Has the success changed much for people on Elcho Island?
Yeah, a little bit. Not nearly as much as I thought it would. I thought there could be some really ugly aspects of success. It’s a totally different society and different way of dealing with money. Material things are irrelevant. People love having somewhere to stay, and all that kind of thing, but you see government schemes of building this and building that and pouring hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars into projects that just fall over. Him having had more success and having more money, the only thing that changes is that he shares it out a bit more, and it leaks out through the community. It might go to fifty people, within two days. There’s no big impact, big spending, big pressure points, there’s nothing material that you see changing. He’s got a close-knit family of maybe 30 or 40, and an extended family of hundreds. Occasionally he’ll change his phone number, but he can deal with things really well. He’s quite public, quite accessible; a lot of his family are in all the time, extended family, wanting to do this or that. He’s good at saying no, and we keep in close contact with the family. My partner in the record label lives on the island a lot of the time, his mum and dad are still alive, his mum is in this booklet, painting him up, and that will mean a lot to her. It’s respect back to the family that we’re saying that even at his highest point in his career, this is him with you.
You moved up to Darwin straight from Melbourne. It’s a place very much unlike anywhere else in Australia—it changes a person, up there.
It’s quite confronting. White people tried to settle there many times. It’s hard living. Gurrumul loves it—wherever we are, he wants 32 or 33 degrees. Hotels, recording studios, anywhere. It’s a strange place because it’s supposedly tropical, but once you’ve acclimatised, the humidity is almost comforting, it surrounds you all the time. It almost supports you all the time, but you can’t be a labourer and enjoy the humidity, it’s too full on.
But a muso can! You talk about there being an absence of politics in what Gurrumul’s doing, that it’s stridently non- political, he’s just telling stories, but there is a politics there that almost comes naturally. The songs are full of loss and longing, to preserve things that may pass, to be slow and to consider, but what interested me is that it’s not sad.
Great! Because it’s been reviewed as sad three or four times.
It’s not. You can have longing without sadness.
It’s a really interesting way of telling those stories.
What I think you’re getting at is what he presents to people, and partly what my role was and the engineer’s role, was to present that same mood in the sound that we’ve created. There’s a song called “Warwu”, that translates as grieving or worrying. But it’s actually not worrying, it’s to do with longing, and reminding yourself that you are part of that connection with the land, the spirits, you are totally connected to that place and you are not going to lose it. It’s not even a longing. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re nostalgic about something. You get really happy, and you get melancholy. It’s about being in touch. I want to say with nature, but it sounds like I’m being too new age. But so much of him is to be in touch with what those ancestors were all about, and what the songs were all about, and that is the tides, the wind, the funeral song, going back into the ground, into the termite mound, being at one again with the earth, the land. Saying this to you now sounds like so many things that you read that are really clichéd and corny…
But music does, and can, come from somewhere deeper. It can come from the land, it’s so deeply connected to these things. It’s not just what comes out of the strings. There’s a truth that goes deeper than that, and it is tricky to talk about, because it does sound stupid.
I think a lot of people in our society are so wired into technology, and into the regime of their lives, of collecting, amassing some sort of savings and extra properties, getting their children set up. Their agenda is let’s go go go, get ourselves comfortable and get on top of things, and then try and get more on top of things so they’re really comfortable, and be in touch with what’s going on, and read papers and read magazines and read everything that’s going on. It’s like they lose, in a way, what Gurrumul’s singing about, and then when they hear him, it’s like “that’s what I want.” Everyone’s got that choice, but not many people make that choice.
Is that where the connection is coming from, and why people have connected to him?
I think so.
He connected, and continues to connect, in a sense that is astounding. I’m guessing even your most optimistic business plans didn’t allow for this kind of success.
Well, luckily we don’t make them. I’ve gone all out to try to make sure that the sound complements that connection. When we did the first album, there were lots of ways you could mix that. There are some beautiful albums that have come out in the last 40 or 50 years that just have a great sound to them as well as what the musicians are doing, and I worked really hard to try and get that as well. So you felt really warm and comfortable when you listen to that first album.
A lot of people say that the songs sound all the same. I wanted that mood, I love the idea of an album which is a mood for an hour. It just says “slow down everyone, soak this up”. That was complementing what he already does, which I think has really boosted part of that initial reaction to him. It could have been presented and mixed differently and could have sounded a bit flat or pure or straight or something else, but we pushed that warmth factor. On the second one, we’ve gone a bit different, but the combination of the two is probably the factor that everyone’s striving to pinpoint. I’ve heard a few albums coming out sounding similar, and I’m going “don’t worry about trying to sound like this, just do your own thing”. Now that someone’s done it…
It can’t be a genuine expression of them. Is it a genuine expression of Gurrumul?
A lot of great songs are people writing about something, and then someone else coming along and singing about what someone else has written about, trying to make a performance out of that, and trying to make you believe that that’s what they’re thinking or feeling. John Lennon might be an exception on some of his songs, but most they are third hand, often songs are written for someone else, and someone else makes you believe that it’s them. You look at the whole industry and you think this is a bit of a farce in a way, all of these people are writing things that are not actually what they’re feeling. They’re just performing great songs, and trying to get that connection.
But with Gurrumul’s music, it’s totally him, and it’s about him, and he’s singing about himself, and he’s singing about his identity. He’s not acting, he’s not performing, he’s not doing a show, it’s not cabaret. That’s the purity, and that’s what’s exciting—we’re not having to go on stage and perform. We go on stage and produce sounds and be musicians.
I think sometimes he feels like he needs to perform but he doesn’t have the capacity to necessarily perform. He was in Yothu Yindi for seven years, and they were the full performance act, with the smoke and the mirrors.
They were very much about the in-your-face show.
And that’s great. But what I love about working with Gurrumul is that he’s just able to be himself. There’s no pressure on him.
And he doesn’t really care to be any other way.
Given the phenomenal level of success…
When you say phenomenal, it is, and three years ago when we were a little label, it is in that perspective, but it’s not compared to, say, Norah Jones. It’s phenomenal on a small scale.
But in an industry where people seem to have stopped buying music, the fact that his is being bought at those levels is something special. What’s it meant for Skinnyfish in terms of what you’ve been able to do outside of Gurrumul’s work?
It’s meant that we can support other Aboriginal artists. There are another few artists that we are working with, and I’m making another couple of extraordinary albums. It’s also given us confidence that we’re on the right track, which is a big thing morally and creatively. Because it’s the end of the first week, we don’t have any figures on it, but it’s sold really well, so it’s like