It’s been a hard year on many fronts, but for Archie Roach it’s still all about love.
“Love is really a constant emotion, a constant sentiment in people’s lives – whether it’s for another person, or family or country or love of your work,” Roach says. “It’s important to not take that for granted. I know things that are happening, the current political climate, [but] people need to be reminded that we still love, even if we’re a bit down.”
It’s the defining message of his last album, 2016’s Let Love Rule, whose songs received a mighty workout over the past twelve months as the 62 year old’s busy schedule saw him connect with huge crowds at WOMADelaide, perform to a packed Thebarton Theatre in support of Rodriguez, and in March will see him back again at the Palais.
But ask anyone who has attended an Archie Roach concert and they’ll tell you that although a songwriter on paper, Roach rarely lets his gift and love for storytelling be contained by any one form. Whether performing to a handful of people in a steamy Spiegeltent or to a sprawling outdoor crowd, the feeling is always of an intimate conversation.
“To me they’re important, stories are my life,” he says. “I suppose in a way the story behind the song is just as important as the song itself.”
You can tell by the waves of recognition for familiar tales of characters from his past that for many in the room, any given concert is part of a wider dialogue spread over years of attending shows and inviting Roach’s music into their lives. “Sometimes time gets away from you…. I apologise to people, say ‘look, I talk a bit too much’. But it’s always coming back from the audience, people going ‘nah, nah, we love the stories!’”
The last two years have featured rolling anniversaries. First, the 25th anniversary of his debut album Charcoal Lane which saw a host of contemporary artists from Courtney Barnett to the late Gurrumul to cover his work. Then in October last year, Roach returned to Adelaide for the 15th anniversary of Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker for which he provided the score.
“It was incredible, just takes you back to when we were recording the songs for the soundtrack of the film,” he says of the screening. “It was an interesting process, but sitting down and watching the film and hearing my voice… it’s a whole different experience. It’s hard to explain – it becomes more poignant I think, to hear it like that.”
Roach’s collaborative spirit is still breaking new ground, with an appearance on Reclaim Australia, the blunt, blistering debut album by rap duo A.B. Original (Briggs and South Australian producer/MC Trials). The album has been a shot in the arm for national conversations about Australia Day, prejudice and our history, plus a critical and popular hit to boot winning the Australian Music Prize and a suite of ARIA Awards.
“It’s great. I’m so happy for people like Briggs,” Roach says. “The man’s everywhere, he’s doing everything and it’s good to see. That’s a reflection of Australian music scene and Australian media as well, TV and other things like that have embraced people like Briggs. He’s pulled no punches and won an ARIA Award, all sorts of awards – that shows how mature the industry has gotten.”
“What I love about Briggs is the respect that he shows to myself and other elder musicians that have gone before,” he says. “He does that, he lets people know, it’s because of people that have laid the foundations, gone before himself, that he builds upon. And I just love him for that.”
A less publicised but no less important release was Song For Elijah (Wrap Our Arms Around You), an inter-generational memorial for Elijah Doughty, whose death brought an anger and pain that resonated across communities. Like so much of Roach’s work, the song came from a place of healing and shared humanity.
“We didn’t have anything,” he says of its creation. “We just sat there and talked about it, young Elijah and asked where do we start? I said probably a good start was ‘Mother’, and it just grew from there. Everybody came in, Alana Atkinson, Radical Son, Emma Donovan, and we all just got in and put our own ideas into it. If you listen properly you can hear Alana say ‘if you hurt one of us, you hurt us all’ – pretty powerful.”
So while celebrated career milestones and new musical terrain might keep him busy, the songwriter is, as ever, well-attuned to the important things. “You just wanna write a good song, you just wanna have a good gig,” he says circumspectly of his career. “If everything’s going right, everybody has a good time and enjoys themselves. But to look back at the things I’ve done… you don’t know what to say sometimes.
“When I started off I was quite happy to do what I was doing, working in community, giving back. It took me years to get off alcohol and straighten my life back, [so] I was just happy just to be able to try and give back what’s been given to me. But music came along, and to receive what I’ve received from doing what I do… is amazing.”
Friday March 16