There’s no denying the fact that Kev Carmody is an icon of Australian music. For many people, this had been ingrained within them for years, likely ever since they heard Kev’s first album, Pillars of Society, in 1988, or heard “From Little Things Big Things Grow”, the influential protest song penned with Paul Kelly.
However, despite his acclaim as one of the finest songwriters in Australia, chart success remained elusive for Carmody, though his songs and albums spread throughout the world, with his words being traded back and forth as the oral tradition dictates.
In 2007, Carmody had his work immortalised by way of a large-scaled tribute album titled Cannot Buy My Soul, named for his 1991 song of the same name. Spearheaded by Kelly, the release was as impressive as it was ambitious, with artists such as The Drones, Archie Roach, The Church’s Steve Kilbey, The Waifs, Troy Cassar-Daley, John Butler, and many, many others taking on Carmody’s work.
The record was – as one would expect – a massive success, not only charting within the ARIA top 50, but winning the Album of The Year at the 2007 Deadly Awards, and even being ranked at #41 in the 100 Best Australian Albums book from 2010.
“I first heard his music 20 years ago,” Kelly told The Courier Mail back in 2007, “and was drawn straight away to his blend of politics and prayer, poetry, anger and pride. His body of work is one of our great cultural treasures.”
So much of a great cultural treasure is Carmody’s work that a tribute concert also accompanied the album’s release, featuring many of the artists featured in the tribute performing the songs alongside Carmody.
While the record was a masterful showcasing of Carmody’s undeniable contributions to the world of Australian music, a spotlight has once again been shone upon his work, with a new edition of the tribute being announced last month.
The new “2020 Edition” supplements the original release with a handful of new covers , including the likes of Kasey Chambers & Jimmy Barnes, Mo’Ju, Trialz & Birdz, Alice Skye, Courtney Barnett, Electric Fields, and Kate Miller-Heidke.
In addition to these exceptional new covers, the tribute has also received a vinyl pressing for the first time, with the vast majority of covers being collected onto a striking double-LP set.
To celebrate the re-release of one of the finest tribute albums ever recorded, Kev Carmody spoke to Rolling Stone via Zoom. While the intention might have been to discuss the tribute, its impact, and its legacy, the conversation quickly – as any conversation with Kev seems to – turned into a friendly chat about his life and music, and of course, a little bit about the ongoing brilliance of the Cannot Buy My Soul tribute.
Let’s start off with the question I’ve bee asking everyone: How have you been coping with everything going on in the world? Have you managing alright?
There’s so much for us to address, but being in Queensland, we’re wagging our tails. But when we look at the whole of the global situation, we’ve still got a lot to address, my friend. You an I together, we can do it. We can do it, but we’ve got to coordinate, y’know? I have so much faith in the younger ones, you fellas are connected globally, instantly. I come from the horse and buggy era, mate. We had a great big old draft horse that we called Prince – he was a big Clydesdale – and a sulky, and that’s how we went to town in the 1950s.
But the thing that really, really made me awake to a wider world, because I didn’t go to school until I was 10 – they hid us kids out for years, was an old dry cell battery wireless. On the droving camp of a night time, you’d run an aerial up a tree – well mum would, or mum would get somebody to do it – and the thing was that it had mid wave and it had short wave, so we could flamin’ twist the dial and we could hear the symphony orchestras doing Beethoven in Moscow, or Austria – we could pick up Austria.
On shortwave, we could go all around the world with this bloody thing. So we’d be sitting there of a night time – they’d be laying back in the swags – and we’d hear [Dylan Thomas’ 1954 radio drama] Under Milk Wood, and we’d discussed a university tutorial with these old fellas with their pipes in their swags.
“I’m still exploring that concept of sound, which I love – besides lyrics, I love lyrics too.”
It was an oral history; they were all illiterate, but it opened up this whole world. Of a morning on the ABC, because that’s all we could get, from four o’clock, when everyone was milking cows or on the road droving, or doing something, you had this thing they called The Hillbillies. It wasn’t country music, but it was The Hillbillies – this is in the 1950s. You’d hear this thing and it was like Patsy Cline. “Geez, hear this new one from Patsy Cline? Have a listen!” Hank Williams, he’d have a new one out, and then we’d hear a few of these old blues recordings on the ABC.
But the difference between The Hillbillies of a morning on the ABC, and of a night time hearing the symphony orchestras chamber music; Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, it was just a phenomenal thing to know there was this massive sound of music out there.
It always fascinated me how music was put together, like, if you play that note there, that’s called a tonic, and if you play a third up from this, and then a fourth… And what if you play a seventh, it sounds like this? I loved it, I just loved the sound, and I was so fortunate that when I went to the University of Southern Queensland to do a full year’s unit on experimental music, which was just the exploration of sound, so anything was relevant.
When I got into the shed over here with Andy, my sound engineer…. His shed, he’s got a little tiny studio in the bush which was a big old disused packing shed, and the Italian prisoners of war, you couldn’t get insulation for the cold rooms after the war, but they had to do two years of work before they could become a citizen, so they just got the grass, bound it up into a 20cm or so wall of grass, and painted over it with pitch. You walk inside and clap your hands, and it’s just beautiful.
What we did was, in that shed there was so much machinery around that we recorded all the sounds, banging on drums and bits of old lumps of tin and whatever, and used them as samples. So I’m still exploring that concept of sound, which I love – besides lyrics, I love lyrics too.
Your lyrics are one of the things that so many people love, and one of the reasons the original Cannot Buy My Soul tribute album was so successful. It was released 13 years ago, but how did you feel when you first heard it was coming together?
How would I put it? it was all Paul Kelly’s idea, right? All of a sudden, he said “I’m doing this, and this person’s interested. Oh, Tex Perkins wants to do this, and Johnny Butler’s going to do this.” “Oh yeah, okay, okay.” And he kept sending me through the tapes, and I just went, “Geez, that’s Steve Kilbey doing [“Images of London”], and there’s Augie March… There’s The Drones?” It blew me out!
When I started off, I knew the stuff I was doing was definitely not commercial, so forget about doing video clips and anything like that. I thought, if the music can’t stand by itself, then there’s no way I’m doing bloody video clips. But to me, it’s so much a part of the oral tradition.
As you’d probably recognise, the best songwriter – or songwriters; male and female – that I know, is the person called Anonymous. If you look at, say, the Irish, the songs are honed over hundreds of years. You look at the Jewish tradition, songs are honed over hundreds of years. And it becomes everybody’s, and it’s the same for my oral tradition. As I said, I didn’t go to school until I was 10, and if you wanted something to stick in a person’s head, you had to have a word image so that it stuck.
“When I started off, I knew the stuff I was doing was definitely not commercial.”
So if you have a concept like moonlight on your skin, it doesn’t make sense, but in my head, it stuck. Moonlight on your skin; the touch, the feel of it – it’s learning to speak in those word images so that things really stick. You’d have a tonne of fun too, you young fellas have so many influences that you could draw from. Who are you into?
You’ve put me on the spot a bit there, but going on from the idea of word images, I’ve always been a big fan of John Darnielle, who performs under the name the Mountain Goats. In much the same way that you said, the imagery that you get out of his lyrics is absolutely amazing.
Yeah! And it’s that beauty of the undiscovered, instead of how commercialism tells you what’s up there. If you listen to the stuff that was number one throughout the Fifties and Sixties… I mean the early Elvis, that stuff wasn’t too bad. But then you’ve got this whole thing where you get the best-looking person, stick them in front of a microphone, and give them the worst lyrics in the world to sing.
It was only in the Sixties when you started to get a bit of Motown coming through that you got those gospel, chorusy-type things with [some decent] lyrics. These fellas called The Rolling Stones, they were playing this song – I heard it coming through the radio in the early Sixties – and I thought, “Geez, that sounds a lot like bloody Muddy Waters!” You know, not realising at the time… and then saying “That’s bloody Willie Dixon; ‘Little Red Rooster’!” I was just blown out with it.
We lived in the bush way out from Brisbane, and my old uncle, he was out in Brisbane and he got us some tickets to a show. I’d never been to a concert in my life, so me and my brother go and stay with my grandma down in Brisbane, and the concert was in the City Hall in Brisbane. So it was about 1,500 people, and old uncle got us these seats about five from the front. We’re sitting up there and we were there to see this fella called Roy Orbison.
We were so pleased, we loved Roy’s music, but the first fellas on the stage… There were four acts. One was The Breakaways, and they were number one with this song where the bloke sung in this really high falsetto. The next group on stage were these two little fellas, twins, and a big fella, and they were called the Bee Gees; they were the second act. Now we thought that Roy Orbison was the main act, but he came out third!
We were thinking, “Geez, what’s this other mob?” And so we listened to Roy playing. Geez, he was good; he had these sunglasses on… And then the fourth act came out, and the band started playing, and the big spotlight was shining on a microphone on the stage, but there was no bugger at it! The band started playing, and it was a bloody Bo Diddley riff. You could see the drummer, but with the spotlight, you could see a little bit of the bass player, and then on the right, you could just see this lead guitar player.
Then all of a sudden, from the back of the drummer, WHACK! It must have been a trampoline; he came right over the top with his legs out and landed straight at this microphone with four maracas, two in each hand. It was The Rolling Stones. So we saw these little fellas that lived up in Sandgate, we saw Roy Orbison, and then we saw The Rolling Stones.
Well, we didn’t hear too much, but Brian Jones – this little fella with the blonde hair – he played the slide, and we loved the slide. But then the girls started shouting so bloody loud, mate. They threw lipstick things; everything, and one hit Keith Richards in the eye, so he had to duck down and stop playing.
That had to have been a pretty amazing exposure to the world of pop music.
It was! We were right into Slim Dusty, Tex Morton, and Rick & Thel [Carey], you name them. We were all into the country music sort of stuff, because it was easy to play, and they were all talking about stuff that we knew. But to go this concert in Brisbane… “Who’s this Rolling Stones mob? We’re here to see Roy Orbison!”
I’m assuming that at this point, you would’ve already been playing your own music?
Yeah, I was just starting to explore. I was always interested in how music was put together, like how Beethoven did this, and how Mozart or Bach did this, and then I heard the old blues fellas playing. This was in the 1950s, and I thought, “Geez, that’s just one fella, and he’s playing the lead, he’s playing the rhythm, and he’s playing the bass, all at the same time!” So he’s not using the plectrum like Jimi Hendrix or anyone where they used the one bloody plectrum, this fella was using four bloody plectrums! So how the bloody hell do they do it?
Anyway, one day – on the droving camp, we used to pass a lot of rubbish dumps, and people used to just toss rubbish by the side of the road in those days; we used to call them “open air supermarkets” because we’d pick up the nails, the bolts, bits of wire, lumps of tin, and take them all home. One day, I picked up this book and it was all wet, but it said Teach Yourself the Guitar. I thought, “Geez, that’s a good title for a book!”
“I was always interested in how music was put together, like how Beethoven did this, and how Mozart or Bach did this.”
It wasn’t “You too can play guitar”, it was “Teach your bloody self the guitar!” So I took it back to the camp, dried it out on the open fire, and it had the basics of finger playing, of the four fingers, and from that point on, I was just experimenting.
If you look at “Cannot Buy My Soul”, the actual finger bit on that, it’s very simple, but that was me just practicing how to use the four fingers in one pattern. And I thought, “Well, I’ll put words to it,” and that’s the one Archie [Roach] sings, and well, the name of the whole album, really. That started off as a little ‘do it yourself’ finger piece to learn to use my four fingers, because I just use the guitar and myself; I’ve never done bands much.
So at what point did you start to realise, “I’ve got quite a few lyrics, and quite a few pieces of music, I should put them together and go from there”?
Well, that’s the thing, I started in about 1968… There’s one recording there called “I’ve Been Moved”, I wrote that down as words, and I never do that now – I always have the music first and then I add the words to it. Back then, on the droving camp, I’d just rip off a bit of cardboard off the cereal packet and I started writing down the lyrics on it. I had heaps of stuff, and of course with the [Joh] Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland, we had a lot of protests. There’s about five of us and 200 policemen; it was a bit heavy back in those days.
So I’d just get an ordinary tune that everyone knew – because you never had a microphone; we were just in the park with about 30 or 40 people – like “Midnight Special”, and I’d just put Queensland words to it: “If you ever go to Queensland, you’d better walk right, you’d better got gamble, and you’d better not fight the system. Commissioner [Terry] Lewis will arrest you, and they’d burble you on down. The next thing you know my friend, you’re jail-bound. Let the midnight special, shine a light on us. Let the midnight special, tell the system to get fucked.”
You’d see the policemen and they’d all bristle up, because the commissioner at that time, he wasn’t a good lad. In fact, they put him in the boom for 14 years. He was bloody corrupt, but the cops would be watching you, and of course, the Special Branch kept their eye on you the whole time. It was a different kettle of fish to today in some ways, because you know, I was on the ASIO files, and the Special Branch would sit outside your house; four of them in an unmarked car.
I never had a phone for eight years, because everyone I was connected to was bloody tapped. They’d pick you up, and you’d never know what happened when they picked you up. I could tell you a few stories about that, but I haven’t got time; we’re talking music, my friend!
Looking at the tribute album again, it’s obviously been 13 years since the first one was released, and now it’s coming out again with new artists covering new songs. Obviously it would’ve been a bit of an honour for that to happen the first time, but now it’s happening a second time. You’re obviously quite a humble guy, so how does that feel? It must be quite an amazing thing.
Look, it’s fantastic in a way because it’s part of that oral tradition, and it’ll get passed onto the next generation in their own way; they’ll do it their way, and they’ll put their lyrics to it. The basic theme is worth preserving, they think, and they put their own words to it, and do it their own way musically, which is terrific. An old fella like me, I’d just go [mimics playing a guitar] and people would take it as a bit of a basis, and then redo it in another way.
“It’s a combination of both [heavy rock and country], but it’s become something new.”
I mean, goodness me, Electric Fields doing what Paul and I did, “From Little Things [Big Things Grow]”; God, it’s gonna be a whacker! And Alice [Skye], the video that’s put to that… And Courtney [Barnett]? Wow! As I said, just with her and the guitar, in the room with the old Kelpie dog… And of course, Jimmy [Barnes] and Kasey [Chambers], you just think “How is that duet ever going to work?” [Laughs]. It does!
That was a weird recording, because they walked into the Megaphon Studios where I was recording the first album, and I was just mucking around on this amplifier that had been left early. I got there early, and I just plugged my little old guitar into the thing and was mucking around with the slide, and they said, “What’s that song?” I said, “It’s nothing, I’m just mucking around.” And they said, “Well, geez, it sounds alright, let’s record it.”
Then I put the words of “Black Bess” to it that night. I seem to write pretty quick. But there was a line in there, “Frankie’s Vietnam was spent dodgin’ lead“, because I had a friend who was killed in Vietnam – I had a few of them actually… poor fellas – and you just throw everything at the song and see what sticks. But then they picked that song, nobody told them too, but Kasey and Jimmy said that they’re going to do this song. And I thought, “Gee, it’s amazing” with how the heavy rock meets the country, and bang, it becomes something new.
It’s a combination of both, but it’s become something new. I just love it, and it’s fired me up to start writing again!
That’s amazing, and I really hope we get to hear some of it soon. To wrap things up a bit though, I’d love to know, with the original tribute album exposing your music to a new generation, did you find your work being appreciated by a whole new fanbase?
You’ve put your finger right on it, but the thing is, that gap between when the first album came out and this one… I didn’t realise it until someone pointed it out to me today, that there’s a whole group of people who know nothing about it and are relating to these new ones by Electric Fields and Courtney and whatever, and it’s just a huge new wave of the stuff that was as old as me almost.
But there’s a whole new generation, maybe two new generations, that are saying “Well, this is relevant.” I still feel as though some of the stuff I wrote 40, 50 years ago is flamin’ relevant today, which makes me a bit sad.
It makes me sad mate, but together, you as a journalist, and me as an old musician, and all the other people, we can network around the place and say, “We can change this, we’re bloody sick of it.” We all have our differences; wouldn’t it be terrible if we were all the bloody same? But together we can say we’re change this whole bloody thing because we just can’t go on with it.
“I still feel as though some of the stuff I wrote 40, 50 years ago is flamin’ relevant today, which makes me a bit sad.”
“Black Lives Matter”? Well, that’s one thing, but let’s look at the women’s stuff, and the atrocious stuff, like, can a woman walk around the bloody park of a night time? No they can’t. We’ve got to change it, and we can change it from the base because we are the base.
We don’t worry about the politicians and the blokes up the top that they make the status to, we’re the fellas on the bottom, and we’re going to change it. “We won’t buy your bloody product if you keep on as you are, or if you’re going to be racist and sexist on your radio stations, or your TV stations.” We can do it.
The “2020 Edition” of Cannot By My Soul: The Songs of Kev Carmody is out today via EMI Recorded Music.