We chat to Ziggy Ramo ahead of his performance at Brunswick Music Festival, chatting to him about the creative process of his forthcoming record, HUMAN
Ziggy Ramo is one of the, if not the most important artists emerging from so called Australia. Ramo is set to perform as a part of Brunswick Music Festival this weekend in Naarm/Melbourne. The festival will take over adored live music venues with talent-packed curated line-ups across 10 days in March.
With the event running from March 4-14, organisers have revealed outdoor venue at Gilpin Park will once again be a highlight of the festival, hosting Adalita, Birdz, Body Type, Didirri, Flyying Colours, Gordi, Gregor, HTRK, Irish Mythen, Kaiit, MOD CON, RAT!hammock, Ziggy Ramo and stacks more.
Most recently, Ziggy Ramo revealed powerful statement, reworking Paul Kelly’s ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ on top of the Sydney Opera House. Featuring Kelly’s iconic hook, Ramo delivers the perfect remix of the original track, showcasing the invasion of Australia, its genocide and erasure of the history of Australia’s First Nations people. We described it as literally the most important piece of music released last year. ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ is one of Australia’s most important songs. Originally released in 1991, the same year as the Royal Commission Into Indigenous Deaths in Custody. 30 years on, in 2020 there we are now at 441 Indigenous deaths in custody and 6 months later, another 36 was added to that list. The system is still fundamentally broken. Editorial and words on a website can only say and provoke so much, but this moment is truely significant. Having Ziggy stand literally on top of Australia’s most iconic monument while unpacking and dismantling our entire colonial system and oppression is more than just powerful, but operates as necessary viewing.
He broke through heavily on Australia's hip hop scene releasing his debut album, 'Black Thoughts' in 2020. The record, is vital listening for everyone that resides in Australia. Across sixteen songs including three interludes, Ramo distills his experiences growing up indigenous in Australia. His anger and hurt is palpable as he generously details his life so far, while taking aim at the systems that have oppressed First Nations people for 230 years. Black Thoughts is necessary listening for white Australians. It’s rightly uncomfortable, confronting and not meant to be a gentle listen, but it is also powerful, educational and profound. With Black Thoughts, Ramo shares a deeply personal record that elevates him to a formidable artist and storyteller.
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We chat to Ramo ahead of his performance at Brunswick Music Festival, chatting to him about the creative process of his forthcoming record and book, HUMAN, his coming to age and comfort in performance and deconstructing traditional release cycles within the context of timeless music.
For the full program, ticket info and more, head to the Brunswick Music Festival website.
Parry: How does the thought of you performing at a festival make you feel? Is there anxiety, or is it raw, pure excitement and adrenaline? Where’s your headspace with it?
Ziggy Ramo: It’s surreal. Playing gigs that have been moved multiple times, and totally understandably, has transitioned me to take shows as they come. Just because they’re in the calendar doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen. Because of that I forgot that performing is something I love doing, and is a really big part of art. It connects what you do in a studio by yourself that you spend so much time working and find tooth combing over. To be able to share that instant connection with people is one of the main things that draws me to be able to work in this space. It feels really surreal that this aspect has been removed for the last two years.
Parry: One of my favourite things about you is the way you represent your music visually. Whether on top of the Opera House, to your live show. Was that performance element of your art always a part of your desires as a creative? Or is that something that's come into fruition with more confidence as a musician?
Ziggy Ramo: It’s interesting to me, my partner is a photographer, and I never thought I had visual ideas. The more we started shooting and working together, she brought out the vocabulary in me to express what I was thinking. With words and sounds that come so innate to me, I have a clear understanding of how to do that. Visually though, it felt removed in a way, but I always new what I liked and what I didn’t like, but I didn’t always have the tools to communicate what I was trying to do. As I grew in confidence, and worked longer in the creative space, and I had experiences with other people who helped represent my work visually, I started really understanding what it was that I was trying to say, across multiple mediums.
Sometimes we put ourselves in boxes, and I was kind of doing that, thinking I didn’t have clear performance or visual ideas. Of course we do though, we are complex humans who think across all spaces and mediums. When I put Black Thoughts out in 2020 that made me really stop trying to be anything other than who I really am and because of that, I wanted to bring those ideas to their fullest in every aspect. That really empowered myself to trust my gut. It was a slow burn, but it all hit, and now I am very particular. Now when I’m working with music I don’t have any physical ideas until the song is almost done, then at that stage I can feel myself letting go of that piece of work sonically and it’ll hit me like a tonne of bricks.
Parry: You're working on new music now, and being an author with HUMAN. Obviously Black Thoughts was written in super unique circumstances and im trying to not bring all that back. But now that your live performance is such an integral part of your expression, how much does the context of a live show leak into your creative process when creating new music?
Ziggy Ramo: It’s been the cornerstone. The whole project of HUMAN is something I’ve been playing around with a lot on the live front. Especially writing an album and a book in conjunction. What was really the catalyst to dive fully into it was having the privilege of performing with Paul Kelly. When we performed on ABC’s ‘The Set’, watching him stand there with a guitar and watching him captivate an audience, and tell a story, without any thrills and the power that that had, it was this totally different experience for me. We stood up and played a song that nobody had heard because the studio recording of ‘Little Things’ wasn’t out into the world yet. Even though nobody had heard it before, the reverence he carries and the way that he can command a stage, without necessarily needing to dominate it and just being present and just telling a story. That really rubbed off on me. With Black Thoughts I wasn’t thinking about anyone, I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, and that was really important to me. It wasn’t about being understood, it was about reflecting my state of mind and saying how I thought about things. With HUMAN and performing with Kelly, I got into a place where I did want things to be shared in a way that could be understood. Australians understand folk music, we understand guitars. That’s how we can understand a story. The whole album for HUMAN is aimed so that I can stand by myself on a stage with a guitar and tell the story of what I want to share. That context of how it will be performed live, even before the music came, was driving everything.
Parry: One of the questions I wanted to ask which hasn’t really been spoken a lot about is how you perfectly paid homage to the song sonically for Little Things. Obviously sentiment wise it was bang on, but how long did it take to get it right on the sound side? How important was it to pay full respect to the original track?
Ziggy Ramo: It was super tedious, given the ways in which music recording has changed so much over the years. When Kelly recorded the original 30 years ago it was to tape. What that meant is that there were no stems, only a single master file. We were given access to the master file, but we couldn’t separate any of the stems. We didn’t have a clear guitar, we didn’t have a clear vocal, we didn’t have clear harmonica, it was all one file. We didn’t want it to sound like a sample, we wanted it to sound like Paul and I were in the room together. Lewis Mitchell, the producer who helped with the project was fully hands on. We had to go through the original song and cut out every piece of guitar that didn’t have a top line on it.
The problem with that though was that there was a banjo that was panned hard left, so when you splicing out those guitars you’re also bringing the banjo. When you try and reslice it together, because it’s a master, those elements come back so harsh. Lewis probably sat there for 24 hours just slicing and fading to find the right loop, but that also didn’t feel like a loop. We wanted it to feel like the original and how the guitar sways in the original. Once again, because Paul is such an amazing musician, it wasn’t recorded to metronome, so to cut and fade and loop that, with a master file it was almost impossible. We were working like surgeons, it took a very long time. We also had to test quite a few mics just to get the right tone, because of the difference in the recording process between now and then. We ended up testing a lot of mics. It was tedious, but the best thing for us is that people haven’t commented on the resampling process. We didn’t want it to get in the way of the message and the moment. We worked really timelessly on it being completely seamless.
Parry: Being an artist feels like ebbs and flows of attention and being in the spotlight. It peaks around new music, new shows, etc. It’s interesting though because you don’t necessarily buy into natural release schedules, and your music is so timeless. How have you felt dealing with that constant ebbs and flows, ups and downs and attention that you’ve received?
Ziggy Ramo: When I was younger it used to affect me a lot more. And then as I got older, and realised what I was speaking on it was less about being engaged in a release cycle and more about sharing a message that transcends that release cycle. When we put out ‘Little Things’ we were asked if there was a radio edit, because it’s 7 minutes. The tactical approach would be to make that happen, but that undermines the whole purpose of my music. For me it’s been less about fitting in to those standards and learning to run my own race. I have this blessing of self awareness in my art, whether or not it fits in a traditional cycle, people can gravitate to the music later on, whenever. It doesn't bother me anymore. I’m less concerned with getting that validation from a classic release, than making the art I want to make, and letting audiences find it in their own time.
Parry: Let’s talk about hip-hop in Australia. Because hip-hop in Australia right now is becoming really beautiful. Last year I wrote a piece saying that the true power of hip hop is finally being utilised and showcased in Australia as a voice for the voiceless, as platforms are becoming more accessible and diversified allowing First Nations people to use the art form.
What drew you to the genre in your earliest years? Was it these crossovers? Did it reflect a burning in your heart? Was it one of the rare art forms that made you feel seen as a youth?
Ziggy Ramo: I was heavily drawn to African American artists telling their stories. That was across all genres. I had this moment where I fell into hip hop and became so obsessed with it because that’s the most seen I had felt in art. What drew me into making my own, was that as much as that made me feel seen it wasn’t my story. Black On Both Sides by Mos Def was one of my favourite albums growing up, and there was so much that I related to in proximity but not within the details. Growing up listening to Charcoal Lane by Archie Roach and those stories I felt truly spoken to what I had lived. That made me really want to try and share my experience and my experience and what came most natural was in hip-hop. I didn’t feel very seen and represented by the Australian scene. As much as I do feel there is space being carved out now and there is a shift, I do also think there is still a long way to go, in the sense that the only respect Australian artists get is if we are able to do anything outside of Australia. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, but I feel like we can go much further in supporting what Artists are doing with domestic stories.
There is so much amazing emerging talent here. Seeing that transpire to opportunities whether on festivals, or placements coming out of the pandemic. There are so many Australian artists smashing it and have the capability and capacity to take those main slots whether or not they have runs on the board internationally, that might not get a look in. That really needs to shift, because if we don't give those artists opportunities domestically, they’ll never operate on the same level as an international act, because they don't have the budget, pay off and general opportunity. That is slightly larger than the original question, but that then trickles down to within local hip hop, as much as the faces are changing, there’s not room for multiple artists. It feels like we can only really ever have one who is being played heavily. We can’t all be at the table at once, it fills the quota, we are demonstrating diversity, but its restraining still. It’s difficult because a lot of First Nations artists are challenging the fabric of what Australia is, so then its hard for some spaces to want to celebrate and support that, because we are trying to remove the carpet from those same spaces. It’s this constant push and pull.
Parry: So many institutions have chokeholds of their definition of Australian culture, so it's threatening platforming artists that are challenging that exact marketing idea. So many of these artists are being boxed into the “Indigenous Rapper” category or the rap category so it doesn’t truly create change.
Ziggy Ramo: Definitely. When I played Splendour Kendrick Lamar headlined, who is so openly speaking on what is true to him. It’s easier to support narratives that are challenging America because it isn’t threatening to the institutions here. We celebrate those artists like Gambino, ‘This Is America’ got absolutely smashed here in Australia. I just don’t feel like we are ready to give the same support to artists here that are challenging the narrative closer to home.