Respected indigenous singer/songwriter Archie Roach drew inspiration from the spirit of his late wife, Ruby Hunter, to create his extraordinary new album, Into the Bloodstream.
"Ruby was the sort of person who wouldn't let anything get her down too much," Roach confides over the phone from Melbourne. "She'd bounce back and carry on no matter how much she was hurting inside. It was those thoughts that helped lift me up and find the strength to go on."
The past two years have inflicted immeasurable suffering on the venerable musician. Hunter died on February 17, 2010. Later the same year, Roach suffered a stroke while working in the Kimberley. He had barely recuperated when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. But nothing could knock out the former tent boxer.
Recovering from major surgery and drawing on his strong background of soul, gospel and country and western music, the singer gradually built up a suite of songs that deliver his incredibly positive reflections on separation, love, loss, pain, healing and perseverance.
Despite his recent trials and tribulations, Into the Bloodstream is an album bursting with optimism and joy. Songs such as Heal the People and Wash My Soul in the River's Flow are full of gospel choirs and soul-stirring organ rolls.
His eighth studio album is a declaration of the old saying: what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.
During the sessions at producer Craig Pilkington's Audrey Studios, an oxygen tank was never too far away. "The inspiration for the record was letting go of all the pain and the bad stuff and holding on to something good and strong," Roach says.
Old friend Paul Kelly brought in a song about friendship, I'm On Your Side. A number of tracks recorded for 2002 album Sensual Being but left in the can were dusted off. The centrepiece of the album is his remarkable voice singing Mulyawongk, about Hunter's life as an Ngarrindjeri woman from the South Australian riverland.
"That's the song that really hit me in the heart," Roach says. "It means much more to me now after Ruby's death than it did when I wrote it. It's a Dreaming song about the river guardian, the Mulyawongk, calling her back home to the river. I think it was meant to be on this album."
Roach will take his new songs on tour around Australia, backed by a 12-piece band plus a 10-strong gospel choir. His Festival Gardens show on February 10 is sure to be one of the highlights of next year's Perth Festival.
It's amazing that he is on the road at all. After Hunter's death, Roach was convinced he'd never write another song. "I didn't know if I had it in me any more," he says. "I was stumbling around in some kind of a dream.
"Most of my songs used to come from sitting around the kitchen table at home playing them to Ruby. She was always the first to hear them and we'd sing along and work on them together. She'd say if she thought they were any good and she certainly would tell me if she thought they were no good."
Only eight months after his wife's death, Roach was on tour with former Goanna frontman Shane Howard in the Kimberley, near the Bungle Bungles, when he suffered a crippling stroke. He was airlifted to Broome by the Royal Flying Doctor Service and then on to Perth where he was in rehabilitation for two weeks.
"The stroke took out my right side so that I couldn't walk properly and the hand that I strum the guitar with was bloody useless," he says.
Gradually recovering his strength, he played a concert in Perth in March last year with Neil Murray and Shane Howard. Each of them talked about and sang their seminal works; in Roach's case, 1990 single Took the Children Away. During the tour, he suffered from shortness of breath and weeks later was diagnosed with the early stages of lung cancer. He opted for surgery and had half of his lung removed.
This was yet another setback in a life full of difficulties. Born in Mooroopna in central Victoria, as a child he was forcibly removed from his family by government agencies and sent to live in a succession of orphanages and white foster homes before ending up an alcoholic, living on the streets of Sydney and Adelaide.
He credits the gospel feel on the new album to his Scottish foster father whose eclectic record collection was a source of inspiration.
"Mr Cox had a lot of old Scottish ballads and one of my favourite albums was by Mahalia Jackson. At the time, I wasn't sure what she was singing about but it was the way it made me feel."
To capture an authentic gospel sound, an all-star indigenous choir, led by Lou Bennett from Tiddas and the Black Arm Band, recorded at St Brigid's Church in Roach's home town of Killarney in south-west Victoria.
"There were singers old and young from all around eastern Australia in the choir. It was a very moving weekend with them all singing in my local church."
'Most of my songs used to come from sitting around the kitchen table at home playing them to Ruby. She was always the first to hear them and we'd sing along and work on them together.'