Exclusive Interview: Gina Williams
After spending nearly five years learning the language, Gina Williams releases an album recorded entirely in the Noongar language. Kalyakoorl beautifully expresses songs that will eternally capture an exceptionally rare and stunning language, with the aid of Guy Ghouse. WAM’s Claire Borrello spoke to vocalist Gina about the album.
Free Download of album track Wanjoo here.
The title of the album is Kalyakoorl which translates to ‘forever’ – why this title?
Kalyakoorl is my favourite word in anybody’s language. Kalyakoorl is eternal, it’s “always was, always will be,” and I think it’s a really beautiful concept. I love that sometimes, almost in spite of what we do, some things are much bigger than us and indeed will go on forever.
Considering the fact that less than 250 people can fully speak the Noongar language, how important is this album not only to you but to the Noongar community?
I can’t really speak on behalf of my community, but what I can say is this album is part of a personal mission. I had to go back and learn language as an adult. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t speak my language and I had to go back into a classroom to fix this. I wanted to learn Noongar so I could write songs to teach my children and we could all learn the language together. It’s taken me about five years to reach this point and I feel like I’m only just getting started. I’ve only just come to realise there’s a much broader interest in what we do, which is wonderful, because with friends we have a real chance of our language being revived. Noongar language is an incredibly rare, incredibly beautiful language. My understanding is there are less than 250 full speakers of the language left. You will not find this language anywhere else in the world. Of the 7 billion people on this planet – well, you get what I mean. When I was working as a journalist I learned there were 16 dialects of Noongar language. Today there’s only 14. Every time an elder passes on, we run a very real risk of losing another dialect. But there is hope; in our community there are a number of artists who (with the blessings of elders and community) are stepping up as language warriors. Kylie Farmer, Charmaine Bennell, Karla Hart, Ingrid Cumming (Collard), Phillip Walley-Stack, Kyle Morrison are all working hard to ensure our language is heard at every opportunity.
Kalyakoorl is informed by four principles, please explain…
My uncle Tom Hayden in Kellerberrin is a strong and constant presence in all my songwriting. When I finally realised I needed to write songs in language he was one of the first people I consulted. He put it simply; there are four principles, Koort (heart), Moort (family/people), Boodja (land) and Koorlungka (children/legacy). According to uncle Tom, if you have those four principles sorted then everything should fall into place. He’s right of course, and so it informs everything we write, everything we record and everything we perform. We try to represent this language with as much dignity and integrity as we can, ensuring people see just how beautiful Noongar language really is.
You’ve said that you grew up not knowing about your true history and not being able to speak the language, what was the turning point in your life that made you want to not only learn the language but to also write songs?
I have a number of moments that I think point to this moment. Sitting on a blanket under the stars as a little girl, learning to sing by listening to the people my dad said “really knew how to sing.” After my dad died I was made a Ward of the State and placed in care. Being in foster care, knowing I was Aboriginal but not really having any connection to community gave me a sense of wanting to belong. Learning to write simply and succinctly as a journalist set me in good stead to write songs. Working in television on a show that celebrated Aboriginal achievements and aspirations in WA meant I was able to learn more about my culture and people in a way that I will remain forever grateful. Meeting my biological mother, becoming connected to her land (Balladong country – the Wheatbelt region of WA) was the biggest turning point. I realised that language was the glue that put everything else together. I didn’t know how I was going to learn, I just knew I needed to. In 2012 I was lucky to be in London as part of the Accelerate Arts and Cultural Leadership Program run by the British Council and I was given the opportunity to sing, so I sang in Noongar. I’d been working with Guy Ghouse for some time before this and he’d spent a lot of time encouraging me to write songs in language. It took me a while but London was the turning point. I realised then I needed to come home and write and sing language songs, and Guy and I haven’t looked back since.
What do you think it is about your music that people, despite not being able to understand the language, can relate and respond to it?
I think people understand love and loss, joy and sadness without having to understand words. The songs are personal – they’re wrapped up in my story, so we tell the stories and give a bit of a translation to the songs. You occupy a different space in your mind when you’re listening to songs in another language, so we try to think about what we’re communicating and we look for other cues. The way a song is played is critical – there’s little point in making a mournful, sad song sound like a sea shanty if you can’t understand what’s being said. Guy and I are really blessed to work with musicians who understand this (Roy Martinez, Russell Holmes, Arun Satgunasingam) and use their gifts in a most extraordinary way to bring these humble little tunes to life. And there’s something that happens at our shows, a connection from audiences to what we do which I am still trying to unpack. I’m not sure what happens, but we have played a few shows now where people will cry. I know I feel incredibly emotional when I sing these songs because I realise what an honour it is to be able to do what we do; perhaps this is what people are picking up on. I hope I never fully understand what’s happening – it might not be quite so magical otherwise.
Sting personally gave you his blessing to record one his songs, Englishman In New York – please tell us more.
Moorditj Balladong Yok is an adaptation of Sting’s song “Englishman in New York.” I was flying on a Virgin flight from London to come home and was listening to Sting on the way back. He was singing about all the things that are so very English so I started to think about the things that are so very Australian. By the time I landed in Hong Kong I had the song mapped out in my head. When we first played it we thought it might be a song that never gets played in public, but through a whole series of coincidences it found its way back to the original creator. Getting his blessing has been amazing – it’s on the album now too so you’ll get to hear it soon. In terms of pressure to please Sting, I hope he enjoyed what we did. I love his music and admire what he does for this planet, particularly working with Indigenous peoples. The preservation of our language is my biggest motivation, and I’m grateful he has given us his blessing, but I’m really just focussed on making sure we do the right thing by the elders in our community – it’s about honouring them as they’re the ones who have placed trust in us to get this music right.
Your daughters feature on the album, how important a place does music play in your family?
We love music in our household! The kids have been around live music for as long as they can remember. Lauren and Bella (my two daughters) accepted our WAMi award last year because we were playing a gig that night! I think it was a wonderful opportunity to include them in this project – it was actually Guy and Lee (Buddle) in the studio who got them to be part of it. We all had a bit of a giggle to begin with, but now we’re starting to realise the significance of their involvement. It’s a true demonstration of legacy (one of the four prinicples), and the song they sing on is the opening track Warangka (which means “sing”). The track starts with me singing acapella and ends with their voices, as a kind of “passing the baton.” It’s something I’m enormously proud of, and I hope they will be proud of it too.
How have other indigenous artists inspired you?
We are so lucky in our community to be around generous, hard working musicians. In terms of inspiration, top of my list is Lorrae Coffin in Broome – she’s a crackin’ songwriter and a tireless worker for our mob offstage. Lorrae has been around for years and her songs are just fantastic (think Tracey Chapman, Joan Armatrading). She lives in Broome and still manages to find ways to bring artists to work up her way. If ever I get stuck she’s always been at the end of the phone. I love the work of Candice Lorrae and think she has a great future ahead of her with her music. Beautiful songwriter, Candice is a young gun, but she’s always busy creating opportunities for herself and other musicians. She mentors other singers and I look at her and feel happy because you just know that she represents a bright future for our industry. Phill Walley-Stack is another inspiration – he is constantly slugging it out on the global stage, singing his songs and telling his stories. He also incorporates language into what he does and his shows are absolutely beautiful. There are heaps more – Bartlett Brothers, Pigram Brothers, Oz Island Band, Bryte MC, Willis Yu…actually the Indigenous Hip Hop scene is extraordinary and well worth exploring. Again, what is inspiring about these musicians isn’t that they just make great music, but they all make incredible contributions to the WA Music scene.
Tell us about how you and Guy Ghouse work together.
Guy and I first worked together in 2008, at the Kimberley Indigenous Performing Arts Showcase in Broome. We got chatting about music and just kinda became friends. Guy moved to Perth and we played a few gigs together. Then we started doing some workshops out in the wheatbelt about two and a half, maybe three years ago. This was when he suggest I write language songs. The more we talked about it the more I realised I wanted to write songs with him – he seemed to understand the importance of approaching this with respect and being humble. We started properly writing songs together last year and have really just been properly performing together since July, so it’s all happened pretty quickly. At first I would write songs and have some ideas around melodies and Guy would put the chords around them and we’d work out the feel of a song. Then one day I had this moment where I heard him play a song in my head (while I was hanging out the washing). I ran inside and sang the song into my laptop and sent it to him, and within a couple of hours he sent the song back to me, completed. It changed the way we wrote and since then we’ve both been writing melodies and songs. I still write the words, but Guy brings an amazing sophistication to the songs and melodies – something I don’t think I do as well. Since then we’ve had some really amazing songwriting moments; Guy was on holidays overseas with his wife and her family at the end of last year, and we had this one day where he sent me a whole stack of tunes and I sent him back five complete songs. We’re now halfway to writing the next album, which to me is nothing short of miraculous.
Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse will be playing at the Fly by Night Club Fremantle 4 April, and Fairbridge Folk Festival 25 – 27 April.