"When you become successful you calm down a bit, you slow down and let everything flow."
On top of the grand piano in David Bridie’s inner-Melbourne studio, Haus Bilas, there’s a blue ring binder marked ‘Yamma’ in black texta. Frank Yamma and his partner Judy have just flown in from Adelaide and luckily Bridie’s pre-empted the interview by switching on the heater, because it’s typically dreary for this time of year. Yamma’s busting for a smoke after the plane ride so we check out the veggie patch before we start.
The ring binder could be a remnant of Yamma’s recent recording sessions in this very building. The resultant album, Uncle, Yamma’s fifth, is a much rockier affair than 2010’s Countryman and it feels weird that such a big record could be born in such a humble, urban space. It’s also strange that Yamma, a Pitjantjatjara man from central Australia, brings his stories of country to what might as well be a million miles away to get them out to the rest of the world.
Yamma spent his childhood in Docker River, southwestern NT. His father, Isaac, was a muso and Frank’s early experiences with guitar music came via his dad. “I was just a young fella, mucking around with my dad’s guitar and listening to the guitar sounds, it was beautiful,” he says. “I used to watch my old fella’s hands, y’know, how he put the fingers on the chords. It was really interesting, so I started when I was six or seven years old. By the time that I was ten we had our own band. So I was this small, young fella with this huge instrument – it looked funny.
“The first song I wrote was Make More Spear, I was only about 16 when I wrote that first song. [Using] black charcoal and an empty VB carton, I wrote it out on the box... I had my two brothers and we were always harmonising. I’ve never stopped writing songs. I love writing, I love to take my imagination to a place I’ve never been to when [I’m] writing the words or creating a song.”
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Countryman was written while Yamma was locked up for drink driving. He says he works best in isolation. “It’s a good place to write a song,” he laughs. “Words come – words after words after words after words – you can get it out and write it down. I used to have a nylon-stringed guitar in the lock-up, so I’d sit up til two or three o’clock in the morning. The security would come around, ‘Frank, hit the bed!’ I’d say, ‘Ok boss!’... When I’d finished writing about ten songs I said, ‘Man, look at how many bloody words I wrote in there!’”
Yamma likens singing in multiple languages – he speaks five – to juggling balls. The language chosen for any particular song is often decided based on which comes into his mind first. He describes how his day-to-day conversations change depending on whether he’s in the country, at his now home in Adelaide or elsewhere in the world. These language shifts feature heavily in his music.
Of Uncle, Yamma says he’s a bit surprised at the way it turned out. It’s much more a band-sounding record than Countryman – with drums, cello and electric guitar – and it marks the second consecutive album he’s recorded with Bridie – a man he’s collaborated with across a number of projects over many years. “I’ve been listening to [Uncle] the last couple of days, the whole album, and I’ve been thinking, ‘Wow, it’s not me, it sounds different,’” he says.
“I’m teaching myself, too, when I’m creating an album. You learn from it. In the studio here, workin’ with the fellas, amongst each other, you have to try and work along with it. It’s really interesting. You can have an engineer muck around with the sound and effects and reverb and all that stuff [but] I try not to get too flash about the sound, because you have to respect the sound that you’re creating. It’s a 100 per cent pure, natural feeling. You can only worry about the audience, you can never worry about yourself.”
With Yamma’s recent successes has come a lot of travel and exposure to new international audiences. He shares a story about a man he met in Spain, who was wearing an Aboriginal flag T-shirt. Yamma gravitated towards him for a chat and, although they had no language in common apart from the music, it was connection enough. “[I thought] white folk don’t speak a different language, white folk speak English!” he laughs. “I couldn’t get over it, I was laughing my head off...
“I’ve seen a lot of different places – music really does take you everywhere. When you become successful you calm down a bit, you slow down and let everything flow, you can just cruise along with it.”
The rain’s at full pelt when we’re done so we linger in the front room of the studio for a few minutes. While we wait, Yamma pulls up a stool at the piano and belts out a tune that sounds like thunder, perfectly reflecting the sky on this beautifully dreary afternoon.