Invisible Threads

[Published in the Summer issue of Peppermint Magazine. EXCERPT]

Microfibres are emerging as one of the biggest environmental problems of our time, and they originate from the shirt off your back, writes Samuel J. Fell

It’s the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of, and it stems from the most basic of sources – the perpetrators are hanging in your wardrobe, in drawers, folded neatly in your linen closet. Microfibres, plastic fibres invisible to the naked eye that have been shown to shed from synthetic clothing during the washing process, are flushing via domestic wastewater through sewage treatment plants, eventually making it to rivers and the ocean.

A 2011 study by a number of scientists, including UNSW ecologist Dr. Mark Browne, found that microfibres make up 85% of human-made debris on beaches and shorelines around the world.

Microfibres themselves are tiny fragments of plastic debris that are micrometres in diameter, which emanate from myriad different sources – tyre dust; paints; the breaking down of secondary microplastics (plastic bags, take-away containers, plastic cutlery); airborne synthetic fibres; microbeads (which have been banned from facial cleansers and some cosmetics in the US and the UK).

The main culprit however, is synthetic clothing; fleece, rayon, acrylic and polyester garments, all of which emit thousands of microfibres every time they’re washed. Given, in 2014, 60% of all fabric produced by the textile industry was polyester, it’s little wonder microfibre pollution is becoming as rampant as it is.

The problem came to light in 2004, when Dr. Browne and a research team, through extensive testing, found these fibres to be the most prominent form of man-made waste washing up on shorelines worldwide. “A lot of the NGOs, who do their best to try and tell people about environmental issues, had been doing a pretty poor job of explaining the issue of plastic pollution,” explains Dr. Browne, a world-renowned authority on plastic debris pollution.

“They were confusing a whole range of issues… saying, it’s to do with microbeads, it’s to do with bags, it’s to do with packaging,” he goes on. “I [thought], actually, that’s really funny because I’ve gone around the world sampling on different shorelines from the poles to the equator, and most of the material we’re finding, although we expected to find bags and microbeads, are actually these fibres.”

Album – Catherine Traicos

[Published in the Spectrum section of The Sydney Morning Herald, Nov 11]

FOLK/ROOTS Catherine Traicos

LUMINAIRE (Independent)

4/5

Singer-songwriter Catherine Traicos’s sixth record, Luminaire, was reportedly the most difficult for the Melbourne-based artist to pull together. Three years in the making and almost not seeing the light of day, Traicos has said she didn’t know if she’d have the energy to complete the work, that she barely relaxed throughout the recording process. And yet you’d not know it, so effortlessly does this clutch of songs bloom forth, their almost eerie and dark vibe infectious, demanding repeat listens. There’s a strong cohesion that runs through the record, despite how old some of these songs are, Traicos and her impeccable band able to inject them all with a subtle power that binds them; whether casually skipping through a sonic meadow (Bitter Bones), or grinding in the dark (Tide, with its dissonant cello), it all comes together as an album, as opposed to a mere collection of ten songs. Bookended by Luminaries I and Luminaries II, the former wrought from an emotional time for Traicos, the latter its more joyous sequel, this album may have been hard to make, but its eventual birth marks Traicos as an artist of exceptional poise and talent, as many of us have known for years. SAMUEL J FELL

Feature – Bigsound Turns Up The Volume On Gender In The Music Industry

[Published in The Guardian (Australia), September 10 2017]

‘We’re over it’: Bigsound turns up the volume on gender gap in music industry

Gender inequity in Australian music is as old as the industry itself – but this year’s Bigsound conference was focused on solutions. By SAMUEL J. FELL

Brisbane’s grimy entertainment district, Fortitude Valley, is home to a slew of live music venues, bars and clubs – and each year, the Australian music industry descends for annual conference Bigsound.

Tagging itself as a global gathering of musicians, media, brands and music lovers, Bigsound is at once a showcase for local talent, and a forum for discussion about an industry that’s in a constant state of flux. And two of the big issues on the table this year revolved around gender: sexual assault and antisocial behaviour at festivals and in live music venues; and gender equality and diversity within the industry itself.

The former issue was brought to the fore recently via a number of alleged assaultsat the Tasmanian leg of Falls festival. Helen Marcou, co-owner of Melbourne’s Bakehouse Studios, chaired a panel that argued for preventative, rather than reactive, measures.

Marcou is a co-founder of Your Choice, an initiative launched in Melbourne in July and heavily backed by industry heavyweights, which aims to curb sexual assault, violence and discrimination at live music events by making promoters, venue owners, artists and managers aware of the issue; and by giving them the tools and information they need to stop toxic behaviour.

As Marcou’s fellow panellist and PR head Stacey Piggott said, the only way culture will change is if people within the industry talk to each other about it: “The conversations need to be peer to peer,” she said.

The issue of gender equality was also on the table. In late July, the Skipping A Beat report was released by the University of Sydney, which assessed the state of gender representation in the industry. It found that women were poorly represented across festival lineups and industry boards; on stages and backstage.

The same week, industry copyright licensing body APRA/AMCOS released their own report which found that female members share in only 10% of the total royalty pool, and that more women are represented in cricket than songwriting in this country.

To many, these statistics come as no surprise.

“We’ve acknowledged there’s a problem; this is about how to deal with it,” Leanne de Souza said. De Souza is the executive director for the Association of Artist Managers, but also runs Facebook group MEGA (Music Equity Group for Action), advocating for a more inclusive industry.

“I think the conversation around gender equity has been so focussed on calling it out that we’re over it, women who’ve been working in the industry now for 20, 25 years are tired of that,” she tells me later. “We’ve heard those stories, so now it’s time to turn the narrative – what’s working?”

As a result of the research undertaken by RMIT, APRA/AMCOS have committed to a 25% increase in female members over the next three years. From October, the body will invest each year in the mentoring of female artists across a range of genres; and they have called for the entire industry to take action and eradicate gender disparity.

“So now there’s this energy for change,” de Souza said, “and there are some great things happening. There’s the Listen movement, safe spaces, there are youth mentoring services – there’s all this good stuff.”

Listen, based in Melbourne, is a diverse and inclusive feminist music collective whose focus is on giving a voice to minorities in the industry. It’s co-organised by Elspeth Scrine, who spoke on two panels at Bigsound and whose flyers could be found at venues across the Valley: “Top 5 Cop Outs For Booking A Lineup That Is Not Diverse” read one – no doubt a direct response to the Days Like This festival booking an all-male lineup in March.

Other fliers listed simple things everyone could do to make for a more inclusive industry: respect people’s pronouns; avoid reducing an artist to one part of their identity, like their gender; make sure your workplace has toilets that everyone can use.

They are deliberately easy ways to rebalance an industry that for decades has been seen as a boy’s club; a recent study by Triple J program Hack showed an overwhelming male bias within the majority of aspects of Australian music.

“It’s about individual accountability,” said de Souza. “There’s a sense in the industry that we’re moving towards a positive focus.”

LIVE – Out On The Weekend Festival, 2017

[Published in Rolling Stone (Aust.), November 2017]

Jonny Fritz, Traveller. Pic by Stephen Boxshall (via RS)

OUT ON THE WEEKEND – Seaworks, Williamstown (Melbourne) – October 14, 2017

Leather-soled boots crush Melbourne Bitter cans against cracked concrete, the flattened discs frisbeed into yellow-topped bins. Cigarettes are rolled and zippo lighters flicked – metallic chink – plumes of smoke wreathing around black-banded cowboy hats. Pearl button-snaps, sideburns half grey, nudie suits and swing skirts, red lipstick, bowlo ties, salt-n-pepper stubble and full beards that smell like thick and dark brisket smoke.

Seagulls ride the chill breeze off the bay, silhouetted against the spring sun.

Fanny Lumsden sings songs inspired by the long, straight stretches of bitumen one finds in western Queensland, the orange and brown dry found in same. And yet it’s not sad, it’s not melancholy and flat but it bounces and skittles along like the old caravan she and husband / bass player Dan Stanley Freeman towed behind them while on the road looking for inspiration for new record Real Class Act. Lumsden and band, fleshed out somewhat for this set, showcase new songs then, and old. They play Australiana, but it’s a new kind, they make it their own.

Robby Fulks too, inhabits his own slice of an ancient musical form, his take on folk music a meandering through the Great American Songbook, frags of country and blues. Shad Cobb is on fiddle and he sizzles, frenetic playing from a maestro who’s played with the Osborne Brothers, Steve Earle and Willie Nelson. The Deslondes hail from New Orleans, their 2015 eponymous debut a real country affair, but in the flesh they’re rollicking rock ‘n’ roll and bluesy twang, country for sure, but an upbeat melding of styles from one of the world’s great musical melting pots.

All Our Exes Live In Texas have perhaps evolved the furthest of all acts on the bill today, a real muscular set now replete with rhythm section backing the four main players, their music now slick and polished. For mine, this detracts from their original appeal a little; where before it was harmonies over a simple sonic bed, it’s now harmonies over a thick and shmick sound that throbs a little too much. I yearn for their earlier sound, despite it being hard to deny their energy and skill.

Pigeons settle in rafters under tin eaves. People sit at wooden tables, on benches and rusty bollards. There’s a Greenpeace boat moored further down the marina. What looks like a pirate ship under full sail glides slowly past in the middle distance, at odds with the city and its skyscrapers lit tall behind it.

The sad music envelops it all, one cocked knee and an elbow on the bar, half a beer wreathed in tears, the country music lament.

Josh Headley’s suit shimmers under the stage lights, sky blue and sequined, slashes of colour sewn on. Big hat and beard, bigger voice. He’s Hank Williams, set to a new time and place. He sings sad songs about life, love, the loss of both, just him and his acoustic guitar, he gets Robert Ellis up for a song, as he’s done before. He’s one of the best on the planet, his songs perfect, his music beautiful.

The sun disappears behind the hulking old sheds and the chill sets in and The Sadies start their set, a thundering cow-punk-a-billy explosion. Travis Good swaps guitar for fiddle, the same punk/rock enthusiasm displayed no matter which strings he’s thrumming, and the band rumble and thrash about, their set a brutal and welcome passageway from the daytime to the night as people swap beer for margaritas and Jack Daniels, flipping up their collars to ward off the icy breeze.

Son Volt have never, in 22 years, been to Australia and they’re the unofficial headliner as a result – a dark and mysterious set which kicks off immediately, no holds barred, three songs that shake walls with their rumbling riffage… this, for me, was an introduction, and so it’s all new, exciting. Jay Farrar, sunglasses on, solid stance, barely utters a word to the crowd, just leads the band through an hour and a bit of up and down, hard and soft, pop and country, rock ‘n’ roll. Mark Spencer plays keys, swaps to pedal steel, picks up the guitar; Chris Frame excels on the slide. It’s a heady set, a beast, people raise cans in salute as the band fade off the stage as it all goes dark.

In contrast to Traveller, who light it up and drag in the crowd, pulling us into the smaller outdoor space and we’re serenaded and yelled at, cajoled and ribbed. Jonny Fritz (silver-suited), Cory Chisel (heavily-bearded), Robert Ellis (cosmic-jacketed) plus rhythm section, a party band with one foot in Nashville, another in Las Vegas. Pushing new record Western Movies, Fritz leads from the front spending more time jiving with the crowd than he does with a guitar in hand; by the end of the set we all know which room of which hotel they’re staying in and it all seems like three buddies making music and fucking around together. Which it is, and which is why it’s so good.

People have melted off into the cold dark and so there’s room to move by the time Justin Townes Earle come on to close it out. He’s backed by The Sadies and they add an edge to Earle’s crooning country tunes. He’s in fine form and his music tears at heartstrings, the addition of two more guitarists giving it all more power and depth… it seems fun for them up there and for those of us in for the long haul it’s fun too. Earle, like Dylan, changes his set, his songs, the way he delivers it all, on a regular basis and so despite having seen him numerous times, this is as exciting and familiar all at once, as it’s ever been.

And then it’s into the cold dark for us. The gulls are roosting somewhere, the Pirates Tavern is still open and people spill out with plastic cups of frothy beer as they wait for the ferry to take them home. Out On The Weekend is a happening, and while it seemed a smaller happening this year, it’s a meeting of a tribe, a musical tribe to whom country music ain’t a dirty word, y’all, and to whom this happening is one of the best of the year. One will happily raise a can to that.

Samuel J. Fell

Remembering Dr. G Yunupingu

[Published in the the Sep/Oct 2017 issue of Rhythms magazine]

REMEMBERING DR. G YUNUPINGU

Over the course of the past decade, Rhythms senior contributor SAMUEL J. FELL has written about, and spent time with, DR. YUNUPINGU on multiple occasions – he shares observations on an artist Rolling Stone called Australia’s Most Important Voice

It’s close to midnight, July 2010, and it’s cold, more so than usual for sub-tropical Byron Bay. Dr. G Yunupingu and I are standing outside Studio 301, smoking a cigarette together. His keeps going out and so I’ve relit it for him once or twice, fumbling in my pocket for the lighter each time.

We’re not talking much. I’ve told him how I’m enjoying watching him play, and he’s nodded, smiled a little to himself, but we’re spending the time together quietly for the most part; not as journalist and subject, not as white fella and black fella, but as two dudes just sharing some quiet space.

After the almost stifling heat inside, I’m enjoying the brisk air, only wearing a light hoodie. Yunupingu though is wearing a huge jacket which makes him appear twice as wide as he actually is. He’s quite short, slender. He smokes slowly, which is why it keeps going out. He seems in his own world.

Which he is. Over the three or four days I spend in the studio, as he and his team put the finishing touches to his second solo release, Rrakala, I don’t really get a sense as to what that world is like, and I suspect many who spend fleeting time with the man don’t either. All we can do it observe, listen. Watch how he moves, how he interacts, how he works. He is, as I noted in an article for The Saturday Paper in 2015, five years later after spending more time in the studio with him, a man of few words, and so he comes across as somewhat mysterious, a man on a trajectory that I couldn’t understand if I tried.

That notion also plays out in reverse. Yunupingu, born on Elcho Island off the coast of Darwin, is a true Yolngu man and due to his cultural upbringing has no real concept of western life. He has no concept of the press, or of the music industry in which he finds himself, he has no understanding of the significance of appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, aside from a love of the lyrics to that old Dr. Hook song. It’s just not on his radar, and so me being there in 2010 doesn’t register for him as, ‘there’s a writer from Rolling Stone in the studio’, I’m just another body in the room. I could be from anywhere.

As a result of this lack of concept, Yunupingu isn’t trying to impress people, he’s not attempting to curry journalistic favour, he’s not looking to win awards, he’s creating in the purest form, because he has to, it’s as simple as that.

In the article I wrote for Rolling Stone, which ran in April 2011, the same month Darwin-based label Skinnyfish Music released Rrakala, I wrote how refreshing this was. Over the course of my career as a music writer, I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of musicians, and while many of them, the majority of them I hope, create because they have to as artists, none of them come within stone’s throw of Yunupingu. He is the only musician I’ve ever encountered who can honesty say they are completely pure as creators. And it showed in his music, in the way if affected people across the globe.

***

It was 2008 when Yunupingu – guided by label-boss, bass player and longtime friend Michael Hohnen – released his eponymous solo debut. The powerful simplicity of this clutch of songs, the obvious meaning to him and his people they conveyed, and the angelic voice with which they were adorned, stunned a jaded music establishment. The music itself was nothing new, essentially folk music, but the way in which it was delivered was almost miraculous.

Rrakala was a calculated release – calculated by Hohnen and Skinnyfish co-director Mark Grose – which capitalised on the success the debut had here in Australia, and over in Europe. It was Rrakala that brought Yunupingu to America, helping raise his star even higher. The third solo release, The Gospel Album, released in 2015, came about, by comparison, almost by accident – once again at Byron’s Studio 301, looking to pass some time before another album came together (a record of Yunupingu’s songs, backed by a symphony orchestra was in the works at that point), Yunupingu started playing, Hohnen jumped to press record, and so that album, inspired by the Methodist gospel music Yunupingu was exposed to as a child, tumbled forth, appearing as if from nowhere.

I spent a little more time in the studio for this album, writing in this instance for The Saturday Paper, as I mentioned. As I noted in the subsequent story, “There was a different energy in the air, a raw excitement, an almost incredulity at what was happening.” Where the Rrakala sessions were, for lack of a better phrase, serious business, The Gospel Album sessions pulsated with a sense of fun. Not that Yunupingu wasn’t having fun in 2010, but this was free and seemed easy. By that point, he had nothing to prove and it was joyous.

Hohnen wanted Yunupingu to “blow off some steam” after the intense high this studio time would have given him, and so he and I organised a pop-up gig at the tiny Civic Hall in Mullumbimby, ten kilometres north-west of Byron. I took care of the details – my one and only stint as a promoter – and come the Wednesday morning, a few days later, Hohnen posted show details on Yunupingu’s Facebook page.

People began showing up at around two in the afternoon, and a couple of hours later, as the sun set over another chilly sub-tropical winter’s scene, almost four hundred formed a line which snaked from the Hall’s front doors, down Dalley Street past the fire and police stations, almost to the post office down on the corner. I walked along the line, killing time before opening the doors, chatting with people I knew, really feeling the sense of excitement these people were exuding, along with a sense of almost-disbelief that they were about to see Dr. Yunupingu in such an intimate setting. Some people were in tears at the thought.

A little while later, in the tiny green room, Hohnen and Yunupingu arrived, the latter once again rugged up to ward off the chill, a smile on his face as he contemplated playing his songs – two of them brand new, only recorded in the days prior – to people in a warm little hall somewhere in the countryside with his friend by his side. I’d enlisted a rag-tag group of volunteers and a local sound engineer, Hohnen had put together a band. Just before going on stage, Yunupingu was bouncing on his feet, smiling, calm, ready.

The show was magic. Only an hour or so, it wasn’t even so much a show as it was a small gathering. “One of the great things about that whole gig, was the community feeling,” Hohnen recalled in my article. “We walked out at the end of it and said, ‘We should do this everywhere in Australia’.” Yunupingu came off stage grinning, Hohnen was grinning too, everyone was – it was a moment which captured all that had happened in that three or four day period; the music was so real and had been flowing so freely, it was just a joy to behold for all concerned, not least of all Dr. Yunupingu.

***

Yunupingu’s passing in late July after a long battle with illness closed a chapter, but by no means ended a story. The music he created so purely has lifted the spirits of countless people, and will no doubt continue to do so. The man truly was on his own trajectory, and to spend even a little time with him was something special – his gift will certainly be missed, by people all over the world.

Gurrumul – Australia’s Most Important Voice

[Published in Rolling Stone, April 2011, COVER FEATURE]

The Deep Part

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu might be one of Australia’s most enigmatic figures, but his second album, Rrakala, is all about showing the rest of the world how he lives.

By Samuel J. Fell

 

Silence. Complete and utter silence. Not for long, maybe only ten seconds or so, but a silence that threatens to consume the four of us sitting in the control room at Byron Bay’s Studio 301, if not for what came before it. Music as primal and raw and gritty as can be, yet as sweet and ethereal as sunshine after a storm, streaks of sound wrought from the heavens themselves, translated by a man as unassuming as it’s possible to be. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, nodding his head slowly as what he’s just played becomes memory, his hands finally, after seven and a half minutes, resting in his lap.

Michael Hohnen, Gurrumul’s accompanist, producer and long-time friend, is smiling. Sound engineer, Anthony Ruotolo and his assistant are smiling as well, and I’m struck dumb, sitting at the back of the room, notepad abandoned on the table in front me, wondering to myself where the music I’ve just heard could possibly have come from, and how I’ll possibly be able to describe it. The song, played on an out of tune piano – due to the heat in the studio, Gurrumul needing it to be as close to the tropical humidity of Darwin as possible – was a rough version of ‘Ulminda’ which will eventually appear on Rrakala, what will become Gurrumul’s much anticipated second solo record. He’d finally wandered in, sat down, and just played this song, virtuosic, his voice on a plain nigh on improbable, its purity astounding.

“I remember the moment,” muses Hohnen a few days later, sitting on the grass outside the studio during our first of many interviews for this story. “It’s very exciting working with him when he goes into that mode of ‘Nothing else matters and I’m focusing just on the moment and this musical situation’.

“And that is music in its most pure form, I think, when you experience what you and I did that afternoon. In some ways it’s kind of why you live or why you are a musician, to go through those sorts of moments…and there was so much energy around what he did as well which was really special. It was almost like he pushed his chest out at the end of it, he knew it was really special.”

“It really is all about the performance,” adds Ruotolo a few months later from New York where he’s based. “Our job as engineers is to capture as accurately as possible those critical nuances of that performance. When Gurrumul is in his zone, it’s something very special.”

As far as Gurrumul himself is concerned, it’s a lot more simple. “It’s about the head, you know, it’s the deep part,” he says through Hohnen, tapping his head gently a few times, just a couple of inches above his forehead, giving that look as if it is very serious. “’Ulminda’ means the deep part.”

Earlier that first day, I’d sat with Hohnen and we’d listened through the entire album as it stood thus far; 12 un-mastered, unmixed tracks, the bare bones that would eventually come together to make up Rrakala. Gurrumul himself wasn’t present at that point, preferring instead the solitude of their apartment, not in the mood to enter the studio, content to lie on his bed listening to music. I wondered if I’d get the chance to see him in action, but didn’t press, and after a few hours of listening and talking, I got in the car to drive back to Brunswick Heads, 15 minutes up the highway, and before I left I asked Hohnen to let me know if Gurrumul decided to come into the studio.

It was bright outside, more so because of the gloom I’d been sitting in for the best part of the morning, and I squinted all the way home, pulling in, parking, walking up to the house, putting on the kettle with the intention of sitting down to go through my notes, and then my phone buzzed, a text message from Hohnen. “If you want to turn around,” it says, “he’s about to do piano.” I jumped back into the car.

***

The fact Gurrumul will only come into the studio when he feels like it, interests me somewhat. As both Hohnen and Ruotolo have pointed out, when he’s on, he’s really on, but as Ruotolo then says, “I think it is a very delicate place, where he draws his inspiration from, and on the days that he may feel like maybe he isn’t there emotionally, he leaves it alone.” Hohnen and Skinnyfish Music co-owner, Mark Grose, have learnt to roll with these situations, it’s part of working with an artist like Gurrumul.

The flip-side however, is worth the wait. “Yeah, when he’s on, he’s totally on,” reiterates Hohnen. “The night before [you were there], he didn’t want to go to bed. The others were exhausted, but he was going, ‘Maybe you and I can do something’, so he just wanted to keep going. So when he’s in that mode, he’s really focused. And he’s so connected to back home, he’s always on the phone back home, it’s almost like he’s there more than here a lot of the time. But when he walks through that door and the phone’s not on, he knows that, essentially, this is his voice for the next few years, he knows that this is representing him, so he’s really conscious about that.”

***

In 2008, Gurrumul released, through Skinnyfish Music, his eponymous solo debut, a record which took the planet by storm, shaking its very foundation. It wasn’t the first time he’d been exposed to the world – Gurrumul has a songwriting credit and an ARIA for ‘Treaty’ (amongst other songs), performed by Yothu Yindi with whom he played for many years (guitar, keys and vocal), and is a part of the Saltwater Band – but it was the first time he’d been laid bare on his own. His rise, which is well documented, was swift, and as such there’s a lot of anticipation as to whether this new record will match the first.

“He’d never say this, but I would think he would hope, or probably expect, it to be popular, because it’s really strong,” says Hohnen. “He’s put some very strong songs forward. One of the songs, ‘Baru’, is about the crocodile, it’s all about him, and I think he would expect people would like it, because it’s like him singing totally about himself and his identity. But if I ask him if he thinks this record will go well, he’ll ask me that back, it’s one of the questions he won’t answer.”

Indeed, when asked, Gurrumul merely says, “Just doing more songs. Like the first album but different. With piano. I just like these songs too. Maybe people will like it.”

***

The base difference between Gurrumul and Rrakala, is that Gurrumul plays drums and piano in addition to the guitar on this record. “Gurrumul is a multi-instrumentalist,” Ruotolo tells me. “I spent a few days with him where he wasn’t near a piano, then all of a sudden he sits down and it sounded like he had been playing every day, perfect fluid playing. I watched him lay down a drum groove at Avatar in NYC (where the bulk of Rrakala was recorded, early last year) in, like, one or two takes! And it was solid! That’s what struck me most about him, his ability to pick up an instrument and go.”

Then there are the subtle differences, the ones that are set to elevate this record, guiding Gurrumul’s star even higher. Watching him in the studio, it’s his confidence which strikes me, his ability to really push what he’s doing now, like he’s no longer afraid of anything, although again, according to Gurrumul it’s not like that.

“Michael and I knew people liked the first CD,” he says. “This is a bit the same for this one. People like it, you know. I want something that people like.” Hohnen expands. “He and I are sort of reaching into that well of his, which is so deep and the only way he wants to really expose that well, is through his music. There’s a lot of stuff in there, in his head, that never comes out, from the light stuff you’ve seen, the banter, the humour, but also all the cultural stuff. And this is his balance he’s found between the deeper cultural sides of himself.

“We’ve been trying to work out how we’d actually present the second album, and I think presenting it as him and his identity is probably the strongest way we can do it.” It’s a way which has seen Gurrumul rise to the occasion, and as such, the music itself benefits – Rrakala booms with confidence, it radiates power and at its core is Gurrumul himself, still the same as he was when portrayed on Gurrumul, but bigger and stronger.

***

“When I watch him sing, it’s not like watching an opera singer,” Hohnen says of Gurrumul a few months after the time spent in 301. “With an opera singer, you can almost see what they’re doing, it’s this learned process…that’s the first thing I think about when I compare him singing, how you’ve seen watching him up close; they’re doing something that’s learned and formalised and I find it’s almost less inspiring…they’re still acting, most singers are acting.”

“So when you’re confronted like you were up close with Gurrumul, it’s like you’re presented with something that is not following the path of all those other people,” he adds, searching for the right words. “I’m sure there are singers out there who are actually not acting that much, like some of the punk singers, you know? Some of them are acting, but some of them are just singing so much about what they believe in, and that’s what he’s doing; he’s singing totally, totally what he believes in, he’s not trying to be someone else, he hasn’t watched anyone else, so he doesn’t have to look a certain way, he’s just going, ‘I’ve listened to the great singers all my life, and the great traditional singers all my life, and I need to project like that to get recognised’, I think that’s how he works. I think that’s why it’s so refreshing.”

As I leave the studio on one of the three days and nights I spend there, I say goodnight to Gurrumul, accidentally mispronouncing his name – more of a ‘Garrumul’ instead of ‘Goorrumul’ – which Hohnen later tells me Gurrumul found very funny. He still finds it funny, three months after the fact. During those sessions too, he laughed a lot and made jokes with Hohnen, interspersing takes with yips and howls, then he’d turn around and play an amazing piece of music. Of all the musicians I’ve interviewed, at all stages and ages and levels of popularity, not one of them has been as humble and naïve and truly free of hang-ups as Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. This is a man with his feet firmly on the ground, purely because he knows of no other way.

“That’s right,” agrees Hohnen. “He’s just being himself because that’s all he can be.”

***

During the writing of this piece, Gurrumul and Hohnen fly down to Sydney to do the accompanying photo shoot. I speak to Hohnen the night before and he’s excited because Gurrumul is “excited about the photo shoot”, the reason being he actually understands the gravity of appearing on the cover of a magazine such as this one. “For years I have had to put up with Gurrumul’s taste in music being different from mine,” Hohnen then wrote to me via email whilst the pair of them waited in the airline lounge in Darwin on their way to Sydney the next day.

“Sure we both like lots of the same music too, but Dr. Hook is never a band I bought CDs of…years ago I remember he says, “Michael, you like this one?” and plays me a scratched CD he is carrying around. It is the Dr. Hook song ‘Jungle To The Zoo’. Gurrumul loves it, and I do too. I never remember hearing it back in the ‘70s.

“So we go to the airline club and have some lunch waiting for the plane. I get out my phone and play a YouTube link to him. He starts laughing from the first few bars of the music – the funny and clever and entertaining Dr. Hook song, ‘The Cover Of The Rolling Stone’ comes blaring out of my phone, in the no-phone area of our lounge and a man looks over sternly at me. I don’t stop it because the pleasure of the moment is too great. Gurrumul, who ironically will never see it, is totally excited to be getting what one of his favourite bands sang about. It’s a great clip on YouTube too. It’s a Powerpoint presentation of lots of jpegs of famous Rolling Stone covers and I flick between watching it and Gurrumul’s grin, whilst he listens to the familiar recording, rocking, funking and clunking away.”

***

I ask Gurrumul who he writes these songs for. “It’s just a meaning, that song, it is just about that part of the mind,” he says, meaning ‘Ulminda’. I ask about songs in general. “Some for family, or other Yolngu (the collective noun for all north east Arnhem people who speak this language). Some for my father or uncle. Or kids to hear in the future. They’re stories, like everyone writes songs.”

I ask where these songs come from, how much he draws on his cultural past, his cultural identity (the saltwater crocodile), his people. “This one is what we know, Yolngu, what we know about how we know things,” he tells, still referencing the ‘Ulminda’ song, before expanding. “From our stories, and our life. Then I change them into songs. Like Balanda (white people) do too, you know?  We have a lot of knowledge, so when me or other family write things, it is just describing things that happen…it comes from spirit. I am just singing from spirit.”

I then ask about Gurrumul’s family and how they impact upon his music, how it’s relevant to them, despite the fact it’s been thrust into the western spotlight. “They are everything. All family,” he says. “I sing some song they write too. Like ‘Bayini’ on this new album, and a funeral song and another one by my brother Johnno Yunupingu, and another song by Saltwater lead singer Manuel (Dhurrkay).”

“My family encourage me,” he goes on. “They want this to be happening. They want people to know about Yolngu. Family and people just say this is what they want, to show what we know to the rest of the world. To educate people about our world and our lives, and how we think and live. It’s different. It’s different.

“My family is everywhere.”

***

I’d asked Hohnen at some point how it made him feel to watch Gurrumul really nail something. When he came in to play ‘Ulminda’ in particular – here he was, making the most of an imperfect situation, what with the piano being out of tune. Hohnen talked about Gurrumul’s strength, and it occurred to me that that performance was true of Gurrumul’s whole life. Here is a man in an imperfect situation, being blind from birth, making the most of it, and then some, which is something Hohnen attributes to all indigenous people. “Yeah, that’s part of their survival technique in a way,” he explains.

“But I see that everyday,” he goes on regarding Gurrumul’s strength as a person, as a musician and artist. “When there’s something he doesn’t want to do, there’s nothing that will change him. But when there’s something he does want to do, he really makes it happen. And that’s probably what’s happened more with this second record, there was no hesitation about anything to do with it; the New York trip, the Byron trip, the photo shoot…it’s just part of what happens.”

What has happened here, what I witnessed and what I’ve been told is almost mythical. Watching him play in the studio, smoking a cigarette with him outside, having him remember who I was and what I was doing, being able to communicate with him, albeit through Hohnen for the most part, this is all a surreal experience because of how he is. Gurrumul isn’t a ‘normal’ musician, and this has little to do with the fact he’s blind. Yes, his blindness does colour how he acts and portrays himself, because he can’t emulate other people, other performers.

But it’s all so real. And from that, comes this music. Rrakala. In an industry sense, an incredibly anticipated release, but in a musical sense, to Gurrumul, a collection of songs that tell a story and serve no other purpose than to educate and enlighten and to be enjoyed. As Hohnen mentioned more than a few times, it’s refreshing, Gurrumul himself is refreshing. In the ten seconds of silence that followed his off-the-cuff performance of ‘Ulminda’ when I first saw him in the studio, it’s like I’m transported into Gurrumul’s head where nothing else matters, everything is free and it’s all about that one, single moment. And yes,  that is refreshing.

Jerusalem… A Brief Portrait

[UNPUBLISHED]

Jerusalem throbs with a religious fervour, with a visceral sense of time and place, with tension you can almost cut and with a power that’s hard to put your finger on.

It swelters in summer heat, its maze of streets – in both the new and old cities – an indecipherable sprawl of foot-polished stone, undulating with the hillside, sharp left turns and dips, rivulets of some liquid or other coming to pool in the cracks, covered over with wet cardboard and shredded paper; detritus and bits and pieces that, at the end of the day, are hosed off and left to fester in the damp heat.

Damascus Gate

Outside the daunting Damascus Gate, perhaps the most formidable entrance to the Old City, long and black guns are strapped to uniformed fronts, tan pants tucked into boots planted firm on shining flagstones behind blue Police barriers. Inside the gate though, in the Old City on the final day of Ramadan, in the Muslim Quarter, the market booms and bustles and people throng. A seething mass bumping up against one another as they move from place to place, up steps, vanishing into dark corners behind the old rock, the giant walls disappearing behind as you descend into the maze, covered alleys decked with garments and plastic toys and sweets with names you can’t pronounce and shouldn’t pretend to.

We follow the stations of the cross and stop in small churches amidst lush gardens, oasis’ from the heat and noise outside. For the most part, they’re empty and quiet and our footsteps echo and we whisper just because. A lone woman kneels at the alter and starts to sing and her voice fills the entire space, ricocheting and furling back on itself and it sounds like a choir and stuns us to silence as we listen, before slowly fading out.

Temple Mount

The Temple Mount is closed and things are quiet at the Western Wall. We don yamakas and wander down to the ancient barrier and touch its smooth sides, think for a minute about what it all means. The tension doesn’t seem too heightened here, the sunshine layering the scene perhaps a pleasant distraction from what could, or what has, or what might happen. An electrifyingly religious place for so many with varied beliefs and opinions as to what it means, what happened, who has ownership, who can do what and when. The guns are still there, but they’re hanging loose and it all seems so calm.

Jordan (background)

Having dinner with the ABC middle east correspondent on the hill above town, Jordan visible through the heat haze as the sun sets. We talk shop and throw opinions and observations onto the table among the tall cans of Budweiser and bottles of red wine, olives and bread and shredded meat. Talk is cheap and as the wine flows, so to does the speculation. Half a dozen people from halfway around the world trying to dissect a place as tangled and gnarled as any on earth.

Flashes of gold from a way across the desert as the setting sun reflects back off glass in another country.

The streets around the Old City seem grey and listless. The closer you get, the busier it is though, cars and buses bumper to bumper, horns blaring. At the crossing, men and women of different religions and belief systems stand side by side, the minutia of the everyday relegating them from sworn enemies to mere people crossing the road together, with their shopping, to catch the bus, to head home, to pray, to pick up their children.

The market bustles and a young Asian man sprints past, accosts someone, seems his passport has been lifted from his pocket. The accosted man is indignant and the Asian kid nearly beside himself, potentially trapped somewhere he no longer wants to be.

Alleyways

James and I head out later, at night, to a shisha bar where we smoke giant pipes and drink cold Lebanese beer while discussing this and that. Stray cats play in the garden and jump from the trees. A young woman sitting by herself receives a birthday cake from the staff who sing to her, and we wonder why she’s there alone.

Ramadan had finished the day before, and having dinner high atop one of the local hotels, we hear what seems an explosion, but are told it’s just the signal for the sun setting and so the feast begins – seems an odd signal in this part of the world, an explosion. To get here from Tel Aviv, we’ve driven through the West Bank, a long and fast run through the desert which, before you realise, is bordered on both sides by high barbed-wire fences, cameras every fifty metres on tall poles, monitoring the scene… one doesn’t stop on this road, not even for a flat tyre, one just drives until the destination, either way, is reached.

We pass through checkpoints along the way, and the soldiers manning them look no older than seventeen.

You can see the Palestinian towns, marked by tall mosques, and the Israeli settlements, marked by red-tiled roofs and huge Israeli flags. It’s tense and I feel the car speed up a little. It seems so incongruous that this place, the West bank and Jerusalem itself, these volatile pits of possible violence and despair, are so close to Tel Aviv with its convivial feel and its cosmopolitan ambiance. They seem of different countries.

We leave Jerusalem after a couple of days having walked the flagstones and seen the people and the places. It still sat heavy and foreboding, despite the sun and the heat, a place that could erupt at any time and yet is so full of history and tales tall and true that one could get lost there for decades.

It recedes behind us in the rear-view mirror as we re-enter the West Bank, past checkpoints and guns, and seems like it wasn’t even ever real, just an imaginary place where trouble brews but where people just get on with life as if it’ll never change.

Samuel J. Fell

Lloyd Spiegel

[Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of Rhythms magazine]

TOMORROW ALWAYS COMES

With the release of his ninth album, LLOYD SPIEGEL opens a new chapter, with help from an old, writes SAMUEL J. FELL

A little over two years ago, Lloyd Spiegel closed a chapter in the already long and detailed book that is his musical life. With the release of 2015’s Double Live Set, this most prolific of musicians effectively set free the songs and the show that he’d been performing for the better part of two decades, a final send-off, if you will, of the sonic children that had come to define him.

Spiegel, as an artist, was at a point where he was eager to move on. This isn’t to say didn’t love those songs, that set, that period of his life, but creatively it was time to chart new territory, and so today, almost exactly two years later, a new chapter has been written; in the form of This Time Tomorrow, said chapter is about to be released into the world – a new batch of sonic spawn that will also, no doubt, come to define one of this country’s best guitarists, blues players and storytellers.

“You never know that your kid was ugly until other people start recoiling in horror,” he laughs, saying that for the first time, these songs haven’t been road-tested prior to being recorded, that while he loves them, no one else knows them. “So I’ve gone into it a little more unsure of what the album is, but it’s a good thing. It’s the way I’ve got to move forward.”

Moving forward is Spiegel’s modus operandi here, but don’t think for a minute that in doing so, he’s moved on from his roots. This Time Tomorrow is Spiegel’s most bluesy record in a long time (“I have come back home a little bit,” he confesses), incorporating within its blues ranks elements of rock and jazz to make an album that’s a coherent whole. What moves it forward and makes it so good though, and it is truly an excellent album, is the marriage as Spiegel says, of three elements he’s been simultaneously chasing for almost the entire time he’s been a professional musician – the combination of fine playing and good lyrics, meshed into the blues form.

“To be able to put lyrics that I’m proud of into a blues groove, has been a longtime goal,” he confirms over the phone from Prague, where at time of writing, he’s on tour. “I’ve always been a songwriter, a guitarist and a blues musician, [but] was never able to blend the three together. I’d had albums that were blues albums, or songwriter albums, or guitar albums, so I revisited that concept with this album.

“Songs like ‘Devil On My Shoulder’ and ‘Lost Like Me’, they weren’t written as blues tracks, they were written… with a minor key, drone thing, they were more singer-songwriter. Until I got back to Kansas City in February, where I re-recorded a bunch of stuff because I reconnected with my foundations which really lie in Kansas City where I spent so much time as a young man. So I actually re-wrote a bunch of this stuff to be more blues.

“When I really got to the heart of recording this album, I realised I wasn’t happy with what I was hearing, and what it was missing, was that soul that I have and I know it’s in there. So returning to that thumping blues sound freed the songs up immensely. And now I get an album where there’s plenty of cool guitar on there, it’s a blues record, and my lyrics actually have some importance to them. I feel like I’ve finally blended those three things.”

On the songwriting front, This Time Tomorrow is much more autobiographical than other releases, Spiegel “writing as it happens… this is a much more recent history, I mean, [‘Kansas City Katy’] is about Kansas City, in February,” he says. “And that’s kinda cool, they’re current stories.”

Current stories from a man starting a new chapter, all the while keeping true to his past with an eye on the future. This is what you can expect from Lloyd Spiegel, from now on.

This Time Tomorrow is available now via Only Blues Music and Spiegel’s website HERE.

 

Sunrise To Sunset – Yirrmal Leads A New Generation Of Indigenous Music

[Published in the summer issue of No Depression (US) – EXCERPT]

His voice is pure. High and strong, it thrums like taut wire, resonating with a power that belies his young age. At 22, Yirrmal Marika shows signs of a talent set to bloom — a talent that could one day see him placed alongside his mentor Archie Roach, or other seminal artists like Ruby Hunter, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, and Yothu Yindi, whose work has come to define an important part of Australian contemporary music and shine a light on often dark parts of Australia’s past.

“He’s an amazing young musician,” muses Roach. “When I hear Yirrmal sing live … it cuts right through you, it’s just so powerful.”

Last November, Yirrmal released his debut cut, an EP titled Youngblood. In commercial music terms, it’s essentially a folk album: largely acoustic, it features storytelling set to a simple sound, with an emphasis on the lyrical content as opposed to the instrumentation. It showcases the young man’s emerging songwriting talent, his skill on the guitar, his passion for what he’s doing. It’s not a release that’ll shake the music world to its core, but Youngblood offers a glimpse of what the Australian roots music scene can expect in the years to come. It is a foundation from which Yirrmal will no doubt build as he comes to terms with his talent, solidifies his vision, and immerses himself further into his ancient heritage and its culture and philosophies.

Yirrmal is a Yolngu man, an indigenous Australian. Hailing from Yirrkala, in northeast Arnhem Land on the northern edge of the country — locals call it the Top End — his people have one of the oldest cultures on the planet. It’s from this ancient tradition that Yirrmal draws inspiration. It informs his music; it’s the fertile earth in which his very being is rooted.

Yet, despite the fact he sings mainly in the Yolngu language — putting to song the stories of time and creation passed down from one generation to the next by his people — he sets his stories to Western folk music. This is where his sound intersects with that of his mentor. Roach, a man of both Gunditjmara and Bundjalung heritage — and one of the most respected musicians in Australia, indigenous or otherwise — is also largely a folk player, and has been since his debut release, Charcoal Lane, back in 1990.

While Yirrmal and Roach are touchstone artists, they’re also just two of many indigenous Australians who have combined their storytelling traditions with a Western musical form, whether it be folk, country, blues, soul, gospel, rock and roll, or hip-hop. Indeed, indigenous musicians utilising Western music has become such a part of the Australian music world since it became mainstream here in the early 1990s that it’s no longer regarded as odd, surprising, or a genre of its own merely because its purveyors are of a different race. Indigenous culture, after all, is built on the tradition of passing down stories and legends, so this tradition translates well to Western songwriting styles.

“It’s just progression,” reasons Roach. “Yirrmal especially. His music surrounds a lot of his stories and culture. For years, we’ve been doing it — it’s just an aspect of storytelling or communicating. [Adding] Western instruments, like guitars, keyboards … is just a continuation of that old culture [of] communicating and educating.”

Tel Aviv… A Brief Portrait

[UNPUBLISHED]

Tel Aviv shimmers rippled gold from the midnight desert. A sprawling jewel against black from the tiny airplane window, disappears as we bank left, reappears on the far side. Closer now. The thud as we touch down and reverse thrust and finally, still.

From verdant English countryside to layers of burnt orange and gold, a layer of dust covers it all in a dull warmth, the heat from the dying day a slow and languid wash that envelops you as you navigate the airport, Hebrew lettering and blue and white flags and shawls draped and flaccid in the marble quiet.

In the old town, Jaffa and its ancient port, lights are lit and music tumbles from old, arched doorways despite the time of day and we sit on the top deck and drink Israeli beer after we’ve put her to bed and we catch up, smoking in the still air, wafting upward. The new city burns bright in the middle distance, white light, while below us basks in yellow, the flickering painting the cobbled streets in ever-changing layers of light and shade. Stray cats prowl and the purple bougainvillea spews over an old grey wall like spent beer from a bottle left in the freezer overnight.

The next day we wander the maze of the port, ancient and labrynthian, tiny galleries and churches hewn into rock on the side of the hill rolling up from the water. We stand on the hilltop and look across the half-moon bay. Sunlight, ever-present, dances on the water, on the stone, off the pale walls of houses shuttered against the building heat. The cats sit in the shade in high places and watch from under lidded eyes.

Across Yefet Street, into the flea market and its own twisted alleys and underpasses, antique dealers’ wares spill onto the roadways. We sit outside a café under an orange umbrella and drink weak black coffee with small glasses of water as people wander past – young and old, some with children hanging off them, in prams and strapped to chests, men on scooters with cigarettes hanging from lips and mobile phones pressed against their ears, the sound of car horns always on the breeze which comes in from the Mediterranean and becomes a part of the city noise like the talking and the yelling, the call to prayer and the music from weddings and churches, Arabic music and Jewish music, the occasional burst of a western sound, cars and trucks and bikes through the round-about at the clock tower, horns and shouting, street hawkers and people gawking and yelling.

The sound of a city shifting restlessly in the midday heat.

In the mornings, I strap her to me and we walk for an hour or so while she sleeps. I pick up one of the newspapers thrown on the front step and tuck it into my back pocket should I come across somewhere to drink coffee while we’re out but I never do, nothing is open this early. We have the old streets to ourselves and we make for the water, along the foreshore, into the maze of the port and upward, upward, steps and slopes, warn smooth from centuries of feet, so many feet, up to the crown of the hill overlooking it all and down the other side. Across the wishing bridge. Past the church facing west. Into the shade and bustle of Yefet and into the market where nothing is open and we’re hidden from the sun under shade of narrow paths and old, faded sun-shades stretched across alleys entwined with electrical wires and ornate strands of fairy lights and wreaths of coloured cloth.

We get home before she wakes and I make coffee in the kitchen and sit out the back under the passionfruit vine and read the paper until she wakes up and we have breakfast together as the rest of the house stirs and comes to join us

Everything is burnt orange and gold and there’s a layer of dust that covers it all in a dull warmth and yet it shimmers with a vibrant colour and sheen, polishing the edges and washing the roadways of rubbish and refuse, detritus from centuries of use and overuse and underuse, and the green-blue Mediterranean gently pushes up against its edge and the palm trees bow in the breeze and Tel Aviv exists, shimmering rippled gold in the midnight desert.