Midnight Oil taps into Australia's 'unfinished business' for upcoming album
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Midnight Oil taps into Australia's 'unfinished business' for upcoming album

Peter Garrett calls it "a small step" but its imprint is history. Next week marks 20 years since the world witnessed Midnight Oil shaking up the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony in black suits bearing a word the Australian prime minister in attendance refused to say.

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Midnight Oil. From left, Martin Rotsey, Peter Garrett, Jim Moginie and Rob Hirst. Bassist Bones Hillman was unable to travel for the image.

Midnight Oil. From left, Martin Rotsey, Peter Garrett, Jim Moginie and Rob Hirst. Bassist Bones Hillman was unable to travel for the image. Credit:Daniel Boud

The upstart rock band's dramatic gesture of redress to our First Nations people didn't lead directly to the official apology by John Howard's successor, Kevin Rudd, at the opening of Parliament eight years later. But it helped get us there.

"I think we were really just tapping into a pretty wide sentiment amongst many Australians," Garrett reflects today, "that there was no clear or apparent reason as to why something as important but also as straightforward as that shouldn't have happened."

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Today, in league with pop singer Jessica Mauboy and rapper Tasman Keith, Midnight Oil is hoping to tap into the same sentiment with another small step on the road to reconciliation.

First Nation is the second song from The Makarrata Project, a collaborative mini-album with the stated intention to keep the Uluru Statement from the Heart at the forefront of our national conversation.

"I think it's as important a document as the UN Declaration of Human Rights for Australia," says Garrett, who rejoined Midnight Oil in 2016 after six years as a minister in the Rudd and Julia Gillard governments.

Peter Garrett sending a message with style at the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony.

Peter Garrett sending a message with style at the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony.Credit:Julian Andrews

"I hope that anyone that listens to the record; anyone that starts to have a barbecue yarn about it or reflect on it in any way, will come back to this sense that there's unfinished business in modern Australia, which goes to making amends and walking together with the first Australians whose culture underpins the continent in every way."

The eight-song track list, also announced today, reveals the 16 Indigenous voices who feature in The Makarrata Project. They include newcomers such as Wergaia singer-songwriter Alice Skye on Terror Australia, and distinguished veterans Kev Carmody, Warumpi Band guitar slinger Sammy Butcher and Pitjantjatjara singer Frank Yamma.

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Adam Goodes, Stan Grant, Pat Anderson, Ursula Yovich and country superstar Troy Cassar-Daley contribute to a reading of the Uluru Statement itself, the 2017 document demanding First Nations self-determination and parliamentary representation – with "a bit of Oils accompaniment underneath it".

Maybe most notable is the appearance of the late Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. The revered Gumatj singer was in the throes of several projects when he died in 2017. His unreleased vocal track Lurrpu (white cockatoo) was offered by his record label and family, and appears alongside Dan Sultan on the song Change the Date.

"When we took Yothu Yindi with us to the States back in the day, he was this quiet young kid at the back playing all these amazing keyboard pads and lines, but over all that time we followed his career pretty closely," Garrett recalls with sadness.

"It's an alignment, really, of someone's extraordinary life and performance… and how he spoke not only to his own community but to a wider community and it just happened to dovetail with where we were taking some of these songs."

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Garrett reconvened with Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey and Bones Hillman in a Sydney studio last year. Together with Diesel and Dust producer Warne Livesey, they realised that a number of new songs had a thematic connection to that hit album of 1987: "our relationship with history and First Nations' struggle for justice".

It was "obvious that if we were going to take them any further, that it would be much better to actually involve Aboriginal and Islander artists," the singer says, "partly as a way of making sure that the songs were the grit of the moment, and partly because we've written in the past around these subjects, from the heart, but also very aware now that there are many eloquent First Nations performers who have platforms."

Around 35 years ago, the land itself and its traditional owners played a crucial part in Midnight Oil's evolution. With the Warumpi Band, their Blackfella/ Whitefella tour of central Australian communities was the catalyst for a new sound that would lead to their global breakthrough with The Dead Heart and Beds Are Burning.

"I think if we'd made another record without going out into the western desert it probably would have been a hybridised mash-up of whatever we had going on around us: a pretty full-on sounding thing," Garrett says. "The turn that we took as a consequence of being covered in red dust and sitting
around campfires, with people listening to those stories about the land and the First Australians, changed the way we heard music, and probably the way we thought about music.

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"The space that exists between the word, the sound and the landscape… I think that's what it is. We've got more than one person bringing ideas to the table, we've got lots of strong musical drives happening out of the players, we've got the thing that we try and create when we get up on stage, and there's always the temptation to just [turn everything] up to 11. Learning the lesson not to do that was a great gift for us."

From elders as respected as Mirning Whale Songman Bunna Lawrie and voices as fresh as Gumbaynggirr rapper Tasman Keith, the gifts that their collaborators bring to The
Makarrata Project are hugely varied in languages, tone and style.

"A lot is getting said in rap and hip-hop that isn't said in rock, which can be incredibly stale and tired and cliched," Garrett says. "Younger performers are doing things with words, particularly First Nations performers… that speaks to current affairs and politics and culture and as it turned out, [Keith] just hit it out of the park on this one."

First Nation is out and The Makarrata Project is available for pre-order today, ahead of an October 30 release. Midnight Oil will donate their share of proceeds to "organisations that seek to elevate the Uluru Statement From The Heart". Fromtheheart.com.au.

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