The seed of knowledge is in your ear…It’s about community, connection, relationship.
Not long before our interview, Nardi Simpson sends me a message: ‘Running a bit late. Forgot about school pick-up. Chat in 15?’ I write back to say that is fine, of course, and then spend the next few minutes rewatching a video of Ensemble Offspring performing Simpson’s Of Stars and Birds. The three musicians, playing a ﬂute, vibraphone and oboe, give an impassioned performance; notes group and gather and rise and form new shapes, before apparently dissipating into the atmosphere, though there is also the sense of a deep understanding, and a profound connection – to something that is more felt than seen or heard. It is joyful and full of vibrancy and life. Once again, I am enthralled.
Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay (north-west NSW freshwater plains) composer and author. For 20 years she has written and performed as part of Stiff Gins. The renowned, Sydney-based acoustic harmonies duo has recorded three albums and won two Deadly awards, including most promising talent and best single.
In 2020, Simpson’s first novel, Song of the Crocodile, was published by Hachette Australia, having won the 2018 black&write Writing Fellowship. The novel went on to be one of the most recognised in recent years, being longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Stella Prize, shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, before winning Australia’s oldest literary award – the ALS Gold Medal. Song of the Crocodile will undoubtedly become an Australian classic.
When Simpson joins the Zoom call, I ask her how her day has been so far. She looks out the window beside her. ‘Yeah good. Been out in the garden today. We’ve just moved into a house. We’ve been in flats [until now], so it’s our first time having a garden. It’s lovely, even during lockdown, that you can see change; even minute changes are a big thing. So, you know, watering the garden – it’s a beautiful communion in these times.’
When you love people, and you love stories, well, you know there’s something outside you that you can draw on.
We move on to Of Stars and Birds, which was originally supported by the ABC through its Fresh Start program. What was the inspiration behind the work?
‘We’ve got a story about how the Southern Cross happens and it was loosely based on parts of that. But it’s not me telling the story – that’s important to say. It was me putting myself into the system of that story. The story’s written down – a lot of people know it – but I wanted to swim in it, as a little no-nothing.
‘The story is based on the minggaa, the spirit tree, which has a cockatoo and a wedge-tailed eagle in its branches. The tree becomes a place that becomes a part of the constellation. We see the sky as bulima – the sky camp, the reflection of earth. I introduce myself to that story, through wonderful musicians.’
So, there is a link between the novel and Of Stars and Birds?
‘Song of the Crocodile is me trying to integrate myself into our knowledge system. It’s another way of me having connections. Same with Of Stars and Birds. It’s me waving at culture and saying, “I’m here. My ears are open.” It’s not, “Look at me and see what I can do.” It’s more like, “I’m here and this is who I am, this is where I’m from, and I’m searching for meaning in all the things we are.”’
I want to know more about Simpson’s creative process. ‘I love starting from not-knowing,’ she explains. ‘I’m into learning. It’s less about music and more about people. Composition is about getting out of the way; it’s about enabling other people to be wonderful.’ She smiles at me and points a finger at the side of her head. ‘The seed of knowledge is in your ear. I shouldn’t be the talky one. It’s about community, connection, relationship.’
I love starting from not-knowing.
Simpson composed Of Stars and Birds on a keyboard, rather than on paper.
‘I needed to play it and then I imagined that I could play it even better, and then I workshopped it with people who could play it, and they give me ideas – it’s a collaboration. [It’s important to] allow people to feed your work. Then I played it again and tried to make it even better.’ Simpson also uses a graphic technique. ‘It’s like writing books, because you’re bringing in narrative elements, and visual elements. That’s a much more natural way for me to write music.’
In terms of art music, Simpson likes to ask herself about the traditions and how they can be massaged. ‘What are the boundaries? How malleable are they? You can do anything you want; you’ve just got to know the musical language.’
Simpson has recently commenced a PhD at the ANU through the School of Music, with a keen interest in asking two questions: How might she help to Indigenise art-music practice? And how does Country infiltrate the traditions of classical music? ‘That’s really interesting to me. But in Australia we’re a long way behind the yarn, and we’re upside down too.’ Simpson is also worried about those who feel channelled towards expertise. ‘Yuwaalaraay are the other way. For me, an appropriate, culture-led way is to talk about what I don’t know, what didn’t work, and why – that’s important. Because then it can become a resource for other people.’
It has been a tough period for writers and musicians, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. What keeps Simpson going? ‘My dad and grandparents had it hard. I’ve got it good. But when you’re a Blackfulla you’re always on the outer, things are always a little bit skew-whiff. But I’m going to do it no matter what people say. There’s confidence in always being different. But also – and this goes for everyone – I often think of Linda Hogan, the North American poet. “When I’m walking, I’m close to my ancestors. Look, they say, you are the love of thousands.” That’s why I keep going. And do you know what, bruz? You are the love of thousands.’ Simpson turns to look through the window again.
‘When you love people, and you love stories, well, you know there’s something outside you that you can draw on.’ Her face now lit up with a great, beaming smile, Simpson turns back to the camera. ‘If nobody buys my book, or people throw a tomato at my performance in Canberra, I’ve got a lineage to people who loved me before they even knew me! How neat is that! Yeah!’
When we end our call, I hear rain outside the window. The next day, as I am listening to the recording of our conversation, I come to realise that, in the middle distance, there is the sound of a bird – every few minutes, singing.
Interview written by Nigel Featherstone
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer who has been widely published.
His war novel, Bodies of Men, was published by Hachette Australia in 2019. It was longlisted for the 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize, shortlisted for the 2020 ACT Book of the Year, and shortlisted in the 2019 Queensland Literary Awards. As commissioned by the Hume Conservatorium, Featherstone wrote the libretto for The Weight of Light, a contemporary song cycle, the score of which was composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium; this work was developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra, where it had its world premiere in 2018 (Mick Lampard as the baritone and Alan Hicks as the pianist). Featherstone’s new novel, My Heart is a Little Wild Thing, will be published by Ultimo Press / Hardie Grant in May 2022, and his play with songs, The Story of the Oars, is in development through The Street Theatre.