Light and strength (and beer and love) [November 4]
Musicians Simon Walkenhorst and Beth Williams run the Hargreaves Hill Brewery Company and Restaurant in the Yarra Valley. Simon is a classical and jazz pianist and Beth is an opera singer and songwriter who records under the name ‘Lumie Stark’.
Beth: When I was 21 my singing teacher suggested I contact a jazz pianist called Simon to try and get some work. I drove to his house and this 19 year-old kid auditioned me to see if I was worth playing for. We went to see lots of music together and eventually he said, ‘Is this a relationship?’ I said ‘Hell no, you’re just a baby!’ Then one night we were at a wine bar and he leaned forward at the table and I looked at him properly, without worrying about his age, and just fell into his eyes. I could never get out after that. Simon always seemed older than his years when he was immersed in music. I think that’s what I fell in love with. He was able to make people feel the world through his soul.
We did a few gigs together then one night I was sick and he replaced me with his friend on sax. After that I was ‘sacked’. It was torture at the time but it was probably good in the long term.
Before our first son was born I was doing my PhD and singing in the Victorian Opera chorus and Simon was teaching piano in schools. He was getting frustrated and said ‘If this is what life is going to be like for the next 40 years I’ll die’. A friend’s husband introduced us to home brewing and the penny dropped for Simon. There were very few microbreweries around at that stage. We set up the brewery at my parents’ farm at Steele’s Creek and later we took over the restaurant at Yarra Glen.
On Black Saturday I’d taken our three kids to Simon’s parents place in Ringwood. I called the farm and Mum answered and said ‘The house is on fire and brewery is gone!’ That was the last I heard from them for ten hours. Simon was running the restaurant that day and Yarra Glen was like a blockade. Lots of our friends from Steele’s Creek came in and sat around not knowing what to do. Simon took them home and gave them somewhere to sleep for the night.
My parents stayed to fight the fire but their house burnt to the ground. When I first saw them they had these horrible grins – faces of horror. We couldn’t get them to leave the farm and for a while they lived in the greenhouse. Simon was getting a bit traumatised at that stage. People’s fuses are much shorter when they’re really stressed. I said ‘Let’s ring Red Hill brewery, ask if they’ll let us brew there’. You don’t expect other businesses to come to your aid. But they said ‘Sure thing’. We had put everything on the line for this young business. We’d just opened the restaurant and had a very poor winter with the GFC. It was hell.
Six months later we mortgaged ourselves to the eyeballs and established a new brewery in Lilydale. It took my parents three years to begin to smile again. We all drank more than we should have, for a while.
In 2011 we could almost see the light at the end of the tunnel, then Simon was diagnosed with cancer of the uvula. The next few months were a tunnel of horror, with surgery then radiotherapy. They wanted to save his taste buds if they could. He insisted on doing it by all by himself because he didn’t want me to see him suffering. But he had a pretty massive breakdown. It was ages before he was able to seek help. He went into a period of immersing himself in books about mindfulness. Since then he’s been on relentless mission to change his way of thinking.
I was offended at first when Simon didn’t want to be involved with ‘Lumie Stark’, but I think he did it to protect me, because of the cancer. He thought he might not be around to participate. When I was looking for a recording name I discovered there’s a porn star called Beth Williams so I decided on a quirky name that no one else had. ‘Lumie’ from illumination and ‘Stark’ means strong in German. Light and strength.
Simon: When Beth rocked up at my house one day she’d been working in the vineyards. It was the end of summer and she was all bronzed. I was pretty excited by her. She had written these songs that didn’t fit into any particular form so it was a bit of a challenge. She had no formal skills as a musician but her voice had a dark timbre I hadn’t heard before. I thought there may be something there as a classical singer. I can be a hard person to work with because of my lack of diplomacy. I had to be so accurate as a soloist but when I was accompanying these bloody singers they were taking massive liberties with the notes.
Music is a really demanding place. You spend every waking moment chasing it. Brewing started out for me as a diversion that felt mentally healthy. We were brewing one batch a week, selling that and repeating it. We’ve never been a big business, just tried to brew beer made from good ingredients and brewed well.
There was a café here in Yarra Glen we sold beer to but the bills were being paid slower and slower. Then we found the business was for sale. Beth had worked in hospitality at De Bortolis winery and it’s something she’s good at. I’m the pragmatic guy who says no to lots of things and she dreams up crazy ideas for us to try. So we became accidental restauranteurs. If you come in here on a Sunday Beth’s got people lined up at the bar and she’s got all the kids out the back doing craft activities. Because it’s a small family business she does everything from taking bookings to cooking steaks to running the floor. I just keep an eye on the books.
The biggest impact for us with the Black Saturday bush fires was watching Beth’s parents go through it all. When we lost contact with them we didn’t know if they were alive or dead. I snuck in a back road on Sunday morning and found that everybody was okay. Beth’s mum’s shoes had melted. After they lost the house they’d grabbed a bottle out of the cellar, sat in a paddock and drank wine all night.
Following the cancer diagnosis I didn’t have any way to cope with the idea of impending death. I remember pulling up outside the restaurant and seeing my kids at the end of the street and it was like watching them live without me. I completely broke down. Then I spoke to a lady who was a breast cancer survivor and she said ‘One day you’ll be able to help someone else with their illness’. She spurred me on to find a level of mental fortitude rather than wallowing in this stagnant self-pity.
I try to find more enjoyment in life now rather than obsessing about keeping up appearances. Beth’s enjoying recording her songs and we’re travelling overseas every year. Beth has this massive capacity for humanity. Everybody comes before Beth, in her mind. That’s something to aspire to.