The first lesson of communication is that everyone digests information in different ways, and the savvy communicator has their content in multiple formats for multiple audiences.
“It started as a war then turned into an album and then into a theatre show then into a musical and now into a book. It’s a pretty straightforward sort of setup, really.”
Fred Smith spoke just before his Brisbane book launch and a house concert in Maleny.
There is an award in a supporting role for Fred’s daughter Olympia, but we cut out and saved some of the higher high C notes she regaled us with for the extended 12″ remix of the audio file that originally appeared in this article.
Fred next takes the book on the road to Melbourne, Victorian regional centres, Canberra, Sydney, then back to Queensland for some regional appearances.
Text of the interview with Fred Smith:
BQ: I’m talking with Fred Smith this morning. He’s in Canberra, I’m up in Queensland. Fred’s got a new book coming out for a project that grows and metamorphoses and adds extra layers to. It’s called ‘The Dust of Uruzgan’. Let’s talk about it now with Fred Smith. G’day, Fred.
Fred Smith: Bill, how’re you going?
BQ: Very good, my friend. And yourself?
FS: Very well, very well.
BQ: I mentioned ‘The Dust of Uruzgan’; that started first off as an experience for you as both a musician and a diplomat. Tell us a little bit about that.
FS: Yeah, well it sort of started as a war that turned into an album and then into a theatre show then into a musical now into a book.
It’s a pretty straightforward sort of set-up, really. The usual story with us folk singers.
BQ: That old chestnut.
FS: Yeah. What happened was back in 2009, I worked for the Foreign Affairs Department and we decided to send diplomats to work alongside our troops down in Uruzgan province, and I stuck my hand up and went. I developed a role liaising with tribal leaders and provincial government officials.
The place was fascinating and stimulating and narrative-rich and sad and funny and all those things, so I ended up writing a lot of songs and put them on an album called ‘Dust of Uruzgan’.
And now my little daughter Ollie wants me to go and play with her. That’s ok; we can work with this, can’t we?
BQ: Well this is always useful because you’re somebody who gives the audience what they want, and basically what you’re getting is some immediate feedback on your performance right now in the form of your daughter.
FS: That’s right, that’s right. She wants me to come down here but we can do both.
BQ: That’s it. We are men; we can multitask.
Fred, you’ve done something similar in the past in a different part of the world. Was it something where you thought I’ve already got the skill set for this, I can go and apply that in Afghanistan, or was there something particular about the culture and the situation there that you wanted to go and engage with?
FS: In terms of why I went initially?
FS: No, frankly I was ambivalent about it, to tell the truth. I had no particular affinity for the Afghan situation. I had just released two albums and toured them in Canberra. I was exhausted from being a musician, I figured I needed some peace and quiet so I took the job in Afghanistan, that’s basically what happened.
But of course it wasn’t peace and quiet there, there were blokes shooting at us and stuff – that was a disappointment. But you get that in wars.
I ended up being quite passionate about it. It was a fascinating project: a very complex, competitive society, and we were there trying to make a difference in it all, and of course the key to it all was to just work out what was going on around us.
BQ: You mention those two albums you were touring beforehand. Am I right in saying that one of those was ‘Texas’?
FS: One of them was ‘Texas’. Yeah, I came back from the United States in late 2007 after we spent three years there. And then I did the Spooky Men’s Chorale album.
BQ: So you’ve come from a background of laid-back Tacoma and Texas, great big long drives, the People’s Republic of O’Connor in Canberra to Afghanistan. Did you get a bit of a culture shock? Or were you already primed to expect that sort of chaos?
FS: I think I was primed to expect that sort of culture shock. I mean the main thing was that I was living with the military, that’s a big culture shock. A different temperament to people in the folk music scene, for example.
But one adjusts, and I’d worked closely with the military in Bougainville before, of course, so I understand their language and the way they approach things. So it’s fine, they’re not that hard to work with. The military has certain codes and ethics – it’s not always a natural fit for civilians to work with them, but they are by nature predictable. Their values are quite clear and you know what to expect.
BQ: Culturally, even though you come from a background of foreign affairs, and some people from outside of Canberra and outside of the Australian Pubic Service might infer a regimental approach from public servants, I’d say they’re two totally different cultures, from DFAT to the military.
FS: You know, that’s a good observation. For example, military officers and soldiers deployed to Afghanistan with seven or eight months’ training went in there with a strategy and a plan. Whereas I was told to go to in the direction of southern Afghanistan, go to Kandahar, see if there’s a job there, go to Tarinkot, Uruzgan, see if there was a job there, and report back when I thought I knew what I was doing.
So I was really sent there to improvise. DFAT values flexibility for ground troops and things like that over regimented planning, and I guess that’s because we’re a smaller organisation. We’re built to improvise and adapt whereas the military are big and need to plan and be very organised. There’s a complementarity there between the way they roll and the way we roll. I certainly couldn’t have operated in a place like that without them.
BQ: You use that word ‘predictability’ because if you try to improvise [in a military setting] you might end up dead.
FS: Yeah, absolutely. Your colleagues need to know what’s expected, how you’re gonna operate. It’s part of being in an organisation of any size.
BQ: Whenever I think of ‘Dust of Uruzgan’, one of my clear memories is standing outside the Artsound [radio] studios in Canberra one day and seeing a lone man in an impressive Pashtun hat walk into the compound, and I finally realised that could only be one man, and G’day Fred, how’re you going?
FS: That must have been winter. Those hats are good for winter, you know. They insulate your head without messing up your hairdo.
BQ: They do another thing which Harry Manx can tell you about: they protect your top chakra!
FS: Is that right? He wears one, doesn’t he?
BQ: That hat features in a number of Youtube videos where you were doing something similar to what you did in Papua New Guinea: you go there with your foreign affairs skills but you take your guitar into some troublesome places.
FS: Yeah, absolutely, and it becomes useful for all sorts of reasons. I’ve played a lot of music with Australian soldiers over there, but I eventually formed bands with Afghan musicians too.
BQ: Did taking your guitar into those spots form part of the creation of ‘Dust of Uruzgan’ album or was it more of a planned, military-style of ‘I want to cover this, I want to cover that’, or did something just happen and present itself?
FS: The songs themselves came in response to various incidents. I didn’t really write that much when I was there but I would often go on leave, working sort of mining style of two months on and a few weeks’ leave. So often you’re working six and a half days a week there; it’s intense 12 hours a day, and most of the time it’s actually quite interesting and a lot of fun.
But then every now and again something bad would happen: a soldier might be killed out in the valleys, the whole base would grieve and you’d feel that too. It’s an intense, emotional experience and I often found as soon as got on the plane I’d start haemoraging, just writing songs.
A lot of them were obviously boiling away at the back of my head while I was there and I just needed the clear daylight to get them written.
BQ: Then it went from an album to a book. Tell us more about the book and how that came about.
FS: Back in 2013, I guees I’d developed a bit of a profile singing these songs. In fact I was playing the ‘Dust of Uruzgan’ song at the opening of Ben Quilty’s exhibition in late 2012 maybe early 2013. One of the publishers from Allen and Unwin called Jane Palfreyman was there, and she saw me and emailled me a few months later and said, I think you’ve got a book in you.
By the time she emailled me, I was back in Afghanistan doing a second stint and I thought, A book; that sounds like hard work! I was kind of intrigued by the notion, and I said, Oh yeah, let’s talk.
Then I procrastinated for another two years and got to the point where I ran out of excuses not to write the book, so then I sat down and started writing it in November .
Drawing mainly on my diaries of which I’ve got about two foot worth of shelf space of diaries, like 26 diaries. I gave them all an alphabet letter: A, B through to Z. Thick, red books. Hard-bound numbers. I drew on them and eventually wrote it all into the book.
Each chapter ostensibly deals with how I got one of the songs written, the backround to one of the songs, but that’s given me the architecture to roam a bit through my own experiences, my own stories, as well as a bit of Afghan history, anecdotes and conversations and meetings, all of which adds up to a fairly comprehensive picture of what was going on over there in this obscure little province in which we were working.
BQ: Was it a cathartic process or an opening up of your soul to explain how the songs came about?
FS: I had no particular need to explain how they came about but what was interesting to me was that each of the songs I wrote had a back-story, and those back-stories were infinitely deep and wide. I just thought it was an interesting way of framing my own account of my experiences over there, and giving people some insights into why things were they way they were.
So it was really a device more than anything else. Having said that, the whole process of writing the book turned out to be quite cathartic for me; I feel a lot lighter for having done it.
In addition to the book, it’s not a musical – it’s not ‘Afhanistan: The Musical’ – but it’s a show I’ve built where I tell stories and sing the songs and meanwhile I project a series of images, most of them taken by Defence Force photographers of Uruzgan Province. It’s a show called ‘Dust of Uruzgan’, I’m going to present it and have a book launch at the Red Hill Community Sports Centre on…
Is that what it’s called? It used to be the Ithaca Bowling Club.
BQ: Let’s call it the Red Hill Community Centre; that’s what they present it as on Facebook.
FS: On Friday 14 October. The details are on my website: www.fredsmith.com.au
And then we’ll be taking the show down to Melbourne on the 27th of October and then lesser known places like Warnambool, Maldon, Dorrigo.
BQ: Fred, thank you so much. And can I think Olympia from all the people listening in. I think she’s definitely got a future on stage; have you been inferred that yourselves?
FS: Yeah, I don’t know if I’d want her to pursue this line of work. It’s precarious. If she’s gonna do it, she’s gonna do it.
BQ: Fred, thanks for much for talking with us today.
FS: Good one, mate. Talk soon.
All tour details are at: https://www.reverbnation.com/fredsmith/shows
Details of the book are at the Allen & Unwin site: