Kev Carmody grew up on the Western Darling Downs area of Southern Queensland. His early childhood was simple but happy, mixing mostly with stockmen, drovers, fencers, ring-barkers and timber-getters. His family, although poor lived largely off the land growing vegetables near the small three roomed ant-bed floored hut and hunting and catching everything from kangaroos to fish.
In 1956, when he was ten, Carmody was sent to a “Christian school” which he has described as “little more than an orphanage”. After school Kev returned to his rural roots working as a back country labourer doing everything from bag lumping, cane cutting to wool pressing. He told one newspaper that his musical career was “a far cry from the 15 year old who thought he’d spent the rest of his life pressing wool. Mind you, I had a job then, I was actually making money. Not with this music caper….”
When he was 33 he got the opportunity to go to University where he studied history, geography and music eventually progressing to work on a PhD. His thesis topic, not surprisingly, was the history of the Darling Downs between 1830 – 1860. His career in music started while he was at University. He explains: “They accepted me in there on probation, and it was a bit of a funny one really because I could hardly read or write. I had no mastery of the written language… But I was lucky. I had good lecturers and they let me bring the guitar in for the first six months as a means of implementing oral history and my background and what I wanted to say into the tutorial. And it worked really bloody well.”
Music had always been around him. As a child he listened to old records on the family’s wind-up 78 gramophone and, absorbed everything from country music to classical from an old valve wireless. He did not, and still does not see himself as “a musician” in the way that most musicians see themselves. Still the influences upon him were powerful and profound.
Carmody’s initial inspiration came from a truly rural, oral tradition. Both his second generation Irish father and Murri mother came from powerful oral traditions. Carmody still talks about the stories and songs he was told and taught by his first generation Irish Grandmother, Murri grandparents and his Murri family.
Kev Carmody has lived out the life of a modern troubadour. He was a travelling singer/songwriter with a base in southern Queensland and an itinerary which found him touring the world. He has played concerts in Australian gaols. He has worked with marginalised children as part of a community education program at Logan City “to encourage the kids to come up with artistic ideas, find their spirit, and, most importantly, their self-esteem.” You could often find him at a Greenpeace rally or fund-raiser, a world music celebration, an Aboriginal musical festival, on a university campus, or playing at regular concert venues.
What sort of music does Kev Carmody make?
Aboriginal Australia now has many contemporary voices, one of which is Kev Carmody. Kev released his first album Pillars of Society in 1988, at which time Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Bruce Elder wrote that Kev was “Australia’s Black Bob Dylan”.
His second album, Eulogy (for a Black Person), released in 1991, did much to confirm this initial impression. As one review at the time noted, “Using a combination of folk and country music his hard-hitting lyrics deal with such potent material as the David Gundy slaying, black deaths in custody, land rights and Aboriginal pride and dignity. Carmody is deeply committed, powerfully intelligent and persuasively provocative. He uses images of revolutionaries… and challenges White Australia to stare unrelentingly at the despair which under pins Aboriginal society”.
Then, 1993, along came the album Bloodlines from which the EP Street Beat and the song Freedom were drawn and the folk/protest tag fell away. In one stroke Kev Carmody had decided that all music could be used to express his ideas. As he said at the time, “To me, sound and feel come first and the lyrics after. So you could say my influences range from the howls of the dingo to the sound of a symphony orchestra.
On Images and Illusions (1995) and 2003′s Mirrors, Kev continues to stretch his musical vocabulary. No one can now draw comparisons with Bob Dylan and the folk/protest tradition. Certainly the anger is still evident but it is set against a wide variety of musical backgrounds. These are songs which well up from deep inside Carmody. This is no imitation of other musicians. This is the powerful, original voice of Kev Carmody.
The subject matter – the unfairness and hypocrisy of a world – which shone through on his debut album Pillars of Society remains unchanged. What has changed has been Carmody’s musical approach. Some years ago Kev told Rolling Stone, “Black musicians should be able to play whatever they like”. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Kev was a tireless traveller and performer, who has played in some of the world’s foremost venues and has worked with some of the world’s most acclaimed musicians. Brisbane and Sydney have been privileged to see the bringing together of the artists from the Cannot Buy My Soul tribute album, with a DVD of the Sydney performances available for purchase.
Today he is back at work recording some of the backlog of songs he’s been stockpiling over the years.