SINGING AS ONE

The paths of Archie Roach and Tid­das con­tinue to cross, writes An­drew McMillen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

This is a story coloured by crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment and sheer eu­pho­ria. A story of seven strong lines, tightly in­ter­twined and stretched across al­most three decades, com­ing to­gether to tell a tale whose end­ing has not yet been writ­ten. It is a story about the heal­ing power of the hu­man voice, and of its abil­ity to pro­voke tears of sad­ness and joy.

A key thread of this shared yarn be­gan to un­wind on Au­gust 10, 1990, at a com­mu­nity event in in­ner-city Mel­bourne. Dur­ing a week­end of wom­anly song, dance and sto­ry­telling named Hot Jam Cooking, three singers were in dire need of a name for their group.

Hav­ing performed pre­vi­ously as part of a 12piece rock band named Djaambi, the trio was test­ing the wa­ters with a new ven­ture where the vo­cals would be front and cen­tre rather than hid­den be­hind noisy in­stru­ments.

Ruby Hunter — a mu­si­cian who be­came the first in­dige­nous Aus­tralian woman to sign a record­ing con­tract with a ma­jor record la­bel — was unim­pressed with the trio’s first of­fer­ing, Girls from Djaambi. It didn’t sound right at all be­cause that word means brother in Koori English. Hunter’s sug­ges­tion was el­e­gant in its sim­plic­ity: Tid­das, a Koori word that means sis­ters. Per­fect.

With that, the trio performed for the first time at Hot Jam Cooking. As a folk group built on a foun­da­tion of stir­ring vocal har­monies and acous­tic guitar, Tid­das re­leased four al­bums be­tween 1993 and 1999, and toured with artists such as Mid­night Oil, Bob Geldof and Billy Bragg. Their first EP, 1992’s In­side My Kitchen, was named for the lo­cale where they be­gan singing to­gether, for an au­di­ence of just three.

That day in Au­gust each year is qui­etly marked by the three Tid­das mem­bers — Lou Ben­nett, Amy Saun­ders and Sally Dastey — who ex­change gra­cious text mes­sages and phone calls to mark the birth­day of their col­lab­o­ra­tion, as named by Hunter, whose part­ner was Archie Roach, a quiet fig­ure with a hon­eyed voice who then loomed large in the world of Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal song, as he still does. Af­ter the re­lease of his ARIA award-win­ning 1990 de­but al­bum Char­coal Lane and its fol­lowup, 1993’s Jamu Dream­ing, Roach con­tin­ued to write mu­sic in earnest. To­ward the end of 1994, he recorded a col­lec­tion of songs on his por­ta­ble cas­sette player. Con­sist­ing of just voice and guitar, the cas­sette had no ti­tle other than Al­bum Num­ber Three when it was pre­sented to Jen Anderson in early 1995.

“His voice and the lyrics in the songs, and the sim­plic­ity of the way they were pre­sented, just made them re­ally shine to me,” says Anderson, a Mel­bourne-based mu­si­cian who has performed with acts such as the Black Sor­rows and Wed­dings, Par­ties, Any­thing.

“They were all sto­ries around the ties of his fam­ily, love and loss, and also his in­ti­mate con­nec­tion with spirit and coun­try.”

Anderson was one of few fe­male pro­duc­ers work­ing in Aus­tralia at that time, and when she was asked by Roach’s record la­bel to work on pre-pro­duc­tion for the up­com­ing third al­bum she was thrilled.

She gave her­self the brief to keep the songs in their nat­u­ral form as much as pos­si­ble, while of­fer­ing gen­tle em­bel­lish­ments cour­tesy of an em­pa­thetic band. Af­ter record­ing the in­stru­ments, she de­cided to ask Tid­das to write and per­form back­ing vo­cals, a re­quest that thrilled the trio.

“I knew we were do­ing a top-notch job on that al­bum — and it was fun,” Dastey re­calls. “It’s re­ally fun to cre­ate shapes with the har­monies, and the three of us were all in that same headspace. Top of our game; re­ally into it. And it was magic. We knew it was spe­cial.”

Imag­ine the acute dis­ap­point­ment, then, when the par­ties in­volved learned that the record la­bel had de­cided to go with another pro­ducer for what ul­ti­mately be­came an al­bum named Look­ing for But­ter Boy. Although Roach’s third al­bum, re­leased in 1997, won ARIA awards in the cat­e­gories for adult con­tem­po­rary and best in­dige­nous re­lease, its sound was very dif­fer­ent to what Anderson had en­vi­sioned when she tapped Tid­das for their unique vocal tal­ents.

“It re­ally was one of our finest record­ing mo­ments,” Ben­nett says. “But un­for­tu­nately it never got a guernsey. It was re­ally heart­break­ing. What have we done wrong? Have we over­sung on it? Have we not done the right thing? You have to put those things to bed or oth­er­wise they’ll eat away at you.”

The pro­ducer of that un­ti­tled col­lec­tion of songs has another per­spec­tive on that dis­ap­point­ment. “I can re­ally say why they felt crushed,” says Anderson, “Be­cause for them singing — and for me pro­duc­ing — you’re re­ally putting some­thing of your in­ner self on record; on trial, al­most, when it’s pre­pro­duc­tion like this. So to then be re­jected, it does have that ex­tra per­sonal el­e­ment to it be­cause it’s al­most like it’s a re­jec­tion of your cre­ativ­ity. It’s part of your in­ner­most soul.” For 22 years, those record­ings re­mained un­heard, as the orig­i­nal ADAT tapes gath­ered dust on a shelf some­where.

Tid­das dis­banded in 2000 fol­low­ing a na­tional tour in sup­port of their fourth al­bum, named Show Us Your Tid­das. Anderson con­tin­ued to col­lab­o­rate with Roach, and from time to time the sub­ject would come up in con­ver­sa­tion with his man­ager, Jill Shel­ton.

“Jill is al­ways look­ing for things to do with Archie, so it’s not just per­form­ing live,” Anderson says. “She’s a great strate­gist; she’s al­ways think­ing ahead about what might be good for him next. I just hap­pened to ring her, ev­ery now and again, and she said: ‘I think it’s time. We’re go­ing to re­lease this record.’

“She de­cided we would do it on our own, with­out any record com­pany as­sis­tance. I think she felt the time was right, and I re­ally trust her in­tu­ition with those sorts of things.”

Hers is the sev­enth thread of these in­ter­twined sto­ries, in ad­di­tion to those be­long­ing to Roach and Hunter, Anderson, and the mem­bers of Tid­das. Shel­ton man­aged the trio for most of its ca­reer; she and Anderson also lived to­gether dur­ing the mid-1990s, and the reg­u­lar

Archie Roach with Tid­das Lou Ben­nett, left, Sally Dastey and Amy Saun­ders

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