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Felix Riebl talks Spinifex Gum and cross-cultural collaboration

Story Published Monday 23 October 2017
Felix Riebl, Ollie McGill and members of Marliya, of the Gondawana Choirs (photo by Lyn Williams)

The Cat Empire’s Felix Riebl has been working with Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir and Marliya choir on this project for three years

It started with recording sounds in the communities, such as kids bouncing basketballs or iron ore trains, and turning that into drum beats

The album features collaborators such as Briggs and Peter Garrett, singing about issues such as youth incarceration

"We followed the music before the politics. The music wanted to follow the politics. The song itself wanted to go there," Felix Riebl of Spinifex Gum on Locked Out.

Spinifex Gum is a project that began back in 2014, when Lyn Williams OAM, director of the Gondawana Choirs asked The Cat Empire's Felix Riebl to create a song cycle for The Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir. It would require trips to the Pilbara for inspiration and research. Felix's trips yielded something much more: first with the song cycle performed in Sydney and then the decision to make an album with the involvement of Gondawana's Marliya, a Cairns-based indigenous choir. Felix says, "At first, I had no idea of what I’d write about and how it would sound."

So, what did he do? He followed the music, which is his main tip for anyone considering embarking on a years-long collaboration across cultures - and in the case of Spinifex Gum - across thousands of kilometers. Felix shares his insights ahead of the album release.

Q: How does someone call up Felix Riebl and ask him to work on a project?

I worked with Gondawana Choir previously and loved the work Lyn did. She asked me to write a song cycle for the Gondawana Indigenous Children’s Choir based on several trips I would take to the Pilbara in WA. That was a very open brief, and it was full of questions that I certainly didn’t have the answer for. It would take a dedicated time, be a very-open minded collaboration, and to do it justice I had to come up with something that I thought was authentic and exciting.

Q: How did you prepare?

I have been to the Pilbara six times over three years or so. I would say the two things that really struck me most about going about this were:

  1. Hearing the choir sing and being around them. But especially seeing them after a performance when one of them would blast a portable speaker and listen to whatever fairly electronic-heavy pop they were all into, and listen to the excitement in the room around that. For teenagers involved, I wanted to create something that would be challenging and fun for them to sing.
  2. Every trip I went to the Pilbara, I would have a field recorder with me. I went through the mines, the country, the communities. I recorded a lot of sounds - dogs barking, kids bouncing basketballs, iron ore trains, the grinding sounds of the mine. It wasn’t until later with Ollie McGill (of The Cat Empire and production partner for Spinifex Gum), and he said we could manipulate these sounds and turn them into drum machines and that would form the rhythmic skeleton of the piece. We could contrast it to what a young choir sounds like and wouldn’t that be a trip? To hear a youth choir singing in unison over drum machines that have been sampled from the Pilbara. So we followed that idea. The project was about following the sounds, following the music.

Q: What was the girls' reaction to when you first brought in the recordings?

The first time the girls heard it, they were blown away. We wanted to get a choir to sound like a lead pop vocal. The challenge was to get them excited and then after that have them sing in ways they weren’t usually singing in a choir context, but maybe how they were used to singing with their headphones on. Working with teenagers, if you don’t create something for them that they enjoy it’s a real uphill battle.

Q: How involved were the Marliya members in the songwriting?

We didn’t sit down and write songs together. But we were in the Pilbara together and talked about things that moved us and what we noticed about the area. We recorded and listened back to those conversations and I suppose those details entered into the songs in a way. I’m the principle songwriter on this album because I really had to go away and come up with a substantial piece of music for them to perform, first of all.

Q: Do you think some of the girls have an interest in songwriting and will they have an opportunity to pursue it after this?

They send me tracks they are working on and I am really honest with my feedback. The act of songwriting is something very, very personal, and I respond to all the girls in the choir who are writing songs and I try to encourage them and help them as constructively as I can. But I don’t think that is prompted by anyone particularly, a life in songwriting.

It’s a wonderful life, but it’s got to be something you can’t live without, or else why bother?

Q: Where do other collaborators like Briggs and Peter Garret get involved?

Everything for this album has sort of fallen into place. It’s been a lot of work. We followed the samples, where the sounds went, the rhythms went, and then I wanted to write for the atmosphere of the teenagers. And then I thought 'Who can we get involved to add another level of sophistication and interest to the project and political punch?'

We shot for the rafters with these things. There’s something about Peter Garrett being so Australian and iconic as a voice and performer. I thought it would it be so great to have Peter Garrett singing the character in the song Malungungu. I got in touch with his management and went to the session in Sydney with Ollie. He was perfect for it.

And, Briggs, in the same way. He’s a really important music in Australian dialogue, and he’s a talented musician and artist. He’s also been heavily involved in youth incarceration issues. Locked Up is about as direct political song you can write. It has the voice of Senator Patrick Dodson in the outro. Over a long time, Briggs became interested in it. I was in the studio with Briggs when he came up with the rap for that song.

Q: Have you had your doubts about taking on a project of the this scope?

There’s so much you can doubt about things when going to indigenous Australia, writing about things as direct and political as I have, and you can always question yourself and I did a lot of that. The only way I could work through that was firstly, returning to communities and building strong relationships, but, secondly, trying to respond to something that was truly artistic.

Q: How has funding worked?

We have had some support form Australia Council, from philanthropic bodies, and I’ve put a lot of my own time and money into it. I’ve crossed the threshold for this, and its really been a project of interest and love for me rather than a commercial project. But it is one of the most artistically-driven things I have been involved in. I was open to it taking a long time.

Q: What is your advice to getting a collaboration off the ground?

The project was the unifying factor. We stumbled on something that was really dynamic musically, so let’s see where it all leads us. The choir had to say we are ready to do something very un-choir like. For my part, I had to give a lot of weight and movement to Ollie who was producing and making those beats. I had to write songs that were interesting and exciting for the choir to perform. The collaboration was a really true one.

Q: How is this collaboration different from, for example, doing duets?

On my solo album I recorded duets with Katy Steele, Martha Wainwright and Emily Lubitz and that’s a different kind of collaboration. That’s asking someone to sing with you or going into a room to write a song together. This project had to be the focal point for everyone, creating something for everyone.

The best advice I can give is always, always make the art the most important aspect of your project.

We were prepared to take risks and stick our necks out in terms of what we are prepared to say socially, politically, culturally. But we only did that because we trusted the art we were making felt really authentic to us.

Q: Is this project hard to take into the marketplace?

Talking about youth incarceration and death in custody - which is what we have talked about on Locked Up - these are not popular topics. It’s a difficult thing for Australians to talk about because they are so sad, they are so messed up. I think part of the reason they don’t get as much air time as they should because as a society we haven’t come to grips with what is happening.

At the same time, I think the music we are presenting is sung by these young voices. Even when the subject is challenging, there is joy to it underneath.We followed the music before the politics. The music wanted to follow the politics. The song itself wanted to go there.

I think if you do something political before the music is good, then it just bores people and or depresses them.

Q: What else does this project inspire in you?

You hear a sound of your voice you didn’t know, it’s not the status quo. It doesn’t confirm who you think you are but it alters that. And that’s inspiring for me as an artist.

The album is out 27 October, order here.