In 2014, choir-guru Lyn Williams was in the studio the Cat Empire, and asked frontman, Felix Riebl whether he’d like to write a song-cycle based on the Pilbara for The Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir. Years later Felix says out of all the studio albums he’s created, Self Titled debut Album is without a doubt his favourite.
Over the course of three years, Felix, together with bandmate Ollie McGill and Marilya of Gondwana Choirs, were able to create the Spinifex Gum collective. The three ventured through Roebourne, Western Australia and its surrounding Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi country, to meet local communities and come face-to-face with some of the harsh realities Indigenous Australians face.
“At first I had no idea what I’d write about or how it would sound. I had the doubts of a non-Indigenous person entering a community, wanting to both create and to show respect, which would involve several years of returning there to build relationships,” Felix explained.
“I was excited to have the chance to write for something as joyous and life-affirming as a teenage choir, and simultaneously troubled by what I witnessed and discovered about the areas I travelled. I spent a lot of time going awkwardly from place to place with a field recorder.”
Soundtrack of Australia
Reaching across the country and involving both an Indigenous and a non-Indigenous creative team, Felix believes this album reflects the true diversity of Australia. With lyrics blending a combination of English and Yindjibarndi, and its stories emerging from the Pilbara, with a choir of Aboriginal and Torres Strait teenagers hailing from North Queensland.
“It’s an album none of us could have predicted, but one that opened itself up to us. We just followed the music. The same goes for its politics,” Felix explained.
“I didn’t go to the Pilbara with my mind set on writing protest songs, but the combination of my experiences and following where the songs went naturally made certain events impossible to ignore. Both Ms Dhu and Locked Up were instances where songs on this album entered an immediate social and political context. To me at least, it indicated we were on the right track.”
Felix says it’s important that Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists can collaborate together.
“This isn’t just the voice of Indigenous Australia this is the voice of Australia. My time here has made me realise the issues we need to stand behind and make better for the past.”
For most of the women in the choir, their musical journey began at around age13 and similar to their development from adolescence, so to have the songs grown over time.
“The girls have never been in this type of extreme environment before, where we’ve demanded such a high outcome and level of professionalism from their work, but they all just rose to the challenge,” he detailed.
“We’ve been in a really interesting musical space and to see them do it at such a young age, so well is really rewarding.”
In an attempt to capture unique sounds, Felix tried to get the choir to do what a choir doesn’t usually do.
“We didn’t want this choir to be polite and stylistically, instead we aimed for them to sound un-choir-like.”
It wasn’t until the girls were all gathered together with a speaker blasting pop music where Felix found his inspiration.
“They started singing the lyrics and singing them really well and that was the lightbulb moment that I wanted to capture. It was electric being in there, it was joyous. It’s all about having an uplifting teenage spirit about topical issues to create the album.”
Another important aspect of making this album was discussing and understanding issues within the songs.
“We wanted to make sure the girls and the community understood what exactly we were singing about be it history, systemic racism or culture.”
Orchestrating modern music with an ancient touch
Singing in Yinjibani language is something the young women in the choir pride themselves on.
“'Yurala' means rainmaker, 'Malungungu' is a creepy spirit, 'Gawarliwarli' means butterfly, 'Wandangarli' means going crazy, but the most important one is 'Marliya', which means bush honey. It became the name of the album choir,” he explained.
“Seeing the friendship, humour and bond that runs between the singers enabled us to label it the Choir 'Marliya' because in Yinjibani it means ‘nothing as sweet as you my friend’. That may sound cheesy out loud but when you see these singers, they are bound in a special friendship.
Looking back, 13-year-old Ruby Ketchell says not only her journey as a musician, but also the choirs' progression has come a really long way.
"I used to have terrible stage fright, the idea of walking out onto the stage would give me terrible butterflies and I'd feel sick. That’s all gone, now I just have a sense of pride, not only from my transition over the past three years but how close we as a group to now family has progressed," she exclaimed.
Joining the choir wasn't just a way to remedy her fear of the stage, but also to discover more about her Torres Strait Islander heritage, which she grew up not knowing much about.
"My favourite song Sager, is a Torres Strait Islander song in language and it’s about the wind blowing in the trees which captures the essence of the place," she explained.
"Being able to showcase my culture and learn about my heritage is very special because I didn’t have this opportunity from a young age. For us learning about our people and finding a sense of identity/belonging is crucial."
Despite being just a young teenager, Ruby is well aware that the music she's part of is contributing to the soundtrack of Indigenous Australia.
"Our music is doing something. If you look at other music playing right now, you can’t say it’s achieving what we’re doing. Our stuff is unique, the lyrics are raw and the music is emotional. Listeners are left knowing more about Australia’s black history."
In 2016, Felix connected with several musicians including Briggs, Peter Garrett and Emma Donovan. Briggs’ rap about the disproportionate detention of Indigenous youths in Locked Up, Peter’s performance of a suicidal FIFO worker in Malungungu, and Emma’s Gospel Yindibarndi rendition of Tom Waits’ Make it Rain all added a new level of character and depth to the album.
'Locked Up' feat. Briggs & Marliya
Felix says it’s a very direct protest song about the disproportionate rate of Aboriginal kids in prison which came about after Ms Dhu’s death.
“The track came to life and we shot for the stars in how big we wanted to make it sound. Briggs was the person to guest on this one. He’s had the biggest voice on youth in detention. What made this so universal was that we spoke about this as an Australian issue, not an Indigenous one as it is so often framed.”
'MALUNGUNGU' feat. Peter Garrett & Marliya
The Malungungu spirit made Felix laugh because it represents a whitefella scaring off a bad spirit, but on a more serious note the core of this song grapples with more than just bad spirits, it explores suicide.
"The idea came to me as I was driving late at night and a train went past then the bells stopped and crossing gates lifted and there’s this darkness at the back. Driving into the darkness. Garrets voice fitted this troubled voice so well which is why we were stoked to have him on board this track."
Now that the album is complete Felix says Spinifex Gum stands up there with an achievement we should all be proud of.
“I’ve made around nine studio albums in my life and this one is my favourite. We’ve taken this into unknown places, determined political places and it’s through their efforts and the fact that young singers have succeeded themselves.”
And for those who want to put a label on this album, Felix says getting to the final product wasn’t a focus on getting to the final ‘destination’ it was about ‘enjoying the journey’.
"There are all sorts of descriptions they can give this project but at the end of the day the way that the samples came to us was so natural. The topics, songs and things we sung about took a long time and a lot of research. None of this was planned, the guests or the lyrics. We just followed the journey."