Icons: Archie Roach
As resilient as they come, singer-songwriter Archie Roach has only been strengthened by the intense hardships in his life. Leading up to a full performance of his latest album at Sydney Festival, he meditates on years past as well as the here and now with MATT SHEA.
Life hasn’t been kind to Archie Roach in recent years. In early 2010, Ruby Hunter, his partner in both music and life, died of a heart attack. Just months later, Roach suffered a stroke that left him unable talk or move his hands, let alone sing and play guitar. Then, in 2011 and in the midst of rehabilitation, he was diagnosed with lung cancer – the cure would involve extensive surgery.
After such a series of setbacks, you could understand an initial reluctance from the Gunditjmara man to return to his craft. And it would have been easy to wallow, to deliver a collection of music that keyed into the pain. Instead, though, Roach surprised listeners by penning his latest album Into the Bloodstream* like a love letter to positivity. It seems to be a running theme of Roach’s life, where darkness and despair often give way to enlightenment, either creative or spiritual. And there’s now a sense about the local music industry that, with *Into the Bloodstream, Roach has finally joined Australian singer-songwriter royalty.
Archie Roach is set to perform Into the Bloodstream* in full at this month’s Sydney Festival along with a 13-piece ensemble and 10-voice choir. In anticipation, he took some time out of his preparations to talk about the past: his connection with the Mooroopna and Framlingham regions of Victoria, the origins of his interest in music, the story behind a Sydney street kid named Phillip Brown and Banjo Clarke’s role in ?Took the Children Away? – Roach’s breakthrough song about his place in the Stolen Generation, which would underpin his award-winning 1992 debut album *Charcoal Lane.
Whereabouts is home for you these days, Archie?
Southwest Victoria, about three and a half hours out of Melbourne.
Talking about homes: you were born in Mooroopna just outside of Shepparton before spending your early years in Framlingham – do you visit very often?
No, I haven’t been up to Shepparton and Mooroopna for a little while. But I get back that way whenever I can. And Southwest Victoria is where my mother comes from.
So it very much feels like home.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a good feeling up there. And I was taken away from there when I was a kid, so it’s good to be back in that part of country.
You were raised in foster homes, most significantly by the Cox family. And there’s the well-known story of you leaving there with just a guitar on your back [after Roach found out that his blood family were still alive, a fact unbeknown to the Coxes]. They were a very musical family: do you think you would have had the interest in music you have, or the career in music that you have, if you’d never lived with the Coxes?
Um, I always loved music, I think. But it was living with the Coxes that brought that out. I’m not sure. I think they were pretty instrumental – excuse the pun – in me becoming a musician.
What kind of artists in those days first set alight your passion for music, particularly playing guitar?
Well, I played keyboards first. That’s how I started playing. But when I started listening to acoustic music and people playing guitar, in particular, I was listening to people like Hank Williams back in the early days. Dad Cox had a big collection of music and there were a lot of singers like Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and people like that who I loved listening to.
You stormed out of the Cox household, but are you back in touch with them these days?
Whenever I can. Mary, my foster sister – I still try to keep in touch with her and her daughter. Because mum and dad [Cox] passed away quite a few years ago now.
“My mortality is certainly something that I’m more aware of today than I ever was.”
When you left the Coxes you went to Sydney to find your own family – your blood family. Do you regret making such a big change in your life? Or maybe I should ask if it was the right decision, looking back, to leave Melbourne and head to Sydney?
You know, I wasn’t thinking about that, really. Sometimes I think that I could have very well just stayed with the Coxes – they were two lovely old people – and just stuck with them. But to find my family was the right decision; it was just a very odd way and a very strange way of going about it. I could have very well have just stayed in Melbourne, gotten in touch with my family and met up with them again, and still have that relationship with Mum and Dad Cox. It probably would have been a better way to do things, but that’s the way it happened.
One thing: I understand that in Sydney you went by a false name – Phillip Brown.
Oh! Jeez! [Laughs] Correct, yeah.
What was that all about?
I ran into some old fella in the park in Sydney and he advised me that if you ever got questioned by the police or something like that, it was best to give an alias or a bodgy name. So your real persona would never be convicted of anything, or charged. I just used that for a little while. But it seemed a bit silly after a while, using this false name.
And then you wound up in Adelaide. What exactly took you there?
After meeting my family and brothers and sisters, I knocked around with them for a couple of years. I don’t know – it was just geographical and I needed to get away to a different place and see some new faces. I don’t know, but I liked travelling around a bit when I was younger.
Because you met Ruby in Adelaide, correct?
Yeah, that’s right.
Were you still living on the streets at the time?
Yeah, yeah. It took us a little while to get on our feet and straighten ourselves out. It was just knocking about a bit in Adelaide.
My reading is that’s when the music really started to take hold with you. When did you stop singing other people’s songs and start writing your own?
Oh, gosh. I probably started writing my own songs in the ?80s – ?87, ?88.
I think I remember reading that Uncle Banjo Clarke encouraged you to write ?Took the Children Away?. Is that correct?
Yeah, that’s right. After I’d started with a few songs and singing them, family were the only [people] I’d sing my songs to. So I was living with Uncle Banjo and he heard a couple of songs, and he asked me, ?Why don’t you write a song about when you were taken away?? I said, ?Well, I don’t remember much about it. I was just a young fella.? And Uncle Banjo looked at me and said, ?But I do.? I think I wrote it not just for myself, but for Uncle Banjo and other people wondering what the hell happened to us.
Then you moved back to Melbourne with The Altogethers [his band with Hunter] – and there’s the well documented story about Steve Connolly and Paul Kelly ?discovering? you, so to speak. When those guys first came to see you perform, or when they first reached out to you, did you know who they were?
When I first met Paul, I really didn’t know who Paul Kelly was. I didn’t know the name Paul Kelly. When I first met him at the Melbourne Concert Hall, I didn’t even know it was Paul Kelly. But then I opened for him in Melbourne and stuck around and listened to his set, and once I started hearing all those old classic songs like ?To Her Door? and ?From St Kilda to Kings Cross?, I realised who he was and thought, ?Oh, I know those songs!? The funny thing was that you didn’t know the name Paul Kelly or who he was, but you knew these songs.
I think that was the thing about Paul Kelly in the early years, though: he was this almost diminutive, everyman personality who wrote these huge songs.
That’s right. That’s right.
Your struggles over the last few years have been well documented with the release of Into the Bloodstream. But there’s this positivity to the album and I wonder: after losing Ruby and then going through your sickness – and I don’t mean to be callous or insensitive – but do you think your illnesses helped you in a sense? Getting through sickness, did it help you to celebrate life once again after losing a loved one?
You hit the nail on the head. I’m just grateful to be here today, even talking to you. Because it could have been much different. So yeah, coming through that is certainly reflected in the album.
It’s funny, it seems like a theme of your life: these tragedies that have these positive payoffs. You were forced into foster homes but then you learnt about music, you lived on the streets and struggled with alcohol but through that met Ruby and then Ruby passed away and you became sick, but by surviving you learned to love life again. Is that a fair way to look at your life?
Yeah. I couldn’t put it better myself, to tell you the truth. That’s what it’s about. It’s not so much about how many times you get knocked down, but about how many times you get up again.
That’s a beautiful way to put it. Coming back to Into the Bloodstream, which you’ll be performing at Sydney Festival: I think a lot of people were surprised with how joyous it often is. Did that give you pause for thought? Did it in turn surprise you that people were so taken aback by the positivity?
Yeah, because you don’t really think about it once you’re doing something, or the process of creating the songs and then putting them down and recording them. It’s not a conscious thing in your own mind. So it makes you stand back and think, ?Oh, right!? It’s like people remind me or turn the mirror back on myself so I can look into myself and see why the way I am at the moment. It’s an interesting thing.
And then with Sydney Festival, you have a 13-piece ensemble and 10-voice choir – it’s a huge production, and sounds like you’re reaching for a fidelity, to really re-produce the big production of the LP. Are you ready?
Oh, yeah. We’re certainly ready, and ready to work with a lot of the people. And it’s been great.
Looking ahead, what are the plans for the rest of 2013? Is the year pretty well laid out for you?
We’ve got a few things – doing a couple more shows like this one. We’ll be doing one a month and stretching it out a bit. But work’s always coming through, and it’s about seizing each thing that comes through. Which is a good thing to be able to do. Some people don’t have the luxury to choose what they’re going to do – especially musicians and working musicians in this country, that’s for sure.
A final question: with all that’s happened over the last couple of years, there’s this positivity to your work and to your life at the moment, but do you feel the clock ticking a bit more these days? Do you feel like you’ve only got a certain amount of time to get all you need to do done?
It’s not so much that. I think it’s more just taking it as it comes and trying to enjoy the day, or even the moment, more than anything. But you’re certainly aware of your own mortality. My mortality is certainly something that I’m more aware of today than I ever was. So I just enjoy what each day and each moment brings.
##?Into the Bloodstream? is out now. Read Matt Shea’s [review](/releases/2001147). Tour dates below.
Fri, Jan 25 – State Theatre, Sydney, NSW [Sydney Festival]
Sat, Jan 26 – The Parade Ground @ Old King’s, Parramatta, NSW
Sun, Feb 10 – Chevron Festival Gardens, Perth, WA
Fri, Mar 15 – Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, SA