Kev Carmody On Rio Tinto, Black Lives Matter, And Why We Must Have Hope
"That's bloody sacred ground up there...That's as good as Notre Dame or any cathedral or mosque or synagogue you wanna look at...46,000 years, and it's just gone. They blew her up."
It was mid-January, and the bushfires were whipping towards Kev Carmody’s Queensland property, the wind behind them.
The smoke got so bad that he and his partner, Beryl, couldn’t breathe. They stayed inside, turned on the air conditioning, and waited for the message. And then, finally, it came, straight from the Fire Service: “Evacuate now.”
So they did. Carmody, legendary singer-songwriter and activist, perhaps best known for his protest anthem ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ written with Paul Kelly, didn’t hesitate. “You don’t hang around,” he says now. “You don’t go, ‘I wanna save this, I wanna save that.’ You’re just out.”
Luckily, Carmody’s property was spared. But it was a close scrape — the fires stopped just in front of a little town near the top of his road. For days afterwards, Carmody watched footage of the destruction on his TV. It reminded him of Vietnam, those iconic images piped into Australian homes via the 6pm news: the little girl covered in napalm.
And yet despite the apocalyptic mood, Carmody found himself feeling oddly hopeful. In the face of the destruction, his neighbours had all come together, pulling on their yellow jackets and fighting the fire as a team.
“All these people, they’re in the truck, side by side, bumping elbows,” Carmody says. “It’s just so admirable. People with different ideas. Some vote for this mob, and some vote the dead opposite for this mob. But when the time comes, they’re all together.”
That sense of community spirit and togetherness has undercut Carmody’s songwriting and activism for decades now. It’s there in his very first album, Pillars of Society, written when he was in his early 40s, a collection of protest anthems. And it’s there in the remastered version of Cannot Buy My Soul, a recently released tribute record that pairs Carmody’s originals with reinterpretations of his work by a host of new talents, from Courtney Barnett to Alice Skye.
“People just come together,” Carmody says, smiling. “For the common purpose. People learn to work with each other. That’s the key.”
Jam Sessions & Radical Agitators
Kev Carmody, who is in his mid-70s now, still regularly writes music. He lives not far from his friend and collaborator Andy Wilmott, and for three hours each week, the pair make music with young people with disabilities who live in the town. The rest of the time, they make music for themselves, traipsing over to Wilmott’s studio, a disused packing ship about 20 minutes into the bush.
Carmody’s initial interests were in straight up-and-down folk. His best known songs, like the incendiary ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’, wrap damnations of modern capitalism around simple guitar lines, his high, beautiful voice thrust to the forefront.
Not, mind you, that even his earliest work can be called reductive. That first album, Pillars, still sparkles with a wit and subversive intelligence all of its own. On ‘Comrade Jesus Christ’, which is spoken, not sung, Carmody recasts the story of the Saviour as a “radical agitator“; a socialist friend of Joe Hill, not the gentrified Walmart bauble that modern American politicians invoke.
But on his second album, the trembling Eulogy (For A Black Person), Carmody pushed things even further. ‘Sexual Teaser’ is a rollicking party-starter that immediately follows ‘Cannot Buy My Soul’, a simple paean to resilience. Since then, he’s strayed into reggae, funk, and even electronica — ‘Are You Connected?’, a standout track from his 2003 album Memories, mixes ringing phones with a pulsing drum beat.
These days, he has left behind traditional structures entirely, writing songs in strange time signatures. “Instead of doing the 4/4 time and the 3/4 time — the boring stuff — I want to do 9/8, 7/8,” he says. “Those really out there rhythms. Andy can do it in the computer.”
Over the top of those frenetic rhythms, Carmody just jams. “I don’t practice, I don’t rehearse. I put the cans on and just do it. One take. If it doesn’t work, I say, ‘Cut that bit out.’ Or, ‘Cut the whole bloody thing out.’ I put in the weird chords. The minor 9ths. The 7ths. The things that just jar you a little bit. It’ll never sell, but at least you’ve done it.”
Talking to Carmody is its own kind of jam session. We connect over Zoom, and so I can see he uses his hands a lot when he talks, catching images and sentences out of the air while hunkered down in a comfortable chair, piled up with rugs. Sometimes, he slides into tangents so gently that they barely seem like tangents at all. At one point, his house phone starts ringing. He beams.
“Can you hear that?” he says. I tell him I can. “Great,” he replies.
He wants to know a lot about me, particularly how much familiarity I have with making music. When I bashfully admit that I haven’t played an instrument for almost 24 years, not since I took a couple of shaky clarinet lessons as a child, he lights up.
“Beautiful,” he says, throwing up two thumbs in a gesture he will repeat across the interview. “That’s one of the instruments that can take you from melancholy to absolute bloody joy. It’s one of those instruments that goes right through the tonal scales.”
“Those young ones make you feel so proud.”
A lot of that excitement comes from his firm belief that the younger generations hold the key to enacting real global change. It’s why he’s so enraptured with the new version of Cannot Buy My Soul, populated as it is with a host of fresh musicians and performers. “Those young ones make you feel so proud,” he says, simply.
Carmody has also been uplifted by the recent Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements; convinced that taking the fight to the streets — and to the shareholders — is the way to go. “You young ones, you’re globally connected,” he says. “So as a global population, we can say, ‘We want to redefine democracy and reclaim it, away from globalised corporate democracy.'”
The Rio Tinto disaster, a recent tragedy that saw a mining company blow up a sacred Indigenous site, is a testing ground for this new unified call for change, Carmody thinks. “That’s bloody sacred ground up there, mate,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s as good as Notre Dame or any cathedral or mosque or synagogue you wanna look at… 46,000 years, and it’s just gone. They blew her up, mate. Imagine if we did that to St. Paul’s or St. Peter’s.
“But I reckon one of the ways we can try to get a bit of awareness about what’s happening with globalised corporations is just to say to the shareholders, ‘Look, I’m afraid this isn’t really working. You’ve got your shares here, and you’re making money out of people blowing up our heritage. Now how about you go to the Annual General Meeting and go to the front and ask a few questions?’
“We can change things, if we go to where it hurts most. Go to the shareholders and say, ‘You’ve got a responsibility to humanity here. You can help us, for a change. How about that?'”
For much of his young adulthood, Carmody was “basically illiterate.” He didn’t go to school until he was 10, or university until he was 33. Indeed, he completed his PhD in history in part through his perfection of the oral storytelling tradition — his lecturers allowed him to demonstrate his historical research with the help of a guitar.
As a result, Carmody has often found he speaks in what he calls “word images.” When he’s songwriting, he works visually, piecing together poetry out of striking pictures. “These lyrics have to be something that stuck in your head. Like the concept of ‘moonlight on your skin.’ What does that feel like? It’s a crazy saying. But it does make sense.”
“We’re just shifting numerals around in banks. That’s what our worth is.”
Even when describing to me the way modern capitalism reduces each person to their earning capacity, he speaks in metaphors. “We’re all on this conveyer belt,” Carmody says, adjusting the rug around his chest.
“We’re in our own little prison. It’s just a matter of having numerals in a horizontal line, and moving the decimal point. You and I, we’re to the left a fair bit. We’re four or five numerals across, and then the decimal point comes in. And then the millionaire goes right along here, and then he puts the decimal point in there. And nothing changes. We’re just shifting numerals around in banks. That’s what our worth is. We’re just worth how many numerals, and where the bloody decimal point is.”
His eyes light up, all of a sudden. “You and I could write a song my friend, about that very thing. We’ll call it ‘Shifting the Decimal Point’. Or, ‘Shifting Wall Street Into The Bloody Atlantic Ocean Along With The Titanic.'”
Much of Carmody’s body of work shares this same clear-eyed honesty about the state of the world. He is, in a word, uncompromising: one of his most acclaimed songs, ‘River of Tears’, recounts the murder of a young Indigenous man by the police. He wrote that anthem on the floor of a bedroom in Marrickville, a few streets away from where the incident itself happened. “The police just came in and hit him with a pump action shotgun,” Carmody says, shaking his head. “It was an absolute tragedy.”
As a result of that clarity, Carmody’s songs are still deeply relevant today, for both better and worse. “Deaths in custody. We’ve 434 dead in custody. And no bugger’s been charged. No bugger’s been held responsible. It’s still happening.”
But that uncompromising style has also made Carmody something of an outsider in the music industry. He has nothing but criticism for massive streaming services like Spotify, a company he likens to “pigeons shitting on statues.” We should turn up at the Spotify general meeting, he reckons, armed with a guitar and a CD player, and demand they properly reimburse musicians.
“You young fellas can do it. I know you can”
Even ‘From Little Things’, his biggest success, was an unconventional hit. In the years after its release, Carmody never heard it on the mainstream radio. He only realised that it had become a steamroller when he played a few gigs, and noticed that the audience kept requesting it.
“They’d yell for it, and I would go, ‘Jesus, it’s a bloody long song.’ But they wanted to hear it.” He smiles. “It came from the base.”
Get Knocked Down, Get Up Again
When Carmody was young, his father — a veteran of the Second World War — taught him a lesson that came to define his attitude to most things. “He showed us how to defend ourselves,” Carmody says. “He said, ‘If you get hit and you get knocked down on the floor and you’re down — talking figuratively too — always get up and say to the bloke, ‘Look mate, that was the best bloody hit I never saw coming. Can you show me how to do it?”
This, he thinks, explains why we should continue to be hopeful after the battering we have taken in 2020 — after the bushfires, and the coronavirus pandemic, and the continuing oppression of marginalised communities. “If you get knocked down, there is always hope that you can get through it,” he says.
“We’ve got hope my friend. We can do it, together. We all have differences. Because we’ve got to have those differences. We’d be so bloody boring if everyone agreed. We’d be like clones. But over and above that, we can have a common focus. Together, we can change things.”
Carmody throws up his hands into two thumbs up. “You young fellas can do it. I know you can.”
Cannot Buy My Soul is out now via EMI Music Australia.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.
Photo Credit: Joseph Mayers.