Remembering Dr. G Yunupingu

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


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


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.


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]


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


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.

Feature In No Depression Magazine (US) – Yirrmal & Indigenous Australian Music

Appearing in the summer issue of legendary American roots music magazine No Depression, SJF has a long feature on up-and-coming artist Yirrmal, and the scope, influence and identity of indigenous Australian contemporary music.

Issue out in mid-May.

And consider subscribing to No Depression – for only $6 a month, you can support ad-free, in-depth arts journalism. Head to the website HERE.

LIVE – Byron Bay Bluesfest, 2017

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

Bluesfest 2017 – A Celebration Of Eclecticism, by Samuel J. Fell

Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay – April 13-17

(for all pics by Carl Neuman, head to the Rolling Stone website here for slideshow…)

While the others get their bags from the back of the truck, pull on boots and check pockets, I lean against the bullbar and roll a cigarette. There’s no breeze to speak of and so the smoke drifts straight upward into the clear evening air. It’s warm enough for shirtsleeves, but cool enough for jeans, boots, the rains of the past month, the tail-end of the destructive Cyclone Debbie, all but gone, nothing here to remind of the devastation, the damage, the life-changing consequences of which are still evident elsewhere, but not here.

The carpark was under water a week and a half ago but today, this evening, it’s dry and lush grass, no mud, cars parked in orderly rows, stretching off as far as you can see. The sun is setting and the sound of a frantic kick drum thuds across the vast spaces, people flocking towards it, walking past us, around us, heading towards the North Gate and entry into the Byron Bay Bluesfest, this year gearing up for its 28th go ‘round.

We stroll in the same direction, and as we mix with the throng, I’m already looking for The Face. As Hunter S. Thompson tried to do in his iconic Kentucky Derby piece from 1970, I’m looking for The Face which best epitomises this gargantuan festival, that truly represents all that this happening is about. In truth, I’m not so much looking for The Face, as I am The Person – the person, their dress, their demeanour, their very being, that sums up how this all plays out. For the past 28 years, as this festival has grown into the multi-faceted event it is today, so to have its followers and so I’m looking for the one which best brings it all together, which tells the tale as it should be told.

I discreetly gauge people from the corner of my eye as we pass them, looking them up and down, trying to ascertain if they’re the one I’m searching for or not.

A grizzly old fucker, glimpsed mid-laugh, gaping mouth with only a handful of teeth (fair bet some bloody-knuckled lout in some sweat and smoke-stained barroom somewhere, has the other handful), a grotesque image that seems to freeze as it happens, and it sticks in my mind for hours afterwards.

Once inside, I meander up to the Media tent and am offered an interview with Rhiannon Giddens, which I take and am escorted into the artist area, where I sit with Giddens and guitarist/producer Dirk Powell for twenty minutes, talking about her latest cut, Freedom Highway, and her impression on a festival she’s appearing at this year for the second time.

“There are a couple of different criteria, for an artist,” Giddens says, on how she rates Bluesfest. “First of all, there’s vibe of the festival, and there’s the nuts and bolts, how they take care of you as an artist. And this one hits all of it… they help us set up the sideshows, and they take care of us from day one. I’ve always said, you feed a musician good, they’ll follow you around forever, you know what I mean?”

She and Powell both laugh. We finish up and I head back out, down the long road between the Mojo and Crossroads stages and out into the festival itself, hungry for music having spoken to Giddens, lured by the bright lights of food and clothing stalls, the flashing strobes on stages, navigating the sparsely populated site with ease (Thursday is unofficially referred to as Locals Thursday, the big crowds not in attendance until Friday, room to move and stretch, see bands in a more intimate setting, a good soft warm-up for the days to come).

I see Snarky Puppy who lay down steaming swathes of dissonant prog, a thundering set that thrashes about seemingly at random but which then comes back to where it should, continuing on without missing a beat. It’s not an easy listen, but essentially follows the rules and so after one is used to it, it’s easy to tap your feet to, to at least guess where they’re going next.

Which can’t really be said for the Miles Electric Band, who follow up on the Crossroads Stage. Not that they’re not exemplary musicians (a good portion of the band appeared on Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew, and his nephew is behind the kit), but this is jazz, real jazz, Davis Jazz – it bucks and humps, ducks and weaves about, this is truly dissonant. It pulses with a real power though, because you know, through the squeaks and squawks, the thunder and the pitter patter that this is what it’s supposed to be. Players go off on instrumental solos from which there seems no return; there are rhythmic sojourns and horn-laden freak-outs – the crowd is small but they dig it, and the set is good and strong, something different, something you feel is real, long after it all mysteriously winds up.

An old woman, surely closing in on 90, sitting on an upturned milk crate at the back of the Delta stage, draped in rainbow cassock with sandals on her feet, her long and stringy grey hair down to the small of her arched back. She’s delicately eating some sort of frozen ice-block, a dangerous purple colour, careful not to let it melt on her hand as she taps her feet to the roadie sound-checking the bass drum up on stage, a seeming world away from where she’s sat.

Glimpses: Mavis Staples (The Queen) plays out with soulful aplomb once more on the Jambalaya Stage; Nikki Hill and band (what a band), shred the Delta Stage into millions of tiny pieces; Jeff Lang, with Greg Sheehan on percussion, creates small tempests that gust hard before slowing tenderly and then upping again, one of the most inventive players on the planet; Eric Gales, who festival director Peter Noble calls “the best guitarist in the world”, wields his instrument like a weapon, bass and drums behind him, backing vocals, they breathe new life into the electric blues; Booker T. Jones leading the STAX Revue, a critical time in musical history brought to life, somewhat, in Byron Bay, a little flat but very hard to deny the strength of the music itself; Mud Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters, a crack backing band who specialise in steaming Chicago blues – Morganfield has a strong voice (luckily, otherwise this’d just be a wan tribute act), and he takes control and this is good, solid, robust and muscular blues.

I walk up to the Mojo Stage late on the Thursday night to see Patti Smith and band perform her seminal 1975 release, Horses. It’s a visceral set, a lithe and lanky thing which confuses then consumes and keeps consuming, Smith’s band consummate in the background, Smith out the front a Beacon as she begins to build and build the set, brick by brick, line by line, as she starts to find within herself the rhythm which the rest of the hour or so then forms.

“THIS FUCKING CORRUPT WORLD,” she almost vomits this line, her face creased with disgust and it’s a line which sticks hard in my head and I’m not even sure what it’s in reference to, so lost am I in the cadence of her voice, the rhythm with which she’s railing, her voice and the bile and passion rising and falling to the rhythm of her own making, her band, her tight band, almost superfluous by this point – she spits fire and venom, she’s lost no heat with the passing of time, with the onset of age, her long braided grey hair whips her face, her long and pointed aquiline nose juts from her face like a single, defiant mountain, pointing wherever she projects her piercing eyes… this isn’t so much music as it is poetry and brimstone and disgust and hate and power and passion. So much passion. There are tears in the audience. There’s a heat, a tingling around the heart like everyone, to a man, has been stirred and wants, nay needs, to do something.

It’s a set which has, according to Noble, been a good few years in the making, but it’s worth the wait and there’s little one can do afterwards but head home to the comfort of bourbon and beer chasers, kicking off boots and settling into bed and quiet.

A young girl, maybe 20, sitting cross-legged on the grass in the sun behind the Crossroads Stage, immaculately dressed, carefully and fastidiously applying thick, red lipstick to narrow pale lips, oblivious to the myriad people stepping around her, gazing into her small mirror painting deep red with an almost translucent, careful hand.

Friday through Sunday bring full houses, not so much a crowd as a crush, a roaring, seething, shouting mass of skin and bone, sweaty muscle in multi-coloured muslin and floppy hats, bumping from one stage to the next, the bars and food queues, ATM lines and clumps of people grouped on the grass, tripping over deck chairs in the dark, strollers lit with fairy lights, small children on shoulders with pink ear-muffs and mouthfuls of organic donut.

Courtney Barnett is great on Thursday, grinding melodic grunge, a true urban poet telling takes most ordinary, so ordinary they’re relatable to all and this is what makes it work. Nas, with the brassy N’Awlins Soul Rebels backing, searingly combines these two musical forms and it kicks, it’s thundering second-line hip hop, the horns feeding the beat, Nas himself feeding back off it all, rap on brass, the sousaphone providing the bass.

An old bloke, the epitome of the acid-washed-out generation, adorned in glitter shirt and pink sunglasses, rainbow sombrero atop his balding pate, strung with wreathes of yellow rubber duckies – a photographer spies him and asks him to pose, which he does, but with shirt open revealing a spilling, white, slightly speckled gut, it queers an already dubious deal.

By comparison, another ‘90s hip hop superstar, Mary J. Blige, is comparatively beige. Blige is an exemplary performer, her band are tight, but as I noted at the time in my daily Rolling Stone wrap-up, her rather slow R&B seems dated, she herself a little less energetic. Perhaps the power and passion exhibited by Nas, the previous night, paints Blige’s set in a paler light, the latter just not able to come out of that tall shadow. Blige is good, but this one doesn’t kick.

For mine, the same could be said (and it pains me to say this about one of my favourite acts on the planet) for Buddy Guy’s set, at least his Sunday run. The last of the old school bluesmen, Guy is finally showing his age, he’s a little slower and seems a little more scattered than on previous visits, his usual flowing medleys stop-starting, Guy adding commentary before playing the next snippet, killing any sense of momentum. That said, when Guy sets his fingers right, he still wails with the best, in fact he is one of the best, still firing. Perhaps the last time we’ll see him in Australia though.

I wander down to the Juke Joint stage in the early Friday afternoon heat to see up-and-comer Yirrmal perform as part of the Boomerang Festival but a lineup change sees party-starters OKA in his place, so I catch a bit of them and while they’re solid, I find the beat a bit too heavy for this time of day, and so head off lamenting not being able to hear Yirrmal’s voice in the live setting, where word is it truly shines. No matter, for there’s no doubt he’ll be back here again, on the main bill – and while we’re on this, I look forward to the day Boomerang attracts enough investors to launch properly on its own as a champion of indigenous music and culture, but kudos to Noble and Bluesfest for continuing to support it in the meantime, even if all the acts involved would fit just fine in Bluesfest proper.

And while we’re on ‘festivals within festivals’, Carlos Santana and band create their own unique event on the Sunday night, a rhythmic juggernaut from which there seems little respite, not that anyone wants any – this booms and throbs, Santana’s guitar instantly recognisable, particularly via Abraxas mainstays Black Magic Woman and Oye Coma Va, classic tracks set against a starry sky that are truly beautiful to behold. The crowd heaves and it’s a street party in tent but it bursts at the seams and overflows into the rest of the festival and people dance regardless of age, gender, face, inhibition.

A young kid, maybe ten years old, marching with committed resolve towards the South Gate from the hot and listless carparks, lagging behind his parents clutching two cucumbers, one half eaten, clutching them like someone will take them away, intent on eating both flavourless vegetables before someone tells him he can’t bring them inside and he’s left with nothing.

Bonnie Raitt stuns on Friday night, her band in tow, a true leading lady of the roots music world; Jimmy Buffett confuses, veering from country (which is deep and solid) to calypso, which is light-hearted and, to my mind, lacks substance, but the Parrotheads (his diehard, and slightly loony, followers) disagree and in their purple shirts, parrot hats and coloured beads and what not, they cheer and dance and revel in what this most odd and famous of men is laying down, he dances on stage and looks like a red-cheeked gnome, playing guitars and generally being happy, which one gets the impression, is his main state of being. They do a calypso, steel drum-led version of Crowded House’s Weather With You, which as you would imagine, garners much love, dozens of parrots nodding in unison, which is indeed, an odd sight, and one to behold for sure.

“We wanted to reclaim a language, it’s not a dead language,” says Joe Henry, referencing the railroad-inspired folk songs he and Billy Bragg followed, researched, lived in making their recent record, Shine A Light. They play them together on the Jambalaya stage on Monday afternoon, their voices rising as one, two acoustic guitars, Americana and blues and folk slipping off the stage wrapping up all in attendance, the belief this pair have in the music the true power behind it – a festival highlight.

At the same time, across the way, Australian blues and roots icon Lloyd Spiegel, in his first Bluesfest appearance, holds his own full house in the palm of his hand, just him and his trusty Cole Clark, a full swag of songs, a full tote of stories told with humour and aplomb, the man able to make his guitar do anything at all as he tells tales both tall and true, his own superbly written material marrying with blues standards in a way few others are able to manage. The man is a mountain, and he’ll surely be back.

Glimpses: Melody Angel is possessed of a rare power, her voice an anvil from which are forged songs of immense strength, Chicago blues and rock ‘n’ roll, she graces stages all weekend and slays it every time; the Zac Brown Band, big American slick country, full ensemble, all of whom are experts on their chosen instruments – I don’t like their records, but live they’re another deal altogether and it’s hard not to get drawn into their world, whether quiet and reflective or raunchy and country, it’s all full force music shined to a Nashville sheen, their version of Charlie Daniels’ Devil Went Down To Georgia a highlight, thanks in large part to the fiddle playing of Jimmy de Martini.

Spell Design-clad blondes with reflective Ray Bans and floppy felt hats; older, well-heeled couples in button-down shirts and crisp shorts, camping chairs slung over shoulders with water bottles and sensible hats; bearded blokes with Jack Daniels t-shirts and leather Harley Davidson vests; beer-brand singleted bros, stumbling about in packs, three cans apiece, six sheets to the wind; faux hippies and harpies, mods and rockers, clean and feral, stoned and clear.

I don’t find The Face. And no, as it is in Thompson’s story, the face isn’t mine, as cracked, chipped and vaguely distorted as the old mirror into which I gaze come Tuesday morning. For there really is no one face that, truthfully, defines what this festival is all about. Whether your aim is to spend five days sitting on the same stool in the VIP bar, talking with whoever comes near, or whether it’s to find yourself as much music as you possibly can, tripping through the throngs as you traverse the festival site again and again, there is no one face.

As, with the festival, there is no one sound, style, genre or artist. Bluesfest, despite its name, is an eclectic beast, one which strives to find and showcase the best in roots music, and this is a wide umbrella – as such, it heaves and thrashes, a multi-limbed beast, eclectic, one that doesn’t just tick a single box, but dozens. The people who patronise it are the same, all different, all odd and strange in their own way, and this all combines to make the Byron Bay Bluesfest what it’s become over the years. And this is a good thing to be sure.

As we wander out the South Gate, late on the Monday night, having traversed the grassy site dozens of times, having gulped at the sonic stew with countless others, bumped and been bumped, laughed and pointed, eyed off, sucked down, imbibed and over-eaten, it’s with a stinging sense of completion, not a sense of wanting, and despite the fact I didn’t find The Face, I found the sound, the sounds, from all around, and so there’s little to do but retire home to the comfort of bourbon and beer chasers, kicking off boots and settling into bed and quiet and beginning to count down, once again, the days until next year.

Samuel J. Fell

Eric Gales

[Published in issue #533 of The Big Issue]


ERIC GALES is a bluesman for the current generation, fusing myriad styles to create something new, as he tells SAMUEL J. FELL

Eric Gales grew up in a household where roots music was king, these old musical forms providing a sonic backdrop from which he’s never strayed. Memphis in the 1970s was still a blues, soul, rock and gospel mecca, and it was here that the young Gales soaked it all up.

“My parents would be playing gospel, and my brother, Eugene, he’d be playing blues,” Gales recalls on his early exposure to the music he now has flowing through his veins. “Then, [over the years] I was introduced to a whole range of other styles… and I just tried to figure out a way to fuse them.”

Hailed early on as a child prodigy on the guitar, Gales released his first album as a teenager, a heady melding of a range of rootsy designs with a strong rock presence, a fusion as he says. And this has been his signature ever since – based in the blues yes, the blues will always be number one to Gales, but he fosters a want to explore the myriad possibilities thrown up via hybrids of multiple styles.

“You’ve got your classic 1,3,5 blues, shuffles and this and that, and that can be restricting,” he says on his need to explore. “I like to make it new and fresh… so giving [the blues] a new twist, is something I think will draw in new audiences, new ears and eyes, and if I can be the [champion] for that, then I gladly accept the challenge.”

Touring regularly from an early age, spending time behind bars in 2009 on drugs and weapons charges, writing and recording with a slew of collaborators (including Carlos Santana, with whom he may well guest at the upcoming Byron Bay Bluesfest, where both artists are performing), Eric Gales has lived the life of a bluesman; sometimes chaotic and dark, other times triumphant and free, but always following the musical path, imbued within him from an early age, the ethos and philosophies that have been drilled into him ever since.

“For me, it’s a combination of both; capturing the vibe of the old days, with the passion of now,” he says on what’s it like being a bluesman in 2017, a far cry from the days when the likes of Son House, Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy were plying their trade. As Gales says however, it’s not the time that defines this genre, but the passion that’s put into it by whomever is playing it.

“I think I’m managing to do that, combine these two [with passion], in an uncompromising way. Still respecting the old style, but using it as a foundation for the new, 2017 order, a [new] spin.”

It always comes back to the “new spin”, the fusion – Gales’ latest release, Middle Of The Road, his fifteenth studio album, has been described as, not a blues, rock or soul album, but an Eric Gales album, such has this “new spin” become his trademark. And he’s pretty happy with that, comfortable within the style he’s fashioned for himself.

Middle Of The Road stands as a sort of reinvention for this modern bluesman too, inspired by all he’s gone through thus far (ailed H“Just life man, surviving,” he laughs, explaining the inspiration in a nutshell). As he says in the record’s accompanying press material, “It’s about being fully focused and centered in the middle of the road. If you’re on the wrong side and in the gravel you’re not too good, and if you’re on the median strip that’s not too good either, so being in the middle of the road is the best place to be.”

Tracks like ‘Change In Me (The Rebirth)’ stand as testament to this, the man and the musician taking stock and deciding on a purer path, not one destined to lead him astray. Middle Of The Road is a freewheeling affair, bouncing from soul to rock to blues and back again, and yet in Gales’ hands, it all comes together in a way which doesn’t seem disjointed or patched together – such is his understanding of how these myriad styles may conflict, but also compliment.

It hasn’t hurt he’s brought in a few ringers to help him out too. “Oh man, they made it that much better,” he beams, referring to his brother Eugene (with whom he’s played in bands for years), Gary Clark Jr, Lauryn Hill and funk legend Raphael Saadiq, to name but a few. “If I have the opportunity to do this again, I’ll do exactly the same thing [with the same people].”

Blues/rock behemoth Joe Bonamassa has said of Gales, “[He] is one of the best, if not the best, guitar player in the world.” Dave Navarro of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers has also opined, “How [he] isn’t the hugest name in rock guitar is a total mystery.” Roots music works in mysterious ways, sometimes its best purveyors remaining anonymous to the greater unwashed, and yet it doesn’t stop them – Gales is testament to this. A modern bluesman, continually doing his thing, teaching an old genre new tricks, continually reinventing as he goes.

Eric Gales and band make their Australian debut at the Byron Bay Bluesfest, April 13-17.

The Waifs

[Published in the March / April issue of Rhythms magazine]


The Waifs celebrate twenty-five years with eighth record Ironbark, which is dedicated to their many fans, and sees them return to their informal roots, writes Samuel J. Fell

 Think back twenty-five years. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? There aren’t many of us who can, firstly, remember, but secondly, claim to have been doing something we’re still doing now, having grown it exponentially over the course of a quarter century.

The Waifs can remember what they were doing – forming the band which this year celebrates this silver anniversary. It seems almost too hard to believe, that this trio – sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson, and Josh Cunningham (bulked out by drummer David Ross McDonald and pedal steel player/bassist Ben Franz) – are still going strong after such a long time. But it’s not, upon further reflection, that surprising at all. They’re one of Australia’s most loved bands, a group whose rootsy bonhomie, whose uniquely Antipodean tales of wanderlust and homeward bound, wind-swept and salt-encrusted, love and casual and barefoot and free, have endeared them to many.

It’s actually little wonder they’re still going strong.

Thorn, these days based in Utah with her family, cites there being “a lot of love between us and what we do”, as the secret to this success and longevity. “We’re family,” she says, “we love playing music, we love performing music, and we love connecting with people through music.”

There’s another part to it however, that “I don’t really talk about,” she confesses – this part goes deeper. “The band’s always been a democratic process as to what’s recorded, what goes onto albums, how [the albums are] recorded, basically it’s sort of fight for your song a little bit, get out-voted.”

“So there’s always been an element of compromise, as artists,” she says. “And I think that’s as big a part of the longevity – the fact we’ve, as individuals, always been willing to compromise, slightly, what we ultimately wanted in order for the band to go ahead and for the albums to come out. Every album we put out, there’s always a bit of an argument as to what songs should or shouldn’t go on there, and how they should be recorded, but in the end we’re looking at a bigger picture, and we realise that The Waifs is made up of three individuals, and what I love is not necessarily what everyone else is going to love… within all that compromise, something works.”

It does. From their eponymous debut in 1996, all the way through to 2015’s Beautiful You, the band have thrived. Sure, not everything is perfect all the time, but as a band The Waifs have endured and along the way produced seven records, each of which have brought them closer to their legions of fans the world over, fans who have literally grown up with the band, one big family, moving together.

“We’re having more fun, and we enjoy this more than we ever have, now,” Thorn says with an obvious smile. “Over a twenty-five period, obviously you have high points and you have low points, and there’s been a lot of both of those, but right now it’s sort of flat-lining into this very enjoyable part of our career. We have our lives and families, and then we get to go on tour when we want to tour, how we want to tour, where we want to play, total artistic control, and we do it because we want to be there.

“We love playing music, and music now for us all is so intuitive and natural. So it’s a great place to be, I’m stoked.”

This great place, twenty-five years into a career, has yielded more results – the band’s eighth studio record, Ironbark. And it’s the aforementioned fans of the band to whom this one is dedicated. “Waifs fans are legendary in the industry for their loyalty and enthusiasm,” Thorn is quoted as saying in the album’s accompanying press material. “It feels like we all grew up together. We are now the band you can bring your parents and your kids to hear! Your involvement in our career means everything to us. You are the very reason we are still playing music together, twenty-five years on.”

“This would be a release that was not so much about what we wanted, but what would our fans want,” she says today, on one aspect of what they wanted with Ironbark. “It’s not about us doing one thing or another, lets just approach this like, lets put out a really simple release that’s something we think fans would like to hear.”

It was this line of thinking that led the three of them to Cunningham’s unfinished home on the NSW south coast, where around the kitchen table, in a circle together, they began making this new album; true Waifs style, loose and casual, which as Thorn says, is what they felt fans would like.

“So we made the plan to meet up in Josh’s unfinished house, and that was the extent of it,” she explains. At that point, other than wanting to make an album to thank their fans, they had little idea of what they wanted to come out with. There’d been no pre-production, no back-and-forth, just a germ of an idea that was to make a record.

“People asked me, what we were going to record, but I really had no idea,” she remembers. “We talked about doing a bunch of covers, find some classic covers we love, maybe re-work some old songs. And then we got there, and it was so informal and so relaxed that these songs just started coming… and it just went from there.”

That it did – Ironbark sits at twenty-five tracks (quite apropos), a veritable king-tide of inspiration hitting the three as they sat in Cunningham’s home over a two week period, working out how it would all come together. The three of them don’t write together, songwriting itself is a very solitary thing for all of them, but once songs started coming, it seems they were all able to bind together to bring them to life. Quite quickly in many instances.

“It was very formal and unplanned, and I think that’s the beauty of it,” Thorn says. “And the fact we recorded all live and some of the takes that are on the album, are literally the third or fourth time we’d ever played the song.

“And as a result of that, I can hear in some of those songs the tension – musically, there’s a tension in the songs because we’re all listening [to it], like, ‘Where does this go again?’ And we’re all really holding back a little bit, and it creates a really nice tension to some of those tracks, that I can hear. It was the best recording experience we’ve had.”

The results speak for themselves – an album to celebrate a quarter century together, an album recorded in such an informal fashion, an album created to thank the myriad fans the band has garnered over the course of these two and a half decades. It sees The Waifs in a special place too, one which as Thorn said, is one of the best places they’ve been.

“Twenty-five years is a long time in the life of a band, but not in the life of an Ironbark tree,” Cunningham has been quoted as saying. “Resilient and enduring it stands strong through the changing seasons, surviving hardship and adversity, all the while contributing something beautiful and positive to the world. A perfect metaphor of the journey of so many people that are dear to me, and the most perfect metaphor for The Waifs. Earthy, organic, enduring and Australian to the core.”

Indeed, the perfect metaphor to describe the band, and the perfect way to sum up Ironbark, an album sure to strike at the hearts of people the world over, who have grown with this uniquely Australian group.

Ironbark is available from March 3, via Jarrah Records.