Lo Carmen: a lover, a dreamer, a fighter; a mother, an actor, a writer

Lo Carmen, pictured, has released a new book, "Lovers Dreamers Fighters". Photo: Katerina Stratos/supplied.

Australian actor, author, musician and singer-songwriter Lo Carmen has released a new book; a beguiling mixture of memoir and tribute to women and song. She spoke with Sunny Grace.

When I was a teenager, The Year My Voice Broke was one of the few films where I saw teenagers like myself on the screen, as opposed to American teens. The character played by Lo Carmen, in her acting debut after being discovered in a Kings Cross pizza bar, was who I wished I could be; just the right balance of beauty, cool and rebellion.

Since then, Lo Carmen has been an idol of mine and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her about her recently published book Lovers Dreamers Fighters and an upcoming event she is curating in Sydney. We conduct the interview over Zoom, and I must admit I am a little nervous when her face appears, wearing her trademark lipstick and hairstyle inspired by her lifelong love of vintage fashion.  

Official trailer for The Year My Voice Broke, restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Lo Carmen was nominated for an Australian Film Institute Best Actress Award for her role as Freya Olsen in the film. Video: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA)/YouTube.

Carmen and her husband, actor Aden Young, returned to Sydney from LA with their two sons, just as the pandemic was ramping up in May 2020. Since her return, she has written a memoir, Lovers Dreamers Fighters. The book was sparked by an essay she wrote for Vogue a while ago about her Grandmother Pat’s silver lamé bikini.

After the essay, Harper Collins reached out to her about publishing a book. She wasn’t ready. But when she came back from the US, she opened her storage boxes and the memorabilia within started her thinking about the incredible women she had met or been influenced by throughout her life. She approached the publisher again and they came up with the idea of a memoir interweaved with her influences; stories about women often lost to the patriarchal narrative including Robyn Archer, Renée Geyer, Sallie-Anne Huckstepp and Wendy Saddington.

Carmen writes with an honesty that is rare, her heart on her sleeve, beating with life and love. As the dust jacket declares, this is “a love story about songs, secret histories and self-invention”. Her highly personal anecdotes are told with affection and humility. Despite earning a modicum of fame over the years, she is down to earth, perhaps due to having to “hustle” to carve out her musical career.

The cover of Lovers Fighters Dreamers by Lo Carmen, out now through Harper Collins. Photo: supplied.

The book begins as a memoir, picking up her life from the age of thirteen when she moved to Kings Cross, and segues into an exploration of the life of sex worker, writer and whistleblower Sallie-Anne Huckstepp, who she played in the 1995 docudrama Blue Murder and whose story really got under her skin.

“I can’t imagine how brave you would have to be to be so marginalised, as a druggie, as a useless member of society and then just to be that brave and take that one chance [you’ve] got and do something impactful with it,” Carmen tells The Sentinel.

“I hate that she’s not been recognised for that. It really upsets me”.

Perhaps her tribute will help raise awareness about the bravery of Huckstepp, whose 1986 murder after speaking out about police corruption, remains unsolved.

Lo Carmen as Sallie-Anne Huckstepp in the 1995 docudrama Blue Murder. Photo: Peoplelikeyou9000/Wikimedia Commons, published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

Throughout the rest of the book, she writes about women who have influenced her over the years, from Robyn Archer to Renée Geyer and Chrissy Amphlett. Whilst living in America she follows the paths of singer-songwriters such as Etta James and Loretta Lynn, comparing their creative practices with her own.

Creative practice is a theme in the book and in her life, with this quote in particular resonating: “There’s not much difference between making dinner and making a record – you just throw your heart and your imagination into it, along with all the best ingredients you can find in the fridge.”

Describing her process, she says: “I feel like I do a tonne of work in my head. I like to work alone. I just like to do it when no one’s around. I do a lot of stuff in the car, on walks and make notes on my phone or sing a song to my phone … I feel like most of it’s internal and then I save it up and most of it comes out in a burst.”

The muse can be a cruel mistress, however, especially when juggling motherhood too. Lo has three children. Her daughter Holiday, who she gave birth to when she was nineteen, is now a pop singer. Her two sons with Aden are still at school.

Lo Carmen (right) with daughter Holiday. Photo: Skeet Booth/supplied.

“It would be amazing to see what would happen if there was a lesser load on women,” Carmen says, as we talk about how different it could be for women in the arts if childcare was free or more accessible, especially for those who work outside office hours like her.

“Every time I get a gig I have to weigh up does it make sense – once I pay the babysitter and the Uber, this gig is only going to cost me fifty bucks,” she says.

This doesn’t deter her from continuing to create music and pay tribute to those she admires. She writes about Wendy Saddington, who was a female rock’n’roll pioneer and has largely been left out of the history books and halls of fame. Saddington was also an underground queer icon. As Carmen describes, “She chose the path less travelled.”

Carmen first heard Saddington sing as a baby and her family life was entwined with Saddington’s throughout her life. Carmen; her father, musician Peter Head; and a few other friends are paying tribute to Wendy’s legacy for at an event called ‘A Wendy Saddington Appreciation Society Happening’, to be held on Sunday, 6 March at the East Sydney Community and Arts Centre, as part of this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival.

Wendy Saddington performing with Morris Spinetti and Doris Fish from Sylvia and the Synthetics. Photo: Philip Morris/Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

I get the feeling Lovers Dreamers Fighters won’t be Carmen’s only book. She shares with me that she also wrote some scripts in LA and might pull them out when the time is right. She writes as she lives, fearlessly and on her own terms.  

She tells me she’s on Substack, where I can read her other writing. I subscribe as soon as our Zoom ends, because the teenage girl inside me is still fangirling on Lo Carmen – and I imagine always will.

Lovers Dreamers Fighters by Lo Carmen is published by Harper Collins.

Sunny Grace is a Sydney writer, producer and director. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.

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