Russell Morris will release his new album, Van Diemen’s Land, on Friday, April 11, and perform at West Coast Blues N’ Roots on Sunday, April 13, at Fremantle Park. BOB GORDON reports.
Russell Morris is a collector of stories. He finds them and then he tells them. It’s a simple process that led him to writing and releasing 2012’s Sharkmouth album – featuring colourful, often criminal identities – an LP that took him back to the top of the charts several decades after his psychedelic hit, The Real Thing, blew the whole country’s mind.
Now he’s back with Van Diemen’s Land, another foray into unearthed nuggets that say something of who we were and who we are. More and more these Australian stories are finding new listeners, in music, film and television.
“If I’d said to you 100 years ago, ‘your grandfather’s a convict isn’t he?’ you would have absolutely died,” Morris posits. “You would have gone, ‘no! There’s no convicts in our family’. The stigma attached to being a convict was horrendous. Most of the convicts eventually changed their name.
“Now, people are absolutely delighted to find convicts in their past. I went to Tasmania with Tony Naylor (guitarist), who is Taswegian, all his ancestors were from Tasmania. As is my bent, I was trailing in this historical bookshop and he was with me and goes, ‘look at this!’ He had this huge, thick book and he goes, ‘that’s, my great, great, grandmother’. There was a whole page on her and the title of the book was Whores, Strumpets And Bad Women Of Tasmania.
“She was a convict who’d been sent out to the colonies for stealing a gold watch, and while she was out here she committed some other offences. She had a whole rap sheet and he was delighted. He got the book and took it home, but 100 years ago that would never have happened. That would have been a stigma on the family name.”
Call it the hangover of colonialism. Morris recalls that when he first travelled to England as a musician in the early ‘70s, he was often referred to as ‘The Colonial’. It was affectionate, but it spoke volumes. Times change, however, and as a nation’s confidence grew and people spoke of and recognised the past, our stories emerged.
“For so long that stigma just hung over, then all of a sudden a lot of things started for Australia and everyone went, ‘hey, our past is what we are, we have to embrace this’. The good, the bad and the ugly, we have to embrace it because that’s who we are. I think that awakening has been like a renaissance. And we do embrace the bad, because it’s interesting. What country hasn’t had a horrendous past?”
The songs on Van Diemen’s Land were all written after Sharkmouth was released and have moved from the grimy streets of Melbourne in the 1920s, to various Australian places.
“When I decided to have a look at material for another album, I knew of a couple of stories… one, the Loch Ard Gorge, because I used to go surfing down at Anglesea, and further on up the coast is where a ship ran aground and everyone perished except two people. That was always in my mind, and so was Breaker Morant. So I started looking at them and writing those stories. I would have loved to have run this album in a chronological order but it was too depressing
“Van Diemen’s Land, Lucy McBride, Eureka and others, they’re all pretty heavy songs so I felt I couldn’t do that. We had to mix it up a little bit. I didn’t want to put people in a depressed state (laughs).”
The album features guests musicians such as Rob Hirst (Midnight Oil), Scott Owen (The Living End), Vika and Linda Bull, Ross Hannaford, Phil Manning and Rick Springfield. On a track called Birdsville, Joe Camilleri comes in on saxophone with a burst of brightness that is reminiscent of Bobby Keys on the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.
“What I did with every player on the album was sit down and say, ‘this is what the song’s about. This is the story’. And I’d tell them the story and say, ‘I need you to infuse that into your playing’.
“I said to Joe, ‘what’s happened is the man could never get a woman, they would always leave him because he lived in such remote places, and what the saxophone is to signify is that he’s just got a letter from a Lonely Heart’s Club from a woman who’s coming to see him. So it’s gotta be like him walking out into the desert and screaming up at the night sky’. So the sax represents him walking out into the desert and going, ‘yes! Finally!’
“That’s what it’s supposed to signify. And Joe really got it.”
Morris also approaches what is perhaps a better known tale on Breaker Morant, the (Boer) war-criminal-cum-folk-hero who was immortalised in the 1980 Australian film.
“I think Breaker Morant’s probably my favourite track on the album,” he notes. “This is all about that colonialism thing again. Breaker Morant was no doubt guilty; from all the facts I’ve gleaned he was guilty, but he wasn’t the only one. The Boers were doing the same thing.
“They were murdering prisoners of war; people who surrendered, they would shoot them, there and then. It was a dirty war; a really rotten war. The British were doing it, the Australians were doing it and so were all the other colonial troops in Africa and the Boers were doing it. But it got messy and some police got killed and they had top find a scapegoat.
“The British said it was Breaker Morant who did it so they court-martialled him and his second-in-charge and they were shot. The Australian government still, to this day, are trying to get a pardon. I thought it was a great story – he was a real roustabout Australian. One of those guys who read poetry, womanised, he was a drunk, he was a brawler and a superb horseman, apparently. I thought he’d be a great one to put in there.”
Van Diemen’s Land is the second in a trilogy of Australian story releases, Morris is keen to explore the country’s original inhabitants on the next installment. Following this trilogy of tales the 65-year-old musician is toying with the idea of finishing up his recording career with a rootsy-psychedelic album, “along the lines of Lenny Kravitz’s first album (Let Love Rule, 1989),” to come full circle from his early Real Thing days. He’s even expressed a desire to collaborate with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker if he has the time to do so. (What do you say, Kevin?)
In the meantime, there is the imminent release of Van Diemen’s Land. In 2012 Morris had 500 CD copies of Sharkmouth pressed thinking he was being ambitious.
It has since sold 80,000 copies.
On the eve of releasing a follow-up to a phenomenal career turnaround, he admits to feeling a little apprehensive.
“It feels like I’ve got up in the morning and gone down to the swimming pool,” he notes. “I’m standing at the edge thinking, ‘it looks good, I wonder if it’s cold? How is it going to be when I dive in?’ It’s that feeling. I’m about to dive in, is it going to really shock my body or am I going to feel pleasantly surprised, or will it be stimulating at first, cold, then start to warm up?
“It’s a really hard thing, you never know what people are expecting with the next album. We’ve gone a little bit further than the last one, we’ve made some of the soundscapes much bigger. I’m hoping people will go, ‘yeah it’s developed, it’s good’. Some people might go, ‘oh it’s not like the last one’. Some people may say that, but hopefully they’ll like the direction in which this has gone.”