The Out-Of-Towners: Jess Ribeiro on the history and mystery of playing in Sydney

$Jess Ribeiro
Image: Jess Ribeiro Photo by Nick McKinley

What does Sydney music look like to those outside of Sydney? In our new column Out-of-Towners, we look to explore the stories of the city's scene, both past and present, with those who have come from outside of it. Our first guest is Jess Ribeiro, the beloved singer-songwriter who will perform in Sydney this weekend to launch her fourth studio album Summer of Love.

When people think of Sydney music – hell, when they think of Sydney period, or even Australia itself – the iconography of the Sydney Opera House immediately comes to mind. It's the country's most famous venue, an instantly recognisable cultural landmark and a truly prestigious place to perform. So imagine Jess Ribeiro's surprise circa 2012, when she got the offer to perform at this incredible venue for her first-ever show in Sydney... well, sort of.

“I was living in the Northern Territory at the time, and music was just something that I did with my friends – it wasn't really a career,” says Ribeiro from her Melbourne home, fresh from a European tour in support of her lush new album Summer of Love. “When my music got picked up from triple j, I started getting invited to showcase my music in all these different places. I'm guessing that's how I got this gig, where I got asked to play in a caravan that was set up as a stage outside of the Opera House.”

Joined by guitarist Rob Law – who is now an award-winning film composer, by the way – Ribeiro played songs from her debut album My Little River solely for passers-by, who were largely either intrigued or bemused by the whole thing. “The experience was a really weird one,” she says. “God, the things we do as musicians are just degrading sometimes, aren't they?” 

For those playing at home, Ribeiro did indeed make it into the hallowed halls of the Opera House at some point – but even she can't remember when. “I must have been in there doing backing vocals for someone, I reckon,” she shrugs. “I definitely remember being in one of the smaller rooms. Maybe I was supporting someone?” Her vague memories can't help but make Ribeiro laugh: “What was I even doing at the Sydney Opera House?”

Since relocating to Melbourne from Darwin, Ribeiro has made several returns to Sydney. When thinking of her favourite moments playing in Sydney, she lands smack-bang in the middle of the 2010s. She, alongside her backing band, headlined a show at Marrickville venue Red Rattler in support of her second album Kill It Yourself circa 2015. Ribeiro recalls the show fondly – not least of all because her support act that night was a young, up-and-coming singer-songwriter from the Blue Mountains named Julia Jacklin.

“She was solo that night, and seeing her play those songs like that was absolutely breathtaking,” she says. “I was so touched by her performance – I think the only time I took my eyes off her was to take a photo of her, which I still have somewhere. That was the first time she and I had met, and it was a really awesome show.” Ribeiro remembers bonding with Jacklin that night, as well as photographer Nick McKinley – with whom she would go on to work with on several music videos and photoshoots.

“It felt like a very special moment in time, really,” says Ribeiro. “You form a real sense of community out of moments like these. It's nearly 10 years later, and we're all still here supporting and encouraging one another.”

It's one thing to be up on stage with the full force of a band behind you – which still has its power even if you're not an out-and-out rockstar. There's a little less to hide behind when you're performing solo, however – particularly if it's to an audience that isn't your own. In 2023, Ribeiro was offered a tour in support of Gareth Liddiard – late of The Drones, once of Springtime and currently of Tropical Fuck Storm. “I was shit-scared going into that tour,” she recalls. “I didn't know what Gaz was like as a solo artist – all I knew is that I'd seen The Drones, and I'd seen TFS, and they were both really fucking loud. Why was I supporting this guy?”

When Ribeiro took to the stage of the Factory Theatre before Liddiard, however, she was greeted not with heckling or chatter, but reverent and supportive listeners. It was so quiet as she performed that you could hear the hand dryer in the men's toilets whirring from behind the stage. “I was shocked at how attentive the audience was,” she admits. “I was very grateful that people were so into my songs and my stories. They bought heaps of merch, too!"

The majority of Ribeiro's experiences performing in Sydney have been focused chiefly on the city's inner west – she fondly recalls performing at the longstanding Newtown institution The Vanguard, and also makes mention of performing at the short-lived St. Peters room The House Of Music & Booze. She has, however, made a handful of ventures into the CBD outside of that ill-fated caravan performance. 

She speaks highly of Phoenix Central Park, for one, where she performed as part of the final Milk! Records showcase in December 2022. “I love getting the opportunity to perform in these unique, bespoke spaces,” she says. “To be in that room, especially with the whole Milk! Records crew... it felt like a really special occasion. It's a beautiful space – I would play there again in a heartbeat.” 

She also makes special mention of the Oxford Art Factory, where she has performed in both its main room and its Gallery Bar. “That sideroom show was so much fun,” she says. “That was for the last album that I did before this new one [2019's LOVE HATE] – it felt like more of a rock album, so the band and I thought it would make sense to play more rock venues. That room is a funny one – at a certain point of the night, when your gig's over, you can kind of peer through the glass and see everyone dancing in the other room.”

Ribeiro has even ventured out of conventional venues entirely while performing in Sydney, including performing a series of shows as part of the house-show series Parlour circa February 2017. At first, she baulked at the idea.

“I remember feeling really reluctant,” she recalls, “because I just had no clue what it would even look like. When I rocked up, though, it was this very beautiful and very affluent property. Everyone there seemed to work in the arts in one way or another, and the family that booked me to play couldn't have been more warm and more generous. It was one of the sweetest shows I've ever played.”

Ribeiro is not a total stranger to Sydney –  she has family on her father's side here, after all, who will inevitably make the trek out to see her when she returns. Ribeiro's overall thoughts on Sydney's music scene, however, are ones of mystery and curiousity. “For those of us that live in Melbourne, Sydney is such an enigma,” she concludes. “It's a very different city – the culture is different, it feels like. I could be completely wrong, but that's how we've always seen it. I would love to be immersed in the scene to really have an idea of what it's all about. 

“It's mysterious to me as an independent artist – I'm not high-profile like some of the people I've played with like Courtney Barnett, or Gaz, or Julia, or even Aldous Harding. So, what do artists like myself do? Would I be more accessible in Sydney if I played punk? I fucking love Royal Headache – is there more stuff like that than artists like me? And how do you guys afford to live in Sydney? I would love to learn more!”

Jess Ribeiro plays at The Gaelic Club on Saturday, June 22nd with special guests Honey 2 Honey and Jack Colwell. Tickets are available via Oztix here.

Summer of Love is out now via Poison City Records. Buy it, stream it or download it here.

David James Young
20 Jun 2024