Following the highly acclaimed Que Reste T’il and Dancing on the Volcano, Australian National Treasure and Cabaret icon, Robyn Archer sings The (Other) Great American Songbook. Soon to open in Sydney, Archer’s show is a concerted effort to cover the complexity of American life and covers everything from the Civil War and The Great Depression to many of its citizens’ favourite vices.
For Archer, this show is a deliberate re- thinking of the more traditional songs found in the eponymous Great American Songbook. Archer is interested in telling a different story of American song than The Great American Songbook which, she says, consists almost entirely of love song standards. “Don’t get me wrong, those love songs are fantastic, and I even include one of them in this show ( albeit with a poignant twist in its background story) but there is a proud history of great American song which goes beyond romantic love.”
Archer tells me that she has been doing this show for some years now, but this is the first time in Sydney. And there are a couple of songs in here that she’s been singing for more than half a century – “I daresay I sang those in Sydney at some point.” Also one from a one-woman Show Tonight Lola Blau which was in Sydney in 1979 – “so only forty years ago !” It’s not strictly an American song, but is all about Hollywood. “So I’d say that this recital has been decades in the making,” she says, answering a question about timeframe, “but once I thought about the concept of an alternative to the Great American Songbook, it probably took about twelve months to evolve, think through, rehearse, choose and shape.”
While Archer’s Great American Songbook strongly reflects potent periods in American History, she is not a student of American History. Her interest, instead, is to reflect a more authentic span of the American character. Archer admits to American cultural hegemony having had its hold on her ( as, she says, it has for anyone in developed nations influenced by popular music) since she was a child. “The music that filled our house on record and radio was overwhelmingly American, as were the hits I first became passionate about at puberty,” she says.
Archer’s hit parade songs were all American until Swingin’ Britain challenged with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones et al. The first songs she sang were American, and then Around 15 she discovered folk music and the American protest songs which became her core repertoire. “So while this show begins with a song from 1852, and ends with one from 2006 it isn’t about American history, but about the way American song has been conveying more than just romance all that time.”
And, for Archer, it seems that what songs convey is the key to understanding the cultural, environmental, political and social periods of our existence – a kind of history in song, if you will. Lyrics, music and attitudes that serve not only as extant guides to extinct decades but have the capacity to mark the pages of a life with indelible influence.
Archer says she didn’t start singing folk songs at 15 because of a political stance, it was because folk songs started to dominate the charts and she instinctively gravitated to what she thought would be her best pathway, given her particular voice and my energy – and she played guitar not because of folk but because her Dad had given her a ukulele when she was 8 and she easily transposed the chords. But then the content of songs by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Odetta, Peter Paul and Mary et al, gave her a sense of the hardships and injustices that people suffered. The songs of the American protest movement of the 1960s shaped her own awareness and that then bumped into the period of the Vietnam War which was much closer to home. “I’m so grateful to those songs I encountered in my teens, and their content prepped me perfectly to be receptive to the songs of Brecht and his musical collaborators which came to me by accident/good fortune just a few years later – and they determined the start of my international career,” she says.
And what criteria was Archer working towards when choosing songs for The (Other) Great American Songbook? Criterion One is that it’s a song she LOVES to sing. “There’s so much joy in this concert,” she says. “And it’s shared lovingly with Michael ( Morley) and George (Butrumlis) who not only play piano and accordion so well, but also sing magnificently and with great gusto.” Archer lists criterion 2 as being really a matter of how they fit together. A skill, Archer reveals, that she is proud of, and one she has been honing since first putting song sets together as a teenager. “They are quite disparate songs, yet the way I place them gives them different context and meaning so the whole has a shape and dynamic and ends up being much more than simply the sum of those disparate parts,” she says. “That means there are some seriously moving songs (Guthrie’s So Long It’s Been Good to Know Ya seems familiar to many people and I encourage the audience to sing along, but my introduction which points to its relevance now to climate exiles, makes it really affecting – even for me singing it) and then some downright hysterically funny songs and naughty bits. That variety is what shapes the show.”
And finally, it’s about the resonance and relevance of a song, says Archer, who doubts she would be singing any of these songs if they didn’t still have meaning now – and they all do, she stresses – “without that dimension the show would be empty to me. It’s an incredibly entertaining show, and as with all my shows, it really takes the audience on a surprising and unexpected journey, but for me just entertaining isn’t enough. I can see that from the time I discovered the American protest song movement and then through the lucky introduction to Brecht and his collaborators, and then shaping and writing my own shows and songs, and also directing arts festivals, I have wanted to ensure that what I do has meaning as well as performative skills and entertainment value.”
Archer acknowledges that choosing actual contenders for the show has been both a process of culling and instinct. Given that she knows and loves so many songs there would have been literally hundreds, so what appears here is what occurred as a good idea at the time, and what seemed to fit. “We would have thought about some that didn’t make it, but actually I tend to evolve my shows quite instinctively and organically, and what first appears on paper as a sequence usually turns out to be pretty close to the final list,” she says. ” And of course the final list is never final. There’s always the chance of popping in something different. There are scores of Bob Dylan songs I sang and still know and love. Paul Grabowsky and I put together a show called iprotest! for the 2005 Melbourne Festival: we paired content-like songs by Dylan and Brecht/Eisler. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about The Times They Are a-Changin, and thought about slipping it in for Sydney but you’ll have to come and see the Songs From a Star is Torn- and more anniversary concert we’re putting together for next year. There will be a couple of brand new additions this time to our encore piece which consists of 53 songs – work that out .”
When asked about favourite genre and artists, Archer says that there are seriously and honestly, no favourites. She admits to going through phases when younger (even fronted a band called Robyn Smith and The Heavy Piece in which they did Led Zeppelin) but for at least five decades the music can come from anyone anywhere.
“I am as comfortable with the most angular of songs by Brecht and Eisler (the composer was a pupil of Schoenberg and some of his works are just as tricky to sing) as I am with yodelling and country or blues, or indeed something from one of the classic mid-century musicals ( providing it has meaning),” she says.
Archer LOVES voices and mostly admires singers whose voices appear to her to come from deep inside a well, never touching the sides: so these, she lists, range from Marilyn Horne and Ian Bostridge to Jo Stafford and Gordon Macrae and, of course, Australia’s Queen of Yodelling Mary Schneider. But then there’s Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, she concedes, who do nothing but scrape the sides. Plus, she likes singers who combine great skill and energy with the ability to express a political opinion: Pink’s Dear Mr. President is a good example, as is Tim Minchin who enjoys worldwide mainstream success with Matilda, but manages those great Youtube moments of serious political commentary. Courage is a quality Archer finds admirable.
Indeed an Australian icon, Archer began singing at the age of four and singing professionally from the age of 12. She considers herself to have been inspired from birth, describing her Dad as a lovely singer who worked professionally but always had a day-job as well, and her Mum as having a terrific voice but only at home and at their parties after a few ‘sherberts”.
“I treasure the documentary Don Featherstone made about me,” says Archer about his early 90’s work, Lowering the Tone, “ because he captured Mum and Dad and I harmonising around the kitchen table in our Housing Trust home where I lived from five to twenty-one years. They have both died, but I have their voices still in that doco.” And from that fortunate beginning so much music has come Archer’s way and, as artistic director as well as songwriter she has had the even greater good fortune to enable a lot of music over many years. Inspiration has come from everywhere, says Archer, but, similarly, there is no one great inspirational figure for her. “I have become Brechtian in the feeling that there’s always some good in the bad and some bad in the good,” she posits. ” I know that’s not fashionable in an era that seems to long for nothing but heroes and monsters, but I find many so-called ’ ordinary people’ have their moments to inspire us just as the so-called ‘greats’ have just as much capacity to disappoint. I think my inspiration comes almost daily through inspirational moments from so many different actions and voices.”
Archer is filled with deliciously interesting stories and shares generously. Her life’s motif of instinct over plan has served her well -anything has always been possible. At ten her ambition was to be an ‘industrial chemist’ (conceding, whatever she understood by that), and she matriculated at 17 with Double Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Latin and English. As a serious asthmatic from the age of 2, she’s not sure she ever imagined she would live by her lungs. But she knows she enjoyed her first performances, at four, with her great-grandmother in the snug of the British Hotel North Adelaide and even more enjoyed entertaining the kids with Jailhouse Rock ( self-accompanied on uke) at eleven.
“From puberty, listening to music and performing was deeply enjoyable so I suppose I couldn’t consider life without it by then,” recalls Archer, perhaps citing this as her ‘no return’ moment. ” Since then I have had many great ‘break’ moments, mainly through accidentally meeting fantastic people who helped me along. But I think the most dramatic was when Justin Macdonnell, as administrator of New Opera South Australia, invited me to sing the role of Annie 1 in the Australian premiere of Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins to open The Space at the new Adelaide Festival Centre in 1974. I couldn’t read music, had never sung with an orchestra nor worked with a professional theatre director before then. I was singing dirty ditties in the tunnels of the Old Lion hotel at the time. That production turned my direction completely: it led me the following year with that company to meet Di Manson who managed me for the next ten years and John Willett (the same director, Wal Cherry, had invited him to be dramaturg on The Threepenny Opera in which I played Jenny ) and John brought me to the National Theatre in London in 1977 – and that began an international career.”
A consummate performer, Archer has filled both hearts and venues in equal number. I am interested to hear about her most memorable performance and venue and why these stand out. Archer is quick top point out that most memorable is often quite different from most successful or most important. “I can remember my first gig with Dad at the Uraidla RSL in the Adelaide Hills when I was about 12 – recall the repertoire and some of the other artists on the bill, ‘ she says beginning more fascinating tales of the Archer legacy. “I performed A Star is Torn on and off for over five years and the year at Wyndham’s in London’s West End was like running a marathon every day. I’ve sung in a wild array of places from Bogota to Berlin, New York to Chiang Mai, Groote Island to Halifax Nova Scotia. One particularly memorable was a performance in Rangoon (when it was still called that) in Burma (when it was still called that). Jerry Wesley and I were on a DFAT tour and had arrived shakily from Dacca. The Australian Ambassador greeted us at the airport and advised that we had an unexpected performance to give at the Residence that very night: the authorities had not yet issued any tickets to our two Rangoon concerts which were supposed to be in two days time. We were to perform at the Residence to an invited audience so the authorities could attend and give their seal of approval. There had already been a special meeting of cabinet to approve us as we were told we were the first popular act to come to Burma in 17 years and they approved so long as ‘ Miss Archer did not engage in excessive bodily movement on stage”. They needed to see it for themselves. That night as I stood on the agit prop stage in the lush jungle grounds of the Australian Residence and yodelled into the warm night, I did wonder what on earth I was doing, and where on earth I was. By the way, they approved of us and out concerts that week went very well.”
As to venues, well, they are ALL platforms where as an artist you have been given the potential to get out and give of your best, she says. Archer has sung to one hundred thousand people at a rally in London, in two-thousand seaters and everything in between to what they called the Katherine Opera House ( a concrete slab with a big tin roof and no walls), in a temporary club construction in Zurich, a bar in Brooklyn and spiegeltents everywhere as well as to one person at a time in her show Whispering in an emptied Cabaret Festival temp venue on the main stage of the Festival Theatre in Adelaide. “Venues can be beautifully equipped or bloody awful to the point where you don’t know how you’ll get through and long to crack a hissy fit (which I may have done once or twice in my youth but no longer and not for very many years). But they are all an opportunity to go a personal best and perhaps even to change people’s thoughts or lives. That said, the Playhouse at the Adelaide Festival Centre is around 600 seats but feels so intimate that you sense you are reaching everyone with ease. And every venue comes with people and a certain style of welcome: City Recital Hall is one of those venues ( Arts Centre Melbourne is another) where you could never ask for better treatment from the entire team, and I’ve found with the last two recitals we’ve done there an extremely enthusiastic audience.”
As expected, Archer has been honoured by and acknowledged with many awards ranging from The Sydney Critics’ Circle Award, The Henry Lawson Award., Multiple ARIA Awards, to an Australia Council Creative Fellowship, an International Citation of Merit and Helpmann Awards – she is also a South Australian Music Hall Of Fame Inductee and the list does go on. As to which serves as the most significant or special? None, says Archer, who finds it impossible to single out any one of those many as more important than the other. “That any group or organisation, place or country chooses to acknowledge your contribution is an honour,” she says. “As a performer I get applause and that should be enough. I always say that a carpenter making the perfect join in his workshop never gets a deserving round at that moment of perfection. But applause, no matter how gratifying, is ephemeral, as are the performances. Unlike a doctor who can see they’ve fixed something, or a craftsperson who has made something beautiful and lasting, a performer can never quite tell if they’ve had a good effect beyond the applause of the night. The awards are more concrete and perhaps give you the feeling that you’ve managed to sustain something a bit more than just years of good nights on the stage.”
Archer completes her trilogy of performances at City Recital Hall, Sydney this month in the form of The (Other) Great American Songbook. Judging from the tears, laughter and huge applause, the audiences for this show so far appear to have thought it was worth their time and the price of the ticket, says, Archer, who guarantees a great night, a lot of laughs, a heap of serious reflection on the past and current human condition, and terrific music and musicianship – all at the same time. In that combo The OTHER Great American songbook is quite rare – please join Archer and the team, for an unforgettable night in song.
Robyn Archer: The (Other) Great American Songbook Presented by City Recital Hall
Date: Thursday 21 November, 7.30pm
Venue: City Recital Hall, 2 Angel Place, Sydney
Tickets: Standard $60/$50 (Booking fees: internet $5.50 / Phone $6.60)
Bookings: https://www.cityrecitalhall.com or 02 8256 2222
Main Image: Heide Smith