In 2014, while in the studio recording with The Cat Empire, choir-guru Lyn Williams (OAM) contacted me and asked whether I’d like to go to the Pilbara and compose a song-cycle for The Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir. Within a few months we landed in Karratha and began exploring the surrounding towns and country. We met some of the local Yindjibarndi artists and cultural guides, and visited several schools to audition young singers who’d later join us in Sydney for a combined performance.
I was mesmerized by the abstract beauty of the landscape, both in its starkness and myriad colours. How incalculable the distances seemed from one place to the next. Rain, for example, appeared as its own object on the horizon. In contrast, the iron ore trains cut across the land in ruler straight lines, perpetually carrying the stuff they were made of – each carriage a metric unit and a reminder that two very different realities existed here; two different economies, and two very different ways of relating to the land.
Later, I’d learn about the sad and tumultuous colonial history of Roebourne, the Flying Foam Massacre (and many others like it), the land rights struggle of Long Mack and the Harding Dam, the tragedy of Ms Dhu, and the spate of suicides amongst FIFO (Fly in Fly Out) workers in the area. I’d see the ruinous economic difference between the wealthy and the dispossessed. I’d get a sense of a great and well-disguised knowledge amongst the Indigenous youth there, a realization that language and Law – in the Yindjibarndi meaning of the word – remained strong. I’d read about the creation stories and customs allowed to me in the Juluwarlu texts, and hear local stories from leaders in the Yindjibarndi community, miners, and other local characters. But no matter how much I researched, my first impressions stayed with me and provided the kind of haunting that makes for fertile songwriting ground.
At first, I had no idea of what I’d write about and how it would sound. I had the doubts of a non-indigenous person entering a community, wanting to both create and show respect, which would involve several years of returning there to build relationships. I was determined not to appropriate any creation stories, or fall into music that was too careful and polite. I was excited to have the chance to write for something as joyous and life affirming as a teenage choir, and simultaneously troubled by what I witnessed and discovered about the areas I travelled. I spent a lot of time going awkwardly from place to place with a field recorder.
It was only later, when I teamed up with my long time friend and collaborator Ollie McGill (engineer, arranger, and co-producer), and listened back to hours of recorded noises, that we realized what we had. These sounds – the scratch of feet on gravel, the gliding, crunching, groaning, squealing of trains, the bouncing basketballs, the falling coins, the grinding gearboxes and radio static, the barking dogs, the running, screaming, laughing kids and their shouting parents, the cracking branches, bird song and shaking leaves, the humming conveyor belts and metallic shudders from within the mines, the smashing bottles and the dinging crossing bells – would become the rhythmic skeleton of the entire album. We chose moments within that long soundscape, sampled them, and turned them into drum machines. That production idea combined with the lush voices of Marliya became the sonic world of Spinifex Gum.
In various ways, this album is influenced by the crashing beats of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Lil Wayne’s The Carter III, in particular the song DontGetIt and the line “I love being misunderstood,” and the sustaining words and music of Leonard Cohen, Prince, Muhammad Ali, and David Bowie, who all died while it was being made. Perhaps my happiest influence during this time was Paul Simon, who describes his own album Stranger to Stranger as having begun amid “barren landscapes, no ideas, anxiety about no ideas.” He explains a sudden change “when a few chords coalesce, or a rhythmic idea snaps into play.”
I had one of those moments when I first touched spinifex gum, which is the burned root of spinifex grass that forms a resin so sticky it feels as if it’ll never leave your hands. I touched that beautiful stuff while on country with Clinton Walker, who told me that when it dried it was strong enough to join spears. Within minutes the first rhyme came to mind – Some things stick like spinifex gum, like ants on honey like money on scum – and from there the lyrics almost wrote themselves. Suddenly I was able to overcome the doubts and anxieties that had at first pervaded the objective, cultural, and political context of the project and enter into something far more intuitive and daring.
In every instance where a song has involved a local story or a deceased person, we’ve contacted the families involved and received permission to record it. In the case of the protest song Ms Dhu, her mother, grandmother, and uncle heard it well before it came out, and together we chose the time and context for its release. Journalist and activist Gerry Georgatos facilitated that communication. In telling the story of Long Mack and the Harding Dam in the song Yurala, I spoke with Angus Mack directly, who in turn consulted his family. They encouraged us to include it on the album. With Lang Interlude, Yindjibarndi leader Michael Woodley granted us the right to use the sampled voice of late Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma Elder Roger Solomon from the documentary Exile and the Kingdom.
In 2016, we performed the first song-cycle of Spinifex Gum at a concert in Sydney, which also included a group of young singers who travelled over from the Pilbara. After that performance, we decided that we should make an album. I returned to the piano and the Pilbara and wrote another handful of songs, while Ollie went to work on the production and arrangements. Our challenge was to make the choir cut through like a tough lead vocal, but sound full and beautiful at the same time. Lyn Williams sets the bar very high for the young people she conducts. As I see it, her high expectation of them is an act of generosity, and as a result they often exceed themselves, which happened later that year when we recorded Marliya (of Gondwana Choirs) in Cairns.
Soon after, I contacted Briggs, Peter Garrett, and Emma Donovan who expressed their interest in being involved. Briggs’ rap about the disproportionate detention of Indigenous youths in Locked Up, Peter’s performance of a suicidal FIFO worker in Malungungu, and Emma’s Gospel Yindibarndi rendition of Tom Waits’ Make it Rain added a new level of character and depth to the album.
Spinifex Gum is a project that reaches across the country. Its lyrics are a combination of English and Yindjibarndi, its stories emerged from the Pilbara, and its choir of Aboriginal and Torres Strait teenagers hails from North Queensland. It’s an album none of us could have predicted, but one that opened itself up to us. We just followed the music.
Perhaps the same can be said of the album’s politics. I didn’t go to the Pilbara with my mind set on writing protest songs, but the combination of my experiences and following where the songs went naturally made certain events impossible to ignore. Both Ms Dhu – released after the 2016 Coronial Inquiry into the death of Julieka Dhu – and Locked Up, which came out just before the findings of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, were instances where songs on this album entered an immediate social and political context. To me at least, it indicated we were on the right track.
Many of the songs on this album have Yinjibarndi names. Singing in language is something the young women in this choir pride themselves on. Yurala means rainmaker, Malungungu is a creepy spirit, Gawarliwarli means butterfly, Wandangarli means going crazy, but the most important one is Marliya, which means bush honey. It became the name of the album choir. Nothing is as sweet as you my friend. Above all else, the inspiration for this album is the young singers who champion it – their individuality, their laughter and friendship, and the power of their collective voice.