In conversation, Archie Roach is every bit as thoughtful and intelligent as you would expect, giving each question careful consideration. Although Roach has been a major figure in Australian music since the early 90s, events within his own life have had a major impact on both his personal outlook and the way in which he creates music. “There’s a spirituality to it that’s certainly part of my life, and has had a big influence on me,” says Roach about the themes of his new album, Let Love Rule.
While his previous album, Into The Bloodstream was, in Roach’s words a ‘healing’ album, looking inwards at events in the artist’s own life, Let Love Rule takes that feeling of overcoming adversity and projects it outwards. “It’s a continuation of that joy, there’s a kind of optimism to it.
“I was reflecting more on things happening in the world. I knew we were going to Europe at the start of the year and we had to stop in Nice, so I was thinking about the terrible attacks that happened there on Bastille Day. That’s where No More Bleeding, the last track on the album, came from.”
The album was co-produced and recorded by Craig Pilkington, who also plays guitar in Roach’s live band, at Audrey Studios in Melbourne. “A lot of the songs were written in the studio with Craig. When Ruby was alive, my partner, she was always the first one to hear new songs or ideas [and give feedback]. So this is probably the only other time I’ve had that sort of collaboration, is with Craig.”
The unexpected death of Ruby Hunter, Roach’s lifelong companion, has obviously been a major source of grief in the singer’s life. Instead of retreating into sorrow, Roach decided to celebrate life through his music. “I still get that feeling playing music, when I’m at home writing; it’s a great sense of relief to communicate whatever is happening. It’s the same as when we play live, I’m not just trying to get on stage and sing some songs at you, it’s about sharing a feeling.”
Roach has enjoyed not only finding a new way of writing thanks to the people who surround him, but also by the type of subject matter he allows himself to speak of. “Right after Charcoal Lane, and for a little while after that even with Jamu Dreaming, although that talked about some different things, there was a time when I felt a bit of a burden to speak on certain issues. Now there’s this freedom to make songs about whatever I’m feeling at the time. If I want to speak about a certain issue I will, but I don’t have to. Every now and then I get someone coming up to me and saying ‘you should write about this issue or that’, but I don’t feel that weight of responsibility anymore.”
Last year the 25th anniversary of Roach’s debut album Charcoal Lane was celebrated with a rereleased edition that included a bonus disc of cover songs by contemporary Australian artists. “It’s amazing when you hear other people do those songs and give it fresh life, and new meaning. When I sing those songs now I can appreciate different things than when I first wrote them. Because they were just brand new at the time but now I’m able to see another perspective, particularly when I do Took the Children Away, or some of the songs that were about things that happened to me,” says Roach of his classic Stolen Generation anthem. “I always say that every time I sing that song I let a little bit of the pain go, and someday I’ll be singing it and there won’t be any left.”
When Took The Children Away was released in 1990 most white Australians were unaware of the issue of the stolen generation, the song’s popularity helping to bring discussions of the ex-governmental practice into the mainstream media. Much has happened in the years since, but at the same time much has been ignored.
“Some individuals have tried to help, but it’s hard to get a real commitment for change,” says Roach. “We need to all get together and have a serious talk. It’s not a matter of money or handouts, for real change we need to all get together and work out a way that we can live together that’s fair for everybody. Incarceration levels are far too high, health needs to be looked at, and we need doctors and house workers.”
Another high profile indigenous artist Roach admires is Shepparton rapper Briggs, who contributed a cover of Took the Children Away to the new version of Charcoal Lane. “Briggs is really great. Besides music I work in juvenile justice, out at Parkville College, and I took him out there and he couldn’t believe it. All the young fellas just came running up to him, they were freestyling with him, they just loved it.”
It is genuinely heart warming that someone whose life has been filled with as many obstacles as Archie Roach’s can arrive at such a bold and optimistic sentiment as Let Love Rule. The new music reflects his own personality in conversation; thoughtful, weary but ultimately full of love.
Let Love Rule by Archie Roach is out now via Liberation Music. Archie Roach will perform at WOMAdelaide, which takes place at Botanic Park, Adelaide from March 10-March 13. Tickets are available at womadelaide.com.au.
This story was originally published in Mixdown Magazine #273.