VH World: Shantel Wetherall
Meet Shantel Wetherall, Shantel is a Melbourne culture writer, presenter and maker, with written work featured in The Guardian Australia, SBS, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and a current Monday night spot on 3RRR 102.7FM hosting Highly Melanated from 10pm–12am. Passionate about disrupting the status quo and sharing untold stories, she produces and hosts Hey Aunty! Podcast. Shantel is of Belizean/British heritage and lives as a grateful guest on Kulin land.
We sat down with Shantel and her gorgeous chocolate labradoodle Barkley over Zoom and had an hour-long discussion about her podcast Hey Aunty!, virtuous cycles, work/life balance and the power of Black women. Get comfy, it’s a long one, but well worth delving into, because there’s so much to take from this incredible conversation.
Your podcast Hey Aunty! focuses on “fireside chats”, have you always been interested in storytelling?
I have always been fascinated with people and what makes them tick… and I think that came from, when I was three and moved over from Belize to the UK because my stepfather was in the airforce. It meant that I’ve always been a little bit of an outsider everywhere that I’ve ever been in my life. And that’s been an adventure, but it also gives you this slightly different perspective. It gives you the position of the “observer” in things, and so I’ve always kind of had this slight separation from things, and observed people and am fascinated by them. I just get absolutely engrossed in people’s stories and their motivations and I want them to win. There’s something incredibly essential about the transaction of sharing your story with somebody.
I went to law school and in my final year I had this lovely mentor, who was a lawyer at a big consulting organisation. Because I was a uni student living on canned tomatoes and pasta, he used to take me out for these lovely lunches. And I think he was building up to tell me—or just to suggest to me—that I should think of careers outside of legal practise. He sensed that I don’t have the kind of killer instinct, or that win-lose mentality that might be necessary.
I’m not a competitive person at all, I love a win-win. I look for win-wins all the time, and I find it deeply satisfying in finding situations that are mutually beneficial; virtuous cycles where you do a good thing, and it triggers another good thing. Exchanging stories with people is one of those virtuous cycles; everybody benefits, but then that benefit is compounded, because it gets pushed out into the next person you interact with.
I actually think it’s quite subversive because capitalism, the patriarchy, and all of that stuff we try to lean into teaches us that the world is win-lose and things like storytelling are ways that we can be reminded that the world is actually full of win-wins and full of ecosystems and opportunities for virtuous cycles and mutually beneficial exchange and that’s what I love about it.
Was there a defining moment that lead you to start your own podcast?
I used to joke to people that I was “touched by the power of Solange and never looked back”, but it was the way I connected with her A Seat At The Table album.
I’ve always been fascinated by people and storytelling, and I love podcasts and radio. I collect vintage radios. And I think that’s also connected to my whole being an “outsider kid” thing, that radio is company when you’re lonely. So I love radio and I listen to radio constantly. And podcasts came into my life and I adored them.
Everybody’s podcast gateway is This American Life, everybody’s, and I adored it too, but—and it’s getting better now—but they don’t tell stories like mine very much. I didn’t recognise myself. I love the podcast medium, but I didn’t recognise myself in the medium. And I listened to The Read, and I listened to amazing Black American podcasts and I adore them and there is a part of me that resonates with them, but I still didn’t recognise myself. And I still didn’t feel like I could fully relate.
And then I listened to the Solange album, A Seat At The Table, and it’s so interesting the dynamic with her and Beyonce. Both queens, but Solange has always cut her own path. And what she was doing at first when she cut her own hair off and she did “The Big Chop,” it was very counter-cultural, and it wasn’t the sort of thing that was welcomed or supported. There was definitely a lot of people who were like “she’s the crazy Knowles!”. And then she brought out A Seat At The Table, and that album was a revelation. And I felt really seen by that album, in a way that I didn’t necessary identify with a lot of other art—even by Black artists—because, you know, Black American culture is so dominant. And I think it’s because there was so much vulnerability in it, and it’s so complex, it’s not her just being incredibly triumphant and strong and fantastic.
I’m sitting here already and I’m thinking of difficult situations that I was in, or long drives that I had to do, where I’ve put that album on and it’s really done a lot for me. And I just realised that cutting your own path and making something that feels really true to you could actually be very healing for you in itself and you could see that in her—she was really at the height of her powers—and that inspired me, I was just like, “make it for you, make it for you”. If you think there is a space, if there’s something you’re looking for, and you need it, your soul needs it, make it for you. But then, also I thought, maybe someone else will have that moment that you had in the car when you put that album on.
And the reason I say “touched by Solange” is because I went to the [Audiocraft podcast festival], and I was surrounded by this incredible community of super supportive Black women, and they were all so encouraging. So I was already like “okay maybe this idea is actually going to become a thing”, but then I went to see Solange because that [night] she was performing at the Opera House.
So… she was performing one of my favourite songs—and every time she did this song, she would go into the crowd and hold somebody’s hand and sing with them. I was behind the the stage because I’d bought the cheapest ticket they had. I had no money! I’d just been made redundant from my job, I really had no business being in Sydney, but I just thought “buy the cheapest ticket, just be in the room!”
So I was sitting behind the stage, and she’s singing this song, she’s right at the front of the stage and everyone’s singing and dancing—I’m singing every word to the song—and she’s walking towards me and she’s made eye contact with me, and I’m like “Solange just made eye contact with me! She knows I exist!” And there was this beautiful energetic exchange going on in the room where there’s so many Black people and people of colour in the room and there was a “thank you” happening, there was a virtuous cycle happening in the room. It was electric, you could feel it. We were not receiving, we were exchanging.
And she kept walking, and you could tell at that point she was singing with me, and she ended up kneeling on the edge of the stage, reaching over and holding my hand, and singing a whole verse and a chorus with me, with her back turned to the whole Sydney Opera House. It was the biggest affirmation that you could ever have.
And when she went away and all my friends in the Opera House started buzzing my phone and I was floating back down to earth, I just thought “what do you make of a moment like that?” And what I took away from it was, “make your art. It’s important, it touches people, it changes their lives. This person changed your life, the best way you can respect that and honour that is to make your art in your own humble way and try to pass it on, pay it forward”. And that’s why I usually say “touched by the power of Solange”.
Whats your favourite thing about creating Hey Aunty!?
Women are amazing. Black women are amazing. My byline is that I’m an "analytical people person,” but I was writing something funny for [a publication] and I changed my byline to “Shantel Wetherall is a Black woman evangelist.”
And it was only 50% a joke, because I think that historically, culturally, we have had to hide our light under a bushel—literally to save our lives—for so long, that the recognition is not there of Black women. And the incredible complexity and generosity, and diversity and brilliance and tenderness and kindness [of Black women].
So obviously I like people, else I wouldn’t invite them on the podcast, but every single person I’ve spoken with—on the podcast, on the live show, every listener I’ve interacted with—they’ve all blown my mind. Everyone who I thought was brilliant, there is not a word yet invented to describe the depth and multifaceted complexity of their brilliance. And what a joy to get to even just share the time with them myself.
One of the things I have learned as a person coming to creativity late, is that you have to have your own metrics of success, you have to understand when something is “done", and when something feels good and finished. I didn’t go to any art school, I don’t have any proper craft or skills, and so for me, what I have gotten out of making Hey Aunty! is that the conversation is the goal. And it’s finished when I’ve had the conversation. I want to create a space for that woman to inhabit a part of herself that she might not have an opportunity to inhabit everyday, and I want to witness that, and affirm that. And if that interaction goes beautifully, for me, it’s finished. Everything else is icing and toasted coconuts and a cherry and a sprig of mint on top.
And your least favourite thing?
I love and hate editing. And I have had opportunities to work with incredible producers who’ve supported me and I could have handed it all over, I could have given them the interview and said “it’s done.” A lot of podcasts do that—most podcasts do that once they get to any sort of opportunity. It’s not usual for the same person to do the making, then the editing and the production.
But for me, I think it’s such an honour to thread together a story. It’s like a field full of incredible blooms, and I have to pick a bouquet out of that. So it is both agonisingly difficult and an incredible delight and privilege. I spend far too long on the edit because of that. The whole “kill your darlings” thing? I can’t kill my darlings I love them all too much. So it’s agony and I’m up at 3am doing it, but it’s a privilege and I would never not want to do it.
Between full-time work, podcasting and your freelance writing, you are doing so much! How do you find the time to do it all?
I think the secret is, spend 30 years of your life committing yourself wholeheartedly to things that are not your passion, that do not feed your soul, and then when you think that the opportunity has passed you by, discover an outlet that is literally pure joy incarnate for you.
I don’t want to be a negative person, I don’t like to look back with regret, but I’ve come to this so late, that I don’t want to waste a week of not writing something or not having a conversation.
One thing I would say to everyone—I know it’s a privilege to some extent, but also—you have to ask for what you want and need or else you’ll never get it. A lot of us go “I couldn’t do that” or “I can’t have that” and then we get lost in a world of feeling sad and embittered about that, but “have you ever asked?” Is my retort, “have you ever asked?”.
So when I got my job, I also asked for flexibility. I work full time, but I have flexibility. I don’t work on Mondays now, and I condense all my hours into Tuesday–Friday. Which means that I work really long days, but it means that I get Monday for my creative work. And the trade off is worth it, for me.
And another thing—which, I don’t want to be that person who bangs on about it, but I’m also not embarrassed about it either—I don’t drink anymore. And that was for a multitude of reasons, but the most important reason why I chose to not drink was because I don’t want to wake up sub-par. I spend most of my life at work, and so the smaller portion of my time that is available for the things that I love, I don’t want to be working at 60% or 50% in that time. I want to give the best me to the things that I love. So I have no space for alcohol in my life because I have no space for hangovers in my life.
Favourite podcast ever is Still Processing from New York Times, with Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris... Tender, intelligent, funny, everything.
I’ve just started reading Talkin' Up To The White Woman by Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson and I think I’d recommend it. It’s great already, but I’d also recommend it because we have to remember that we don’t have to start from scratch. There are elders in these movements who have laid down tracks, so let’s learn from the titans of these wonderful movements, and also, let’s look at things from an Australian perspective, as well, because it’s really easy to get sucked into what’s going on in the world. So let’s bring the conversations close to home, and let’s listen to the people who have been doing this work for 30, 40, 50 years.
I am obsessed with a group called SAULT, and they have the most amazing song I have been rinsing, it’s called I Just Want to Dance. I challenge you to put that song on and not move your body. It’s impossible.
I know you’re a big theatre fan, so fave musical?
I think my favourite would have to be something like Evita, with all the big dramatic songs. I love it. I love a daggy musical.