With the cancellation of open mic nights, festivals and tours, it has been a difficult year and a half for aspiring musicians.
But 18-year-old Canberra singer Stewart Barton is making a name for himself despite these challenges.
Barton’s recent single, You Are Beautiful, rose to number two on the iTunes charts in Australian countries, even beating world star Taylor Swift.
Barton also signed with independent recording label Country Rocks Records.
The story of his seemingly sudden success has humble beginnings in the suburb of Tuggeranong on the outskirts of Canberra, and a music program he enrolled in while still in elementary school.
Striking a chord with young people
Every Monday, singer-songwriter and youth host Dale Huddleston teaches guitar, piano and several other instruments to children at the Gugan Gulwan Aboriginal Youth Corporation in Wanniassa.
“We had kids who were really, really shy and since they got into the music program they started performing, their confidence grew,” Mr. Huddleston said.
The program allows Indigenous men and women to meet other people, develop their skills and perform.
Barton entered at the age of eight.
“Dale really saw something in me.”
Barton quickly learned to play multiple instruments, but he kept one talent hidden.
“I actually didn’t know he could sing until a few years ago,” Mr. Huddleston said.
“It was like, ‘Woah, where was that?'”
A few years later, Barton performed at an open mic party at a pub in Queanbeyan, just across the border from ACT in New South Wales, and was spotted for a development program. with Country Rocks Records.
Gugan Gulwan’s first big success
The program has been making music for 10 years, but Barton is the first of its students to hit the charts.
“All of us here are over the moon,” Mr. Huddleston said.
“This kind of success kind of marks for us. Someone from our program made the national charts… It’s just amazing.”
Now it’s Barton’s turn to teach the next generation.
“I was invited to come back to the program as a teacher, so I now teach in this program every Monday, mentoring young children and other artists who want to strive for self-confidence,” said the singer.
Mr. Huddleston says younger students see Barton as a role model.
“They all watched him play on their phones and that, and then he walks in here… That’s a great thing.”
Grade 11 student Carney Chatfield teaches Gugan Gulwan guitar and piano and says seeing Barton achieve his goals is inspiring.
“It’s good to see someone from my community going somewhere, doing so well,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m very proud of the guy.”
Little things, big things have grown
Barton’s single almost fell victim to the pandemic, after lockdowns prevented it from completing it with its Sydney-based producer.
But he wasn’t the only artist temporarily grounded – Australian icon Paul Kelly was also forced to stop his tour.
This freed Kelly’s sound engineer Gordon Wood, who lives in Canberra.
“He was stuck at his home here in Queanbeyan and he said, ‘Well I’m not doing anything, I might as well open my studio,’” Barton said.
It’s something the eight-year-old boy who walked into Gugan Gulwan would never have dreamed of.
“If I had to tell this eight and 10 year old little boy that you’re going to meet all these different people, he wouldn’t have believed it,” he said.