The South Coast’s sleepy seaside town of Kiama is traditionally known for producing sporting heroes.But Joe Mungovan and his indie/folk music is definitely a contender in being one of Kiama’s best ever exports.
“Maybe I’m forgetful, maybe I drink too much or maybe it’s the brain damage. Actually, just blame the brain damage” he laughs, unfazed by the topic of questioning as he subconsciously twirls his spoon as if it were a drumstick.
Joe Mungovan, a 19-year-old musician with long, matte hair, a scruffy beard and no shoes, greets me with a timid “Hey”. His weary eyes suggest he has not yet had his morning coffee – a staple. He pulses his leg up and down like a nervous twitch as we begin talking about his music.
From a young age, Joe remembers music being a significant part of his life; “There was always a CD on in the background at a family dinner,” as well as playing drums from an early age.
But in 2007, a tragic accident left him confined to a wheelchair. Attempting to go down the notoriously long, steep Bonaira Street in Kiama, he lost control and slammed into a telegraph pole. He arrived at Wollongong Hospital where he was assessed as having two shattered femurs – one a compound fracture – and brain damage in the frontal lobe. The severity of his injuries forced the hospital to helicopter him to a Sydney where he spent only two weeks after contracting Staphylococcus aureus – better known as Golden Staph.
Joe then spent the next three months confined to a wheelchair and undergoing extensive rehabilitation. “You have to teach your brain how to walk again… So it was very long and hard.” When questioned about whether it was a low-point in his life he fiercely denies, asserting that his strong family values really helped him. “My parents and my sister really helped me with stuff. I mean it was hard, it was really hard because you’re in so much pain all the time”. But in typical, Joe style, he says he does not regret it; “I play music now because of it so I guess you know, it’s not a bad thing in my life. It’s a two step back, one step forward kind of thing”.
Throughout the three months in wheelchair, Joe could not play his beloved drums or sport. Being constantly spaced out on drugs – “Legal! Legal drugs” he quickly adds laughing – he found it hard to really do anything. Soon enough, he found a guitar lying around, “ I knew a few chords but I would watch film clips and pause it and then copy the hand movements”. This was the beginning of his career.
He began by playing little gigs at high school assemblies. Most memorable perhaps, was a cover of Angus and Julia Stone’s Big Jet Plane, which had an entire hall of rowdy students mesmerised. Joe’s husky but beautiful voice has the power to encapsulate you and send repetitive shivers down your spine. He then lent his amazing voice and drumming skills to a local band, Tommy M and the Mastersounds. The band’s success soon added more achievements to his musical repertoire as in 2011, the band won the Mercury’s Bluescope Band Competition, the i98fm Summer Search Party band competition and the Illawarra Brewery’s Home Brew’d competition.
After their phenomenal success, Joe realised that school just wasn’t for him, largely because he was selected to attend the Talent Development Project Foundation. This program selects 50 public school students from around New South Wales and conducts a year’s worth of monthly workshops to develop and hone their musical talents, each month – as Joe says – “culling” the students until they are left with eight or nine students. Joe survived and graduated in 2012. Afraid that he would be “made a sausage” from this process, he was somewhat sceptical but is thankful for the skills and resources that they provided him.
He chuckles at his independence, “I can be my own boss and meet my own goals and deadlines without a company telling me to”. In December 2013, Joe released his first EP, June + July; a poetic collection of music that showcases his immense talents as he plays every single instrument and sings every line in all four songs. The perfect blend of folk and indie, accompanied by lyrics that resonate with his 20-something audience, has led to his quick success. A fan favourite is Face in the Crowd. As he begins to discuss its significance, he solemnly looks up and past me, deep in thought. “It’s about those friends that you grow up with from a very young age and there is some sort of value that you don’t recognise because you’re so young and you don’t fully appreciate what you have with them until you’re just another person in the street”.
Joe’s success has not slowed, bringing in the new year with a tour – From the Mountains to the Sea – with fellow Talent Development Project graduate, amazing musician and close friend, 19-year-old Imogen Clark. “He called me and said ‘Immy, we’re going on tour together’. Somehow it was like we’d had the discussion already,” she said. They travelled from Foster and down the East Coast to Wollongong, doing ticketed shows and others on the spur of the moment. Joe’s favourite moment from the two-month tour was when he and Imogen played a show in Newcastle, “we had never played there let alone headlined our own touring show. We were selling tickets to both our shows and for them to pay for a ticket, was amazing, it is something people just don’t do when they haven’t heard your stuff. It was amazing.” He leans forward, smiling widely; excitedly adding, “it’s run around the street naked kind of stuff”.
Ending the tour on a high, Joe and Imogen have had some down time but are still doing small gigs. In his spare time, Joe has become somewhat of a red wine connoisseur, tends to his vegetable garden and cooks – his speciality, spaghetti bolognaise is a self-affirmed crowd pleaser. He also listens to what he would call “a LOT of music”, and draws inspiration from his icons: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams and his favourite album this year, James Vincent McMorrow’s Post Tropical that, “… is like tits,” he boyishly grins. “I highly recommend it, it’s amazing,” he nods – and he’s not wrong.
As Imogen Clark says, it’s Joe’s charismatic, loveable nature as well as some serious talent that has made him excel in the eight years following his life-changing accident. “He’s a great friend, an amazing musician and a fantastic person. I hope to collaborate with him throughout the rest of our lives.” But asking what this humble musician’s greatest achievement is so far baffles him, “The tour was great fun, releasing my EP was great. I don’t know… It’s not so much of an achievement, more of a realisation that whatever work you put in, you get out. And listening to great artists like Bon Iver makes you think: fuck, I have to keep playing music to get to be like him.”