Published in Rolling Stone (Aust), January Issue 2011
Gurrumul – In The Studio
In the half-light of the main room at Byron Bay’s Studio 301, his face partly obscured by a large vocal mic, huddles Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. The grand piano at which he sits dwarfs him, and in fact, the whole room seems too big, its yawning emptiness stopping just short of swallowing him up. He doesn’t seem to mind too much however, tinkling the ivories almost distractedly, bobbing his head slowly as he waits for producer and long-time companion, Michael Hohnen, to give the command to begin. Hohnan himself is a bundle of energy – the two of them have already laid down the bulk of what will become Gurrumul’s second solo record, over in New York City back in February – and so for the pair of them, the finish line is in sight.
“This could be one of those extra inspired things,” Hohnen smiles to me, as he and an engineer set up the track to record. Gurrumul is, Hohnen tells me, in fine form at the moment. Sometimes he’s in the mood to come into the studio, sometimes he’s not. Today he is, today he wants to play, today he wants to be right there, bearded and tousle-haired behind that giant piano, with Hohnen guiding his ship, back here in the control room. “He’s really in the zone at the moment,” Hohnen muses, almost to himself, watching Gurrumul through the big window. “OK Wawa, lets go,” he then says through the mic into the studio itself, and Gurrumul does.
It’s hard to describe what then begins to emanate through the two speakers atop the control panel – a man who couldn’t look more out of place in the environment he now finds himself, working it to his every whim. His voice – as pure as spring rain – swells like the famous break 15 minutes up the road. The piano – it’s deep, thick timbre thundering – responds to the man’s long, slim fingers like he himself made the instrument. For a full seven minutes Hohnen, the engineer, his assistant and myself sit in silence. It is an utterly amazing experience – truly an extra inspired thing.
Earlier that day, I’d arrived to find Gurrumul not in the studio. He was lying down in the room next door, listening to music, not much concerned with what was happening elsewhere. Hohnen had called me and asked me to come in to listen to the rough mixes of the record as it stood so far. Twelve tracks, none of them mastered – just raw, real, Gurrumul. We sat for around three hours and listened, Hohnen making notes on a pad of paper, things to change later on. He told me the meanings behind some of the songs, he told me where they came from, he could barely keep the smile off his face. This record, a much-anticipated one given the phenomenal success of Gurrumul in 2008, was shaping up to eclipse even that.
“I think we need to make it more ambient…the whole mix…so it floats over you,” murmurs Hohnen at one point, making a note on his pad. To me, these songs sound done. Obviously they need to be mastered, but to me they sound like golden nuggets, freshly extricated from the ground; dirty and damp, yes, but real and so very, very valuable. Where they differ from 2008’s Gurrumul then, is mainly in the delivery. These are still songs sung in language to contemporary sounding music, but the confidence in Gurrumul’s voice, in his guitar and piano playing, is immeasurable. As well, he’s layered his vocal on many of these tracks, he plays drums and bass, and as I saw firsthand, is an extremely accomplished pianist. This is a record which will showcase Gurrumul as an even larger, ever more mystical, even more complex talent than his debut did.
Later on, after Gurrumul has finished recording the piano track, Hohnen leads him back into the control room where he sits in an armchair to listen back. When there’s not music playing, he hums and clicks his tongue, occasionally letting out a yip and a laugh, but when the playback does begin, he’ll sit still for just a second, before beginning to tap his hands on his knees to the rhythm, head bobbing in time, utterly lost in the sounds swirling around his head. He truly is a remarkable man.
Later on, we share a cigarette outside. It’s late afternoon and Gurrumul stands in silence, occasionally humming a tune, ashing his cigarette whenever he remembers he’s holding it. Standing next to him, I want to ask him about his music, but I don’t. It’s not like that. And anyway, nothing he could say to me out here, would do any justice to what I’ve been listening to for the past four or five hours in there. It’s just like that.
Samuel J. Fell