Emma Pask dives into her bucket-list

A year ago Emma Pask lost a close friend and fellow singer to breast cancer. Pask was with this person when she drew her last breath, and the experience had a profound effect. Grief was tangled with guilt that she could keep singing, herself, and then came a hunger to tick things off on her musical bucket-list. Just in case.

Number one on that list was to give a concert of the brilliant songs of Harold Arlen (who composed the music for The Wizard of Oz), and to do it in style, hiring The Studio at the Opera House.

Emma Pask. Photo: Kurt Sneddon.

Pask was first drawn to Arlen’s music as a teen, when she heard Billie Holiday sing Stormy Weather. “I can picture the days of me in high school driving around my parents’ old Holden Kingswood,” she recalls, “and I had my Doc Martin steel-cap boots on, my black shirt and dyed red hair – looking for my identity! I was well into just diving into misery in that search for identity, and so was blaring Billie Holiday’s Stormy Weather out of the car.”

But then Pask discovered Arlen’s blithe Let’s Fall in Love, and really enjoyed the way that made her feel, too. And when this “hopelessly melancholy, hopelessly romantic” teenager started building a repertoire as a jazz singer, she kept noticing how many songs she loved were Arlen’s.

Arlen was hugely admired by the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, but never became quite as famous, probably because he didn’t chase it. “From what I’ve read he was just so immersed in the beauty of creating art,” Pask says. “He always wanted that perfect marriage of words and music, and I read somewhere that he said a song was deficient if you could think of a melody without the words or vice versa.”

Photo: Kurt Sneddon.

In her show she’ll share stories about Arlen, while helping cement the connection between the songs and his name, rather than that of the stars who have sung them. These include Accentuate the Positive (the show’s title), Get Happy and, from The Wizard of Oz, If I Only Had a Brain and Over the Rainbow. She’s joined by her top-shelf trio of pianist Kevin Hunt, bassist Phil Stack and drummer Tim Firth.

Pask first performed in the Opera House – the Concert Hall, no less – with James Morrison in 1995, while still at school. “I was completely out of my depth,” she recalls, “but just along for the ride of, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I know I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know if I’m any good, but man, I’m really enjoying it!'”

Self-producing this new show, she’s all too aware of the pandemic’s shadow. She was struck down herself three weeks ago, clambering back into action on the seventh day. “I flew to the Gold Coast to do something completely out of my comfort zone: a Fleetwood Mac show,” she says. “I was so intent on making this gig, because I’d learned all this material that was completely foreign to me, and I really wanted the challenge of doing something different, and goddam it, I wasn’t going to miss it. I’d just done too much prep. I got on the plane, and I think it was just adrenaline that got me through.”

As to whether COVID might impact her band or audience, Pask is a glass-half-full type: “I’m doing it because I love it, and at the moment I really just want to experience some joy, and I hope that my producer hat works. We’ll soon find out!”