25 years of Charcoal Lane: Archie Roach reflects

Archie Roach celebrates 25 years with remastered Charcoal Lane as well as new recordings

 

Archie Roach is a man of few words. At least when he’s talking to journalists. But I don’t mind. I’ve listened to his music for more than twenty years, completely captivated, saddened, buoyed and inspired by the words of his songs.

He’s in Melbourne when he speaks to me – at his manager’s place – and we talk about the 25 year anniversary of his seminal album Charcoal Lane. He says it doesn’t seem like 25 years. I ask him how his world has changed.

“My world? I don’t know,” he says, before pausing. “I think you’ve grown over 25 years since I wrote Charcoal Lane, you’ve grown spiritually and mentally. And life, I think, is a lot better.”

The last thing you do, when recording your first album is think about where you’ll be in 25 years time, Archie reckons.

“You don’t, you don’t think of that.”

“I thought wow, this is probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. Doing a record of your own songs and an album – but you know, you don’t have any idea of where your music is going to go – or where it’s going to take you.”

 

“It’s just been amazing and humbling too – in a way because I’ve listened to music that’s helped me and influenced me through the years and had an impact on my life. I don’t know why, I should feel the same about my own music. But you don’t – you don’t think of your music of doing that. You just want to write a good song and hopefully somebody likes it.”

To mark the occasion of the 25th anniversary of such an important album in Australia’s music history, Archie worked with Festival Records and Warner Music Australia to produce a new edition of the album (originally released on Aurora / Mushroom Records). It’s a double CD – one album of covers and acoustic tracks and the other a remastered version of the original songs.

The new record is like a who’s who of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. Dewayne Everettsmith, Briggs, Gurrumul, Emma Donovan, Paul Kelly, Courtney Barnett, Dan Sultan, Leah Flanagan, Marlon Williams, Radical Son, Urthboy all feature.

“My manager sort of sat down and talked and said ‘well who do you think would be good on this song.’ So we thought about it and came up with a shortlist of people we thought would do these songs some justice and hopefully put their own twist on it,” Archie said.

I asked Archie if he had any favourites on the album. He said they’re all great songs before talking about a few.

“Radical Son and Urth Boy with No No No is so different to what I’ve done. It’s really good – they didn’t copy how it was on the original. I think that’s really good –so creative,” he said.

“But you know, there’s other songs like Marlon Williams and Leah Flanagan, what an amazing singer that man is. Beautiful. Nancy (Bates) and (Ellie) Lovegrove doing Beautiful Child – I think it’s amazing to listen to the songs – it’s like wow – like listening to them for the first time – because you’re hearing it sung by different people and their interpretation is just magic.”

If you’ve followed the career paths of Indigenous artists recently, you’d know that many look up to Archie as a mentor. Something he says you just “do” as an elder person.

“To make a place for young fellas – up and comers – and walk with them, give them a platform, maybe get up and support you at one of your shows or singing with them on stage and ah, it’s ummm something that, that we just do, you know.”

It’s an interesting reflection, because Archie has just described how he himself got a foot in the door of the music industry when he was emerging as an artist – thanks to Paul Kelly.

“Even though we’re the same age, what he’s done musically – he’s older than me in that respect. And he gave me a stage, made a place for me so I could step up. So yes, it’s the same thing,” Archie said before going on to talk about their friendship.

“I don’t see him as often as I’d like to, but that doesn’t affect the quality of friendship that you have,” he said.

“I love the man dearly and we can sit down anytime – doesn’t matter how long we haven’t seen eachother. It’s just a comfort to sit down and talk not just about music but life,” he said. “It’s good.”

I asked Archie about the portrait of him which was a finalist for the Archibald Prize last year (and which graces our December cover thanks to the artist). Painted by Jandamarra Cadd and titled Proud it’s a fine example of contemporary Indigenous art and it’s an incredibly striking image.

“He had an exhibition a couple of hours out of Melbourne – up in the country a bit,” Archie said. “And I came and did a concert at this gallery. So me and Jandamarra sat down and we had a talk about things. He has this beautiful spirit and amazing skill at what he does. It was good to meet him.”

“You look at it first and then you realise that they’re dots,” Archie said. “And you think, wow, you’ve got that skill and the patience required to do things like that – bring it to life – it’s so life-like. He really captures the spirit of people.”

Archie has had an incredible music career and made impacts here and abroad. He won his first ARIA Award in 1991 for Best Indigenous Release and Best New Talent and since then has a list of accolades too long to mention. And though he does mention that first ARIA, it’s a very different award that he holds dearest.

“I think that one of my proudest achievements was when I got the Human Rights Award for Took the Children Away,” he said.

“It was the first time there’s been an award for a songwriter. For me, that was a big thing.”

“That’s a pretty big thing for an Indigenous musician, right,” he asks.

Oh Archie. If there was an award for understatement of the year, you’d win that too.

The 25th anniversary edition of Charcoal Lane is out now. Do your heart a favour. If you haven’t heard this album, now is the time. If you’re an old-time fan, you’ll be seeking out this anniversary edition for your Archie Roach collection.

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