He’s fought off a stroke, cancer, and the death of his soulmate, and come back with an album of love and hope. Ladies and gentlemen: the incomparable Archie Roach.
One of our nation’s greatest poet laureates, and the man that introduced most of the non-indigenous population of Australia to the polarising stories of the Stolen Generation: Andrew P. Street dives into the rollercoaster of events that led to Archie Roach’s grand return to the centre stage.
Archie Roach is one of the nation’s greatest poet laureates. It’s impossible to explain just how epochal his Charcoal Lane album was when it was first released in 1990. For most of Australia – well, the non-indigenous parts of it, at least – the first time they knew anything of the Stolen Generation was when “Took The Children Away” came across the airwaves. Said to us come take our hand Sent us off to mission land. Taught us to read, to write and pray Then they took the children away.
Roach was part of a wave of artists telling Australia about a history which had been hidden from their view, largely by design, since British settlement began - it fed into a national conversation about the historical inequities forced upon indigenous Australia.
Yothu Yindi’s jubilant “Treaty” and the gentle, powerful Kev Carmody-Paul Kelly ode to land rights, “From Little Things Big Things Grow”, came out in 1992 - the same year then-Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered his historic “Redfern Speech”, which led Australia on the road to reconciliation.
It’s important to remember all of this because now, over twenty years later, things seem to have gone backwards. One Nation – a party founded on the supposedly-unfair advantages enjoyed by Aboriginal Australians – have four senators in our parliament. Right wing commentators and government MPs are angrily demanding that restrictions on racially abusing people in public discourse should be relaxed.
Deaths in custody are at an all time high. There have been honest-to-God riots in Palm Island and Kalgoorlie over police brutality, and a Four Corners expose on the abuse of (mainly indigenous) youth in custody in Darwin shocked the nation, before being quietly ignored. Only adding fuel to the fire, hopes of a treaty with our First Peoples has been replaced with bickering over whether or not to have a referendum to make a symbolic reference to indigenous Australians in the Constitution. Still, amongst it all, Roach remains. Last year saw the release of a 25th anniversary edition of Charcoal Lane, and he’s just released his eighth album under his own name,
Let Love Rule. And before you ask: no, it’s not a Lenny Kravitz tribute album.
It comes after a tumultuous few years for Roach. In February of 2010 his wife, Ruby Hunter – the Ngarrindjeri singer/songwriter who’d been Roach’s partner and creative foil since the pair met as homeless teenagers – died of a hear t attack. Six months later Roach was struck down by a stroke, but managed to return to the stage in under a year – just in time to be diagnosed with lung cancer. Surgery followed, and he fought back hard. The acclaimed Into The Bloodstream appeared in 2012, but ill health still slowed him down until he had the strength – and the material – to make Let Love Rule in 2016.
“I was just able to get back to playing, and I started writing songs,” he shrugs of the time away. “And I gravitated, I suppose, to the theme of love. I just look forward to a better future.”
In sound and in spirit, Let Love Rule draws parallels with Charcoal Lane – an album which was clearly at the forefront of Roach’s mind. “Well, last year we had the anniversary of that album, and I was touring that and singing those songs every night. It was amazing, because when it was recorded, I didn’t really know the songs – well, I wouldn’t say I didn’t know them at all, but I didn’t know them as well as I know them now – they were interpreted differently in the shows, and I think maybe took on even more meaning.”
Meaning aside, one of the reasons that Charcoal
Lane stands up so well after quarter of a century is that it sounds refreshingly timeless: it’s a voice and a guitar - real musicians playing real instruments in a room. Having spent time touring that album, and after the comparatively lush production of Into The Bloodstream, it’s no surprise that Roach returned to that model for Let Love Rule.
“Yeah, and that’s pretty much how it was recorded: we did the basic tracks and guide vocals and brought a band in. With a lot of the other albums, it’s all layered, but that’s what I love about this – and also about my first album.”
Of course, when compared to his first album, Roach doesn’t have as many functioning lungs as he once did. How did that affect the making of the album? “I’m not sure – I’ve never really thought about that. I write a song and just go with what I’ve got left,” he laughs. “I suppose because I’m singing differently, it probably does have a bit of an influence on how I write, and the style of that.”
In 2016, optimism is downright courageous. Singing about love and joy seems almost naïve: after all, it’s hard to imagine a more mean-spirited time. “No, that’s right: I think that’s what drove this album and the songs that I’d written,” he explains. “We just started writing and the theme started to emerge. And then I started to think about what’s going on in the world and how it’s affected this country. Everybody not trusting people and wanting to stay closed off to the world.”
So was writing the album some kind of deliberate whistling while walking through the graveyard, trying to find a way to ignore everything else that’s going on – especially in terms of indigenous issues in Australia? “I don’t think so,” he says after a long pause. “It might seem like that, but no. Even though things looked up [politically and socially] in the ‘90s, - when there might have been a treaty under Keating - as a person, I’ve grown a lot since my first album. And I think that’s true of everyone: I’ve seen a lot of people change from the ground up. Change isn’t coming from the top down, and it never will. It may one day, but not at the moment. It’s always been from the ground.”
Even so, the process of writing the album took a while. “[The songs] were mostly written whenever we could get to the studio – I wrote some there, and some at home. But that was the idea, to write them in a batch once the theme of love and hope started to emerge.”
Long time collaborator Craig Pilkington (former guitarist with The Killjoys) was once again Roach’s right hand man in the studio, producing, arranging, playing, and co-writing on occasion. “He knows my musical style pretty well by now. Sometimes he’ll have some music and I’ll put the lyrics to it, and vice versa.”
Serendipity has played a role, too. “On one song, we had some lyrics that my manager Jill Shelton found and said, ‘Hey, put some music to this.’ It became ‘It’s Not Too Late’ - the first single. It was amazing: I just had it as a poem in this notebook and didn’t think much about it, but then Jill discovered it. I said, ‘I’ve never thought about it, I don’t have a tune or anything,’ and then Craig got hold of it and came up with that melody. It would never have occurred to me, the way that it turned out.”
The album ends on the stately, magisterial “No More Bleeding” – a song that damn near begs for a cover by American Recordings- era Johnny Cash. “It’s a big song to sing - not just musically, but emotionally - because I’m thinking of when I wrote it and what that means: y ou try not to think too hard about what I’ve seen with my eyes to write that song, but it’s hard to block that out when you’re singing. So you’re digging deep to get that out.”
Where did it come from? “You know when you’re seeing the news on TV, and there’s just too much blood, too much cr ying - there’s gotta come a day when this will all stop , hopefully. That’s the hope of that song. There’s gotta come a day.”
And while he’s toned down the touring a little bit, as befits a 60- year-old who has successfully battled health crises that would have felled a lesser man, he’s got no plans to stop. “Nah, it’s good,” he laughs. “I’m just doing a few things. Once you’re on stage, it all feels fine – it’s just sometimes getting there can be a little trying at times. But once I’m up there, I’m right.”