He’ll reveal more answers to that question in Sydney this Friday when he performs at Angel Place as a headline act for the Sydney Festival at City Recital Hall and on Sunday at Emu Plains’ Cooee Festival, a celebration of Indigenous culture.
The first time Roach came to Sydney it was on foot from Melbourne as a 16-year-old seeking his sister Myrtle, who’d changed his life with a letter she’d written him telling him his mother had died. Until then he had lived with his foster family, and didn’t even know he’d been taken away from his birth family, or that it was government policy. All he knew was his sister’s address: One Toxteth Road, Glebe.
“For a kid like me in Melbourne in 1970 that address might as well have been the moon,” he says of that first visit to Sydney, where he also had his first “charge” of alcohol in Belmore Park as a teenager.
After being taken from his parents Nellie, a Gunditjmara woman, and Archie, a Bundjalung man, at the age of two, losing his siblings and then finding them again, his descent into alcoholism and homelessness and the loss of his wife, fellow performer Ruby Hunter, a decade ago next month, some of the clues to his resilience are outlined in his book, which took him eight months to write.
He says hope, which came into his life again when he went to rehab, “first as a trickle and then as a gush”, helped him write his first song and also helped him counsel other addicts.
“Seeing those lost souls come in with empty cores and helping restore their hope and pride – no pay cheque would ever compare,” he said.
“When you’ve been an alcoholic, suddenly there’s all this space to fill when you stop drinking so I started writing songs.” His 12 albums went on to win countless awards, international acclaim and became anthems for the Stolen Children generation.
“Songs have a way of lessening the impact some of the stories might have,” Roach says.
“When you’re just reading my life story on the page as stark as it is, with no melody, it can be a bit harsh and confronting … but I needed to write it, it was cathartic as there were some things I didn’t think I’d ever talk about but I did,” he says of his book, its 18 chapters paired with 18 song tracks.
Instead of playing guitar on the Tell Me Why tour, he sings and tells stories backed by a five-piece band that includes award-winning jazz composer Paul Grabowsky, whose intimate piano accompaniment to Roach singing from a wheelchair has moved audiences to tears at the Woodford Folk Festival and all along the east coast. Roach, who has had a stroke and has had a lung removed because of lung cancer, carries an oxygen tank at all times. He loves the between-song banter but worries he “talks too much”.
“We need to hear each others’ stories through music, song, dance and art; they are the thing that have helped you survive,” says Roach, father to two biological sons and three foster children.
“I have been blown away by the crowd reaction; when I’m on stage it’s not just me singing some songs to some people, it’s a conversation we share. They give me just as much as I give them – more sometimes.”
After Sydney, Roach continues his tour to regional Victoria with the Riverboats Music Festival in Echuca on February 14 and the Port Fairy Folk Festival on March 6.
Helen Pitt is a journalist at the The Sydney Morning Herald.