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