MILESAGO - Interviews

Interview by John Broughton, 2003

Hailed as Australia's finest interpretive singer, the great Margret RoadKnight celebrates her 40th year as a professional performer in 2003. She spoke to John Broughton in Melbourne for his weekly radio show 'Retrospectives' and talked about her early years, her influences, her experiences as a some-time concert promoter, and many other aspects of her remarkable life and career.

As always, my sincere thanks go to John for transcribing and kindly allowing us to publish his interview on MILESAGO. I also want to send a very special thank-you to Margret and congratulations to her on forty fantstic years in music!

JB: Did you have some formal vocal training at all growing up?

MR: No, just the casual things like harmonizing with my mother and sister while we did the housework that sort of thing and the usual school choir and church choir but no, nothing formal at all unfortunately.

JB: What are your memories of the folk scene here in Australia when you started out what sort of scene was it?

MR: Very vital and in fact it was such a large scene but it still remained very much a minority music however it was a very large minority. It was on the airwaves and in so many venues a large number of small venues and constant concerts. I remember I would nip out from work and you could go to a lunchtime folk concert in the city most days not to mention evenings and the weekends. It was rather amazing for a long time really.

JB: Do you remember if much of the scene here was influenced by the American folk boom of the 60ís?

MR: I remember I felt a lot of it was and there was also an equivalent earlier with the skiffle scene I suppose which really came from England but they were listening to American music to make up the skiffle boom anyway. I suppose the two branches though the Australian Folk scene and the bush songs and traditional music from Australia were quite big too so there were those two streams. The irony is that nowadays the biggest music scene going out of the there would be what we used to call international folk songs but is now known as World Music.

JB: Who do you remember as some of your main contemporaries back then?

MR: Well I think the first main concert I went to had a lot of the Melbourne Folk luminaries on it, Iím speaking of the Emerald Hill Theatre they used to have an every Sunday afternoon folk concert. Glen Tomasetti she was the first woman that I saw singing folk songs and playing guitar, David Lumsden, Martin Wyndham-Read, Brian Mooney all those people and more were on that very first concert so I was introduced to it by a lot of practiced people.

JB: Looking back on it would you consider yourself a keen student of musical styles growing up were you a record collector so to speak?

MR: Not really no although I got a tiny little record player that played 45ís and I started to buy 45ís while I was still at school, it wasnít quite the same scene and the access to the material wasnít there back then and I think that was part of the excitement of it if you did discover a blues record you were lucky whether nowadays if you discover something itís only a matter of time before you have it in your hot little hands. It was a bit of a detective trail to go on to find some of the material but having said that I guess I would have learnt most of my repertoire from records. Early people who influenced me and from who I pinched songs were people like Harry Belafonte and Odetta they were early influences and a little later on expanding out from folk music into jazz and further on people like Nina Simone were early influences and all through records.

JB: Could you pinpoint a uniform quality among those artists that influenced you?

MR: (laughs) Well theyíre all black Americans so that would explain why at least fifty per cent of the material that I gravitated could come under the same heading and then I would delve back further and go to the roots of that music and that would lead me to African music, the type of African music we had most access to was South African and I did love that and I do still but Iíve since become more interested in West African music and I was introduced to that by the National Dance Company from Guinea from the former French colony in West Africa when they first came to Australia in the mid 60ís.

JB: You have been a well traveled artist over the years youíve been to many countries, I guess that would be a major contributor to your developing an interest in music of different cultures?

MR: Partly although it tends to work the other way around I tend to discover the music and then visit the place from where the music came. Ironically I performed more Australia material after I went overseas so I made sure I would have Australian songs to perform when I perform for overseas audiences and now Iím very happy to perform the Australian material back then but I actively had to learn it when I first went overseas.

JB: What would you put down as your most memorable overseas experience?

MR: Oh I guess my first trip to America, the first of anything always has the most impact and it was my first overseas trip anyway and the majority of the time was in the United States and at the end I went to Europe. It was on what was then known as The Australia Council Grant from the Australian Council for the Arts in 74í and I look back on my notes from that trip and see that I packed a lot in and heard a lot of people and did a lot of discovering but then Iíve been back to the States another nine times so itís lost a bit of romance. Then of course my first trip to Africa to West Africa that was really amazing and I guess another memorable one was when I went to China in the late 60ís.

JB: The grant you got from the government in 74í were they readily accessible at the time? Did you have to go through a lot to get that?

MR: No, it was relatively easy pretty much the same format as it is now. It was take your chance and write a good application, I think I almost didnít get it because I wasnít asking for enough money in my daily living expenses I was allowing for the bare minimum and they felt I wasnít being practical, you really needed to ask for more money so I almost missed out by being frugal.

JB: I guess over the years you havenít released albums at a rapid rate has a recording career not been as big a priority as performing live?

MR: It isnít for me but itís become absolutely necessary for me to sustain a career Iíd say but back when I started in fact my first professional performance was back in 1963 and it was exactly a decade later before I produced my first album. I didnít actively do it, somebody came to me from a record company and said youíre a performer but you havenít made a record would you like to. Of course nowadays you wouldnít wait ten minutes let alone ten years before you made an album. The opposite extreme is in pop and rock where you spend six months in a studio and then reluctantly tour to promote the album. Sometimes I wish I had more time and money to work on my albums but I donít particularly enjoy the process, I enjoy the outcome but I do them very quickly and somewhat reluctantly but Iím at the stage of having to finance them myself so that would explain why not a lot of them come out and because I donít write my own material is not as if Iíve got fifteen of my own compositions Iíve got to get out to other people. In a way theyíre all cover versions, I tend to go for obscure songs and songwriters that are under exposed and I seem to put my own stamp on them because a lot of people presume they are my own compositions.

JB:Can you tell right away when hearing a song that it would be one that would be suited to you to cover?

MR: Yeah, and itís nearly always to do with the lyrics although thatís not always true, sometimes itís the wedding of the lyrics and the melody itís not really the arrangement or the chord stuff or things like that. I sometimes then send along to potential accompanists a song or a whole program of things and theyíll say ďHowever did you get past the singing of so and so to get a good song in there?Ē I seem to be able to straight to the heart of the song and decide whether or not I could make a good fist of it and get something new out of it.

JB: Youíve never had the urge to go right into songwriting yourself?

MR: No, not really and I think you should really do it if youíre driven to it. I have dabbled I confess way back I have tried it and I wrote some reasonably good B-grade songs but I donít think the world needs any more B-grade songs (laughs) and there are so many under sung A-grade songs out there so in the meantime Iím happy to do that. It is strange there are so fewer and fewer of us interpreters out there when you think back in popular music I donít think Frank Sinatra ever wrote a song but it didnít seem to harm his career. I donít think they ever say to actors ďHave you written this play?Ē but the presumption is that youíve written your own songs.

JB: Your albums over the years have covered a broad range of musical styles and often within the same record, as a listener to other peopleís music does that kind of diversity appeal to you?

MR: Oh yeah it does, I know if Iíd made a clever career decision Iíd make thematic albums or less mood changes or maybe different styles but within one overall style. I would be clever and make the blues album or the jazz album or whatever but no Iím afraid people who get my albums know they donít work as background music itís a matter of sitting down and going on a journey. The songs I choose tend to dictate some sort of style or stylistic approach to them so the albums tends to be a collection of great songs of three and a half minute pieces as opposed to a thematic flow.

JB: I guess that would make you a difficult artist to categorize for those who like to slap a label on things?

MR: Yes I guess it does. The irony is that if I did write my own songs they would simply say ďsinger/songwriterĒ and everybody would know what that meant so you have to take away the songwriter and just call me a singer but that doesnít seem to be sufficient. So Iím left with that folk/blues/jazz/ and so on it goes...perhaps I should have a competition to come up with a title for people like me which doesnít sound derogatory like ďeclecticĒ or ďjack of all tradesĒ .

JB: I think it just goes back to song interpreter as you said before.

MR: Yeah..yes...yeah...thank you!! (laughs)

JB: Youíve been involved in theatre work over the years has that been an interest from a young age?

MR: I love going to the theatre but I donít feel like I really want to pursue theatre that much part of me finds it a bit boring in that if youíre successful youíre doing the same thing night after night. Long seasons you know. I quite enjoy the discipline and itís not that I get bored come the time to hit the spot at certain times with certain light on you to say the same things or sing the same song but the thought of it bores me. I like theatrical elements in my own concerts say but actual theatre pieces to tell the truth no Iíd pass on that and aim toward the concert end of the spectrum.

JB: You went into the promotional side of the music business for a little while.

MR: Yes for all my sins I did (laughs). I was inspired by Ellen McIlwaine, a friend came back from New York and saw her in a small club where she was complaining how the last record the company she was with had gone bust and she was in the doldrums so we thought perhaps we could bring her hear to Australia and thatís how it started myself and a couple of friends ran the risk of bringing an American singer who was somewhat known but there were a lot of people that had never heard of her. It was a very steep learning curve and perhaps if weíd known what was involved we may not have taken it on but being naive, young and silly we got the ball rolling and then found out all the things involved in being a promoter but it was too late to back out. It was successful, so successful that one of us disappeared to America for a few years so we were down to two and we decided to bring Holly Near out, the first tour was the end of 1980 and then in 1983 we brought Holly Near out and said if weíre successful weíll bring Ellen back. Well we werenít what you would call successful but we didnít go into the red and that was all the excuse we needed to bring Ellen back and then finally third time I was burnt financially and it is unusual for singers to be promoting other singers anyway so been there and done that.

JB: Glad you did it though?

MR: Oh yeah and I was even offered acts people who I admired and liked but they werenít people I could say well if I lose money on these people Iíll say it was still worth it, for instance people like Judy Collins and I have a dozen Judy Collins albums and Iíve enjoyed her when Iíve seen her but I didnít say if I lost money on that ďHey Iím so pleased I did it anywayĒ whereas that was true with Ellen McIlwaine where I did lose money but was glad of the experience.

JB: Did it change your views on agents and promoters which you would have dealt with as a performer yourself?

MR: Well not really but a little bit since. I tend to be a little bit more aware of why they would only offer this amount of money for me as opposed to somebody else and even if they have a success why they donít have to double my fee. There are so many hidden costs and so much work that goes into this kind of thing that you donít see you just see the people roll in the door and do the obvious sums. I always feel that I under quote but Iím aware to be fare to them at the same time, I donít want to over burden promoters.

JB: A recent project of yours was something of a musical biography 'Adjusting the Rear View Mirror', what criteria did you use in choosing the material for that?

MR: Well yes I used the term musical biography in two ways in fact itís not really a biography of me itís really a biography of the music that Iíve dabbled with and a view of the mainstream music industry by somebody whose slightly outside it so there are even types of music in the show that I donít do for instance thereí calls a song called I Wonít Do Rap and I do it in Rap style (laughs). That song talks about a sensibility in pop music and why you want to do it and why you donít from a person like myself outside the mainstream of music so itís a double meaning musical biography itís a biography of music of course with my stamp, my humor. A lot of the songs in the show, eleven of the songs in the show nine of which made it on to the album were written by my favorite Australian songwriter a guy by the name of John Shortis. Most of the time I go to him with suggestions of topics and say ďJohn Iíd love a song on this topic and perhaps in this style and hereís some information on itĒ and invariably heís come up with a gem. He wrote me the song for when I win the Grammy for instance (laughs) included in the show and the theme song.

JB: Youíre based up in Queensland these days what took you up there?

MR: Yeah, the first three decades of my life were based in Melbourne where I was born and the next couple of decades in Sydney and now Iím up to my fifth year in Brisbane. I wish I could say there was such and such happening in Brisbane but it wasnít that in fact in the previous eight years Iíd appeared once in Brisbane but having said that prior to this I came up from Sydney very often in fact at one stage they used to fly me up to play at this hotel weekly in Brisbane and that went on for so long a lot of people probably felt I lived here anyway and when I did move here I got a lot of ďWelcomes backĒ and Iíd say ďWell thanks for the sentiment but Iíve never lived here!Ē It was a bit of a challenge, I donít own a house have never owned a house so it was always a matter of when I went overseas giving up the rental house and putting my stuff in storage and coming back and finding something else. There was another trip coming up a trip to Africa and so I thought when I come back Iíll have to find a new place maybe itís time for a change. The logical place would have been to come back to Melbourne because thatís where my family and early career and bigger population base is so I didnít want to be that logical so I looked in the other direction and really I didnít have much criteria it was something whimsical like if I find a great house to live in in less than a week thatís a sign, well I found it in a day so I moved up here and Iím very happy that I have itís a great music town and as far as female singers go the standard is scarily high (laughs).

JB: Is the bulk of your live work coming from Brisbane?

MR: Oh not much more than I would have expected. Wherever you live they tend to take you for granted after awhile and itís hard to gender excitement so when I first moved here there was much excitement and now itís just bubbling along a little bit so if I wasnít prepared to itís still the have guitar will travel act. The other strings to my bow that Iíve added since moving up here until recently I was doing national broadcasting on the ABC on black gospel music I used to enjoy that with all the research and preliminary stuff on that because it was one of my passions and remains so. Iím now in my third year of running singing sessions, most weeks at least once a week Iím running singing sessions for adults, thatís something Iíve actively avoided until recently and then almost got tricked into but wished Iíd started ages ago because i enjoy it so much.

JB: Do you find it a good way to also honing your own skills as well?

MR: in some ways they tend to be songs not really from my concert repertoire but it does overlap a bit. I still donít read music I canít read the dots to me itís like an alphabet but not a language but I can look at a sheet of music and work out the keys and check pitches of certain notes but really unless Iíve heard the song and know the flow of it and hopefully itís got the chord chart I can probably use a sheet of music to help me just refine it but I guess in my whole life Iíve learnt about a dozen songs from never having heard them before.

JB: You play a lot of festivals and the festival circuit has really grown in recent years, how do you compare these types of gigs with your own?

MR: Festivals are a bit like recording you couldnít afford not to do lots of festivals during the course of a year because thatís really where folk music is headed because the clubs have gone mostly and concerts generally speaking arenít there either so definitely you have to do quite a sprinkle of festivals most years to keep up any sort of career. Itís a very healthy scene and rightly so as the standard is pretty high of the material you hear and itís quite professional in the way that thereís theme structures and things. Looking back to when I started they hadnít even started the early National Folk Festivals, they werenít operating till about 1967 and immediately it all started being staged in different cities around the country so off you go and get yourself from Melbourne to Brisbane on the train or whatever and run workshops and appear in concerts and probably buy a ticket (laughs) and be very happy to be hanging around with your colleagues and enjoying the scene. Nobody got paid in the early days but nowadays I think itís grown with me the scene, the festivals you know.

JB: I guess being around for as long as you have youíve been in a good position to observe audiences and how theyíve changed, how do you think Australian audiences have changed in terms of there understanding and appreciation of folk music?

MR: Audiences generally now once youíve come up through the folk scene they have a different attitude toward listening and listening to songs they havenít heard and catching the lyrics to songs where basically theyíre telling you something and taking you somewhere you havenít been. Itís harder for younger audiences because theyíre the television and video generation with remote controls and whatever and if it doesnít immediately and continuously hold you interest then you flick to something else (laughs) so itís often a challenge and usually an enjoyable challenge which I usually win if there are younger folk in the audience getting them to tune in as once they do tune in I have no problem, I have no qualms about my ability to entertain anybody itís just a matter of getting them along in the first place.


Margret RoadKnight official website

'Retrospectives' website

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