Sabrina Soares wrote her first song at 13 as an assignment in her first year of high school. Three years later, she has 80 original songs to her name and is determined that music is going to be her life.
Sabrina is one of the stars of the future being groomed at the music studio at the City of Sydney’s Redfern Community Centre, which offers some of the most advanced community music programs in Australia.
The studio has attracted some high-profile attention for its programs, including visits from Black Eyed Peas vocalist Taboo in 2009, and a surprise visit by Sir Richard Branson in 2011 to support an indigenous kids’ singing program that was sponsored by his Virgin Group.
“There was this competition in year 7 to write a song in one day,” Sabrina, the quietly-spoken 16-year-old, says of her school assignment. “It was tough, but I got through it. It wasn’t the greatest song ever,” she says with a laugh.
“After I finished it I liked the idea of being able to put out my feelings through songs. Music and songwriting allow me to get a better understanding of my situation and problems. And I have so much fun doing it. It makes me happy.”
Sabrina sings with a soft, lilting voice and plays acoustic guitar – think Missy Higgins or early Taylor Swift. The songs are country-influenced, with a modern pop edge. Like her heroes, she incorporates country, modern pop, even spoken-word rap in a style that defies easy genre references.
She’s recorded several songs at StudioRCC, and is working on more with the help of a $500 scholarship she won in April as part of the City’s Betty Makin Youth Awards. When seven or eight of her best songs are complete, she plans to release an EP through social media and iTunes. In the meantime, she’s building her profile with gigs around Sydney and busking.
Sabrina’s in year 11 and finishing school, but a music career is more than a dream. “I realised at 14, nothing else was important to me. I’ve only got this – plan A. So I’m going full-steam ahead,” she says.
StudioRCC is a single, snug, soundproofed room at the top of the stairs at Redfern Community Centre, one of the busiest in Australia and a focal point for the area’s increasingly diverse local community. An upright piano sits against one wall. Acoustic and electric guitars hang from brackets nearby and lean against walls, desks, and anything else upright.
Cords snake across the floor between microphones and a computer with the powerful digital recording programs Logic Pro and Pro Tools, which allow artists to recreate the sounds of a full backing band for professional-standard recordings.
The studio is designed as an accessible, user-friendly facility that gives the community opportunities to learn and be creative in music and sound production.
It’s home to the RCC Music Program, which includes regular free music classes and workshops for young people and adults. Courses include a seven-week beginner’s guitar course, a fun singing group for beginners and VoiceWorks, a workshop for developing singers and performers. The studio program includes an introductory course on recording, one on composing and recording music using Logic Pro and creative development courses.
The studio buzzes with activity, and everyone from teens looking for a jam session to electronic DJs, first-time choir singers and serious musos can be found there on any day of the week.
The centre is a microcosm of Redfern’s transformation from a troubled past as one of Sydney’s most poverty- and crime-ridden neighbourhoods. It is now a welcoming, diverse and culturally rich inner-city community.
Since it opened in 2004, the centre has grown into a dynamic inner-city facility attracting over 6,000 people a month and providing a wide range of services and programs to all community groups, with a focus on art, culture, employment and training.
The celebrity interest in the centre stems from its role in providing services to disadvantaged youth in the area and strengthening the community. The Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo visited along with US fashion designer Donna Karan to support an exhibition by Aboriginal artist and singer Clifton Bieundurry. Branson’s visit was in support of the On Track singing program for local kids.
Other celebrity visitors to the centre over the years have included HRH Prince William, actor Russel Crowe and UK performer Lady Sovereign.
Another emerging artist at the centre is Tim Gray. He was born into a family living on The Block but was given up for adoption at just a few months old. At 13, he ran away from his foster home and entered a downward spiral of alcohol and drug abuse that left him living on the streets around Redfern and Woolloomooloo. Five years ago, he decided to turn his life around, entered rehabilitation and rediscovered his childhood music talent.
“I was fostered out to a non-indigenous family, which was great because I got a really good education and particularly in music. I was classically trained in piano, from the ages of seven to 12,” Tim says.
“Then things happened. My foster mother died, so I ran away, and ended up back at The Block. I took a lot of drugs and alcohol. I was a very confused child around that time. I drank unmanageably from the age of 14 to the age of 30.”
At rehab in northern NSW one day, he says a song came to him, and he’s never looked back. Music became an opportunity to help his recovery and improve his life. Back in Sydney, he threw himself into musical study, building on his classical skills by learning piano chords and contemporary styles, as well as the craft of song writing.
He joined Redfern local band the Black Turtles, and became involved with the community centre through the Block Harmony vocal group. He became a regular around the centre, performing in various guises at community events and scoring music for a local film production. More songs started to come.
Now he’s recording solo, negotiating with Koori Radio’s Gadigal Records on a recording deal, and building his repertoire. Tracks like the bluesy “Namatjira Haven” and the reggae-influenced “Social Revolution” are deeply personal with a political edge. He’s devoted to the Redfern community, and recently started giving piano lessons at the centre.
“The community centre to me is the heartbeat of The Block at the moment. A lot of people say The Block is not the same as it was. It is going through a change. For me, this place is keeping the block alive,” Tim says. “If it wasn’t for AA and this place, I would be dead.”
Behind the controls at Studio RCC is Tania Bowra, the centre’s music coordinator and a singer-songwriter with three albums of her own.
“People like Sabrina and Tim don’t come along every day. They are incredibly talented and I’m really proud that we can encourage and support people with this kind of talent,” she said. “It goes to show how much is out there in our community.”
For Sabrina, StudioRCC gives her the chance to develop and record her songs in an environment she would never be able to afford otherwise because of the cost of professional studios.
“We have everything here – the knowledge of the people, equipment, everything. And it’s so good to come here, and we have fun,” says Sabrina’s dad Valerio, her manager and mentor. He played Bossanova guitar as an amateur in his homeland of Brazil before the family migrated to Australia, and it was his guitar Sabrina first picked up.
“Here we can get so much,” he says of the centre. “It’s because the people are in this culture of community, of giving, of sharing. The people are nice. The people are kind. Everyone we’ve met through this support is so nice.”
Both Sabrina and Tim hope to have tracks recorded at the centre out on Facebook, CD or iTunes later this year.