A Western Australian songwriter whose love of gardening and composting has produced such noteable lyrics as ‘My Dad’s dunny doesn’t flush’ has made it big on the Glastonbury Festival main stage and attracted support from the United Nations.
Songwriter Charlie Mgee is forging a unique musical path, combining ukulele chords with lyrics inspired by the core principles of permaculture.
His band, Formidable Vegetable Sound System, plays what he calls “permaculture funk” songs on the global festival circuit and delivers a simple message about sustainability.
“I write songs about permaculture – which may be the daggiest musical idea ever,” Mgee said.
“Permaculture is about working with the environment to sustain food production, fibre production, basically all of our human needs.”
The band has found there is a massive audience for his brand of humour and music, playing at Glastonbury and having the song You are what you eat pushed by the United Nations during World Soil Day in 2015. McGee has completed two albums, with a third on the way.
“The first one is a concept album based on a permaculture text-book. The nerdiest idea a musician has ever had, I’m sure,” he said.
For the band’s main song-writer, the response from audiences around the world to songs about permaculture is enough to keep the music going.
“I’ve heard people tell me, ‘you guys inspired me to start walking more or use my car less’,” McGee said.
I just remember the feeling that I got when I first realised that I could grow my own food and recycle all of my nutrients back into the soil – it’s just this empowering feeling.
“Seeing people get that is just such a joy and I love inspiring that in other people.”
Music that bears fruit
Mgee said his passion for sustainability was sparked while growing up on a permaculture property in the southwest of Western Australia.
“I’m kind of a second-generation hippy,” he said. “We only had a single solar panel running our power to the mud brick shed which was enough to power a single light bulb and a radio.
“My whole life I was surrounded by veggie gardens and chickens and my dad had a composting toilet – which we now have a song about.”
Mr Mgee said it was only as an adult when he moved to Perth that he realised his upbringing could be considered an “alternative lifestyle”.
“Going from this really simple lifestyle to this place of abundance and energy and power and people and consumerism, it was a bit of a shock,” he said.
“For a while I thought, this is great, this is the stuff I didn’t have growing up. But pretty soon I started realising that it just wasn’t sustainable.”
Disillusioned with life in the city, Mr Mgee reconnected with his roots.
“I went back and studied permaculture,” he said. “And it kind of justified everything that I suspected was true about scaling back and simplifying and living in line with natural systems.”
Memorising core principles
While studying permaculture, Mr Mgee searched for a way to learn beyond lectures and text books.
“We were sitting through these hour long talks and my friend turned to me and said, ‘hey, why don’t you write like a permaculture musical or something’?
“I thought it was the worst idea anyone’s ever had musically. But thankfully she forced me to do it and I wrote the first permaculture song about recycling.”
That music found an instant audience, and pretty soon other permaculture students were using the songs to memorise the core principles.