National Folk Festival audiences this Easter at Exhibition Park will get to hear at least one brand new song from legendary First Nations artist Archie Roach, as well as reinterpretations of his back catalogue.
‘One Song’ is on the forthcoming anthology, My Songs: 1989 – 2021, which will feature 44 tracks that chart Archie Roach’s long career.
The six-minute track work about where we come from and belong is set to take its place alongside Roach’s classics.
“‘One Song’ is about being sung into being, especially your people in a land, and that from the old dreaming spirits,” Roach says.
Bringing his songs into being is a much harder creative process these days for Roach, who says he needs to be more workmanlike to get a result.
“The songs there not as forthcoming as they were back in the day when they were just pouring out of the fella,” Roach says.
“You’ve got to sit down and really think about it. It’s like going to work, getting a blank piece of paper and pen, and I’m going to write a song. You may not have anything but you start. That’s what it’s like at the moment.”
Roach is itching to get back on the road after the COVID-imposed hiatus, and the Festival is part of a NSW tour with his guitarist Steve Magnusson and double bass player Sam Anning.
One of those classic songs, ‘Let Love Rule’, will set the tone for the Festival at the Friday night opening concert, where he will perform it with Queensland and Gubbi Gubbi youngster Layla Barnett, together with the Folk Festival Choir.
They haven’t met yet, but 13-year-old Layla is a big fan of Roach, whom she calls an inspiration.
“The way that he writes, he’s raised awareness of the struggle his generation has had,” she says. “He’s mesmerising. I’m really grateful to be able to meet him and sing with him.”
Layla, who is being mentored by Festival’s Artistic Director Katie Noonan, says the song is really fitting for the Festival after the past two years of COVID.
“It means to me that we need to be appreciating and acknowledge the place that we live on, and really accepting of everyone and about bringing people together,” she says.
Layla will also be singing Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s Bapa, one of her favourite songs and one she loves to perform.
On the 30th anniversary of the Festival being on Ngunnawal land in Canberra, Roach and Layla are part of a strong First Nations presence this year, with Yothu Yindi bookending the Festival at the closing concert.
Roach hopes it isn’t just a one-off, saying there should be some First Nation component for the Festival every year.
There’s no shortage of talent to do that with the number of First Nations artists exploding in recent years, something Roach agrees has helped further the cause of reconciliation and recognition, although he says it’s not always about a “message”.
“People like Baker Boy, he gets really upbeat and positive, so that’s good as well,” he says. “You don’t always have to have some sort of message about adverse things that have happened to people.”
Despite some of his songs dealing with difficult subjects, he hopes people leave an Archie Roach concert uplifted.
“It’s about all of us together, about everybody, it’s not just about one group of people, it’s about all of us, as Australians in particular and how we relate to each other, and how important that is to keep up with everybody.”
The new anthology of songs comes after the publication of Roach’s memoir, Tell Me Why, and companion album, which was a sometimes confronting process for him.
Roach says music can be an emotional buffer for your subject matter, but writing on its own can leave you exposed.
“So some things were a little confronting when you think about my story going back on my life,” he says, referring to being taken as a child, homeless at 15 and losing family before he even got a chance to meet them.
“It was something I’m glad I was able to do and talk about,” Roach says. “Like music and songs, it’s a good way to, heal isn’t the right word, work through that.”
The Festival’s full, all-Australian lineup has been finalised, and more than 200 acts have been selected to perform.
Artistic Director Noonan, who will also be on stage, says the Festival received about 1000 applications and is happy that the mix is right.
“We’ve got a beautiful cross-section of folk artists, including the more traditional Anglo-Celtic representation, which has been at the core of the festival for five decades, but we’re also hopefully broadening the church of folk to include a lot of younger artists,” she says.
Up and comers include the Maggie Carty Band, Jack Carty & Charm of Finches, Melody Pool, Martha Marlow, and Emma Donovan and the Putbacks, but the likes of Kate Ceberano, Catherine Britt and Justine Clark will add star power.
Noonan believes the Festival should be a community event, pointing to the Folk Family Choir and the Folk Festival Choir.
She has worked towards a really accessible event, “creating various touchpoints for people to become part of the festival, whether they join the choir or do workshops”.
This year there will also be specially curated concerts celebrating great songwriters. On Saturday, it will be Songs of Don (Walker), on Sunday Songs of Joni (Mitchell) and on Monday Songs of Judy (Small), who is also the 2022 recipient of the NFF Lifetime Achievement Award.
Friday night’s opening concert will feature a who’s who of the Festival and conclude with the communal singing of Warumpi Band’s My Island Home led by Ngunnawal artist Alinta Barlow with the NFF Family Choir in the Ngunnawal language.
Monday’s closing concert features the Warumpi Band’s Sammy Butcher and Neil Murray performing alongside Sammy’s 12-year-old grandson and daughter, with the Family Choir joining in for Blackfella/Whitefella, while Yothu Yindi will lift the roof with the iconic Treaty.
Local artists include Cooma’s Montgomery Church, Queanbeyan’s Omar Musa and Kim Yang, and Canberra’s Fred Smith, the Phoenix Collective, and the Hauptmann Trio.
The stars appear to be aligning for the Festival after two lost years with COVID restrictions easing, and Noonan says Canberra is the ideal place to run a festival.
“If there is any city in Australia to run a festival it’s Canberra,” she says. “It’s the most vaccinated city in the world, certainly in Australia.”
And because the vaccination percentage is so high, there are very few government mandates.
The National Folk Festival 2022 is held at EPIC on the Easter Long Weekend, 14 to 18 April. To learn more and view the full program, visit the National Folk Festival website.