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For Yuwaalaraay singer and writer Nardi Simpson, author of Song of the Crocodile, a sense of place is fundamental to all her work. By Kate Holden.

Nardi Simpson

Nardi Simpson’s workspace, complete with possum pelts.
Credit: Nardi Simpson

For 20 years Nardi Simpson has been best known as half of the popular music group Stiff Gins, but she has also packed shelves, been a guide at the Australian Museum, worked at a zoo, taught gardening, and offered programs to share her language and culture. A Yuwaalaraay freshwater woman living in Sydney, she was recently one of the participating artists in Ngarra-Burria, a program fostering First Peoples musicians’ work in art music. Simpson also sings New South Wales River language in the group Freshwater and directs the cross-cultural choir Barayagal at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She’s written compositions for the National Carillon, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Sydney Living Museums. Simpson is now undertaking a PhD program in music.

In the past few years she’s also been writing prose: a debut play, Black Drop Effect, was included in the 2020 Sydney Festival. Her first novel, Song of the Crocodile, which won the 2018 black&write! Writing Fellowship for unpublished manuscripts by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writers, was published in September and longlisted for several prizes. One of her compositions was recently performed as part of the Covid-safe Avant Gardens program, and she will appear at the Adelaide Festival next month.

Thank you so much for making time to have a chat. I’m going to ask you all about your busyness.

I’m going canoeing! That’s all I have to do today.

Glad you’re having a day off. You have a lot on.

Well it’s the lull before the storm. It’s like the exercise I never do. [Laughs] I’m 45, I’ll be 46 this year. It’s only now that I’ve realised the way that I work. Whether it’s the natural environment, the make-up of the places I’m in or people doing things in place, relational stuff is important to me.

I’m thinking of a branch: the writing was the branch, and all these leaves coming off it are all connected in different ways. I’ve learnt that variety equals a full-time job for me. It’s about learning – or unlearning – what work is. And not feeling guilty about being creative, that’s a shift that’s happened very recently. Now I’m busy! But I don’t feel tired, I feel alive.

I think of creativity as beginning with observation and contemplation, but what I’m hearing from you is something more active. Reaching out and taking hold of things.

For me it’s about relating to people and having people and their ideas affect me; but I also need to couple that with thinking time. I’m understanding balance a bit more. What feeds me is interaction, but what feeds work is reflection about those things.

In an essay you discuss how writing flattens and reduces things, but your novel is full of your love of language and storytelling. How did you get started writing?

I was built for words; I did a musical diversion. It wasn’t until I started getting frustrated with music because I couldn’t go any further, that I thought, now I’m going to try writing again. Actually, the strong things about my music were the storytelling and the narrative. Twenty years of singing was my training to sit down and write a book. I just went the long way round.

You’ve said that as a First Nations person you don’t think of story, music and movement as separate disciplines. That’s a powerful place to work from. But I have to ask, practically, how do you manage it? I’m guessing you’re not going to say Monday is writing day, Tuesday is music…

I have a whole lot of things on the go. I’ve got a box full of possum-skin pelts laying on my floor. Yuwaalaraay women use them as instruments, so me and the ladies are going to make this cloak, and design it, and sing a story. So I’ve got that on my floor [laughing] so every time I walk past them I think about them, to remind me of all that I’ve got to do. But it’s also feeding all these other things that seem unrelated. So that’s a weird non-answer to your question, but I have all these things on the go all the time because that’s the dimension of my making.

Do you make time in your day for reverie?

Yeah, canoeing, that’s part of it. I bought a canoe on eBay for $100, and then I had to buy roof racks for $400. There goes the bargain! Culturally, I’m an out-of-towner here, I’m a freshwater river person. But going along Cooks River [in Sydney] is a significant act for me; hopefully it’s meaningful to the place. Because the river remembers women doing that. The land only wants us to hold it in our hearts and to keep it healthy. So that connection, that deep practice, is what conceptual, creative project space looks like to me.

You’re the first artist I’ve spoken to who’s mentioned landscape being part of your practice. Where do you work when you’re not canoeing?

I’ve got a desk in my bedroom. Haha! It’s very messy. I look out to two big blue gums out the front. If you look past that, there’s Petersham train station, so there’re two different things: opposing, and yet sitting within each other. That’s a really great teacher for me, because you’ve got to look at the other, the opposite. You’ve got to find that space. And the flight path goes over both of them: and that’s like the present. There’s different types of landscape and different passings of time with those three elements. So I look out on all this, and it reflects things that are on the page without me knowing. So how I understand my workplace is what’s actually outside.

I think about my desk: it’s too cluttered and there’s too many people and I can’t get quiet; the things inside, I can do better, but the things outside are more important.

You’re terribly wise.

This is all my explanation for not cleaning my room!

Sometimes I go down to Marrickville library, and I often dream up little songs in my bathroom. I take my phone in, I sing under the shower; the shower ends when I’ve got the lines that I want and then I press “record”; later I sit down and map out where it can go and what it can be.

Because of Covid-19, choirs were shut down. How did you adapt?

I found that very difficult because I need people and I need the place that we’re in. We were doing singing on Zoom, and I hated it. I just wanted to stab my eyes out. I couldn’t give what it was I wanted to give. But just like those two opposite things on the outside, people in the choir said, those Wednesdays helped us get through no-good times. So I had to put aside my own personal frustration. You can still have the thing you seek, you’re still doing it – just not the way you want to do it. The thing that I yearned for was not as important as what people were providing for me. And by the end of the year we got five people to sing a song – behind a big, black plastic shield. So we’re not there yet but we’re getting closer. We’ll all be singing together again. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Nardi Simpson".

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Kate Holden is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days. She writes the In Progress column for The Saturday Paper.