Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this conversation contains images and names of deceased persons in photographs and printed material.
I first saw Archie Roach perform on a streaky pink-skied summer night in Perth. He was touring with his ninth album, Into the Bloodstream, and as the warm tremor of his voice filled the open-air theatre, I immediately felt waves of sentiment pour-over, gathering an unexpected lump in my throat. I looked to my mum sitting next to me and saw that she felt it too—stunned by the quick hit of emotion. We were captivated, moved, but more than that, we were united: united in a deeper story of what it means to be human. Such is the effect of Archie’s presence onstage; a singer and storyteller so deeply connected that to listen to him is to listen to your own heart, and to journey through your own myriad experiences of love and connection—to family, to nature, to our common humanity.
Born in Mooroopna in northeast Victoria, the youngest of four sisters and two brothers, Archie had a turbulent start to life. At age three, after moving between missions, he was forcibly separated from his parents and siblings and put into an orphanage—as per the government of the time’s devastating policy that saw thousands of young indigenous people placed into non-indigenous households. Experiencing diffi culties with his fi rst two foster families, Archie eventually found a home with the Cox’s, Scottish immigrants who shared with him a love of culture and music, sparking his own foray into songwriting. As a teenager, after learning the painful truth of his upbringing, Archie left home in search of his siblings, but with no money and no home soon found himself living on the streets of Sydney. He spent a couple of years drinking with drifters in the park and travelling as a tent boxer, leading him to meet the love of his life, the late Ruby Hunter, in a hostel in Adelaide. Ruby too was a musician and member of the Stolen Generations. They went on to raise two sons and make some of the country’s finest music.
Archie’s debut album Charcoal Lane won two ARIAs and was named one of Rolling Stone’s Top 50 albums of 1992. Since then he’s made nine more—including the recently-released Let Love Rule—and toured with some of the world’s greatest artists, from Bob Dylan to Patti Smith. He has been an important activist for Aboriginal Australia, penning emotive, story-based country/folk songs that have brought clarity and understanding to the indigenous experience, particularly its complex struggles with colonialism, helping to heal past wounds and emerge a more empathetic nation.
We meet in a noisy cafe at the Melbourne Arts Centre, and I am again struck by Archie’s presence. Though quietly spoken, he silences out everyone around him with his large, magnetic spirit. Most of all, I am struck by his humility, and the gentle joy with which he reflects on his life: closing his eyes in deep concentration, breaking a smile. that lights up the entire room.
NATHAN SCOLARO: I wanted to start by talking about this notion of love that is really prominent in the new album. I think the message to “let love rule” is incredibly powerful, especially in these turbulent times. But I think in our culture we don’t appreciate or recognise the power of the word “love” in the way I feel you’re getting at.
ARCHIE ROACH: Yeah, I’ve always had this love of people. I’m not sure where it comes from, but I feel a deep sense of love for everyone. Maybe it comes from a long time before. I think love was at the forefront of Aboriginal culture: love for one another, love for the earth. And with that, you care for one another, you show respect for the earth. So when I sat down to write songs around the theme of love, I came to realise, probably I came to remember, that it’s many things really. Many things in terms of what love encompasses. It encompasses respect, understanding, inclusiveness, peace. It’s there when someone drops by your house and you ask, “Oh, have you had something to eat? No? Help yourselves, we have something to eat.” And it’s not a lot more than that I don’t think. So in this way I believe love is really in all of us, and it’s a part of who we are deep, deep down. We need to remember that, and bring it out to the surface. Because it gets lost nowadays, not lost but subdued a bit because of other pressures in life, and expectations.
I agree that love can be as simple as offering someone food when they come to your house. Because I think love is in the small details. It’s there when you’re able to deeply hear what someone needs—even when they’re not explicitly saying it.
Listening to what one another has to say, yes. It’s simple but it’s what the world needs, it needs to listen. This is how we connect. I like to think of it as spiritual love. It’s not intellectual, it’s not mythical, it’s a deeper feeling within us. People use words like maybe empathy—for me that’s having a loving spiritual relationship with another person. If people are hurting, you’re hurting. When the world is in pain, you feel it too. But then also, when a person is happy, you’re rejoicing in their happiness as well. There is no divide in that moment between what you are feeling. You’re not trying to be happy because they are, you just are. And it’s a very natural love, but it takes you on a higher level of understanding someone. It’s understanding someone as a spiritual being. Not just flesh and blood. Not just mind. Not just physical beings and intellectual beings. Feeling beings. So when we heal, if we’re sick you know, when we heal somebody we heal them holistically. Mind, body and spirit. Healing encompasses all three. Because when we are hurt, the spirit is usually in pain as well. And we need to heal. Spiritual love goes to the place of deep healing that we also need.
When do you experience this spiritual love most strongly in your own life?
I think with babies—with my children when they were babies, with my grandchildren. Because we have no way of communicating verbally with a small baby, they don’t yet have words, and they have no way of telling us what they want or need, or how they feel. The only way we understand is by listening to their crying. If we listen deeply enough maybe we know they’re hungry or they need a change or something. To communicate with them on that level is not the mind, maybe it’s a bit about the body communicating, but for me,
Every time I hold my grandchild I have it. You’re interacting and having this feeling with one another. And you feel peaceful, calm, serene. It’s a perfect state. So that’s how we relate as babies, and we have that even as we grow up and as we become adults and learn words to express our feelings. It’s still there. So we can actually sit with somebody and not even verbally communicate! But there’s a connection and you feel, I don’t know, so happy! [Laughs].
Yeah! I’m feeling that more and more as I get older, that to sit in silence with someone can be an incredibly powerful connection and conversation. But it’s hard. We always want to fill the silence and the space with words.
That’s right. So when we get older we have to get back to that purity and innocence of being a child, which is about feeling. Because we’re instinctive beings, you know. We have basic instincts like every other creature on earth. So deep down we know when something’s not good or somebody’s out to hurt us. You see creatures react instinctively, either run away or fight back. Humans are no different. If we show people that we mean them no harm and if they feel that and understand it, if they instinctively feel that from us, then everyone’s going to be fine. But often our minds get in the way. We make judgements based on other experiences or what we see on the news that make us feel like we’re in harm but we’re not. So we have to work at listening to our instincts.
I’ve seen you perform a number of times and the feeling self that you bring to your music is probably for me the most powerful. I mean the lyric is powerful also, but it’s really the way you communicate with your soul that has such impact for me. I remember you singing “Into the Bloodstream,” and you beating your chest with your closed fist the entire time. I felt it so strongly, and it was so natural for you.
Yeah it’s natural. But it’s become that way for me after time. I used to be a bit awkward when I first started out. And then slowly I started to feel this energy from the audience. And
And I try to give out good energy, and then I get it back in return. Since I’ve come to understand that about being onstage, it’s much more free, how I perform, and well it’s not even so much “perform” but how I relate to people from the stage. I feel it’s like a very natural form of communication. I don’t get uncomfortable anymore. I just let it happen, and let the interaction unfold. As soon as I was aware of that, and took the spotlight off in a way, it freed me of all that awkwardness that I had. Suddenly I started to realise that I could have these connections with complete strangers.
And also something special happens when I listen to your music in that it connects me to my mother who also listens to your music, and to her parents who have also listened to your music. And so there are all these layers of connection that happen if you’re open to them.
Yeah, people say that to me, “When I hear that song,” it reminds them of their mother or their father, and that’s very special because when I write I’m thinking of my own family a lot of the time, my connections to them. Especially because a lot of us have been disconnected for a long time. We’ve had a big disconnect with family, a disconnect with land and culture. And so writing music for me has allowed me to reconnect people to these things—to each other, to land and culture, and to family. And also to people who have gone before us. Through music I feel like I am bringing people together. And I cry you know, in those moments when I feel someone so deeply through a song. I don’t question it or try to understand it. It’s one of those things that you just marvel at. And also the power of music to heal, to heal your mind and body. I’ve seen it actually happen to people—people in hospitals who have gotten better because of music. This man had the worst Parkinson’s disease where he could hardly get up and walk. You know, this old body, he couldn’t move without somebody helping him. He would take step by step—one foot in front of the other for fear of falling down. And they played this music to him. The next minute he got up and he started dancing with this girl. It was so amazing. How is it possible? Even scientists and doctors are trying to analyse what it is in some music that heals people. But I think, rather than just try to analyse it, just accept it!
Yeah! [Laughs]. We don’t have to know everything!
We don’t have to understand everything!
And so in your life, I know you’ve been through some really difficult parts. I’m wondering how music has kind of helped you to heal yourself.
Yeah. I had a stroke a few years ago, you know. Quite bad. And then not long after I lost my partner Ruby. It was a very difficult time. But music was always there. I connected to Ruby through music, the music we made together. And I started to rehabilitate from the stroke. Then I had half a lung removed, lung cancer. And the last album had a lot to do with healing. When I was recording it I had oxygen with me in the recording booth. And after each song or each take of one song, I had to put the mask on and have some oxygen to keep going. And slowly as the days passed I could sing a song and not have any oxygen, maybe sing versions of the song before I decided to have some oxygen.
Then eventually I was able to go in there and sing pretty much the whole album without oxygen. I would use oxygen afterwards. I found myself getting better.
You had your two life forces. The music and the oxygen!
Have you always had music in your life? When did you start making music?
When I was young, in my last foster home, my foster sister Mary played organ in church and around the home. And I would listen to her, the chords she’d make, the melodies. She was a bit older than me and she encouraged me to play. So the organ was the first instrument I played. And then I picked up the guitar and started learning guitar by ear. I loved the singing at church every Sunday, the old hymns like “Onward Christian Soldier.” And there was lots of music in the house. My foster dad was a Scotsman, he’d play a lot of Scottish ballads and songs, but he also played Gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson, this black American singer with a very powerful voice, one of those voices that cuts deep. Also Nat King Cole. I was attracted to that music, what they called “Negro spiritual” back in those days. And they were singing songs about when they were slaves, or their ancestors were slaves, you know? And it was about the hard times, but mostly the hope in those hard times. There was one song I loved to listen to called “All My Troubles Will Soon Go.” And I would think, How can these people make music in the most dire of situations?
It’s beautiful. And so you said you had more than one foster family?
Yeah, I had three different families after I was taken away from my birth family. The second family I was with were a bit cruel, and so I ended up living with this old Scotsman and his family, the Cox’s, and it was so different. He was a beautiful man, and Mum Cox had this face you’d just love. I felt like I was one of them, like I was part of the family there. I was only a foster kid but my dad wanted me to use his name, Cox, and I didn’t have to but I did. I felt close enough. He just had this way about him, would make me feel like I belonged and was supported where I was. For a long time you don’t realise that you’re a black kid, an Aboriginal kid.
You never saw yourself as different?
Never knew it. It wasn’t until I walked home with a mate. I took him to my place to meet Mum and Dad who were white people. I’d grown up with him at school but he was a bit older and I suppose he was taking on a lot of influences from older people and then this one day we’re walking back to his place after being at my place, just mucking about. And when we were walking, he stopped me and said, “Archie, how come your parents are white?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” “How come they’re white?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, you’re black.” That’s the first time anybody had ever called me black. And from then on I thought, I think he’s right! This is interesting! [Laughs]. So I went back home and I told me Dad, “Dad am I black?” He said, “Who told you that?” I said, “Well, my mate who was just here.” He says, “Where does he live? I want to speak to the father!” And he was quite mad. And he was going to go down and have an argument with his father. I said, “No, no. So what does that mean? You know, that I’m black?” He said, “You’re an Aboriginal.” And it was the first time I found out that I was Aboriginal. He said, “You’re the first people of this country. You were here long before anybody else. We just came after you people.” So I heard that message way back then. And it made me feel proud of that. He made me feel proud to be an Aboriginal from then on. And he had this wonderful way, because he’s a Scotsman, he had this wonderful way of talking about his culture. He spoke Scottish Gaelic and was very passionate, he loved sharing his stories. And so I became interested in my culture and my stories. I didn’t have much time with my family before the authorities took me away. I was three. But
So I went on this journey and I found my brother and sisters. One sister I didn’t find, she passed away before I found her.
I never got to see them again either. And that was a big journey when I learned the truth about my birth parents, because I was told they died when I was born, but then I got a letter when I was 14 saying my mum had just passed away. I was so confused. So I went on the journey to find the rest of my family and it was hard, you know, I hit rock bottom. I was on the streets at 15 and got into trouble. I didn’t know who I was. But looking back you realise that it was one government decision at one time. It’s not the common people who did this to us. It’s not the common people now. This one government decision created certain views that are now changing, now we have more people trying to understand what happened, rather than blaming each other or feeling shame.
And how do we have this conversation now do you think? About Aboriginal Australia and our past and how we can heal from that together.
People have got to sit down and talk to one another and hear one another. What they’ve got to do is try to be free in their mind, get rid of the expectations, the biases, the preconceptions, what they believe. We need to sit with each other with a completely blank mind. And a blank canvas for the conversation. So don’t say, “Oh we’re going to have a meeting about this and that, a conversation about this and that.” People will prepare themselves. They’re going to pre-empt the conversation. But if you say to somebody that all they need to do is fill one hour with whatever comes up, and be open to what comes up, then we will have a better understanding of one another. We’re not going to be at each other’s throats. And so we need to be free of what we’re thinking, of preconceived notions of who we are and what we owe and what we deserve and don’t deserve. And if we’re able to do that, then we sit down and have a conversation. But if we can’t do that, then I can’t see a conversation happening.
Are you hopeful that this country will be able to sit like this and grow in understanding?
I’m hoping. I think something is changing. We’re finding each other, the people who feel the pain in their hearts are ready to talk in this way, and they’re asking, “How do we influence or talk to somebody in charge and say, ‘Can we try it this way?’” There is a change in the air. I think if I didn’t have hope I’d just go bush and never come back.
Yeah. That’s the thing. If it was a hopeless situation I wouldn’t even try. I wouldn’t make music. I wouldn’t make an album about love. You’ve got to keep trying. You’ve got to keep talking to people. And you’ve got to appeal to their spirit, to the hearts. Because this is where we find our common ground—when we appeal to the goodness and what makes us all beautiful. Of course, I know there is pain in the world. There are wars, there is famine, there is abuse. And it hurts. It makes me so sad. I cry. I cry for the little children in the world who don’t have freedom. But if we feel their pain, we will want to help these people and not forget that we share a common humanity with them. So they can have a good life too, and have enough to eat and not have the threat of bombs being dropped over their heads, into playgrounds.
And it makes me think that this is the power of your work to create change. Your music really is activism. But it is done in a very gentle way. It doesn’t aggravate or dictate.
Yeah, you don’t want to push people away with your message. You want to draw people in. Yes. Meet them at their level. And just say, “Hey, you’re a part of my story as I am a part of your story.
And so if you want to try to communicate with people, you don’t force your story or use harsh words. It only creates barriers between us. So in my music I always try to include, to let people in.
Is that something you’ve always understood? Or that you’ve come to learn?
I think it’s because of things that have happened to me in the past you know. I’ve had some difficult times, especially when I was living on the streets. People have been harsh towards me and I’ve been harsh towards them. I would confront them head on with harsh language and it always just ends up a lot worse. When I hurt other people, it hurts me too. I think, Why did I do that? It’s not the other person who made me do it, even though we tell ourselves this. It’s the way we perceive a situation, it’s our reaction. We can control our reaction. We don’t have to fight fire with fire. We can try to see where the other person is coming from, what’s making them feel that way. And I find that by knowing that, you actually don’t want to hurt anybody anymore.
It sounds like you’ve used a lot of the difficult times in your life as opportunities for learning and growing.
I think. Yes. Like I said, it’s our perspective.
And that difficult part of my life brought me closer to people who’ve experienced similar things, not just in this country but around the world. I’ve connected with people all around the world. People who’ve experienced family break-ups or dysfunction, who’ve been separated from culture. We’ve been able to share. And that’s made me stronger in a sense, much stronger than say through drinking. I realised when I was drinking, I could keep drinking and drinking, but no amount of drink could fill that void and that pain that was in my life when I wasn’t drinking. ’Cause I was a heavy drinker. It’s how I numbed my pain. But just for a while. The pain would always come back. Then I realised that music was a perfect way to fill the void and to process some of the difficult things I’d been through. So I had to channel it into music, and that was so helpful for me, I’m so grateful I had music growing up in that foster family.
And you had music with Ruby too.
Tell me about your relationship with Ruby.
Well you know we met on the streets. And she had this big spirit. We are pretty much opposites because I don’t like to talk much, I’m very quiet you know. And she just kept talking, always talking. I warmed to that straight away. So yeah she really encouraged me in my career. I didn’t want anything to do with recording or being in the spotlight, but I still remember she said to me, “It’s not all about you Archie.” She reminded me of who we are and what our responsibility is as Aboriginal people.
You made some beautiful music together.
She was an amazing musician. Her whole spirit was in her voice.
I also wanted to talk about your connection to nature and the land and what that relationship has been like for you?
Oh yeah. I’ve always had a love of nature. I love the bush. And I suppose that’s something that no matter what happened to me, they just couldn’t take away. I suppose the ol’ cliché is that you can take the boy from the bush, but you can’t take the bush from the boy!
The land is a living, breathing entity. If you love the land, the earth, it’ll love you back. It’s just the way it’s always been. Again, there’s no big secret to it. If you want a relationship with the land, you just have to love it. You just have to want it. The land has a lot to offer us, it’s a great support, not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally. Because it has a lot of energy, a lot of power. And it’s still here, between all of these artificial structures. There’s not one thing around us here, nothing in the street, there’s not one thing that doesn’t come from the earth. So even if we’re in the city, it doesn’t mean we’re against nature. Everything, everywhere around us is from this earth. This land. People don’t realise that. They just take that for granted. The road, the streets, it’s all superficial. What’s really important is the land underneath it. And that land holds a big story. We have to drill a bit further but right under us is that which sustains life.
Yeah. And if we tune into that relationship then we’re more likely going to take care of the environment.
That’s right. We need to realise we’re not exclusive. We’re not exclusive from nature. We’re a part of it! We’re part of everything around us. But when we think of nature we think of power. Like when it’s a hot day, you say, “I’m going to sit under a tree.” But you can’t get under a tree. You’d be under the ground if you were under a tree. What you’re actually doing is sitting with the tree. In the shade with the tree. The tree gives you shade—that’s what a tree has to offer you.
It’s so beautiful. To not sit under or on top of nature, but to sit side by side.
Such a small shift. I wanted to finish by asking about legacy. What you’re most proud of. What you hope will continue.
Well lately I’ve been working a lot with young people, particularly young people in detention, which has been some of the most rewarding work for me. I’m trying to help young up-and-coming musicians, and singer-songwriters. And also producers, helping them actually put on a show for their artists, and what all that entails. But yeah, working alongside young people in youth justice, in detention, helping them with music or whatever they need. It’s been a little bad lately in our detention centres, lots of trouble you know, but you’ve still got to be there. ’Cause people give up so easily on the young people today, the troubled ones. And they’re the ones who need our support the most. So I hope to able to help this next generation so that they don’t have to struggle so much, or go through the struggles we went through. ’Cause we’ve done that for them. They don’t need to go through that.