Through songs like ‘From Little Things Grow’, ‘Cannot Buy My Soul’ and ‘River of Tears’, Kev Carmody has earned a legendary status and made a deep and indelible mark on music and the shared historical understanding of this country. Now he is hitting the road to tour an epic collection of 41 previously unrecorded songs, going back to 1967 titled Recollections… Reflections… (A Journey), a four CD Deluxe Box Set. Les Thomas caught up with Kev Carmody for a wide-ranging discussion on the personal, the musical and the political.
I’ve been really getting a lot out of your amazing new release, which includes 41 songs going all the way back to 1967, is that right?
Yeah. I suppose it’s a long flaming journey and some of them are written on the spot, but it’s a fair spread, Les, isn’t it?
I’ve been trying to think about how it all sits for me and I spotted an article talking about the Japanese art of Kintsugi, were gold is used to repair broken vases. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that, but your work on this collection has you kind of highlighting imperfections and history in an amazing way. For me it brings a lot home.
I tell you what, I think that’s about the best description I’ve heard. You put your finger on it, because one of the really hard parts of the whole thing was trying to get a running order. With 41 songs with different themes and different focusses, trying to get the whole lot so it makes sense, so that it’s not spliced and it’s still connected through, that’s a damn good flaming description. You should be doing the reviews, mate. [Laughs]
I just hope people take the time to really get what’s going on, because you’ve got a lot of things that bind it together. Having an Aboriginal, Irish and other family myself—
What part of the actual country were you raised in down there?
I’ve always lived within the Kulin Nation on either Wurundjeri or Boon Wurrung land.
Holy mackerel! So what was your nearest big town?
In Melbourne. It’s pretty much ground zero down here.
OK, geez, you’ve got the whole of that saltwater mob in your blood! [slight digression ed.]
Well, the other thing with that record, too, was not to have a drum kit, not to have a bass guitar and just do it with stuff that we found around the shed, recording birds and dogs and stuff like that. And the other thing is to record one take,to just walk in and just whack it down like you’re improvising most of the time. I said I wanted it to sound like an empty B-double cattle truck travelling from Bulya to Broome across the Tanami Desert.
Well I think you got it in one. And the way you deliver every word on this album, it sounds like you’re up close and personal and you’re doing it in a way that’s really open. There’s no hesitation in the voice. It’s a direct whispering in the ear kind of thing. How long did it take in all and what was it like working with [producer and engineer] Andy Wilmot?
Yes, Andy’s got a place about 20 minutes away in the bush there. It’s an old, disused fruit packing shed. It’s got that beautiful thick wall of insulation made out of straw. They couldn’t get insulation after the Second World War so they bound all the grass together with wire and stuck it in the walls. Crikey, it’d be at least 20–30 centimetres thick and then put tar over it and it’s just got a great sound.
And we’d only do eight hours of recording max, a week, cos Andy teaches drums and stuff like that and he’s working with the youth around this area. So we just tapped along. We’d start a bit of a song and then go into another one. We just took our flaming time.
And you’re exploring both sides of the family tree in a big way here. I guess there’s strong reasons why there’s a strong Irish and Indigenous link in this country.
That was, again, a spontaneous, unplanned part of the recording. This Irish film crew came over and they were documenting that connection from Ireland to Australia through music and looking at how, once the Irish went up the economic ladder, they, in a sense, became the oppressors. When you look at Ned Kelly, his judge was Irish and his hangman was Irish.
Yes, that’s true. Redmond Barry [presided over the Kelly trial].
The funny part was, when they left, this chap said “Look, I do poetry. Would you mind just putting the didge to it?” And we were filming in Andy’s studio and I just pulled the didge out and said to Andy “Just roll the tape” and this fella did the poetry over it, then he did it in Gaelic and I just thought he was the emcee, but when he left, they left a beautiful coloured brochure on the desk and I read it and found out that he’s Louis de Paor; he’s one of the biggest performance poets in Ireland and, not only that, he’s a doctor and the director of Irish dance and music at the University of Galway. [Laughs] And I put that on the album because the words are fantastic and he’s looking from the outside in. And he lived over here for a fair while too.
Yes. He sounds like he’s speaking with a fair bit of insight, right there. And what strikes me about the sort of people that you list as influences is it seems you’ve always had a very open mind to whatever grabs you. There’s a real depth and range to your list of inspirations.
Oh well, you can’t rush an old rooster or go messing with a fussy hen. [Laughter] A young Murri fella up here was really interested in photography and filming, young Josh, and we got him over and documented how the music was made. So the ABC are going to put on a half-hour doco this year. So it’s just natural to say when the kids are pushing the chooks around, you can’t rush them. Just like consumerism is so full on with acceleration to keep you consuming and they’re rushing us from one chook yard to the other, different brands and stuff like that. And as you get older you sit back and think, ‘Nah, look I’m not falling for the new iPhones.’
What I hear is a bit of defiance, which you need if you’re trying to resist this sound grab culture where a lot of communication of social media uses 64 characters or less. Were you going out of your way to make a statement with this long release or is this the way you like to do your thing?
Well the family was saying “You’ve got all these flaming songs you’ve never recorded and a lot of them are history about your early life. You’d better get em down”. We had to actually stop. There’s heaps of stuff that never made the albums and i just had to say to Andy “Look, four CDs is enough. They’ve gotta get their head around one CD, let alone four”. As Paul Kelly said, he’s been listening to it for four weeks now and he’s still trying to put to together.
It sounds like Paul [Kelly] gave you a bit of a nudge to get things down as well?
Yeah. Paul and Jim Moginie [guitarist] from Midnight Oil. Jim did a couple of tracks with us. He can play flaming anything. And their interest is from basic folk, acoustic music right through to the heavy metal, punk stuff, but I wanted to keep it basically acoustic to show you can still pull it off with an acoustic guitar.
I’d say this album is really built around your voice and approach. It’s spacious. Lots of soundscapes. And I know you don’t describe yourself as a singer, but I think with the storytelling and delivery, there’s no mistaking who this voice belongs to. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to have been a fly on the wall when you wrote ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ with Paul Kelly.
Again, that just plonked out. No planning. Paul came up with his young son Declan and we took them out to this big waterhole and camped and at nighttime around the fire I pulled out the mandolin and had a little chord progression and he seemed interested. Then I swapped the same chord progression to the banjo and then he picked up the guitar and I said “Look, it’s a pretty boring chord progression, but it’d be great to tell a story over”.
He had this concept initially of a love story along the lines of from this little thing this beautiful love grew is what he was talking about. Then I told him the story from our point of view of what that Gurindji strike meant to us. I remember walking in on a droving camp one night and mum’s got the tucker sorted out on the table. And she says “I just heard on the ABC Radio news that Gurindji mob walked off. And as Blackfellas we said “Holy hell, what’s gonna happen here?”
That was ’66, the year before the Referendum. Anyway, Paul got really interested in the story and lyrically it came out in about 40 minutes or an hour, but the basic thing was there. So it came from a concept of a personal love song to a cultural love song. Well, I reckon it did anyway. [Laughs]
It can work on multiple levels, but I suppose in terms of preserving history it’s an example of a song that’s an actual victory and it’s one that’s travelled far and wide because you guys put it into verse.
And again it’s part of that old oral tradition, Les. I never went to school until I was ten and that oral tradition was really important to us. It was a way of carrying history, events, things that happened, happy things, sad things. Music and song and storytelling … it was so much a part of the Irish culture too. Every culture has it. it’s only over the last 20th Century that they got this concept of copyright and selling music. Everybody own the music before that.
Would you say with the Irish and Indigenous connection, there’s probably less inhibition about addressing political issues as well? What would you say about your experience as someone who’s willing to sing about what you know and have insight into in a world that often tries to look away?
I just sort of do the basics. I’d love people to grab hold of it. Even if you do hip hop or rap or whatever, take the theme and make the song evolve off for the next generation. I’m only throwing the match out in the grass. If you look at the [Cannot Buy My Soul] album Paul Kelly put together with all those great musos, Troy Cassar-Daley, John Butler, Bernard Fanning, Sara Storer and all them. That’s a great way of people possessing the music and making it their own, putting their own words to it while keeping the theme of it. I think it’s great. That way I don’t have to be getting on stage going “jang, jang” and singing karaoke to my own song. [Laughs]
You’ve given permission to a lot of people, I’d say, to start to find out for themselves what’s really going on. I feel like each time the 26th of January rolls around–
Haha! It’s coming up.
There are more people who are more conscious of the contradictions and injustices that still need to be dealt with.
Well that’s right. We’re still an immature, kindergarten nation, Les. Unless we recognise our history. And we’re still not in the constitution. We’ve got a fair way to go yet. And the young ones, they’re the ones to take it a step further.
Now there’s a lot of young people stepping up and talking about Treaty and things that haven’t been raised seriously since the ’80s.
That’s right. Gurindji come, your Mabo come and bang! There’s still all these brick walls that have been built up around the place. And unless they recognise us in the constitution and then with a treaty, they’re still in kindergarten as a nation.
There’s also a lot of different opinions within the community as to whether constitutional recognition is a genuine move. Especially in light of the Stolen Generations apology given that know you can see child removals are at higher levels than ever. I think a lot of people are fed up with hollow gesture politics. That’s why a lot of people are saying “No, we don’t want Recognise. We want to see a treaty.”
Well that’s right and it’s gotta be a consensus from the community. We’ve had enough of bureaucratic lawyers and stuff wording it their way. it’s gotta be a discussion for a fair few years and it’s gotta come from the baseline. That takes a while as you know. You walk into any Murri or Koori meeting [laughs] there’s always opposing opinions, so it’s gotta be thrashed out. Then we present that and they accept it. Not that they present it to us and then we accept it.
Through music, how do you feel that you’ve impact the hearts and minds of the wider community that may not have a firsthand experience or understanding of things?
The thing is, I’ve always recognised the fact that you can’t change a person’s mentality. All you can do is make them aware. Music is one way of doing it. If you put out a PHD thesis, there’s only a very small, select elite who’ll actually discuss it, but if you’ve got it coming out of your car radio in language that people can understand or relate to, in that sense, it’s really positive.
And you’re about to get out there on the road to share some big dates.
Oh God! [laughs] With my wheelchair. I’m gonna get the grandkids to get the Woolworths trolly and push me around. [Laughs] The festivals heard about it and we thought we might as well give it a flaming crack and there’s a fair couple of weeks between each one, so it gives me time for this stupid back and arthritis to settle down.