South-east of Stanthorpe, in the granite belt that straddles the border of the apple-growing country of Queensland and New South Wales, there’s a small property, once part of a much larger orchard, with a classically rustic farmhouse and a huge insulated shed where the produce used to be stored.
The shed is now a musical Aladdin’s Cave. Rare gig posters from the 1980s and ’90s festoon the walls. There’s a drum kit set up for occasional gigs in a room that could comfortably fit 200; another in a smaller studio anteroom, and practically everything else inside – from butter knives to oil drums – is an instrument waiting to be played.
This is where Kev Carmody – most famous for his iconic song co-written with Paul Kelly, From Little Things Big Things Grow – recorded his first music in a decade. This is how he describes it: “It’s a good little bloody space. Crikey, better than those bloody sterile bloody huge bloody studios they have in bloody major cities!”
A conversation with Carmody is invariably long and liberally peppered with such vernacular. Born in 1946 to an Aboriginal mother and Irish father, he grew up droving on the Darling Downs, and remained illiterate until finding his way into university in 1978. He has since become one of the most revered songwriters in the country.
But the staggering depth of his catalogue has only just been revealed. The result of several years of off-and-on sessions at the apple shed, Recollections … Reflections (A Journey) isn’t an album; it’s an avalanche: 41 songs on four discs, with songs dating back to 1967 – none one of them previously recorded or released.
It was Kelly who spotted what had previously been hidden away, on one of his visits to the property: folders full of lyrics, dating back decades, that Carmody had finally transcribed after years of having the songs only in his head. “He spied ’em one day when I pulled ’em out looking for a song,” Carmody says.
“In his quiet way, he’d always mention when he’d come and stay – ‘What about the back catalogue Kev, have you done anything on that yet?’” He says he’s barely scratched the surface: “There’s bloody drawers full of them still at home!” Many more songs, according to co-producer Andy Wilmott, were rejected.
Carmody first picked up a guitar in the late 1960s, teaching himself to play with the aid of a book he found at a local dump. “They were just open-air supermarkets. I found a wet bloody book that said Teach Yourself Guitar, so I brought it thing back to the camp, dried her out over the flamin’ fire and started to work through it.”
His first album, Pillars Of Society, was recorded to coincide with the Bicentenary of 1988, by which time he was 42. It was a radical release, hailed at the time by critic Bruce Elder as “the best album ever released by an Aboriginal musician and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”.
One song especially, Black Deaths In Custody, remains shamefully relevant: “Show us blacks the justice to be had here in this land / Show us blacks the justice for every black human being / Show us blacks the justice in this white democracy / When you can execute us without a trial, while we’re held in custody.”
Growing up Aboriginal in Queensland during the worst excesses of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years gave Carmody more reason to be angry than most. He knew there was little appetite for such sentiments. “That’s why I didn’t record for so long, because I knew bloody well that what I was doing, no way did it have any commercial value.
“I had one of the top record companies in Australia say ‘Oh, we really like the Pillars album; we’d love to put out an EP.’ We met around a big boardroom table. I said, well, which ones have you picked on it? And you knew straight away, they’d just depoliticise it, they took the bloody guts out of it.”
But while his records sold only to a rusted-on audience, his reputation among his peers – from Billy Bragg to Bono – began to soar. His collaboration with Kelly cemented his status; in 2007 a tribute album and concert featuring the Drones, Steve Kilbey and Missy Higgins elevated his standing further. A documentary, Songman, will premiere ahead of Carmody’s appearance at the upcoming Sydney Festival.
While others paid tribute, Carmody retreated after the release of his fifth album, Mirrors, in 2005. He spent his time helping to raise his grandchildren and conducting workshops for kids in the remote communities of New South Wales and Queensland. “They were a bit like me in some ways; fairly illiterate but the creativity was there.”
He says he was “jack of the music industry”, with no love for the touring life of a song-and-dance man. “Who wants to be travelling around in bloody Tarago cars and getting up in motels, late nights, singing karaoke to your own bloody songs every bloody night, turning up at festivals with the same old faces?”
Most of all, he resented the music business’s tendency to pigeonhole his creativity. Mostly, Recollections And Reflections is in the spare acoustic-blues vein of Pillars, but that’s just one side of Carmody’s oeuvre. “It’s just bizarre to be stuck in this one bloody box. It’s all to do with consumerism and marketing the product,” he says.
“[We] could have put together a whole country album, with Hometown and all these other ones, and then [we] could have put together another more folk-based one, and then we could have gone right through to electronics and electrified bloody Marshall amp-type stuff!” He says he would love to make a punk record. “Bloody oath!”
“But with this one we thought, no, let’s keep it acoustic and absolutely basic. The next thing we do I reckon will be a combination of John Cage experimental music, Beethoven and Charley Patton. Let’s see if we can get that happening. Something creative that pollinates it-bloody-self.”
First published in The Guardian, 6 January 2016