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Interview with Samuel Gaskin

Credit: Michelle Grace Hunder

RECKŌNING, the new single from Samuel Gaskin, was released last week with a video featuring 20 Indigenous Australians & Māori performers. Alongside Samuel singing in English, RECKŌNING also includes the vocal talents of Piri Neho and Paula Barbee singing in Māori. Co-directed by Samuel’s partner, Johnny Hamilton, the music video mixes pop music with traditional dance to demonstrate a unity between the cultures.

Last year, RECKŌNING was part of a stage show presented at Melbourne Digital Fringe, and the team have just finished a digital season at Brighton Fringe in the UK. I sat down with Samuel Gaskin and Johnny Hamilton to discuss RECKŌNING, and what it means to them.

RECKŌNING is billed as a sister release to your stage show. For those who may not have seen it, how are the two related?

Samuel Gaskin: So RECKŌNING: Te Waiata Paihere Wairua, which means “The Sounds of Woven Souls”, was the first piece of theatre we've ever produced, and we decided to do it amidst the pandemic. Don't ask me why, but I'm so glad we did. Because what seemed a little bit scary at the time just turned out to be the biggest blessing. We ended up pre-recording it for the Fringe and won four awards, which still blows my mind.

RECKŌNING is the lead song in the show, and of course, I don't want to give too much away about the show before we present it in real life in 2023, but the song is the base and the glue of the show.

Were you able to perform the show RECKŌNING in front of an audience at all in the past year?

Johnny Hamilton: No, we've never got to experience that feedback from a live audience, but we've had amazing feedback from people that have watched online. That was one of our main concerns when adapting to the online format - that the feelings and emotions might not translate as well.

Samuel: We originally said no [to the online format], because I was just so worried it wouldn't work. But then we changed our minds and I'm very happy we did. We did get the opportunity to perform the song at the Malthouse as part of Midsumma Festival, which was really cool. It was a real tease as well, to feel that power in front of a live audience.

For the video, it was beautiful having the children appear, and how it ends with them doing a hongi greeting. Was that in the show as well, or is that specifically for the video?

Samuel: The show is really about reconnecting into your ancestry and the power that comes with that. So the children who finish the clip with that hongi are mine and Johnny's children, and it's actually my mother in the opening shot and [Nyoongar Ballardong Whadjuk performer] Kristel, who's also in the show.

But to go back to your question, the children pop up in the show in a different way. I think the most beautiful thing about that is the future will always be with the children and the next generation to come through.

I saw this song credited as featuring Piri and Paula. Who are they?

Samuel: Oh, Piri and Paula are the best! They're actually old family friends of mine, and when I got the idea for the show RECKŌNING, I knew I would need cultural advice because I'm still very new to my journey of embracing my culture. So they're members of the cast of RECKŌNING and it has been the best thing for me to be able to reconnect with my culture in a safe environment while also watching them, because they are also amazing performers in their own right.

Johnny: Paula’s like the mum of the show and Piri is like this really grounding presence.

Samuel: Yeah, I call him the base of the project, because he just kind of holds everything together energetically.

So Piri’s the one in the red suit in the video?

Samuel: Yeah, and speaking of the costumes, that’s all Johnny. He made all of those with [fashion designer] Asha Sym.

Johnny: Some of those costumes are part of the actual stage show, and then some were created specifically for the video clip. But they're all referencing the two cultures in some way without…plagiarizing.

Samuel: Colonising.

Johnny: Yeah, exactly. So there's lots of woven structure, and the colour palette is a reference to Māori culture. The projection through the video clip is all from images of snow gum bark, an Australian tree that has rainbow patterning, to suggest Indigenous artwork and to include references to nature.

I really wanted it to look like a futuristic jungle, like big solid tree trunks. So, it was filmed in an underground carpark with beautiful concrete archways and columns. Then we found out that the reason it's been designed in that shape is to protect all the trees growing above it, so that was a really nice reference to tie in.

Credit: Michelle Grace hunder

Did you both grow up in New Zealand or in Australia?

Johnny: Yeah, I grew up on a farm in Central Otago and then I came to Australia in 1999. But even though I grew up in Melbourne, I still feel very much connected to New Zealand.

Samuel: We were both born in New Zealand, and I moved over here when I was eight months old and grew up in Naarm. But still, I've always felt like New Zealand is home and have a really strong connection to it.

In New Zealand is it uncommon to hear Māori language on the radio in a pop song?

Samuel: In New Zealand it's much more common to hear Māori language on the radio than it is to hear Aboriginal language over here. I feel like one of the solid differences between the way Australia and New Zealand interact with their indigenous people is that the Māori language has been very staunchly fought for in New Zealand. There's whole radio programs in te reo Māori. There's quite a few television channels and news outlets that are also only in te reo Māori. So it is more common to hear the language over there, but I don't think it is necessarily delivered in the form of a pop song. There's lots of beautiful music in te reo Māori though.

Who produced the music?

Samuel: Myself and the legend among legends, Pip Norman. He's the perfect match for a project like this because he is so committed to the song - which really began as an experiment after going on a trip to New Zealand with Yothu Yindi and The Treaty Project. Seeing both cultures together, I was really interested to see what might happen if we took Māori songwriters from New Zealand and Aboriginal songwriters from Australia into one room with a pop music producer and a sound healer.

I’ve really loved listening to RECKŌNING, but is there going to be an album released as well?

Samuel: This year, most definitely. RECKŌNING is obviously the first step in that process, and there will be an album as soon as we have enough money to make it. So shout out to the funding bodies!

Fantastic. Was there anything else you wanted to say to our readers?

Samuel:This project is independently produced by us. So, if people would like to help, the best thing they can do is share it amongst their networks. That's really where the power is. If you see this and it resonates with you and is something that connects with your heart, please share it. Because that means more people are exposed to it, which means we might be able to make more work. Also, come see the show next year in 2023, when you're allowed to.


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