Kev Carmody, musician and songwriter, BIGSOUND

I could have done a PhD and written a thesis that a tiny minority of people would read. With a song, you can grab your guitar and sit in front of a group of people and spread your ideas through your lyrics.

You would be hard-pressed to find an Australian person alive during the 1990s who has never heard the song ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’. The iconic protest anthem about Aboriginal land rights inspired by Vincent Lingiari’s history-making walk-off at Wave Hill Cattle Station was penned by two of Australia’s greatest songwriters – and one of them is a man named Kev Carmody. A Murri man, Kev is a testament to the power of nature, instinct and following your heart without chasing a profit – he didn’t record music until he was in his 40s and was never seeking critical acclaim. With music in his blood and something to say, Kev has become one of Australia’s most revered and treasured artists. With songs that traverse universal struggles such as human rights, as well as deeply personal tales about his own life, Kev’s work is the result of someone who has a need to be creating straight from the heart. As a cult figure in the Aussie music landscape, his tunes have been covered by countless contemporary artists – his collaborator and friend Paul Kelly (you might have heard of him) even went so far as to engineer Cannot Buy My Soul in 2007, a whole album of Kev covers from names such as the John Butler Trio, The Waifs and Clare Bowditch. Fast-forward to the present day and this tribute album has been remade with famous friends like Courtney Barnett, Electric Fields and Kate Miller-Heidke. We caught up with Kev ahead of his keynote speaking slot at this year’s BIGSOUND Festival to chat about connecting to the land, the power of music, spooky cemeteries and how to write a ripper song.

Your career has spanned decades and spawned many important cultural touchstones – when did you first start writing music?
The first song that I ever recorded (and young Dan Kelly actually did a cover of it) was in about 1968, just a year after our oldest son was born – he’s in the second verse! “I’ve been moved by the crying of the newborn”. It was very basic stuff in those days, more or less three-and-four chords because I was still just learning the guitar as a young fella. It’s the only song where I’ve ever written the lyrics first and then put the music to – normally I have the music and the sounds that give me the emotive theme to what the lyrics are going to be. I was on a driving camp and I remember ripping off part of a cereal box and just writing down the words – what moved my spirit. Looking up in the nighttime at the majesty of the Milky Way and the cosmos and the feeling of this infinity up above us. And here we are, little humans running around thinking how important we are – and I was moved! That’s where it started. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are some of the oldest living storytellers in the world – what is it about music and songwriting that appeals to you as a storyteller?
So much a part of the Homosapien evolution is the concept of oral tradition, where stories are handed on over millennia in the form of the verbal. It was never written down and I always say that the greatest songwriters I’ve ever heard were Mr and Mrs Anonymous from every culture. Every culture has done it and it’s just that ours is so ancient – we were walking and interacting 24/7 in our world. That’s spirituality. It wasn’t religion, it went beyond that – it’s a connection with every living thing. Even a rock has a lifespan! We live about 27 kilometres from the nearest town and crikey, the beauty of the lemon-scented tea tree all flowering and then the wattle coming into bloom for months before that. About three days ago we heard the first of the migrating birds – every year they come down and they call because they’ve got to find the nests to put their eggs in. We watch for all of those things because we’re so attuned to it – and that’s part of my music writing. I can’t ignore it, it’s just part of being. 

So making music for you is a combination of wanting and needing to do it.
It’s somewhere in between there. It’s just that holy mackerel, I’m just mucking around with music at this particular time with my engineer and drummer Andy, he’s got a little studio in the bush and we’re just exploring the concept of not using the 4/4 or 3/4 time signature. We want to do 7/8 and stuff like that to get it away from that same boring stuff. Musically we’re conditioning the human ear – we’re not exploring. When I went to uni I was so fortunate to be able to do full-year units in experimental music or musicology where we were exploring stuff from all over the world. It was the whole gamut of human music. It’s like my grandfather from Cape York, a Lama Lama man, used to say – you’ve got to be really attuned to all the sounds in the bush around you, otherwise you’ll never be able to exist. We get these music shows from all around the world and the only thing that changes are the faces – it’s all the same. 

It’s exciting to hear that someone is making music that’s not just made for the radio! Do you think coming from your background in music and being so well respected, it gives you the freedom to get a bit more crazy and creative?
Oh yeah, because I didn’t record until I was well over 40 years old. I knew that there was no way commercial radio was ever going to play anything of mine because of the lyrical content. I could do what I like and say what I like because I knew they weren’t going to play it anyway! It was only with the advent of community radio – before I ever recorded anything I could just walk down to 4ZZZ with my guitar and have a yarn with Ross Watson on the Murri Hour show. We’d talk about community stuff and eventually I’d play something, he’d record it on a quarter-inch tape live to air, put it on a cassette and send it to Radio Tiger in Redfern, then Tiger would send it to Melbourne and so on … this was six or eight years before I ever recorded. The idea of celebrity or making money or signing contracts – forget it!

When Cannot Buy My Soul came out, what sort of effect did it have on your fanbase? Did you notice a shift in the demographic of people coming to your shows?
The thing is, I rarely play shows. When I finished the record contract in 1995, I realised I didn’t have to get up on stage and do this stuff – but I love the interaction with the audience. I spend half the time talking to ‘em! You play the song, tell them stories and they love it. I only do one or two shows here and there over the last 20-odd years, but when Paul Kelly first put the album out I had nothing to do with it. He put it all together and holy mackerel, it was unbelievable! We did two shows in Sydney and one in Brisbane at the Riverstage and everything was sold out. It was amazing to see amazing performers connecting with my songs. I just turn up to things! I’m doing Bluesfest next year – I just pop up occasionally. What I love most is the sharing of the music. It’s not Kev Carmody’s music – once John Butler or Electric Fields or Courtney Barnett does a cover of it, it becomes their song and in a sense, it becomes our song. It’s a musical family. This brand-new mob of people completely reinterprets it. 

Much of your work is rooted in stories of the fight for justice, but you also write about your personal life. Does it feel strange when people cover material that’s so close to you or are you cool with it?
Heck yeah, I’m cool with it! I encourage it – go for it! It becomes your expression. I refused my whole career to do video clips because I thought the music had to stand by itself, but 80 percent of the feel of the music these days is in the video clip. What you see and what you hear are two very different things. What amazes me is these younger ones like Kate Miller-Heidke and Alice Skye doing video clips for my songs! As women they didn’t have to go and do the damn hot pants and wiggling around on stage, they just did it. Courtney just did it sitting on her bed with a dog – and it’s Paul Kelly’s kelpie, I later found out.

Much of your work is rooted in stories of the fight for justice, but you also write about your personal life. How does your process differ between when you’re speaking about a larger movement as opposed to something more exclusive to yourself?
I’ve never made a differentiation with it. I come up with the music first and it’s got to be an interesting sound. The feel that the music gives me suggests the theme. I never record anything – I keep it all in my head. So ten years down the track I might say, “By crikey, that particular story or episode fits the tune I’ve had in my head for years and years!” One of which was a song called ‘Wizard of the Wind’ – I had a guitar piece I learned to play with four fingers that I used to train myself with for classical and blues guitar. I had it for years and then all of a sudden this theme came into my head – the wizard of the wind. I was over in England playing at a little country fair and I got talking to this organic farmer who invited me to his place to take a look at his farm. In the evening I was walking back and he’d given me some of his homemade mead – the moon was just rising and I was walking straight towards up this hill that went into the little village. I had to go past this churchyard with a heap of graves in it – it was super freaky with the noises of the hedgerows rustling. That’s where the lyrics to the song came from.

And the lyrics tied in with that piece of music that you’d had stored in your head for years!
Exactly. Another song that came out so easily was ‘Images of London’. I named a whole album after it. There were all these people that were living on the streets – Steve Kilby from The Church did a beautiful cover of that one.

I’m going to have to go back and have a closer listen to the lyrics of these songs.
Do one better – you can write them yourself!

Australian broadcasters like Triple J do seem to be making a better effort to program content that’s not just the same four guys playing four cords. There’s a sense of inclusion of everyone who is a part of our society. It goes beyond gender – it’s us as human beings. I might write a song about it, what do you reckon? You young ones are globalising and connecting with these social justice movements.

With Black Lives Matter, police brutality and racial justice being hot topics this year, what sort of role do you think music has to play in education and healing?
Massive. I could have done a PhD and written a thesis that a tiny minority of people would read. With a song, you can grab your guitar and sit in front of a group of people and spread your ideas through your lyrics. In the end, ten of those people might take to the song – keep your multiplication going and you wind up with a thousand people listening to what you were saying. Paul Kelly says that he never heard ‘From Little Things’ played on the radio (except on community radio). It’s basic censorship – they don’t play it on commercial radio. We noticed when we were playing our little gigs people would start yelling out for us to play the song. It was coming from the people – it wasn’t coming from radio stations down unless you were listening to community radio.

It’s a testament to these movements being born on the streets and not covered by the media.
For sure. If you look at music through 20th-century history – blues, jazz and the African American influence – and early rock’n’roll where you had artists like Elvis whose early work was based on African American stuff. And punk! Nobody wanted to hear punk on the radio – they were really making a social comment. When you look at rap and hip-hop it came from the streets. Punk was basically disaffected white people in big cities but the hip-hop and rap were coming from the so-called ‘coloured people’. But it was all the same thing – they were all saying something that they had a right to say.

Artists like Baker Boy and Electric Fields are gaining prominence in the Aussie music scene while using traditional language in their songs. How does it make you feel to see a new generation of Australians being exposed to language?
You have the opportunity now to learn the language. In my day it was banned. My great uncle, old Uncle Jack who taught me the didgeridoo, had to hide the didge two or three kilometres up in the rainforest because if white fellas heard it he’d be jailed. So it’s fantastic to hear language – I was in Melbourne to receive an award and got to see Electric Fields perform ‘From Little Things’ on stage [The voice of Aboriginal rights activist Vincent Lingiari, the subject of the song, was used in the performance]. When I heard that man’s voice it was like his spirit was speaking again. I remember hearing him on the radio back in the 1970s saying “Before Vesteys, this was blackfulla country.” You can forget about all the theses and books in the world – that’s land rights and that’s truth. At least you younger ones are aware of it now. Back in my time, I was 20 years old and I wasn’t even a citizen. But it’s us together as journalists and writers, we are going ahead and trying to spread the word.

We all have a lot to learn from Indigenous Australians about how to treat our country properly. How would you suggest we all stay more connected to and respectful of the land as things return to the new normal in a post-COVID world?
You’ve got to attune yourself to Mother Earth. There’s change all the time and unpredictability. We have climate change – we know that, we’ve been evacuated three times. It’s the way the earth is responding to what we’re doing as humans. Back 20,000 years ago we were just walking around in a different context as far as the land goes. We were really attuned to what was happening around us so that we could exist. Now, the artificiality in the way we live – there’s hot water that runs out of a tap! Me and my brother thought that was absolutely amazing. When they came in and put us in this school when I was 10 years old, switching on the lights and turning on a tap was like magic. Holy mackerel! We didn’t have to get kerosene, put it in an old lamp – it was just flicking a switch. But it comes at a cost – they’re burning coal to do it. You can dig holes in the ground to do it too. Queensland has just been given the okay for another mine. It’s such short-term thinking for a few votes and we’ve gotta stop it. Those other people, we can make sure that they get retrained and make sure that they’re looked after. We’ll look after them until they get back on their feet again. It could be ten years. The whole environmental structure is totally upset – the more they keep fracking for gas, that’s going to get into our artesian basin. If the rubbish gets into that, this huge water source is destroyed for millions of years. The young ones are concerned so we will get change. The thing is, you gotta vote.

We’re lucky enough to be graced with your wisdom (digitally) at BIGSOUND this year. What are the main topics you will be touching on in your keynote speech?
Oh, crikey, there was a heap of questions that they asked me and I was so happy that young Alethea and Rihanna (from BIGSOUND) were interviewing me. There’s a heck of a lot. They were right on the ball – you’ve gotta listen to it. I won’t give anything away so you’ll just have to watch it. And it was all done on Zoom zoom zoom – like the Mazda motor car ad!

Registrations are open now for BIGSOUND – head to the official website to sign yourself up and check out all of the goodness on offer throughout the festival. 

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