The Wandering, Wondering Kind

Rhythms, March 2000, by Seth Jordan.

Neil Murray is a lone wolf, or perhaps that should be lone dingo. Quintessentially Australian, even when Murray plays with the celebrated Warumpi Band he's the odd one out. The modest whitefella keeping a low profile, even though most of the songs are his, backing the wild stage antics of lead singer George Djilaynga (the Johnny Rotten of Aboriginal music) and the rest of the Warumpi clan.

A thinker, a writer, and a poet, over the last twenty years Murray has quietly built up an impressive body of work centred around the recurring themes of the Aussie bush, an indigenous sense of place, black/white relations, life on the road and the loneliness of the solo heart.

Having formed the Warumpis while working at the remote desert community of Papunya, west of Alice Springs, in 1980, Murray and the band captured the imagination of the Australian music scene as one of the first successful indigenous acts. Their debut '85 album "Big Name, No Blankets", followed in '87 by "Go Bush", showcased Murray's writing ability with songs such as "Blackfella/Whitefella", "Breadline" and "My Island Home" all gaining good alternate airplay. A strong touring connection with Midnight Oil, then at the height of their popularity, also helped to boost the Warumpi profile.

Always a difficult act to keep on the road, due to both traditional family commitments and Djilaynga's notoriously erratic performances, Murray began releasing his own solo projects in '89 with the Country influenced "Calm And Crystal Clear", followed in '93 by "These Hands".

Touring with his own band but never attaining huge sales, an apathetic music industry seemed unsure whether to categorise Murray's solo work as rock, folk or country, despite critical acclaim. It was Christine Anu's massively popular '95 cover version of "My Island Home", from her ARIA Award-winning album "Stylin' Up", which again turned the spotlight on Murray talents, winning him that year's APRA Award for "Song of the Year".

His third album "Dust" released in '96 on ABC Music's Songwriter Series also received good reviews, as did his first novel, "Sing For Me Countryman. His live solo performances at festivals and clubs continue to attract a dedicated audience amongst those who appreciate truly well crafted songs. A solid new Warumpi Band album in '96, "Too Much Humbug", also rejuvenated interest in the classic reformed band amongst a younger audience.

With the release of his latest solo album "THE WONDERING KIND" (ABC/EMI), which once again sees him working with Oils' keyboard/guitarist Jim Moginie, Neil Murray spoke to SETH JORDAN.

Neil, these days you're based up in Darwin, but you still connect regularly with Victoria, and you recorded the new album in Sydney. Is this wandering lifestyle really conducive to putting an album together? Is that why it took twelve months?

Well, moving around kind of goes with the job and I wasn't working on it all that time.

Basically the album was self-financed. I wanted to utilise the facilities of Rondor Music, my publishers, because they've got a writing studio there. So whenever I got a chance to be in Sydney for a week or two, I'd work on it. So it was done in a piecemeal approach, but I really had no other way of doing it, 'cause I really had no budget to speak of. I finally got it up and finished, and then the ABC put their hand up again thankfully and said they wanted to release it.

Now how come after all these years and all the accolades and the awards you've received you've still got to self-finance your albums as an independent? Is that by choice?

I'd like to have a budget. I always thought there'd be someone out there who would be supportive of what I do, since I've got a little bit of a track record now. But I'm a realist. The only album I've ever done with a complete budget was the first one. I'm not complaining, I've still got the work out and that's what's important to me, that's the achievement and anything else is a bonus. If I had a budget I'd have a bit more freedom in terms of instrumentation, I'd be able to pay my friends a bit better. But at the end of the day it's how the songs sound on the CD, not how it had to come about.

Maybe one advantage to self-financing is being able to produce your own album, but is it difficult to be objective about your own tunes when they're sometimes so introspective and personal?

I'd really welcome someone who I respected to take over that role. It's a bit of a headache producing yourself, when I can't decide which way to go with a tune. To a large extent Jim Moginie's been good for that, 'cause whenever I send him a demo of a song that grabs him he always wants to play on it. I just bounce off other people's feelings, but really I'm producing myself and if I want to change something I do. I'd rather just concentrate on my performance though and let someone else do the producing role.

I notice that Jim Moginie is credited as Seamus here. I thought maybe you'd brought in a new Irish import.

Yeah, that's his moniker for anything outside of the Oils. He's really great to have around the studio. He can come up with parts out of thin air and bring in boxes of gadgets to get certain sounds. It's always been an informal thing and I like that sort of relationship.

The underlying theme in this, as in all your albums, seems to be a sense of place, that ongoing connection to the land.

Well, that's where I'm living. My entire creative output has been a quest for meaning in this country, to find new ways to articulate that. It might not even be a song about the land, but people always say that something in my sound, maybe just the instrumentation evokes a sense of place. I was just reading a piece in the Capital News of all places where Willie Nelson said something about whether a person has really come from the land, whether they grew up eating the soil and drinking from it, which comes out in their music. I think I know what he's saying. I'd like to think that that sort of thing is in my stuff, even though I'm not really a Country act.

You've talked in the past about your continuing affinity with Aboriginal belief systems. Was that originally a rejection of white belief systems or just something that felt more natural?

It wasn't so much a rejection but it was a feeling that the transplanted British heritage was found wanting, that it didn't quite fully explain the feelings that I had growing up in the country of western Victoria. When my grandfather first showed me blackfella stones from the paddock he said "These belong to people who lived her before", and I said "Well where are these people?", and he said "They're all gone". That set in motion a train of thought and wondering that perhaps drove me to do what I ended up doing. It just seemed logical to me that a people who had lived in this country for thousands of years is worth paying attention to, and yet we'd pretty much ignored them and didn't know much about them. So I made it my business to find out and learn what I could. In the process I found that a lot of their belief systems filled the gaps of meaning. The voids that the transplanted heritage didn't have an explanation for, the Aboriginal culture did. To a large degree those belief systems became my own.

I'm not saying I'm Aboriginal, but I've certainly got a great respect for their culture, I find those beliefs meaningful and I believe in them. I've taken a lot of things onboard unconsciously and they work for me. I went out in the outback much like the old explorers looking for something, but not looking for gold or an inland sea. The real gold was the people out there. They still had a traditional culture intact and I learned from them. That in turn led me to go back to my own area in western Victoria and rediscover the Koori people down there, who I never knew as a kid growing up, and make that connection too. So when you take this stuff on it becomes part of your art and what you express about your own life and the land you live on. So to a large extent there's been a big indigenous influence in the things that I write and sing about.

You've got a great song on the new album called "Eddie Mabo". Even though you never met him it seem like you feel his story has something to say to all Australians, not just the indigenous ones.

Oh, absolutely. I just felt that he hasn't received the recognition that he's due. He's had an enormous impact, his personal struggle and his posthumous victory has had enormous ramifications for Australia, for the maturation of the nation. Especially for indigenous people of course, but I'd like to think that all fair-minded Australians should take pride in his achievement and respect his struggle. He's a classic Aussie battler in one sense. He had it all stacked against him but he saw there was an injustice and he sought to rectify it.

I was moved by the biography about him that I read, and of course coming through the 80's with the Warumpi Band I felt that I was sharing in his struggle. I was inspired by the man and wanted to do my little bit through song in elevating him into that pantheon of Australian heroes like Weary Dunlop and Professor Fred Hollows and all the others who we think are worthy Australians. I think he's one of them as well.

The first single "Late This Night" from the album is already out. Where did that one come from?

It was just a riff that I had. I had actually had a whole other set of lyrics for it that weren't quite gelling. So I revisited it and felt it was driving a different story about a guy who's getting ready to leave a relationship. It had this haunting late night insomniac feel to it. The subtle thing in there is this idea that "You're so beautiful when you're sleeping", the inference being that it's different to how the person is when they're awake. That's the dilemma, the leave-taking thing.

You go back to your own roots on "We'll No Return". I assume this one came from your visits back to Scotland?

Yeah, I've had about three trips over there. Each time I've delved a bit more, researching into my ancestry. The more I found out about the history there, the more it made sense to me about things out in Australia. There were a large number of Scottish immigrants, especially from the Highlands who went into western Victoria in the mid-1800s. A number of them were dispossessed people. There's a traditional bagpipe piece in there after the song fades away which was apparently played while these immigrants were forcibly getting on the ships to leave Scotland. It's one of those sad laments. So I married that feeling with the idea that these dispossessed people had to come out here and work for squatters and the landed gentry, and unwittingly being the agents to dispossessing the native people out here. I imagined some of my ancestors having some consciousness about that, stuck in the deadly design of history.

Do you know who the first Murray to come out here was?

In my case it was my great, great grandfather who came out from Sutherland shire as a result of the clearances, and he met his wife in Geelong who came out on a boatload of McDonalds, and she never spoke English. I always wondered why the Gaelic language died out so quickly here, while in other parts of the world like Canada there are still enclaves where even today it's still very strong. I think it had something to do with having to speak the language of the bosses. We only had one word handed down to us, which was that my cousins and I referred to our grandfather as "Shanna". It was only in the last ten years that I realised that was a Gaelic word.

So there's a sense of having lost that cultural link.

"Good Light In Broome" is another track on the album that certainly caught my ear.

Once again that was a phrase that a friend of mine used when I was spending some time over in Broome, and I thought, "Yes, that's true!". In a literal sense the light over there is spectacular off the Indian Ocean. You've also got the full moon going over the mud flats which hundreds of people line up at the Mangrove Hotel to witness.
In a metaphoric sense it had even more meaning to me because I've always thought that Broome is one of those places that if everything else goes to pack, we can always go to Broome! Turn our back on the country and be quite alright, you know? It's a bit of a Shangri-La idea I suppose, but I just wove up a story about a guy who gets kicked in the guts and has a bit of a run of bad luck, until he finally decides to go to Broome. I knew a guy once in Sydney, an old fellow who had two dogs, and he said that when he retired he was going to head over to Broome. I don't know if he ever really did, but I remembered the idea and made it into the song.

What about "Driving Days"? You do spend a fair bit of time out there driving those on some of those endless roads, don't you?

Yeah, well in a song you can take it on many levels. The literal level of driving, but also there was a feeling of weariness that overcame me. I just felt I couldn't be bothered having to push anymore and I guess that came out in the song. Also the idea of running into a lot of younger people, perhaps just setting off on the road that you've already come on. They're all trying to make you enthused about it, but if you've already been there and done that it's a bit hard to share their enthusiasm. All you can do is wish them luck and "See ya later". That song wrote itself pretty quickly and ended up being the closest thing to a Country Rock tune on the album.

With the big body of work you've produced over the years, there's started to be a number cover versions of your songs. Christine of course doing "My Island Home", and now Jimmy Little's version of "Blackfella Whitefella"on his "Messenger" album. It must be satisfying to hear other versions of your own work?

Oh yeah great. I'm glad it was Jimmy that did it. Powderfinger did "Blackfella Whitefella" a few years ago too. It's terrific. You start to feel like that you're having a bit of an effect around the place when people cover your songs. I thought Jimmy's version was pretty cool.

You published your "Sing For Me Countryman" novel a few years back. Any new writing happening on that literature front?

I've released a book of poetry through the NTU University Press up there in Darwin. It's called "One Man Tribe". It's basically a collection of my stuff over the last twenty years. The best of it anyway. It's got the crowd favourites in there as well as stuff that's better read on the page. So I've finally got a book of spoken word stuff out.

What's the state of the Warumpi Band at the moment? It's always seems like an on-again, off-again project over the years.

It remains like that, a special event thing. We did a couple of gigs in Melbourne last month and we're doing about four gigs at the Adelaide Arts Festival in March, but that's about as far ahead as I can see there.

It's always been hard to get everyone together and maintain it that way hasn't it?

Yeah, but it does exist as a vehicle for George. The band can still pull a crowd around the place, so I guess we'll still be seen here and there from time to time.

Has a second single been selected from the new album yet?

I'd like it to be "Eddie Mabo" but I don't have the complete say on that of course. I think it's fairly hooky and I'd like the sentiment of that song to get out there, but the singles are really just a calling card for the radio to play something. I just think of the songs as part of the whole album.