We had a yarn with Archie Roach ahead of his Live at the Bowl show.
Warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: The following story contains mention of deceased persons.
There’s a story Archie Roach tells about his beloved late wife Ruby Hunter. After Roach voiced his reservations about recording what would become his multiple-ARIA-award-winning, Gold-certified debut solo album Charcoal Lane, Hunter reportedly put her hands on her hips and eyeballed the Gunditjmara and Bundjalung man before teasing, “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach!”
When reminded of this quote, Roach chuckles fondly before admitting, “That particular quote just never leaves you and it always reminds you that it’s not entirely about yourself: it’s about a collective, it’s about everybody. And in a few words like that she just said so much, you know? And I understood exactly what she was talking about, yeah.”
A musical storyteller and Stolen Generations survivor, Archie Roach AM celebrated 30 years since the release of Charcoal Lane last year by recording new versions of the songs in his kitchen, in Gunditjmara country down at Killarney in southwest Victoria, during lockdown.
“It was a great experience. It’s a good way to record, actually,” Roach extols of his iso project, The Songs Of Charcoal Lane. “I had a mic set up at my kitchen table, the guitarist Steve Magnusson was set up in the same room – and the double bass player, Sam [Anning], too. So it was all in one room and the sound engineer [Hadyn Buxton] was using the counter that I have in the kitchen.”
Roach estimates the album took “three, four days” to record. Of the ten songs on The Songs Of Charcoal Lane, Roach reveals, “Some I still sing but some I don’t, so it’s like the songs have grown through the years – as I’ve grown, of course – and it’s just like catching up with old friends, you know? The songs were just new when I recorded Charcoal Lane and you have a better idea of what the song’s about now, so I know how they should be interpreted.
“And plus, I suppose I had a bit more of a say and more control this time – along with the two musicians as well – where I left it up to [Charcoal Lane producers] Paul Kelly and the late, great Steve Connolly 30 years ago.”
Roach’s signature song ‘Took The Children Away’ won an international Human Rights Achievement Award, a first for any songwriter. This was the song Roach sang at the 2020 ARIA Awards, during which he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and – not that we would’ve thought this were possible – but the reimagined version on The Songs Of Charcoal Lane is even more gut-wrenching somehow.
It’s that closing line, “Yes, I came back” which emphasises the autobiographical nature of ‘Took The Children Away’, that destroys us every single time.
“I’m just singing about what happened to a lot of children and I say at the end, ‘Yes, I came back’ just, I suppose, to emphasise that I was part of that Stolen Generation as well,” he tells.
“But I made it back, which was good. And unfortunately, some didn’t. I think about it a lot when I sing it – I perform it quite a bit, that song – and I think each time I sing it, when I sing that [line] at the end, I know it makes me feel better; it’s like redemption you know?”
The video package that aired ahead of Roach’s ARIA Hall of Fame induction, to celebrate his extraordinary life and list of achievements to date, was absolutely phenomenal. We can’t help but wonder how Roach felt watching it.
“It just seemed surreal,” he allows. “Sometimes you get a little self-conscious because, you know, I’ll see a montage or summary of someone else’s life’s work and I’ll think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty deadly. That’s really good’ and then when it comes to yourself – I dunno, it almost feels like you’re looking at someone else’s life.”
He also took home the ARIA Awards for Best Male Artist and Best Adult Contemporary Album (Tell Me Why) on the night and admits, “I didn’t expect that at all!”
Tell Me Why, Roach’s 2019 album, is actually a companion piece to his memoir of the same name. On how he found the process of writing this memoir, Roach offers, “I think writing prose is a lot different – it’s not like writing a song; you don’t have music or any instruments or a melody to act as a buffer, I suppose, for some of the things that you’re dealing with or talking about.
“So it’s pretty stark, you know, when you’re looking at it on a page, and you wish there was some music and a melody there just to soften it a little bit – some areas of the book, anyway.
“There’s some things in the book that I never talked about on stage and in my music, but I was able to do that there because it was, I dunno, a different mode of expression than songwriting or music. So I suppose it took you into those places where you could talk about it and I think it was about time that I did talk about some things, which I didn’t really want to talk about much when I was performing on stage, yeah.
“Once I got certain things out of me – like when I tried to do away with myself and that – it was really, really healing, because I’ve never talked about that to many people. So to put it in the book was, I suppose, baring that part of my soul.
But sometimes you need to do that to heal and so it was healing in that sense as well, to finally get it out. Sometimes you need to get things off your chest to help deal with it.”
While writing the book, Roach travelled to some of the significant geographical locations that shaped his remarkable odyssey: “There were some bad episodes, but there were some good ones, too – and happy ones – so it was certainly great to revisit those places.”
He also checked in with family to make sure his memory served him correctly: “I went and talked to my older sister Myrtle, just to make sure we got some things right; stories that were told to me. And I found out that they weren’t true – she set the record straight – so that was good to be able to get confirmation.”
As well as 11 reimagined versions of songs that have defined Roach’s career, Tell Me Why also contains songs that were written and never recorded, songs of early influence and some brand new recordings.
Standout track ‘Rally Round The Drum’, a Kelly/Roach co-write, features on the Hidden Things album by Paul Kelly & The Messengers and Roach confirms of this new version on Tell Me Why, “That was the first time we actually sang it together, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, it’s taken us all these years to actually sit down and sing this song together!’ And it made complete sense, listening to it again.
“Because although lyrically it was Paul’s work, I suppose spiritually – or in the sense of the story – it was my story, yeah: the story of when I was with the boxing tent.”
Roach also included a Hank Williams song, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, on Tell Me Why. On when he would have first heard this song, Roach muses, “Oh, God, that’s a hard question. It was back in the day, you know, back in the drinking days where most days were clouded by that alcoholic haze that I was in. But it was a long time ago, yeah.
“I didn’t listen to much country music when I was with my foster parents, but when I came back into the community – the Aboriginal community, in particular – that’s all they’d listen to and all they played. And Hank Williams is one of my favourites, because he’s not just a great singer but he was a great songwriter, I believe, as well.”
After his Tell Me Why – The Final Round tour dates were rescheduled due to COVID-19, Roach is now all set to perform at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl as part of the successful Live at the Bowl series.
“There’s something about that place, it’s pretty iconic,” Roach enthuses of Sidney Myer Music Bowl.
“There’s some great theatres around the country that I enjoy playing in, but the Bowl – that’s one of the places I like to play, yeah.”
Archie Roach performs as part of Art Centre Melbourne’s Live At The Bowl series on Friday February 19. Grab your tickets here.
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