Finding your calling can be the work of a lifetime, but not for University of Wollongong music student Felicity Dowd, who was recently named Youth Artist of the Year at the Australian Folk Music Awards.
“My parents thought I’d be an athlete. My mum was a skilled ice hockey player, and I was put in every sport as a kid growing up. I also did ballet, but at exams, I was always more drawn to the music coming from the piano than the dancing,” she said.
“One day at a concert at my mum’s school, a student played Beethoven’s Für Elise on the piano. I went home and all I could talk about was playing piano. I was six.”
Felicity did learn how to play the piano, as well as a number of other instruments. At 10 years old, she started writing songs, drawing inspiration from the country-pop legend of her time, Taylor Swift.
Music and songwriting soon became a primary means of expression.
“Most kids, when they have an argument with their family, they go to a room, slam the door and hold a grudge. I would write a song,” she said.
“Some were quite dramatic. One was called Licence. I have three younger siblings, all under 11 years of age, and the song was about how they were driving me up the wall. Get it? It’s become a bit of a meme in my family.”
Though recalling her earliest works evokes a mix of pride and cringe, Felicity was well supported by family and teachers to channel her creativity through music. At age 14, she started performing for the public, kicking off at the Cobargo Folk Festival.
“That festival gets artists from all over the country, but one of my favourite parts and something I hope to see continue is the Youth Stage,” she said.
“Back then, it was called the Crossing Stage, and they gave opportunities to so many young artists to perform in front of a particularly supportive audience – the folk and country community. For a lot of us on the South Coast, that was our first time stepping up on a stage.
“I had one song to perform – Travelin’ Soldier by The Chicks. I had practised for hours. I remember walking up on stage and shaking like a leaf. But even from the wings, I was falling in love with the feeling. And ever since, it’s been all I’ve wanted in life.”
That feeling, coupled with enthusiastic encouragement from the audience, spurred Felicity on. She cut her teeth on busking and worked up to entering the championships in Narooma. This progressed to performing at open mic nights, then gigs at local breweries, pubs and wineries and finally, in festivals.
Folk and country have remained her genres of choice.
“I love the storytelling of those genres,” she said.
Felicity has performed on the main stages at Australia’s most prestigious events for the genre, including the National Folk Festival, Wanderer Festival and Cobargo Folk Festival. She has supported music royalty, including The Bushwackers, Josh Cunningham (The Waifs), Felicity Urquhart, Fanny Lumsden and Tex Perkins (Cruel Sea).
This year has arguably been her biggest year yet. It marks one year since the 19-year-old singer-songwriter took up the van life and started gigging most weekends. She also headlined her own tour, released her single Honeycomb & Glue and won the Tamworth Songwriters Association New Songwriter Award and the Gill Rees Memorial Award at the National Folk Festival.
But the pinnacle was being named Youth Artist of the Year at the Australian Folk Music Awards, where she performed her song Built Like Us.
Run by the country’s peak organisation for the genre, the Folk Alliance Australia, the premiere awards shine a spotlight on the best of the best.
“My mentors told me to have goals. So I made a list of things I wanted to achieve, and being nominated for this award was on there. It would have been an absolute dream to be a finalist, let alone to win,” she said.
“It felt absolutely incredible. Honestly, it still hasn’t quite sunk in. To receive an award in front of people I had looked up to my whole life – artists, festival directors, people running programs for the industry – it’s hard to put into words how it feels when pretty much everything you’ve dreamed of comes true in a moment.
“I will celebrate. But this was the dream. So now it’s time to work out what’s next.”