Back from the Bush
Neil Murray is but one individual to possess that very modest persona that anyone with real talent displays. Living for some time in the remote western desert Aboriginal communities of Papunya and Kintore, he formed the Warumpi Band. In 1989 he went on to released his first solo album Calm and Crystal Clear, and in 1993 followed it up with These Hands and the novel Sing for me Countryman. Dust, the long awaited third album has been released as part of ABC's acclaimed 'Songwriters' Series'. Neil is a prolific songwriter and poet, and truly deserves all the success that may come his way. Although mediocrity can tend to gain prominence in this industry, there in the shadows lurks true art.
Early in your career it is said that you moved to the Northern Territory on a quest to discover the real Australia? What sort of impact did this have your music?
NM: "It gave me something to say, in short."
Did the formation of the 'Warumpi Band' fulfil all your dreams and aspirations of the time?
NM: "No, otherwise I wouldn't be doing solo stuff. We certainly achieved a lot and blazed the trail, I think. But we kind of weren't quite up to taking the next step, or the public wasn't up to, one of those things. It comes down to we weren't quite capable of maintaining the consistency and commitment required to really take the next step. But I think we achieved a lot, it's a period I look back on with a lot of fondness now, even though at the time it was a bit of a struggle."
In 1993 you published the novel Sing for me Countryman. Could you elaborate on the content?
NM: "The content is a virtual chronicle of my time in the territory with the 'Warumpi Band'. So it's semi-autobiographical really, the search of a young white fellow from the southern districts, heading out to the outback and searching himself and his country. He feels that the secret to that is held by Aboriginal people, so he wants to be with them. And it goes through all the ups and downs that he has, but also explores the anxiety of black and white relationships, but also the great promise, which is encapsulated in the band, and what it achieves, and finally the bonding. Despite not achieving commercial success and sort of being disarrayed, there is a remarkable bonding that takes place between the people involved, which transcends any sort of racial divides or anything like that. So in a sense it becomes a bit of a microcosm of the potential of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations in this country to achieve things together."
Tell me about 'Neil Murray' the songwriter. With a background as a novelist, is the initial approach taken for a new song usually poetic? Do your songs begin with a lyrical or melodic idea?
NM: "Some anyway, all sorts of ways. But more often than not it's usually with a tune or a riff. Sometimes I've had a lyric idea and I'm casting around for a tune, but more often than not it's a melody. Occasionally it's all come at once, instantaneous, but that's rare."
Christine Anus's debut album features three of your songs. How did that come about?
NM: "Well, I sort of knew Christine before she got a deal and she'd been singing backing vocals with me and the Rainmakers in Sydney and elsewhere. And in that time I got to know her quite well, and when she did get a deal, there was one song 'Island Home', she'd already been singing with us beforehand, and I knew she'd do a version of that, but I also wanted to write a couple of songs specifically for her, which I managed to do. And yeah, it was very satisfying to be able to assist because she's a wonderful talent. But she hasn't done anything yet, hopefully in years to come she will have really become, I think, a major force in music."
How do you feel these days about the 1995 APRA 'Song of the Year' award for 'Island Home'?
NM: "I don't think about it much now, it was a thrill at the time. And you know, I'm not much for awards really, but If I'm gonna get one it's nice to have one that's favoured for by my peers and not a panel of bloody industry boffins or something. 'Cause all the members of APRA chose the song through a ballot thing, through the mail, all the APRA membership, which is all the composers and songwriters like myself who are members of APRA. I use to throw the damn thing in the bin, when I got the magazine from APRA, you know, here the shots of people with their bow ties on, getting awards and that, and I'd (chuckles) throw it in the bin! And lo and behold I've become one of them (laughs)! Standing there with a drink in me hand (chuckles)!, and some big wig, holding his arm over me shoulder or something, (laughs) saying, 'Well done!' Oh no, I can't be too cynical, it was a thrill, it was a thrill, but I don't think about it much anymore."
What sort of approach did you employ in the recording of your new album Dust?
NM: "Approach? (laughs) Well, I just beamed away whenever I could get the time in Sydney at my publisher's writing studio, 16-track facility at Rondor Music, whenever I knew I was coming to Sydney. Or I'd devise a way of getting to Sydney, and get some time in there, I would work on a track, and I would get whoever I could, to help! And that was people usually from 'The Rainmakers' or other people that I knew, musicians in Sydney like Jim Moginie or I got Christine Anu."
Tell me about the musicians. Did you use your regular lineup?
NM: "Yeah, well the same rhythm section I've had in 'The Rainmakers' for the last six years, I used them, yeah. Did a couple of tracks in Melbourne, though with some other people, and I just beamed away, it wasn't like, 'Oh, here's the budget' and 'We're gonna record', I had no budget. I just did the best I could with limited resources until I had the songs to a state where they were listenable. Then I heard about the ABC thing, approached them, they loved it, OK! With the bit of input that they had, I managed to get into a descent studio and mix it all, finish it off properly. So it's basically been cobbled together, but that doesn't reflect in the actual sound, I think it all hangs together really well now, and I listen to it and I'm very satisfied with it. It just goes to show, I mean, when record companies let you down you've just gotta go and do it yourself, any way you can, if you're a writer of anything, you want your stuff to be read or heard by the public. So you've gotta get it out there somehow, that's what I had to do."
Good luck, I'm sure you don't need it, you'll be alright.
NM: "What? I need all the luck I can get, that's one thing I haven't had, I have never been lucky. And to really crack it in this industry you need a bit of luck! You know, I've never been that lucky. But you can get by with sheer bloody guts and will power and perseverance, you know what I mean? I'm a bit pig headed like that, I can sort of just persevere. But I've seen a lot of people get lucky, and they do well, but then they sort of fall apart for other reasons. So maybe it's a good thing, to be like this, I've never been a has- been, I haven't been yet! (laughs)"
Neil Murray will perform live at Lamby's in Geelong on Wednesday, July 31, and Prince Patrick Hotel in Melbourne with 'Kavisha Mazzella' on Thursday, August 1.
'On the Street Melbourne' ~ Volume One, No. 7, Wednesday, July 31, 1996
ON THE STREET, MELBOURNE PTY LTD
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Neil Murray: The Wondering Kind