetry instead of doing my real job,” she says. “Fortunately, I found journalism or journalism found me when I started sending travel stories to The Sydney Morning Herald.” From there, Siobhan moved into writing about property and interior design and went on to become editor-in-chief of Indesign magazine. In the early 2000s, she wrote several design books, including A Life by Design, a biography about socialite wallpaper designer Florence Broadhurst. By 2003, she and Greg had moved to the South Coast, where they both continued writing and Greg managed Bundle Hill Cottages. In a novel-worthy twist, it was during a weekend away with her mother at one of those cottages that she and Greg first met.

“I was 23 and it was a meeting of the minds,” she says. “He’d done an honours degree in medieval French history and I had studied French for all those years. We were both writers, so there was an inevitable spark. We were together for about 18 months and then I choofed off with my career in Sydney. But I always kept tabs on him through mutual contacts and he came back into my life a few years later.” Long-time readers may recall Australian Country ran a story about Siobhan and Greg more than a decade ago when their children, Evie, now 20, Earl, 19 and Beatrice, 16, were youngsters and the family was living in a hillside home with stunning views to the ocean they’d built beside the cottages. At that time, Siobhan discussed how initially she commuted between Sydney and the bush but, as the children came along, she took the leap and moved permanently to Bawley Point.

Writing and making music are the keys to fulfilment

“The South Coast is very beautiful but there are no really great jobs and it became apparent quite quickly that if I wanted opportunities, I would have to create them for myself,” she recalled at the time. “It was completely overwhelming at first but soon I got regular freelance work and then an offer to write a book, so I said “yes” to both and got busy. There was a lot of breastfeeding at publishers’ meetings and, before I knew it, I was up to book four. Greg was also working on a cookbook and we were extending our house, so we were living in one of the holiday cottages. Greg was doing as much of the work on the house as possible to save money and, frankly, it was a nightmare. Somewhere along the line after Beatrice was born, I just realised it wasn’t working for me. I had this feeling that I was giving away the power to control my future and finances and, as a responsible mother of three young children, I wasn’t comfortable with that.”

At night, when the babies and books and articles had finally been put to bed, Siobhan started exploring other aspects of her creativity. She looked to her passions for art and design and started painting, a jewellery-making course, screen printing and sewing. The kitchen benches strewn with beads, fabric swatches and sketchbooks filled with fashion designs distilled into Miss Moss, a fashion label and an associated shop in Milton. After 14 years in the business, Siobhan reached the stage where it became more of a chore than a creative outlet. “I was over it,” she says. “I realised that the main motivation for the shop had become earning a living. Selling footwear, it seemed every second customer wanted to show me their bunions and I’d had enough. So I closed the shop and that freed me up to concentrate on writing.” Meanwhile, there were more challenges in the form of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019/2020, when their home and cottages were surrounded by fire and sustained significant damage. “It was a case of life imitating art as I’d already written a bushfire into my book,” Siobhan says. “There was nothing esoteric about it as, when you live so closely with nature, inevitably there will be fires.”

When lockdown started in March of 2020, Siobhan barely had time to process the trauma and channelled her anxieties into singing and writing. Post-lockdown, the reminders of the fires all around them grew too much and the family moved to their present home, with yet another stunning view, this time overlooking Burrill Lake. At press time, they are on the move again, heading to Bright in Victoria’s north-east. “The band has been really well received there,” she says. “We’ll continue to tour and perform in NSW, just with closer access to the mountains and all that the region has to offer.

We’re keen skiers and cyclists, so we’re looking forward to the move. Performing is so life affirming. Greg has always been in bands and I never fully understood how much he got out of it. But now I do. I’m never scared to go on stage. I have no nerves or apprehension. I feel excited but having lived through the fires, I think I have a bit of an attitude of “what’s the worst that can happen?” I’m also working on another book and it feels like the time is right. We can finally take the time to pursue the things we love and really focus on following the creative urge.”

Photography by Ken Brass

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