In this year commemorating the centenary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli, there are many projects which seek to honour Australian soldiers and cover the history of that time, and of our diggers since. So I’ll be honest and say it was with a degree of scepticism that I approached Lee Kernaghan’s latest album, Spirit of the Anzacs. The lyrics of the album are mostly drawn from letters in the archive of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra; these were then set to music by Lee and his co-writers. For an artist as established and well known as Lee, this album could have been a risk: it’s not like his others, so there was no guarantee that his fans would like it. He’d also recorded it in amongst a very long touring schedule.
The result is a very impressive, emotional album that actually has as much to say through its music as its words, and Lee has not only created something meaningful but contributed something original to our understanding of the Australian experience of war. It was my honour to talk about the album with Lee recently, on the day he announced that Spirit of the Anzacs will tour as a show around Australia.
I wasn’t expecting to be as moved by this album as I was – it’s an extraordinary piece of work. When did you first conceive of the project?
It was the day that I went to the [Australian] War Memorial in July 2013 – I was on tour with the Wolfe Brothers in Canberra – and as I walked in I noticed a plaque with an inscription from the founder of the War Memorial, a man by the name of Charles Bean. And on the plaque it said, Here is their spirit in the heart of the land they loved and here we guard the record that they themselves made. And those words put the goosebumps up my arms and set me on some kind of a mission to learn as much as I could about the history of the Anzacs from Gallipoli right through to Afghanistan.
I’ve interviewed a couple of members of the Wolfe Brothers over the past year and a bit, so I know how much touring they’ve been doing with you – so therefore I know how much touring you’ve been doing – that’s a heavy workload. And in amongst that, how on earth did you pull this project together?
Oh well, we’ve just been going nonstop, particularly the last eighteen months. It’s been a labour of love and it’s taken an enormous amount of research and we’ve had a lot of assistance from the Australian War Memorial – their historical department – and they’ve been through every word of every song and every word of every liner note to ensure its authenticity.
To go into that vast archive of letters they have is one thing – and to get their permission is amazing – but then to be able to choose the letters that you’ve chosen, that must have been quite a daunting task as well as a time-consuming one.
Look, I think it was the songwriter in me, when I saw words on paper and these weren’t just any words, these were the voices of the diggers on the frontline, landing on Gallipoli and on the trenches of the Western Front and the desert mountains of Afghanistan – I could almost hear the music as I read the letters.
Was that the way you choose – if you could hear the music – or was there some other element to those letters that appealed to you?
I could have done a hundred of them, really – they all deserved it – but we had to be mindful that we had a lot of ground to cover from the landing at Gallipoli to the Western Front, Beersheba, Passchendaele, through to World War II, the bombing of Darwin, Kokoda, all the way through to the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and all the while it was important to us that we recognise the Army, the Air Force and the Navy. So that kind of determined what we could and couldn’t do as well.
You also represented the families – because they’re letters back home, they involve the family members of those diggers, so there’s that very human, home-side aspect to those stories.
One of the songs that almost takes my breath away is called ‘Song for Grace’, and it was written by Ted Egan and performed by Sara Storer. It tells the story of a young thirteen-year-old girl saying goodbye to her brothers Martin, Robert and Jack as they depart for the First World War. I called Ted up in the Northern Territory and I asked for his permission for us to record the song on the album, which he gave us, but I also asked if ‘Song for Grace’ was a true story and he said, ‘My word it’s a true story’. I said, ‘Ted, who was Grace in the story?’ and he said, ‘Lee, Grace was my mother. Martin, Robert and Jack were my uncles’.
Then it’s a very fitting inclusion on this album.
And also fitting that another Territory artist, Sara Storer, recorded it.
Yes, and she did a beautiful version of it. I think it had to be somebody who’d grown up on the land in order to really interpret it the way that she’s done it, so powerfully.
You mentioned earlier how the songwriter in you responded to some of these letters, and this is a really unusual creative project in that you have to take someone else’s heartfelt words and then translate them to music, as opposed to your own lyrics, which you’ve done many times. So as a songwriter, how did that process even start for you?
Well, it was like most songwriting sessions, getting together with my co-writers Garth Porter and Colin Buchanan, and we knew that we had a very important job to do – a veryimportant job to do – because singing the voice of the Australian soldier is something that you just don’t take lightly, you have to take it very seriously with a great amount of care and respect. So I always found that the bar was just set so high with these songs, and even when I was recording the vocals I’d do what I thought was a good vocal and then I’d listen back to it and a few weeks later I’d want to re-record it because [I thought] I’ve just got to do better than that.
It’s clear on the album that you felt not just the emotion of those words but the importance of conveying them too. Recording your own songs obviously has emotion attached to it but recording these songs, it sounded not like you had a heavy heart but that you really felt the weight of that responsibility.
That’s right, and it was kind of putting yourself in that position of what were the diggers thinking, you know, when they were on board HMAS Armidale bound for Betano Bay out of Darwin and the enemy planes began to attack. That sense of what they must have been experiencing was definitely pretty pervasive in the recording process. That’s why I just had to keep going back and going back. I was driving everybody crazy along the way but I wanted to make it as good as it could be.
Did you feel a bit exhausted at the end of the process?
[Laughs] Yep, I reckon. Duncan Toombs, who did the video, worked nineteen hours straight – and this is after a week of editing – and I was riding shotgun with him through most of those nineteen hours, and when the video was completed it was about 3 a.m. and I just went to bed, turned off the lights and I put my head on the pillow and tears just fell out of my eyes. It was just the sheer emotion of it all.
I think you can hear that on the album in a very good way – it’s part of why I found the album so moving, I think, what I heard in your voice. The lyrics are obviously really powerful but for you as a singer to be able to convey them that way is a huge achievement.
Thanks for that … All I wanted to do on this is just properly honour then men and women who’ve served, past and present, and just getting it right for them has been the main objective, from beginning to end.
You have some musical collaborators with you – you’ve borne most of the work in terms of the recording but you do have some collaborators on the album, and one of them is Lisa McCune, who’s going with you on the road for the show. How did you choose the people who appear on the album?
It was just a matter of thinking who’d be most suited to some of those songs. ‘Kokoda’ involves John Schumann from Redgum – he gave me a singing lesson, let me tell ya. That’s one of those songs that I thought I’d done a fairly good vocal on and he came in and did the duet parts and blew me out of the water. So I had to go back in and [laughs] try to do better. Lisa McCune obviously is part of the show and it will be a really special moment singing that song, ‘The Unbearable Price of War’, with her in stage show.
I also saw on the annoucement of the tour that the Wolfe Brothers were with you in the photo so I’m presuming they’re back out on the road with you.
They are involved in the production and it’s going to be great to continue to tour with these boys – they are the hottest band in the land and lots of people would agree with me now.
Taking these songs on the road in the show is a different format to playing a gig as you would normally, and I’m wondering if you think you’ll see your fans there, or do you think there’ll be some different people who show up?
I think it will be pretty well across-the-board appeal, from young kids through to old people like me [laughs]. It’s country music but it’s also the music of our country, and probably more so than anything I’ve ever done before in my career.
And in that career you’ve spent a lot of time on and brought a lot of attention to causes that really needed attention – I’m think particularly of Australian farmers [and drought relief]. With this project you’re bringing attention to Legacy and to Soldier On. I was wondering where that – it’s not social activism, per se, but there’s obviously a real drive in you to try to highlight these causes and these organisations. Is that something you’ve had all your life?
I think it’s just a part of growing up in the country. Anybody who’s done that has a pretty keen sense of what it means to pass the hat around. I’ve been blessed with an incredible career, so being able to give back is a really important part of it for me. It’s always been that way and it always will be.
You’re performing this show for a while – in fact, it seems like it will take quite a few months – and then I would imagine you’ll go back to your normal kind of show and your normal kind of set. Do you think you’ll be able to let these songs go, or will they become part of your set?
Oh well, that’s up to the people out there who come to the shows, and which ones they want to hear – I’ll just keep playing the ones they want to hear. I think some will stand the test of time – I’m sure many of these new ones will.
It’s probably like choosing amongst children, but are there any songs on this album that are your favourites?
I love ‘I Will Always Be With You’ – it tears my heart out. It’s about Private Benjamin Chuck, 2nd Commando Regiment with Special Operations Task Group. He was on his third deployment in Afghanistan in 2010 when he lost his life in Black Hawk helicopter crash. He was twenty-seven years old; he was from Yungaburra in the Atherton Tablelands and he was one of the most elite soldiers Australia has ever produced. An incredible man and a huge loss. Such was the perilous situation that Ben and his fellow soldiers were placed in over there that they were all encouraged to have a sealed letter that only gets sent home in the event of their death. The letter that Ben wrote back to his partner forms the basis and much of the words that you hear in the song ‘I Will Always Be With You’.
Spirit of the Anzacs is out now through ABC Music/Universal.
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