Once labelled “the black Australian Bob Dylan”, Kev Carmody is one of the country’s finest singer-songwriters. He talks to us about visiting the UK and Ireland, politics, and the power of the ‘didge’.

Up on the Queensland/New South Wales border, in the mountain country, about two hours west of Byron Bay, Kev Carmody relaxes at his home. It’s a long way from the State Theatre and the Sydney Festival where, two weeks ago, Australia’s leading performers came out in honour of the indigenous Australian musician’s career with live renditions of the Can Not Buy My Soul tribute album. “We were flying by the seat of our pants both nights,” says Carmody. “That was the great thing. It was so spontaneous. We knew where we were going but how we were getting there was a different thing. I managed to get five of the grand-kids on stage. And the synergy back stage was through the bloody roof.”

You got a late start in your music career… I wouldn’t call it a career, Colin, I never made much money from it. But I’ve been writing songs since the ’60s. Career-wise I put family first and I was trying to get educated. But [singer and friend] Paul Kelly wants me to sit down at the kitchen table and record my back catalogue. I could record 10 albums without writing another song. The other thing is, I knew the commercial music industry wouldn’t have a bar of it, so I put it down as a cultural statement.

Do you feel you’ve made that cultural statement – an impact? If you’re going for a concept of reconciliation, it happened there with people interacting – and that’s a younger generation when you’re looking at [Aussie singers] Sara Storer and Missy Higgins and The Drones, The Herd. It was in every culture’s tradition to pass music on, before corporate copyright in the twentieth century. Communities, cultures and countries owned the music collectively.

You wrote “From Little Things Big Things Grow” with Paul Kelly about the story of Vincent Lingiari who began the Aboriginal Land Rights movement. Can you explain the song and the story of Vincent Lingiari? We heard about it in the ’60s, in the droving camp, listening to ABC radio one night. My mum was cooking up a feed for the men and she said, “That Gurindji mob just walked off on strike.” This was ’66 and we weren’t even citizens. Then Paul Kelly and his son Declan came up. They wanted to go camping over Christmas, so we went out to this waterhole, lit a fire and I came up with this chord progression on the mandolin, swapped it to the banjo. He said it was a very hypnotic chord progression and he had this song about a personal relationship: “from this little thing darling, this big thing grew”. Then I told him about the walk off and the effect it had on us blackfellas. He got interested in the story. That’s how it wound up six minutes long – we had so much to put into it. It became a cultural love song rather than a personal love song.

The movement created the Aboriginal Land Rights Act… Back then, conditions for blackfellas was absolutely atrocious, it was just rations, working 14-hour days, seven days a week. They used stock whips on some of the blokes and the sexual abuse of the women was off the planet. They just said, “We’ve had enough”. We thought at the time they’d shoot ’em all, or they’d all wind up in prison looking out the pigeonhole. But the thing is, non-Aboriginal people gave support, including the Maritime Union. And when Vincent came down to the southern states and spoke, this huge bassline movement started saying “This is atrocious – the conditions and what they’ve had to put up with”. Frank Hardy, the writer, went up north to the NT thinking it was a union struggle for better conditions. Vincent and the old fellas took Frank up to the top of this hill. They said, “This is what we’re after, our spirit – this is our country. It always has been.” The manager of the Victoria River Downs Station accused Vincent of stealing his land. At the Sydney concert we had old footage of Vincent saying “What before Lord Vestey was born and I born? This be blackfella country.” And that statement sums up the whole of the land rights movement. I tell ya what, both nights we had standing ovations and every bugger was crying. There’s a very positive thing to it, you’re beat and bashed down, but if you keep at it collectively you can change it…

In a couple of weeks another Kev, PM Kevin Rudd, will make an important apology to the Stolen Generation (indigenous youth – now adults – taken from their families by the Government). What do you make of that ? It will be well scripted, Colin. He’ll have plenty of lawyers to say the right thing. If he’s two or three words out of line there could be big repercussions. And it’s one thing to say sorry, but if you look at the First and Second World Wars those countries that were invaded had to be paid reparations. He’s going to try and sidestep, big time. The other thing is, if we’re going to be genuine about this country we call Australia we’ve got to be enshrined in that damned constitution as a sovereign people. That’s the basis of the law, like it is in Canada – which recognises these people were here first. Australia doesn’t have that, we’ve still got a fair way to go. But saying sorry would be a bloody good start, wouldn’t it.

There’s probably a few of our readers who want to take a ‘didge’ home with them. What’s the trick to circular breathing? Haha. It’s a funny thing, the harder you try the worse you get. It’s so simple. It’s the most minimal amount of breathing. But it’s one thing to be able to do the breathing, it’s something entirely different to know the song cycles that come from your country. There’s thousands of ’em that criss cross throughout this country and their specific to a geographic area. The other thing is, it’s such a spiritual instrument, and very technical because you can voice-pitch to quarter-tones that the human ear can only just pick up. It’s like Middle Eastern, Asian or African music. Down at the Marion Bay Falls Festival over New Year’s, I was telling them what a powerful instrument it is. I blew the bloody P.A. They had to replace the microphone and the fold-backs.

What tips do you have for any traveller wanting to purchase a didgeridoo ethically? Well the first thing is, it’s gender specific so you have to be male, that’s the old law. The other thing is, check where it came from. Most are commercially made and painted up to look Aboriginal. But they’re like guitars – with the different timber comes a different sound. The main thing is, just get with the blackfellas.

You also have a song about heading to the UK, is that right? You should have heard Steve Kilbey [from Aussie band, The Church] do that on stage, my friend. Eat your heart out, that man has a genius for delivery voice-wise. The way he arranged that song. That came from the Year of the Indigenous People, they took a heap of us blackfellas to London to have a look around the place, to look at the homeless people and the Rolls Royce motorcars, to Westminster, where Western democracy came from, comparing that with the homeless. That was unbelievable. I went down to see the homeless and asked where they get the boxes and they said the big stores sell them to ’em for 50p to live in. On the way home I wrote “Images of London”.

Your father is Irish. Have you spent much time in Ireland? I’ve been over about four times, again you feel so much at home there. As a culture they are so much into place – where they come from, whether it’s Tipperary or Dingal. And a lot of the songs are regionally based. And here a lot of songs are regionally based. In fact, when I went over there they had to put on the pamphlets “Kev Carmody, Aboriginal Australian Performer” because there are so many performers named Carmody over there.

Can we expect a new album? I’ve got one on the burner now and as I said, I’ve got a back catalogue. But I’m so bloody crippled now, I have to strip it right back to basics. But I can definitely get it started this year and get it out next year. The thing is the bloody stuff is still relevant. I wrote a song in ’73 about the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East and it’s just as relevant today as it was then. Humankind has to start being kind and celebrating their differences and stopping the conflicts. And as I said, it’s just as important for your journos to get the message out as it is for us on stage. I spoke to Bono at the Make Poverty History concert in Melbourne. It was so exciting. He said. “Look at the age of the audience – from 13 to 40. We can change things.” And you younger folk, you got a much better chance walking up and down the road with placards than we did.

Kev’s Cannot Buy My Soul tribute album is out now on EMI. For more on Kev Carmody, visit http://www.kevcarmody.com.au.