"It's all happening," says Katie Noonan, breaking into a 100-watt smile. To say she is living life to the full right now is to understate things - Noonan is on fire. She has just finished work on her glorious debut solo album, Skin, and in two weeks' time, on the eve of her 30th birthday, she'll unleash these powerful new songs at sold gigs at Sydney's Vanguard. And she's in love. Noonan married her saxophonist husband Zac Hurren in 2004 and six months ago their second son was born.
We know and love Noonan as singer with the hugely successful Brisbane-born outfit George, a band she formed with her brother Tyrone back in 1996. Their 2002 recording, Polyserena, won the Best News Artist Album at the 2002 ARIA Awards and sold over double platinum. Noonan's mesmerising stage presence and classically trained voice won her cult status in Australia. Now George is on an extended break, allowing both the Noonan siblings to record solo records. Noonan calls it "moving sideways".
"I've always been keen on getting out of my comfort zone and trying new musical environments," she says. "I've done lots of different things while still trying to maintain my sense of self as a performer." There was george, and Elixir. She made a record of jazz and opera classics with her mother Soprano Maggie Noonan and symphony orchestra on 'Two of a Kind', and also won her second Aria award for her 2005 album 'Before Time Could Change Us' with Paul Grabowsky. "But Skin," she smiles, "is definitely the most complete picture of me so far."
Recorded in Sydney and LA, the record has an old school, organic feel that's in part thanks to the vintage equipment it was laid down on. "We chose Linear studios here in Sydney because Chris Vallejo, who runs it, is a vintage gear nut! He's got all these beautiful old mics, tape machines and compressors. We tracked most of the album straight to 2 inch 16 track tape - totally analogue. I guess it's like vinyl as opposed to CDs, and you can really hear that coming through on the songs."
Then there are the records Noonan's been mainlining. She grew up on opera and married a jazz fiend; then all of a suddenly Motown called. "I decided I needed to educate myself in that era of music. I knew I loved the sound but I didn't have the albums. So I went in search of the classic records of the soul era: Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin."
She started working with producer Andrew Klippel, and the pair of them spent hours listening to old classic recordings. The result? Skin is infused with a new groove. "I wanted to find a new sound for this album. It was a conscious decision to make a departure, to sink my teeth into something new and play around different vocal styles. I had a style in George that really suited the band, but now it's time for something a little different."
That aesthetic has affected everything, from the players to the structure of the record. "It's in two halves, again going back to that vinyl thing: the first half being more groove orientated, and the second, more orchestral." Through both sides runs the theme of new life and new beginnings, in no small part a reaction to the artist's coming of age into marriage and parenthood. "It's a real fresh start."
Which brings us to the album title... "This record is about shedding Skin, and ushering in new chapters. It's intimate, but above all it's a joyful record."
It is fitting that Noonan introduced flesh players to her line-up as well as a new co-producer in Klippel. There's Felix Bloxsom on drums and Sam Dixon (of D.I.G) on bass. Players from the Sydney Symphony provided the orchestra, and Noonan's man Zac delivered on sax. In LA they added Christopher Bruce's guitars, and Charles Jones (who's played with Prince and Stevie Wonder) on keys. New York singer Bruno, who is signed to Motown, and LA troubadour Reeve Carney join Noonan on backing vocals.
"I even find myself dancing a little, which is something totally new for me!" laughs Noonan. "I've been on a really amazing journey since George, and now I'm running on all cylinders. It's been a long time from conception to birth - I had over 50 songs to choose from. This is the record I've been waiting to make."