ARCHIE ROACH

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.

Australian Guitar - - Contents - By An­drew P Street

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.”

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