Well Vaughan

[Published in Rhythms Magazine, Mar/Apr 2020)

After more than half a century playing the blues, Jimmie Vaughan is an icon – and he doesn’t just play the blues, writes Samuel J. Fell

Jimmie Vaughan’s dogs are barking. You can hear them, faint, in the background, running riot on his ranch, a little ways outside of Austin, Texas, where he’s lived for years.

It’s the ranch that blues built. Somewhere to come and recuperate while not on the road, rest the metaphorical barking dogs. Somewhere to perhaps contemplate over half a century spent grinding out the gritty and muscular version of this music particular to Texas. It’s a brand of the blues made famous by the House of Vaughan, Jimmie and little brother Stevie Ray indeed synonymous with Stratocasters wielded in just such a way as to make one think of nothing other than the Lone Star State, and that’s just how it’s been ever since way back when.

Vaughan is a lot older now, but he’s not pulled back. Age hasn’t slowed his flying fingers, it hasn’t dulled his rockslide voice. Age has, in no way at all, blunted his love of this music, of this feeling.

“What I love about it, is so many things,” he says after a pause, thinking on what at face value is a simple question, but that really has depths and depths – what is it about the blues that you love?

“I love the theme, about a man and a woman, about being in love, or not being in love, it’s about life. It’s the same as a Hank Williams record, you know?

“I mean, you have what we call the head, the head of the song which is the theme, but in the middle, the solos are wide open… [the possibilities] are endless, and it’s easy to change as you go along. Your guitar playing kinda moves a little this way, a little that way – you’re really playing what you feel, at that moment, that’s the plan.”

Vaughan talks of these song middles being played “in real time”, meaning, in the true spirit of electric blues in general and Texas blues specifically, that they’re never played the same way twice, as every time you’re playing a song and the opportunity comes up to really move, to ad-lib, as he says, you can go wherever you’re feeling you need to go.

Where Jimmie Vaughan has been, in a broader sense, is everywhere. It began for him in Dallas, Texas, where be began to tread the path he’s now worn for countless others, back in the late ‘50s and through the ‘60s – “If I didn’t do this, there wasn’t any other plan,” he’s been quoted as saying. “But even as a kid I knew I loved music, and particularly the blues.”

Other bands in Dallas weren’t really hitting it for the young guitarist though and so right at the tail-end of the ‘60s, just after the fabled summer of love (which wouldn’t have made too much of an impression in Texas, one would think), Vaughan relocated to Austin, the state’s thriving musical hub, and it was here that he began to find what it was he was looking for.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds, the group for which Vaughan is most well-known, debuted in 1974, a group made up of local blues aficionados all schooled at local venue Antone’s, a tough and ready blues group who released four albums between ’79 and ’82 before losing their recording contract, regaining it in ’86, and releasing three more albums before Vaughn left the group in 1990.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds travelled the globe, their music, sound and general sonic motif informed as much by Vaughan’s guitar as it was Kim Wilson’s voice and harmonica. This was, at the time, where Jimmie Vaughn belonged.

Things change though. Vaughan left the group; his younger brother died tragically in a helicopter crash, just after the pair had recorded their first album together; his priorities changed.

Jimmie Vaughan’s first solo album, 1994’s Strange Pleasure(which contained the Stevie Ray tribute, ‘Six Strings Down’) was the gateway to a new era of the guitarist’s life, an era which has extended and extended, an era still going. Indeed, this is his era, and things are different now.

“When I first started playing, I was in a band that was really working, we were making money,” he recalls. “We had to play some of the Top 40 stuff… we were playing at colleges and people like that, they wanted to hear certain things. But now, I get to make a record and just play whatever I want to hear. And usually, there’s fans there that like the same kind of thing. That’s the difference.”


Vaughan’s latest release is Baby, Please Come Home(May, 2019). It is, in a sense, a tribute album, continuing a trend he’s been toying with over recent releases, “a series of albums dedicated to the songs he’s always held in high esteem, recorded by artists that inspired him from his very earliest days of performing.”

(On how he managed to distil to a mere eleven tracks songs which have had such an influence on him, he says it’s relatively easy – first, does he like the song? Second, can he sing it? He and the band then “try a lot of stuff, and if it works we keep doing it, if it doesn’t work we don’t do it.”)

So Baby, Please Come Homeis a tribute, a paean to the players who’ve had a role, no matter how small, in shaping this iconic player. What’s interesting about the track choices then, and if you’re familiar with the music of Jimmie Vaughan it’s not that surprising, is the range of influence.

Yes, the blues is there. It’s there in Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown’s ‘Midnight Hour’ and Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby, What’s Wrong’. It’s there in Chuck Willis’s ‘What’s Your Name’ and T-Bone Walker’s ‘I’m Still In Love With You’. But there’s also R&B, jazz and soul (Lloyd Price, Etta James and Bill Doggett), doo-wop (Richard Berry) and country and folk (Lefty Frizell and Jimmy Donley). It’s a mixed bag of influence, all done over with Vaughn’s trademark brush.

“I do a lot of old, what they call hillbilly songs,” he explains, on something he’s always done, not just for this record. “But I do ‘em as if I didn’t know they were hillbilly.”

“I love all that stuff… my uncles, when I was a kid, my uncles on both sides of the family were in hillbilly bands, they played country and western and all those kinds of things,” he goes on. “When I was a kid, I didn’t really understand the difference. I just think of it as American music, country music, blues, it’s all the same thing, really.”

Technically then, Jimmie Vaughan isn’t really a blues player – as was noted in a recent review of Baby, Please Come Home, “Vaughn completely ignores modern electric blues trends… the past is present and future.” So what does he call himself?

“People call me blues, and they understand what it is, so I say yes,” he shrugs. “But if you ask me what I’m doing, I’m just playing songs that I really like and that I remember from when I was a kid. And once in a while we write one, which sounds like the old ones.”

He breaks off his thought to laugh, like it’s funny this music has so seeped into his psyche that he can’t help but write like the music he knows and has known his entire life.

“You know, really I’m just doing what I love, that’s what I’m doing. And everybody should do that, right? Everybody should do that, everybody should do what they love.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” he then says, steering himself back on topic, still playing this music after more than half a century. “It doesn’t get old.”

He’s right. While the man himself might be getting on in years, while his dogs may be barking louder and more often, the music itself, the playing of the music, the sharing of the music with as many people as Jimmie Vaughan has, does not get old. It’s the blues, and in Jimmie Vaughan’s hands, it just keeps on keeping on.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jimmie Vaughn is no longer touring Australia in April 2020. Baby, Please Come Home is available now via The Last Music Co.

Main image credit – Skip Bolan

Cedric Burnside – The Legacy

[Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Rhythms magazine]


Cedric Burnside comes from storied roots, and while he’s his own musician, he’s keeping true to the soul of the music that defines him, writes Samuel J. Fell

Cedric Burnside answers the phone, says he’s expecting my call. I tell him I’ve been looking forward to chatting and he smiles, “All right, all right,” he says. He’s at home in Holly Springs, Mississippi, enjoying some time off after a long year spent taking his brand of hill country blues far and wide. “I’ll get to rest up a bit,” he says. “Well needed.”

Burnside – son of drummer Calvin Jackson, grandson of the legendary RL Burnside, drummer and guitarist and songwriter, currently the man at the centre of Mississippi hill country blues – has been touring hard on the back of his first solo album, Benton County Relic, released in late 2018. It’s not his first release by any measure, but it’s the first it’s just him, it’s all on him.

“It’s something I always wanted to do,” he says on making an album that was his – not The Cedric Burnside Project, not his partnership with Bernard Allison, not anything he ever did with guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm. “I love collaborating with people and stuff like that, but I always knew I wanted to do a solo album. I always knew I wanted to play the guitar like I hear it in my head, and write the songs like I have them in my head.”

Benton Country Relic is Burnside and drummer Brian Jay. It was recorded in Jay’s Brooklyn studio. It’s pure hill country – a heavy percussive foundation, overlayed by driving guitar, repetitious and boogie-fuelled. It’s Burnside, make no mistake.

Burnside, ever since he began playing the blues, has been a drummer; indeed, he was drumming in RL’s band at age 13, and it’s been behind the kit where he’s contributed most – with the likes of RL, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Kenny Brown, T-Model Ford, Paul ‘Wine’ Jones, as well as more contemporary acts like Widespread Panic and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. And so a key difference to making this solo record was stepping to the front, and swapping the skins for six strings.

“I always wanted to play the guitar more,” he muses. “Of course, I love the drums… but guitar is my newfound love, so I wanted to play it more, and I definitely wrote more songs playing the guitar.”

It may come as a surprise to learn that Burnside has been playing the guitar for almost fifteen years, seriously the past seven years. And he’s taken to it naturally, which should notcome as a surprise, given his pedigree. “Because I’ve played drums so much, I’ve always had to play music to the other guys, and let them do it their way,” he explains. “So it’s a good thing for me to hear the music like I hear it in my head, and play it like I want to play it.”

Benton County Relic(the ‘relic’ part of the title nothing to do with Burnside himself, but the music: “So many of my friends when they heard this music were like, man, it sounds like something old, back in the ‘60s.”), is the calling card of a man who knows where this music is coming from. There’s another record in the works, Burnside looking at heading back to the studio as early as this month, but it bears investigation as to how important it is for him – again, given his pedigree – to keep the torch burning.

“Oh man, it’s very important, I don’t even have the words to explain how important it is,” he enthuses, almost in awe of the position he’s in. “I’m not trying to fill shoes, of course, I wouldn’t dare try to do that.” He briefly name-checks his dad, his grandfather, Junior Kimbrough: “It’s kinda hard to fill their shoes.”

“But I can make my own mark and keep this music alive, because this is what I learnt from them,” he goes on. “It’s in my blood… I think they’d be very proud of me to keep it alive, and also not contaminate it with anything, trying to be what I’m not. I am hill country blues, I’m from the old school, and that’s how I wanna keep my music.”

Burnside tells of his big daddy (his name for RL) playing him Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell records when he was young. “I might have been only one of the grandkids, of fifteen or twenty, who sat there and listened to that music, saying ‘What is this?’” he laughs. “It captured my heart; it’s what I love the most.”

Benton County Relic is available now via Single Lock Records. Cedric Burnside tours Australia in March, see his website for details HERE

CW Stoneking – A Man In Shadow

[Published in the January / February issue of Rhythms magazine, 2020]


As CW Stoneking contemplates his next album, it’s in the solo guise – just him and his shadow – where you’ll see him next. By Samuel J. Fell

Christopher William Stoneking is reclining on the bed of a non-descript hotel room. The lights are off and, save for the flickering of the television set which washes his face bright one second and returns it to shadow the next, he’s hard to see; an eerie setting which seems, in equal measure, both odd and fitting for a man who’s never been one to do things by the book.

Stoneking is in Sweden, in the town of Lund to be precise. It’s late on a Friday evening for him, a travel day, no gigs, he’s just come in from Germany, having already played shows in Berlin and Hamburg, Switzerland before that, Belgium before that, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Greece.

He has a few shows in Sweden over the coming days, then a couple in Norway to round off a grinding European tour. Then he’s on a break for a while, before hitting the road in North America in late January, through most of February, before returning home to Australia for a run of shows in March.

CW Stoneking & His Own Shadowis how this tour is billed, and it’s in this guise – solo, just the man, a guitar and his clutch of songs – that he’s been seen over the past couple of years. These days based in Nashville (after a couple of years in the UK in the late 2000s, coinciding with Britain’s mini blues boom), Stoneking has been looking to crack the American market – notoriously fickle when it comes to outsiders playing ‘their’ music – and so has pared things back, taking to it mostly on his own.

“That’s pretty much all I’ve been doing the last couple of years,” he concurs, on playing solo. “It was my manager’s idea to do a couple of [solo] shows in Australia, and the first one I did I fucking hated it, I hadn’t played solo in, I don’t know, five or six years.

“And so I scared the shit out of myself so much on the first one, that I practised really full-on over the next couple of days, then the second show I liked, and just got into it.”

“I’m very confortable with it now,” he says, when I venture that, as a solo player, there’s nowhere to hide, but that perhaps that’s become part of the appeal; the stripped back necessity of it all. “Some of the things that were a challenge at the start, feel pretty natural now.

“At the start, I had to make a lot of new arrangements to the tunes… Yeah, but I guess [the old guys], they would do that – imitate pianos and things like that, that’s sort of how I learnt to played anyway.”

Back to his roots, in a way. “Yeah, sorta,” he muses.


Stoneking – known as CW, as much for brevity I suppose, as anything else – came to prominence in 2005 with the release of his first long-player, King Hokum. He’d been playing about for a number of years prior to this, his fascination with pre-war blues and jug band music, along with his knack for storytelling and a somewhat odd persona, endearing him to a growing audience around Melbourne for the most part, the occasional dalliance further afield.

King Hokum brought to life something old and dusty, brushed it off, spun it on its head and released it afresh to an audience who found something new within it all. Stoneking, with his mumbling way of singing, his slicked back hair and black preacher suit and hat, tattooed and wont to pepper his banter with casual expletives, seemed a little uncomfortable with the attention but carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

Something extraordinary washappening though, albeit on a small scale, as far from the epicentre of this most American of musics as is almost possible. As has been noted in the American press, here was “a fine purveyor of American roots music who also happens to be a towering, youthful-faced white Australian man,”a man who, in reference to the way he talks and sings, carried an accent that “isn’t quite his own… but when he speaks, it is in that same soft, slow drawl that caresses his music. With another musician, it could all come across as tacky and distasteful, but not with Stoneking.

“He is so deeply immersed in the world that his music conjures that it’s hard to imagine him any other way.” Stoneking was doing something that was striking chords – not many players of the blues in this day and age are able to do this, and yet this most mysterious man from country Australia was doing just that.

Something I’ve always admired about the man’s music is the possibility that it presents – while I’m listening, I too am fully immersed in the blues, the country, the elements of jazz and hokum, of New Orleans and the Congo, but I’m also thinking ahead somewhat, wondering what else this fearless purveyor of all manner of rootsy sounds will come up with next.

His second record, 2008’s Jungle Blues presented straight up what the possibilities were (a steaming melange of blues-inflected, calypso-stained sounds), as did his eventual third long-player, Gon’ Boogaloo (2014), which threw a further curveball, an all-electric affair, Stoneking hunched over his Fender Jazzmaster, dressed from head to toe in white, old rock ‘n’ roll the album’s sonic motif.

Each album has offered something different, whilst building from the base which Stoneking has made his own; that of the blues. And so what of his next offering? The gap between albums has been widening, the sounds contained within widening too. The possibilities are almost endless, and so the question must be asked then, what will CW Stoneking come out with next?


“I’ve hardly been listening to any music for a while now,” he says languidly. We’re talking about what’s been inspiring him, sonically, and what he’s been toying with.

There’s no hurry to release anything, and as he says, “I’d be perfectly fine to put out a record every year if I had good shit,” he shrugs. “But if I put that many tunes together in a year, they’d be shit, to be honest.” He laughs at the perceived absurdity of it. “I just can’t do it,” he laughs, “I don’t feel like I’m much of an instrumentalist, you know?”

A return to playing with a band is perhaps the only thing Stoneking is sure of regarding his next album, an offering that is very much in the works, but again, there’s no rush – he’ll release when he’s ready, and indeed, it’s a slow process for him. “It takes me a long time to learn how to play what I wanna do,” he says. “I’m better at thinkin’ up shit, than actually knowing how to play it.”

His initial thought was to “get a horn band, maybe down in New Orleans or somethin’,” but he’s moved past this idea. His current home in Nashville has offered up more of an enticing possibility, that of a string band, a stripped back version of the country combos that have plied their musical trade in the south of the US for decades.

“I’m thinking maybe a string band, get ahold of some bluegrass players or somebody,” he says. “Not to do bluegrass, but good harmony singers and there’s all these different places to go with that.

“I like the idea of a small group, I might try and do as much as I can with a three-piece, like double bass, maybe mandolin or something… I hear some of these old Italian mandolin virtuosos, it sounds great. Cos they’re all playing amazing shit… sounds like an orchestra. So I’m kinda into stuff like that.

“I feel like this long period playing solo again, has got me a bit more fulsome in my playing, so I’ll find a couple of guys.”

Stoneking reclines further on the bed, thinks a little about what he’s just said, perhaps about how far off it is, perhaps an idea for a tune is forming. Either way, his mind is slowly churning, the bits and bobs that will eventually come together to form whatever it is he releases into the world next, slowly building. As far as he’s concerned, this is life, and this is how he lives it.

“I like it a lot, I really like touring. I like making tunes,” he says of it all. “I have a natural disposition to be a procrastinator, to be lazy, even with things I like. But I enjoy it, and once I’ve got ‘em done, I love playing them, I don’t get bored of my own songs.”

“[And so] I’ll just keep making batches of tunes,” he smiles. “I’m gonna be bald-headed soon, so, whaddaya gonna do about it? It just goes like that, I don’t care… I’ve got some real nice guitars, I’ll get some records out, I get to travel ‘round and eat some tasty food. If I can keep on doing that, and everything is cool with my kids, then what else are you gonna do?”

CW Stoneking plays the Port Fairy Folk Festival, March 6-9. For all other tour dates, see Stoneking’s website HERE





Joshua Hedley, Solitary Man

[Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald / The Age, July 13]


For JOSHUA HEDLEY, country music is about honesty, sincerity, and dealing with emotion, no matter how hard that is, writes SAMUEL J. FELL

For Joshua Hedley, country music is like a second skin. The 33-year-old, these days based in Nashville, Tennessee, presents like he’s been immersed in this uniquely American art-form all his life, and this isn’t far wrong. Born in Florida, Hedley picked up a fiddle at age eight, and his destiny was pressed into the metaphorical red dirt, the classic form of the music – wrought with emotion, music that breathes and bleeds – becoming his very being.

“There’s this level of relatability in country music that speaks to me, that I can’t get from any other kind of music,” Hedley explains, adding with a laugh, “I love hip hop music too, but they’re singing about cars and lots of money and stuff like that, and I don’t live that life. But I have had my heart broken, and I have been drunk, and I do like to dance, you know, it speaks to me more than other musics because I relate to it.

”It’s this relatability to the music that has fuelled Mr. Jukebox, Hedley’s debut long-player, released early last month on Jack White’s Third Man Records. He talks about the honesty, sincerity and simplicity of country music as factors that draw him to it, but first and foremost, for this album, it’s about relating to the characters within the songs.

“When you can put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist in the song, it just makes it better, because it makes it more personal,” he offers.

Mr. Jukebox, a collection of ten songs that could have been recorded in the 1950s, such is the deep, dark country music lament that defines it, almost never was. As a fiddle player, Hedley was more than content in the sideman role (he first toured Australia in 2011 as Justin Townes Earle’s fiddle player), but around five years ago, at the urging of fellow modern purveyors of classic country Johnny Fritz and Nikki Lane, he set aside the fiddle, picked up a guitar and stepped to the front, beginning to write and sing his own material.

One would think, after years in the sideman role, that this would have proven tricky. Not for Joshua Hedley. “I think it did kinda come natural for me, just based on the fact that when I decided I wanted to do it, I’d been listening to country music for so long, that I just knew how to do it somehow,” he muses. “I don’t really consider myself a songwriter, I consider myself as somebody who has the ability to write songs, if that makes any sense.

“It’s just something that I feel I’ve figured out, I feel kinda sneaky about it, like I’ve figured out a trick or something, and I can write country songs.”

A true honky tonk country crooner, in a similar vein to Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner or George Jones, Hedley truly does have the knack, his music carrying with it the timelessness the aforementioned embody, unlike today’s pop/country, which Hedley likens to a “leftover beer.” A large part of his motif too, is mining the emotion that informs this style of music – life, love and loss, a smoky barroom, a beer wreathed in tears.

“I just want people to remember they have feelings, and that they’re valid,” Hedley has been quoted as saying. “I feel like country music, as of late, has sort of become just like a party, you know?” he says now. “It’s like rock ‘n’ roll in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Van Halen, Poison, Motely Crue, it was just party time all the time. And then here comes Nirvana with this depressing as shit music which made everybody take notice, and everybody was like, wait a second, life isn’t always fun, there are other aspects that aren’t so great.

“Obviously it’s not your first choice to want to think about it, but I think it’s important to think about it.” Perhaps to highlight this point, it’s worth noting that on Mr. Jukebox, there are no less than three songs with the word ‘tears’ in their title, a fair indication as to the emotion contained within.

“People need to remember that they have feelings – it isn’t all just tailgates and Coors Lite,” Hedley laughs again.

Joshua Hedley July 2018 Australian Tour – WEBSITE

Thursday 19, Leadbelly, Sydney, NSW

Friday 20, Marrickville Bowlo, Sydney, NSW

Saturday 21, Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine, VIC

Sunday 22, Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, VIC

Thursday 26, Caravan Music Club, Melbourne, VIC

Friday 27 – Sunday 29, Groundwater Festival, Gold Coast, QLD

Gurrumul – The Beat Goes On

[Published in Good Weekend magazine, April 14 2018]



In July last year, filmmaker Paul Williams, sound engineer Pip Atherstone-Reid and Skinnyfish Music’s creative director Michael Hohnen were ensconced in an editing room at Windmill Studios in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. On multiple screens in front of them were the edits of Williams’s documentary, Gurrumul. Five years in the making, it traced the life of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the Yolngu singer from Elcho Island 500km off the coast of Darwin who had, in the previous decade, taken the music world by storm.

Hohnen was on the phone with Gurrumul, his longtime friend and musical partner, and the biggest star in the Skinnyfish stable, a Darwin-based record label founded and co-owned by Hohnen. From a Darwin beach, Gurrumul chatted with Hohnen and Williams as they played him back one of the final musical pieces to be included in the documentary. Accompanying a scene towards the end of the film that depicts the funeral of his father, the score features Gurrumul singing, the sound bleeding into the strains of a French horn.

“Yep, spot on,” Gurrumul told the three in Melbourne. “Spot on.”

This was the final OK from Gurrumul, who as a co-producer had been active in most aspects of the film, and along with Hohnen and Melbourne-based composer Erkki Veltheim, had created, or reworked, about 50 original pieces of music specifically for the documentary.

What made this situation unusual though, was how it finished up. Instead of his usual “see you later”, Gurrumul ended the phone call by saying goodbye, something he’d not done before. “It happened in a way, that Michael then said to me, ‘Was that a bit strange?’,” Williams remembers. He pauses and sighs. “He’d finished his contribution, that side of things was over, and yeah… that was the last time I spoke to him.”

Three days later, on July 25, 2017, Gurrumul died in Royal Darwin Hospital. Aged only 46, he’d succumbed to organ failure relating to the hepatitis B he’d had since childhood. His condition had worsened in recent years, to the extent that Skinnyfish had retired the singer from touring in late 2015. “It was like he was becoming a shadow of his former self,” Hohnen recalls of the time. “He was extremely ill.”

Williams, who had known the singer for a number of years before beginning work on the documentary, seems a little haunted, like he thinks perhaps Gurrumul knew his time had come. “It was a strange way [for him] to sign off a conversation,” he says. “It was really only in retrospect, when we looked back, that we said, maybe that was goodbye.”


At the time of his death, Gurrumul was the highest selling indigenous musician in Australian history, a title he still holds. His eponymous 2008 solo debut was certified three times platinum in Australia, and appeared in top 20 album charts in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland upon its European release the following year. His second album, Rrakala (2011), made some small inroads into the American market, a notoriously tough market to crack, an attempt ultimately thwarted by his premature death.

His third release, The Gospel Album (2015), cemented what those close to him had known for years but others were only just beginning to realise – that this unassuming indigenous Australian, who was born blind and taught himself to play the guitar upside down, wasn’t merely an angelic voiced flash-in-the pan.

Yesterday, April 13Gurrumul posthumously added one final album to his canon. Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow) has been more than six years in the making and involves the singer, in Hohnen’s words, delving “deeper into the cultural elements of his music”. Preceding the release of Williams’s documentary by a couple of weeks (the film will be released on April 25), Djarimirri stands as the singer’s final gift to the world, one last reminder that his rise to fame was more than deserved.


While his rise may have seemed meteoric, Gurrumul paid his dues, a slow build that began with culture-bridging group Yothu Yindi in the 1990s. He played a number of instruments and contributed backing vocals to four of the band’s six albums, most notably its breakthrough 1991 release, Tribal Voice, and with Manuel Dhurrkay, fronted Saltwater Band, releasing three records with this group in the decade from 1999. By the time Skinnyfish came to release the eponymous Gurrumul in 2008, the man and his music were match fit.

Gurrumul toured the world before he was Gurrumul,” notes hip hop artist Adam Briggs, with whom Gurrumul collaborated in 2014 on the song ‘The Hunt’, from Briggs’s second full-length solo album, Sheplife. To Briggs’s mind, Gurrumul’s popularity was testament to his hard work, his musicality and his talent. “People forget he was in Yothu Yindi and Saltwater… so by the time he was Gurrumul, he was ready.”

Legendary producer Quincy Jones has noted of the singer, “this is one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices that I’ve ever heard”. It wasn’t just Jones – Sting, will.i.am, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Australians Peter Garrett and Paul Kelly all count among the singer’s admirers. In garnering fans like these, Gurrumul sold out venues the world over, won awards, and confounded critics with his wide-ranging success within the western world.

“He was special in so many ways, in western and Yolngu worlds,” his niece, Miriam Yirrininba Dhurrkay, tells me. “He was writing these songs and … the words just come into his mind and heart, and even though he couldn’t see the nature, he was born to, you know, feel the nature.” To see without seeing. “Yeah. He had a special place to see, which was his heart.”

It was his heart that eventually gave out, having battled on through the liver and kidney failure relating to the existing hepatitis B. Dialysis was deemed the only option in combating his condition, but Gurrumul, who’d been admitted to the ICU department at Royal Darwin Hospital seven times in the year leading up to his death, was refusing treatment.

“Dialysis was not something that he enjoyed,” Hohnen says. “He basically, in the end, I believe, chose to not go on dialysis, not stay on it. And you don’t really have any options – it’s dialysis or nothing.”


Djarimirri is, essentially, an album that showcases ancient Yolngu chants, setting them against an orchestral background in order to make them sonically palatable to the western ear. Gurrumul was no stranger to orchestral work, having released in 2013 an entire live album accompanied by the Sydney Symphony. Where Djarimirri is different though, is in its minimalist orchestral traditions; Hohnen cites the likes of Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Phillip Glass as influences.

These Yolngu songs, some estimated at more than 4000 years old, were traditionally backed by the didgeridoo, or yidaki, repetitive rhythms that gave the lyrics a foundation from which to build. The trick with Djarimirri, was in replicating these sonic patterns on western instruments, while still leaving them recognisable to Yolngu people.

“Michael had this concept of combining the more traditional songs and chanting and yidaki patterns, with this kind of contemporary minimalist orchestral tradition,” confirms Erkki Veltheim, the Melbourne-based composer and violinist who helmed the album, and had played with Gurrumul on a number of occasions over the previous decade.

“At first I was kind of trying to turn it in my brain, trying to figure out how these different traditions could work together, but then the more I thought about it, the more it actually made sense because of the very nature of these traditional songs and the yidaki patterns, which kind of do have a lot of repetition in them, but also a lot of variation within that repetition, [which combines] really well with the orchestral minimalist tradition.”

Veltheim started listening to the recordings of songs Gurrumul had already made back on Elcho. From there, the task was to find instrumental transcriptions of the yidaki patterns and transcribe them into a western notation, to be played on western instruments.

“[That] was a real challenge, but also a great pleasure to come up with these arrangements,” he recalls. “And the most nerve-wracking thing for me, was whether Gurrumul himself and his family and the other people on Elcho would actually relate to these arrangements…. that was the key. The important thing [was] that every step of the process, we’ve made sure that we haven’t done anything that doesn’t communicate those songs.”

The 12 songs that make up Djarimirri all relate to specific totems and aspects of Yolngu culture – Waak (Crow) in E-Flat Major, Ngarrpiya (Octopus) in A-Flat Major, Gapu (Freshwater) in D Major, Baru (Saltwater Crocodile) in E-Flat Major, Marrayarr (Flag) in F-Sharp Major, to name a few. All songs ended up in major keys, a coincidence, which to Hohnen’s mind gives it a happy vibe.

Initially, Djarimirri isn’t an easy listen. It relies heavily on repetition, and Yolngu songs are traditionally quite short, so Gurrumul’s vocal contributions are fleeting. Repeat listens begin to cast new light on what’s happening though – there’s variation within the repetition, and the drone of the strings, the popping of horns, add their own weight to what is, within each song, a slow building story. The purity of the singer’s voice across this sonic soundscape tops it off.

Djarimirri is essentially an exercise in ethnomusicology – the keeping alive of this ancient music, albeit in a more modern fashion, so that those yet to come are able to access it, no matter their cultural background. “[Gurrumul had] hundreds of songs in his head,” says Hohnen. “He wasn’t writing a lot of new contemporary style songs but he probably [knew] 400 or 500 songs, traditionally.”


Completed early in 2017, the album was being prepared for release in the middle of that year. When Gurrumul died, they re-thought it, in part due to the fact that in Yolngu culture, when a member dies, their name, image and any music or art is retired.

“[We] held it for a year,” Hohnen confirms. “It would just not have been right to put it out. Although, spending a lot of time with the family, they sort of said to us, even at his funeral, no one’s stopped listening to his music, [they] all play it.”

In the press pack sent out with the advance stream of Djarimirri, there’s a note on the use of his image and name which reads, in part, “The family have given permission that, following the final funeral ceremony (which occurred at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island on November 24 last year), his name and image may once again be used publicly, to ensure that his legacy will continue to inspire both his people and Australians more broadly.”

“In most situations when an aboriginal person up here passes away, the name gets changed, and the music and imagery gets stopped,” explains Hohnen, “[but] it’s hard when someone’s as famous as this. I think it’s more they’re really proud… and I think Yolngu don’t want him forgotten, that’s what they said to us. There’s this ownership of him being a public representation as well.”

When we speak, Hohnen is just pulling himself back together after what he describes as a fairly dysfunctional six months. “It’s affected Mark and I very personally,” he says, of his co-founder at Skinnyfish Music, Mark Grose, “because [Gurrumul] was such a unique and happy person, someone who, no matter how recalcitrant, always made you feel that fun and music and life and traditional culture was here to be lived and loved.”

Gurrumul was Skinnyfish Music’s biggest artist, and his success enabled the label to expand and focus on other acts like Caity Baker and The Lonely Boys. Royalties from Djarimirri will flow, in part, into the Gurrumul Yunupingu Foundation, which will us the money to “create greater opportunities for remote Indigenous young people to realise their full potential and contribute to culturally vibrant and sustainable communities”.

It’s not lost on anyone involved with the making of the record how sad it is that its main player won’t be here to see it out into the world. “We wanted to release the album while he was alive so he cold live it out on the airwaves around his community and further afield,” says Hohnen. “But I now feel like we did everything possible to live up to the standards that he and his family expected of us. The recording is as much a representation of all Yolngu.”

This is what Djarimirri is primarily about – legacy. “There’s different ways people can go about activism,” Hohnen continues. “There’s anger, abuse, there’s hurt, there’s quite sinister ways, destructive ways. The journey that we took with him was almost the opposite. And, for me, his legacy was opening people’s hearts to one of the greatest assets of this country.”

Briggs, who became a friend of Gurrumul’s in the years after their 2014 collaboration, agrees. “This last record… is testament to him transcending genre and transcending what’s expected of an indigenous artist . This album is an orchestral piece, so it’s sheet music… it could be read by a conductor or composer in Germany, and they’d understand it. It transcends cultural barriers, because music is an international language. Anyone will be able to read this, and translate it and play it. Even in his death, he’s transcended genres and cultural barriers. Him and Michael, they’ve delivered this gift of music.”

Gurrumul’s niece says his life and music are still inspiring young Yolngu people. “A lot of youngsters in the north-east Arnhem land region, where G comes from, and other youngsters from all around NT, from every aboriginal community… a lot of youngsters are doing music today. Most of the young people I know, they want to continue his legacy, they want to show the world that they can do it… if he can do it, why can’t we do it, you know?”

Canned Heat

Published in the March / April issue of Rhythms magazine (Cover Feature – EXCERPT)

Fifty-three years ago, three blues nuts formed a band. Today, Canned Heat are still at it, still pushing the blues, writes Samuel J. Fell

I’m standing on a hay-bale or something, maybe a milk crate, I don’t really know, it’s too dark to see, but it’s higher than ground level and so I’ve purloined it and am standing on it in a vain attempt to see over the swelling rip-tide of human flesh in front of me, to get a better glimpse of what’s happening up on stage.

It’s a futile exercise though and I abandon my poor vantage point and try to wedge my way through the throng but it’s leather-pants-tight and I can’t penetrate and so I retreat, reluctantly, to the outer edges, where I can at least hear, if not see.

I roll a cigarette, fishing around in my pocket for a lighter, spark, inhale, you know the drill. I lean against a pole and let it all wash over me, forget I’m well outside the tent and nowhere near the stage, just feel the old music bursting from under the gargantuan faded canvas cover, over people’s heads and across the grass to where I’m standing.

Despite when it was written, or what’s informed it, the music is muscular and bawdy and seems made for right now, like maybe it’s being played for the first time and all of us, crammed together in the humidity with dust on our boots, wild-eyed after three days in the field (as it were), are hearing something new that no one else has ever heard before.

It’s blues, but it’s rock ‘n’ roll and it carries with it, as it whips across distance, an effortless cool that despite its immediacy, is at once familiar and comfortable. Not because you’ve heard the songs before but because of what they represent, a particular time where the music meant something else entirely but has since been lovingly reworked and fawned over and loaded up on all sorts of chemicals and wrought through the wringer and so it’s old and new at the same time and it just fits, like an old and faded pair of jeans you just can’t remember ever having lived without.

The crowd throbs with an energy I’ve not come across all weekend, and the players themselves, up on stage – tiny from my vantage point, when I can catch a glimpse – seem to throb too, vibrating with an energy they themselves are creating via this music which all at once seems both timeless and of this one place and time. Frenzied harmonica cuts through buzzing guitar and the rhythm section bumps and grinds underneath it all like an old alligator death rolling in some muddy river somewhere south of the Mason Dixon.

I butt my smoke out and wonder if I can cut across to the bar on the other side of the stage to grab another beer before this song finishes but I can’t move and so stay and keep letting it all wash over me, somewhere in a field, wild-eyed, with dust on my boots and the sweat of a thousand others painting the air wet all around me.


That was the first time I ever saw Canned Heat, back in 2012 at the 23rd Byron Bay Bluesfest. I’d known of the band of course, but had never really delved into their extensive catalogue. I was actually introduced to them in a reasonably random way, a compilation album landing on my desk some years prior, Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults, presented by some cat called Dr. Boogie, a collection of “rare pieces taken from Bob Hite’s fabulous collection of 78rpm records.” This is a record which still gets regular play at our place, and it was from this cut, along with the extensive liner notes contained within, that I was introduced to Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite, and the band he formed with Alan Wilson back in 1965, a band which would go on, in its own unassuming way, to change the face of popular music at a time when change was of the essence and a new way of looking at things – or hearing things – was paramount and carried with it weight and cred and cool.

Changing the face of popular music wasn’t what the band originally set out to do though. For many bands, this sort of ideal was high on the list, but Canned Heat it seems, just wanted to emulate the music of their heroes. Hite and Wilson were, as is well documented, mad blues fans and so the mandate of Canned Heat from the get-go – if indeed the band even had one – was to push the music of these mostly unknown players to a much, much wider audience. And it was this that was of paramount importance for Hite and Co., more so than fame, fortune, the trappings of being in a band in the red-hot middle-‘60s.

“Well, you had three guys, Bob Hite, Alan Wilson and Henry Vestine, who were all major record collectors,” recalls Skip Taylor, over the phone from Tucson, Arizona. “Mainly blues record collectors. They’d travelled to Mississippi in the south, and had talked to these older guys, and their lives were spent in the blues. And that wasn’t the most common thing [back then], it was really about rock for most young, white, American guys.

“So they were kind of a cult unto themselves, and in marrying their blues proficiencies with my rock ‘n’ roll background, together we were able to get something not necessarily commercial, but they always wanted to be as big as Paul Butterfield, having an album crack the Top 100 on Billboard, that was it. My thoughts had always been to go a little higher and deeper than that, but all of us talked about having a music that would appeal to a much wider, white audience, and give the blues and black blues… at least give the populace the chance to hear this more, and be aware of this more. In the same way I think John Mayall has always felt, you know?”

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.”

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.”

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.