In his career Charlie Mgee has performed to a crowd of 10,000 ‘doof heads’, to five-year-olds in a kindergarten class, to Vandana Shiva at a Seed Freedom conference. His music has even been played at a UN official ceremony. How did he end up playing songs to such diverse audiences?
Charlie first leapt to fame in the permaculture world with the release of the album Permaculture: A Rhymers Manual. It was made with his band Formidable Vegetable Sound System, which currently consists of musicians Mal Web and Kylie Morrigan and also features a range of musicians from around the world.
This was an album of songs based around the permaculture principles. Sounds nerdy? You might think so, but it is a stomping good album with ‘radish beats’ and a very funky sound.
The catalyst for the album came from Charlie feeling disenchanted with music. ‘I was getting sick of playing in bands and doing pub gigs,’ he says. ‘I was having a crisis, thinking, ‘how am I making a difference in the world’? I went to Nimbin and did a permaculture course with Robyn Francis. I took my 4WD ‘troopy’ which runs on vegie oil and drove across the desert on my own from Perth to Alice and then across to the coast.’
Charlie spent eight months with Robyn doing the Cert III in Permaculture and that catapulted him back into playing music. ‘Robyn’s teaching has a focus on traditional music and every day we would start with a song,’ says Charlie. ‘She joined the dots for me with art in permaculture and pattern understanding. Before writing, we had music.’
‘Part of our assessment was to do a presentation on one of David’s principles, so I sang mine on a ukulele. That was my No Such Thing As Waste song. I played to the class—they loved it and kept asking me to play it over and over. It took them five months to convince me it wasn’t crap, and that I should do it for all the principles.’
Charlie did just that and discovered that it was an easy way to remember the principles. ‘I thought I could do shows for kids and take it into schools,’ he says. ‘But the first ever gig I did was at the Cairns Solar Eclipse festival. At the last minute they asked if I could headline, so I spent the next couple of days adding electronic beats and electro swing glitch dubstep to please a crowd of 10,000 electronic ‘doof’ fans.’
‘As I went on stage they asked me what I was called—off the top of my head I replied, Formidable Vegetable Sound System. So I was this freaky guy singing about vegetables.’
‘I also organised to do a workshop the next day at the festival and heaps of people came. They were asking “What’s this permaculture stuff about?”. I always wanted it to have that educational element as well as the fun.’
Charlie took off on a four-year world tour, one of the highlights of which was playing Glastonbury in the main dance music dome. ‘There we were with a ukulele and a trumpet, singing about gardening.’
He also met Vandana Shiva in California at the Seed Freedom Festival, where at the last minute he sang about seeds before Vandana’s keynote speech. ‘Vandana got into it, she was filming and taking photos,’ he says. ‘I then received an email from her inviting me to come to India to play at Bhoomi Festival, the festival of real food. I stayed at her farm for four weeks and helped teach the agroecology course.’
Charlie then went on to create his second album, Grow Do It. ‘I wanted to get back into the idea of introducing permaculture into schools. I started writing different silly songs about vegetables, chickens, kimchi and stuff. Spoonbill produced it, which made it sound like elaborate dance music, mixing gardening and dubstep. It’s got kid-friendly themes with slick beats for adults.’
When composing, Charlie writes the skeleton song then contacts every amazing musician he knows, emailing them the tracks. They then send them back with their recording added. ‘All the musicians are better than me,’ says Charlie in his self-deprecating manner. ‘Like Mal Webb, who is amazing and has been a key part of the band since it started. The band has never all been together in the same place. It’s open source collaboration and really embodies the integrate principle.’
‘Permaculture for me is about building connections,’ he says. ‘I have a permaculture plan for the band and always try to apply the principles of permaculture to the band and how we tour—the no-waste touring van, integrate rather than segregate by using local musicians, use and respond to change by going from playing nightclubs to an audience of five-yearolds.’
Charlie is now producing his third album, Earth People Fair, inspired by the three ethics of permaculture. ‘There’s an overarching theme of self-care. Conscious self-care, not just hedonism, leads to earth care, which leads to people care, which leads to fair share. The permaculture ethics are central to the new album, but I also had a lot of inspiration from time I spent being on country and hanging out in indigenous communities.’
Charlie says he felt burnt out after six years of touring. With his new album soon to be released, he will still be touring but is focusing on more grassroots venues, playing house concerts and community gardens. ‘I’m narrowing down the kinds of places I like to play in,’ he explains. ‘I’d love to do a bit of a community gardens tour, or a permaculture action tour, just to people who really want to hear the music and are on the same wavelength.’
And in true Charlie fashion, he is building a vegie oil powered house truck that also works as a stage and touring vehicle. He is also organising a permaculture retreat and festival in his hometown, Pemberton WA.
‘Ironically all this travelling around and singing about permaculture has been great but I’ve sacrificed being on country myself, growing the food and observing the seasons,’ says Charlie. ‘I felt this really strong pull to come back to the place where I grew up in (the South West of WA) and start to connect and put down a few roots.’
‘I’m moving into a new phase and while I’ve still got the energy I feel I should put some of it into building the soil around me and a home to live in as well,’ he says. ‘I’m transitioning from being a fully nomadic musician permie to being a semi-nomadic permie musician.’
Charlie will launch his new album in early 2019, with an east coast tour from December 2018 – February 2019, including a performance at the Woodford Folk Festival.