Kahl Wallis was preparing for his next gig and it wasn’t anywhere near a big city or music hot spot.
It was in the isolated Northern Territory community of Wadeye, a place that in the wet season is cut off from the rest of the world for months on end.
Wallis, a bright light in Australian music and the frontman of rock band The Medics, says he learns something every time he travels to communities like Wadeye, where he does regularly to work with children.
At the time of this interview with www.nit.com he was writing a song with the kids at the local school about healthy tucker, was billed to perform at a community concert, and in his spare time the country was providing inspiration for his own song writing.
For a while now Wallis, 25, has been a rocker rediscovering his roots; whether it’s on his grandfather’s country, the Wuthathi Nation at Shelburne Bay in Queensland, his grandmother’s mob, the Lardil people from Mornington Island, or other communities around Australia.
His name Wallis comes from his great, great, grandfather from the Polynesian island of Wallis and Futuna in the South Pacific.
Nowadays, family (his parents and two sisters live in Adelaide), tradition and culture are central to Wallis’ life, something that will be reflected in his first, much-anticipated solo album which is expected to be released later this year.
“Early on in my career with The Medics, being on the road and touring you tend to fall into the sex, drugs and rock and roll element attached to being a rock band and out there touring,” Wallis says. “Alcohol, for me, was something I used to numb some pain in my spirit.
“For me now I’ve been about three-and-a-half years without alcohol. Maintaining my sobriety is important and so is being a role model for the next generation and looking for new ways to engage and basically artistically share story and song and pave a way for the next generation.”
In August, Wallis will take to the stage with his acoustic guitar alongside some of the best performers Indigenous Australian music has to offer at the National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin.
He’s planning to sing one of the songs from his coming album.
His dream of making the album was given a boost last year when he became the first musician to win the Dreaming Award in the National Indigenous Arts Awards. It came with a $20,000 grant for the project.
“For me, rediscovering my roots is going back to family and engaging in the communities as well outside of my own home,” he says.
“It started in Cairns where my Aboriginal heritage, my family live, and extended family is up in Cape York where country is. Country is Cape York and my grandfather and grandmother grew up in Cape York.
“My grandmother grew up on a mission in Mapoon in Cape York, and my grandfather worked on some of the pearling boats up in the Cape. He also worked down in Cairns and throughout the north Queensland region cane cutting.
“My grandmother was part of the Stolen Generation and my grandfather, one of the workers who were entitled to underpaid work. My grandmother was also quite proud to be a part of the 1967 referendum. She did a lot of campaigning in Cairns.
“My solo record that I’ve been working on is trying to incorporate a lot of those messages through song and inspiration . . . I’ve been able to get from going back home and connecting with family after doing a lot of touring.
“We (The Medics) were quite young coming out of Cairns High School into the music industry,” he recalls. “We did some great things, but for me, part of what I do as an artist, a big part of that was also to connect culturally as well.”
Wallis says performing solo as a singer-songwriter was a natural progression.
“I looked up to our amazing Australian artists such as Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, who really took our Australian stories to another level,” Wallis says.
“For me it was looking up to those guys and wanting to do what they do as well.
“Having mentors such as my uncle Bunna Lawrie, who is in Coloured Stone, and continues to be a well respected elder in his own right (helps me). “What he does as an activist standing up for environmental issues and fighting for his land rights in his country down in the Great Australian Bite, where his Mirning tribe are from, the Whale Dreamers, I’m learning a lot from him and he’s been a big part of The Medics development and also my own cultural development.”
Wallis never had to look too far for his path in life.
The Medics first album, Foundations, was released in 2012 and the band scooped the pool at that year’s NIMA, winning Best New Talent, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year. They were also crowned Best New Talent at the Rolling Stone Awards the following year.
The group hit the festival circuit performing at Big Day Out, Splendour in the Grass, Woodford Folk Festival and Groovin’ The Moo. They also toured Brazil in 2014.
Wallis and the other band members are also working on a second album.
When Wallis isn’t working on his own music or with The Medics, he visits remote communities with the Jimmy Little Foundation, promoting a healthy lifestyle among the children. Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup, the CEO of the foundation and a member of pop group Gangajang, was due to join him in Wadeye on the day of this interview.
“Every time I spend time on other people’s country it’s such an honour to be out there,” Wallis says.
The Medics will be among the line-up at the Yirrkala Yarrapay Music and Dance Festival on July 2. The event is free.
The NIMA will be held on August 6 at the Darwin Botanic Gardens Amphitheatre. Tickets from www.darwinfestival.org.au or 08 89434222.