Jess Ribeiro’s new album features dreamlike stories from growing up in a country town and living in the Top End. By Dave Faulkner.
Jess Ribeiro’s ‘Kill It Yourself’
Jess Ribeiro remembers the excited voices of the schoolkids on Elcho Island, off the Arnhem Land coast: “Don’t eat it, Yapa! Oh no! That’s yuck!” Yapa is an Aboriginal girl’s name bestowed on her by the locals. Its English translation is “untamed”.
The untamed Ribeiro had been sent from Darwin to teach a term at the island’s school, a period that coincided with the government’s Northern Territory intervention. Part of the intervention involved offering children free food if they came to school: instant mashed potato and “this stuff that was hard to believe” was actually food. “The kids would sneak away at lunchtime, and they would go down to the beach and they would get crayfish… catch salmon, and they would get sea snails and they’d get oysters.” It was a demonstration of self-reliance and sustainable living that resonated deeply with their teacher.
Ribeiro’s second album, Kill It Yourself, released last week, is the first to be put out under her name alone. It is a rich, subtly shaded work that only reveals itself gradually, after repeated listenings. As for her acclaimed debut, My Little River, her uncomplicated songs only reveal their true nature once their mysterious poetry has burrowed into your subconscious.
The album’s title track, “Kill It Yourself”, was partly inspired by Ribeiro’s time on Elcho Island and also by a story Damo Meoli, her drummer, told her after hunting buffalo at Mäpuru in east Arnhem Land. “They skinned the buffalo, and they cut it up and cooked it on a fire instantly,” Ribeiro says, “and they butchered it all up and they gave it to everyone in the community.” The song she wrote afterwards doesn’t shy away from gory details:
Sharpen the blade, don’t make a fuss,
As fast as you can, kill it yourself.
Take, take her out to the back, hold her close,
Unsentimental, kill it yourself.
Hold, hold her down, quiet and firm,
When she bleeds let it all out, kill it yourself.
The song is more specifically about killing a chicken for your family, something her grandmother used to do in Armidale, New South Wales, before the town enjoyed a supermarket or chicken shop. Ribeiro grew up there in the shadow of her uncle’s truck yard, where her mother worked. Ribeiro is the daughter of three cultures: “I’m what you call ‘country town Chinese’. My dad’s from Hong Kong and my mum is from the truck yard. My dad is Portuguese-Chinese and my mum is a Kelly, so she’s Irish-Welsh.”
She remembers her Chinese Aunt Janina visiting from Zurich. She was an entertainer and, so her niece “would know how to move”, Janina gave the nine-year-old a set of Madonna videos and taught her Asian hand gestures over yum cha in Sydney. For one Christmas visit, her dad’s glamorous sister ventured all the way to Armidale, turning more than a few heads in the process. “Aunt Janina was very flamboyant. I remember her wearing this red velvet gown, but that’s just how she was. She was pretty hardcore about just being awesome.” Janina’s take-me-as-I-am attitude was probably the greatest gift she ever gave her niece: “She opened up this window… ‘You don’t have to be like everyone else, Jess.’ ” Janina became the direct inspiration for the album’s sixth track, “Slip the Leash”.
Let us forget a while all our petty woes,
Did you know that you and I, we create the night?
Those stars above us shining, well I made them for you, darling.
You can have everything, right here beside me,
All you have to do is take a risk and slip the leash.
Slip the leash.
“Run Rabbit Run” is another song about growing up in Armidale. Ribeiro had been reading Patti Smith’s autobiography, Just Kids, and after listening to Smith’s first single, “Piss Factory”, something about that song’s subject matter rankled her. She imitates Patti’s hipster drawl as she describes her reaction. “She’s talking about being in this factory, and like, you know, it’s really hard and she’s workin’ and she’s fuckin’ doin’ this. And I thought, well, I bet you’ve never been out in the cotton fields and chipped weeds in your fuckin’ school holiday break! You think you’re really tough? You didn’t grow up in the country!”
Funnily enough, “Run Rabbit Run” ends up sounding a lot like “Piss Factory”, perhaps merged with Bobbie Gentry’s magnificent “Ode To Billie Joe”. In the lyrics, Ribeiro describes hot summer days when she and her teenage friends “played chicken” on the railway bridge, jumping into the river below, its waters noxious from the chemicals dumped into it by the cotton farms.
We used to climb up on the bridge, waiting for the steel to shake,
Listening for the screeching when the train was near.
Oh, the dark and oily river.
Her tale builds to a mesmerising climax as its teens somehow get mixed up in a drug deal gone wrong. Imagine a Stephen King short story turned into a song by Lou Reed performing with The Velvet Underground. There is a Gothic undertone to many of the lyrics on Kill It Yourself, and the musical arrangements fit the mood perfectly, only adding to the unease.
Rivers often crop up as a motif in Ribeiro’s lyrics. In fact “ribeiro” is Portuguese for a brook. “Rivers on Fire” details an apocalyptic vision she saw in a dream. A nervy guitar thrums over the top of minimalist drums as an ambient organ chord adds tension, resolutely refusing to modulate away from the tonic. Ribeiro sings the title’s refrain like a twisted schoolyard chant and the track finally collapses into a scramble of brass and voices, some singing, others declaiming random snatches of indecipherable dialogue.
When she left Armidale, Ribeiro studied music in Brisbane, then teaching in Melbourne, before moving to Darwin to do both. There she met a lot of great musicians, such as guitarist Rob Law and drummer Meoli, and they formed the nucleus of her backing band, The Bone Collectors. Together they recorded My Little River and released it themselves and were justifiably proud. It was then just a matter of being “discovered”, but that proved to be a slow process. Ribeiro was on the point of giving up music forever when she received a call informing her that My Little River had made it onto the longlist of the Australian Music Prize. This brought her debut album much-needed attention “down south”. My Little River was picked up by ABC Radio National and won the best country album award at the 2013 AIR Awards.
When it finally came time to make Kill It Yourself, Ribeiro was looking to broaden her musical palette. She’d been listening to P J Harvey’s Let England Shake and thought that its producer, Mick Harvey, might be a good choice for her, too. Encouraged by Harvey, she decided to record without The Bone Collectors, though Rob Law shows up as a guest on five tracks, contributing saxophone and guitar. Harvey is an unusual producer in that he doesn’t like being a spectator in the studio – he always likes to participate in the sessions himself. Most of the basic tracks were recorded as a three-piece, with Harvey on drums, Ribeiro on guitar and her friend Jade McInally on bass.
Ribeiro said she wanted to capture a more female energy this time around, so Harvey promised to invoke the spirit of The Velvet Underground’s drummer, the legendary Maureen Tucker, in his playing. “I’m happy to be in touch with my feminine side,” he tells me, “and it was quite easy for me, especially with the material as presented, to kind of channel Moe Tucker and say, ‘Okay, what would Moe play on this?’ Maybe because [Tucker’s approach] actually made a lot of sense most of the time.”
Harvey’s production on the album is superb, though his flourishes are very understated, much like Ribeiro’s songs. It was only after a few listens that I became cognisant of the detail in the arrangements. Harvey never distracts from Ribeiro’s expressive voice and the delicacy of the songs themselves.
“If You Were a Kelpie” invokes a childhood memory of a PE teacher who would ominously say to his fidgety charges, “If you were a kelpie, I’d shoot you”. Ribeiro spins that into a tale of a cheating lover left for dead in a remote valley, talk-singing the vaguely unsettling lyrics with a deadpan, gum-chewing nonchalance while bluesy electric guitars straddle a ragged boogie groove. Deadpan is a good description for a lot of the album. It often appears casual and careless, but that’s an illusion. The art has been artfully concealed. Bare bones, bleached by the sun.
There were times Harvey found working with Ribeiro a challenge. “She’s very peculiar,” he says. “She’ll start playing the song, and you’re going along, and she’ll start… fading away,” he laughs. “She’d start drifting off, and it would get quieter and quieter, and I’d be like, ‘Jess! You’ve got to keep playing the song, there’s only three of us here!’ ” Harvey’s patience was also tested when Ribeiro decided to bring in some friends to record strings without much preparation. As Ribeiro tells it: “He was like, ‘How the bloody hell are you gonna do strings? Do you even know how to arrange strings?’ And I said, ‘No, but just trust me.’ ” Despite his misgivings, Harvey was impressed when the young women quickly devised parts that complemented the songs perfectly. Chalk up another one to female energy.
Ribeiro is first and foremost a storyteller, but the siren call of her voice and the way she uses it to rhythmically intone her lyrics renders concrete meaning superfluous, like a film by Cocteau or David Lynch. Her songs are incantations that lure you down to unseen depths like a narcotic dream.
FASHION Brisbane Fashion Festival
Various venues, Brisbane, August 23-28
CINEMA SF3 Smartphone Flick Fest
Palace Chauvel Cinema, Sydney, August 28
THEATRE Dylan Thomas: Return Journey
Backspace Theatre, Hobart, August 26-29
OPERA La Traviata
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, August 27-September 20
MUSIC Gympie Music Muster
Gympie, Queensland, August 27-30
VISUAL ART The Kaleidoscopic Turn
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until August 23
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2015 as "Killing it herself".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial