Review for Rhythms Magazine
The so-called popular music industry can be a cruel beast. Artists, often in their creative prime, get chewed up and spat out at a gobsmacking rate and, usually, at a relatively scary young age. Indigenous artists have additional hurdles to leap. The music industry has often described its rationale as ‘throwing music against the wall to see if it sticks’. Rhythms readers, being musically educated and amazingly discerning, know that there is another musical world where artists thrive and longevity is seen as a positive. Archie Roach, undoubtably our best-known indigenous singer, released his landmark Charcoal Road twenty-two years ago when he was 36, and the young man sketched on that album cover is now hurtling towards his 60th birthday. His new album Into The Bloodstream is testimony to his creative spirit, determination and knack for adventurous collaborations.
I caught up with Archie Roach in October after he had performed at Uluru for the 30th anniversary celebration concert of Shane Howard’s Solid Rock. I wanted to know how he has been traveling over the past few years where he has had to contend with the loss of his partner and soulmate, Ruby Hunter, and a string of medical nightmares including a stroke and the loss of a chunk of his lung. I wanted to put his state of mind alongside the new collection of songs which are, surprisingly, remarkably positive and joyous. I asked him how important the songwriting and recording experience was to his personal healing.
“It was vitally important for me as a songwriter and person. Into The Bloodstream is an album of songs that I really didn’t believe I was going to make. That was it, I thought I had lost my creative spirit. Ruby was always my sounding board and I did know if my songs were good enough or if I could do anything with them. In the old days we used to sit around the kitchen table and swap songs. Ruby encouraged me and steered me in the right musical directions. I had some songs, and some half written songs, and needed someone to bounce ideas off. I was also unsure of my voice after losing part of my ‘engine room’.”
The missing link proved to be musician, producer and Audrey Studios principle, Craig Pilkington. Craig also recorded Kutcha Edwards album which I was slated to review for the magazine so I hunted him down for a few comments on both projects. I knew his name from various sleeve notes but had forgotten our paths had crossed before and he reminded me I had released an album of his band, The Killjoys, on my Larrikin label in 1998. The album, which by the way, was really good, was a final nomination for an ARIA – ‘Best Adult Contemporary’ – but lost out to Archie Roach’s Looking For Butterboy. As Craig observed, “the planets keep aligning!”
Archie spoke genuinely about Craig’s role in making his music come together and, in some ways, opening doors to his healing. “We tossed the songs around and he had the vision to make it all happen. He brought me back and gave the songs the life that I had in my head. He is really good like that, good with arranging musicians and in getting the right sound to carry my songs. Sometimes I find it confusing even to prepare a performance gig list – the order song should fall, but he does it so naturally.” Craig identified that Archie’s songs were “a combination of messages, philosophies and stories that leant themselves to a gospel/soul treatment so it was obvious we needed a large Hammond organ-led ensemble that could be powerful and majestic as well as joyous and dancing, and we needed a big choir.”
Archie Roach’s music has evolved into something that salutes several genres – gospel, blues, country rock and folk – but above all has retained the singer’s own voice. Archie freely admits that as he has grown older so has his respect for music. “I like nearly all music and, as a songwriter and singer, and after recording the new album, I am feeling more confident, stronger. I think I can take any musical road ahead, I don’t feel restrained or restricted.” Well, Archie certainly doesn’t sound restricted on this album. At several points his voice soars upwards and drops to what could only be called a growl reminiscent of Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway. I asked Archie where that growl came from – “I don’t know, it was something that came to me recently, it’s just there and, I admit, it is a bit menacing.” Craig went deeper, “Archie was amazing how he explored new areas in his vocal expression and range. Having half a lung removed changed things physically, and he used that to his benefit rather than let it limit him. We always had an oxygen tank close by, but I reckon he sang higher and lower than he ever has.”
Storytelling in song is something Rhythms readers know about and Archie’s songs on this album are solid stories. As an indigenous artist he is part of an age-old tradition of storytelling that, as he says, “I grew up with stories even today and one of my greatest pleasures is to sit down and have a good yarn.” These are Australian stories too and, to his credit, he hasn’t allowed his songwriting to slip into the darkness of his recent years. He has also successfully avoided Americanisms in either words or styles. We discussed how many local contemporary singers, especially country artists, have allowed themselves to endorse Americana. “I hate people singing toons instead of tunes. I could go on but you can hear our language disappearing in so many singers. It doesn’t make sense not to sing in the way we speak here.”
One of my favourite tracks on the album, and there are many, is ‘Big Black Train’ which rolls along, complete with a ‘chug-a-lug’ railway rhythm, from the very first bars from Craig Pilkington’s Hammond organ through to the swinging vocals by the Indigenous Choir. Borrowing ideas from This Train Is Bound For Glory it effectively advises listeners not to get on board –
This train’s not bound for glory, this train
This train’s not bound for glory, this train
No, this train’s not bound for glory, taking only the unholy
This train, this train, this train.
The Indigenous Choir is something very special. As indigenous Australia has been finding its voice this one was all about time and it was worth the wait. Next stop should be an album featuring this choir. Space precludes me from naming them all but the 19 voices reinforce the songs with definite joy and add a great contrast to Archie’s lead vocals. Craig, who recorded the choir at St. Brigid’s hall at Crossley, an old church owned by the community, explained how he recorded these tracks, especially ‘Song to Sing’ and ‘Top Of The Hill’. ‘At Audrey Studios we always try and create a space in our recordings and you can hear this ‘room’ in the way we physically recorded Archie and the choir. We wanted to make a big statement with Archie’s messages and the choral and string arrangements helped give us a dramatic power where we needed to be big but not necessarily loud.”
Of the dozen songs in this collection all but two were written by Archie. Of the two remaining he co-wrote ‘’We Won’t Cry’ with Paul Kelly (who sings on the track) and the other, ‘I’m On Your Side’ is a Paul and Dan Kelly song. In talking to Archie about songwriting we discussed the way traditional songmen like the Kimberley’s Nyalgodi ‘Scotty’ Martin receive songs from their dreaming. I asked whether he thought he was part of this tradition? In his song ‘Mulyawongk’ he addresses Ruby Hunter in a beautifully uplifting lament. “The song came from the river and Aboriginal people say their ancestors live in the river. It is a powerful totem. I hope my song possesses some of this magic.”
‘Heal The People’ and ‘Wash My Soul In The River’s Flow’ are two aspirational song from the album. They are aspirational but not in a naif happy-clappy way. Both offer the simple message that we all have a responsibility to care for the land. Archie’s straight-forward comment is “If the rivers are doing okay then our society will do okay as well.”
While I had the chance of yarning to Archie I wanted to ask a couple of questions that these sort of interviews usually follow.
W: Who are your musical heroes?
A: Paul Simon. When he was touring Australia with his Gracelands concert I met him backstage at the Melbourne Concert Hall and he asked if he could visit my home. He came for two days. We swapped songs and he visited the local community. It was a big thrill as I’d always liked his music. Then there’s Paul Kelly, Mahalia Jackson and soul singers like Sam Cook and Al Green.
W: What about non-music heroes?
A: My foster father Alexander Cox, Uncle Banjo and my big brother, Johnny Roach.
W: When you have switched off, want to relax and dream, what music do you listen to?
(I’d love to see the faces of Rhythm readers as they digest this response)
A: Bagpipe music! I have always loved Scottish music, especially the pipes. It is something I inherited from my father who was a Scot. I still like ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, ‘The Rowan Tree’ and songs like ‘The Scottish Soldier’. I used to sing these with my father – even the gaelic bits.
This is a very satisfying album from one of our national treasures. The next step is the roll out of the live show. It will be a “big show” primarily for festivals and major concert halls. With 24 people on stage, including the Indigenous Choir, and a creative visual component, it will showcase the album’s arrangements. Whether bagpipes will feature is yet unknown.