Interview: Akala Newman, Wiradjuri Gadigal singer-songwriter

Akala Newman tells us how she is equally influenced by Caravaggio and Dreaming stories.

Akala Newman is a Wiradjuri Gadigal singer songwriter and honours student at the University of Sydney. Honi interviewed her on her songwriting process, and how her experiences influence her sound. 

Honi Soit: Thanks for your time Akala. Could you remind us of your year and what you’re studying at the University of Sydney?  

Akala Newman: Thank you for speaking with me! I just completed my Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University in 2019 and I received an invitation to continue with my honours research in performance studies focusing on Indigenous performance and healing in 2020.  

HS: Each of your songs are their own fantasy world. How do you craft these worlds through your songwriting process?  

AN: Each song I write has always had its separate world. When I’m feeling a certain way I usually tend to block out certain emotions or find a way to channel that energy into something that’s more digestible. I dream up a world where I can create a story that’s not only going to help me “deal with” a circumstance or change my way of thinking, but pass on knowledge or make others feel not so lonely. 

HS: How does your experience as a Gadigal and Wiradjuri woman inform your creative practice? 

AN: I will never forget the day in primary school when a girl in my grade told me that I was “too pretty and smart to be an Aboriginal, and why would my mother marry one”. That moment shaped the way I look at myself, and how I behave in the world. I vowed to myself that I would never let anybody have power over my own body or my voice. I’ve always felt surveilled within my skin, people look at me as if they’re not sure what I am. I am a mix of things they are unsure of. Which makes people uncomfortable. I’ve learnt to be okay with that. That to make people uncomfortable is the only way to make change.  And so I think that’s why I relate so well with myths and legends. Just like how the mermaid belongs in two bodies, I have two sides of myself which I love: my Aboriginal heritage and my English heritage. Two sides I should be proud of and I want every other person to be proud of themselves and love who they are as well. 

HS: How have Indigenous stories, particularly those from your own Country, influenced your songwriting? 

AN: Nature and life is intertwined. I always believe that when times are difficult, there’s always a reason for it. Everything that happens in life is because of something else. The beauty about Aboriginal philosophy is that you’re never alone in the world. This is because wherever you go, there is always a spirit guiding you, whether that’s in the wind or inside your heart. However living within an urban environment has always been very difficult to really connect deeply with land and culture. I’ve always turned to art and writing as a mechanism to help me navigate myself within a world that seeks to suppress. Growing up dad always told me and my sisters Dreaming stories. Stories about life and change that influenced the way I think about the world I live in. 

Music video for Burnt for You. Image: @akala_newman

HS: The instrumentals in Heart for Free and Shine on Me have an ethereal, otherworldly quality to them. Are you interested in creating sonic fantasy worlds, as well as lyrical ones? 

AN: YES! Oh my gosh. I remember when I first had the idea for this song I was thinking about a lot of things. My first thought (and why I wrote the piece) was after watching The Great Gatsby. I just remembered one scene in the movie that’s always stuck with me, which is the bit when the lighthouse flashes green and Gatsby is looking across the water longing for Daisy. He was longing for this person he could never truly be with, somebody who wasn’t a part of his destiny. And then I thought about what if there were mermaids inside the water jumping around calling Gatsby into the sea. Sirens wailing and longing for love themselves. That’s how I kind of felt at that moment about a certain person, longing for somebody that was so toxic but knowing you could never have them and they could never have power over you again… but you still love them so much it hurts. 

HS: What draws you to the concept of fantasy in your songwriting? 

AN: I think people have always told fantastical stories to describe things they don’t understand. So the concept of fantasy is about learning to understand something beyond my capacity. 

Music video for Burnt for You. Image: @akala_newman

HS: Could you take us through the story of Burnt for You

AN: I remember the day I sat down with my producer and I was singing all these lyrics about this one person, and he said to me, what do you really want to say? And really I just wanted this person to burn in hell. But I also really wanted to be able to say “hey, i’m free and I’m okay.” Then as I began writing, a lot of different scenarios sprang to my mind about other people and parts of my life, and the song really just evolved into this fluffy but dark sound. This sound I wanted people to resonate with, that moment when you step out of a situation that was holding you down and you feel completely free yet still a bit jaded but you’re working on it. Healing is a constant process. 

HS: Burnt for You seems to be as much about strength as it is about heartache. Particularly the lyrics “now that you’re gone I can finally breathe” really speak to the relief and sadness of exiting a bad relationship. How did you find this balance as you were writing it? 

AN: It’s definitely a song about strength and resilience. I really just had to find one sentence that summed up what I wanted to say. This was, “you’re dead to me”, and I just went from there. But I never wanted to kill the person, bless! I wanted to kill that part of me that wouldn’t let go of this relationship or circumstance. To completely let go of fear in my life. I wanted to cut the strings that stopped me from reaching my true happiness. That’s how I want people to feel after listening to the song. 

Music video for Burnt for You. Image: @akala_newman

HS: The video for Burnt for You is set to be released in February. The sneak preview is a dark, seductive dance of angels and demons. Could you give us a little insight into the ideas behind the shoot? 

AN: The video will be released on the 1st of February and I can’t wait for people to see it. I feel truly blessed to have worked with a team of creatives that put their heart and soul into this project. Originally, I never wanted it to be dark. I wanted it to be about “finding the light” and the freedom of the song. Everything was going to be bright. But then I realised that if I did that I was covering up the pain and aching sensations I still felt. I wanted complete honesty within this video. I wanted to tell a story. A hard story about love and forgiveness. About forgiving yourself and loving yourself again. The video reminds me of something Carravagio would’ve painted… which is truly a testament to my amazing camera and lighting crew. And then the 3 years of my art history degree came back, reminding me of the power of Baroque art and how Carravagio shaped western art. I wanted it to look like a void between heaven and hell. A liminal space where anything can happen. A constant, anxiety fueled dilema.

Every cast member in this video is Aboriginal. The blackness and power within the video mixed with the westernised elements completely reflects what I want to project in everything I do. Finding a balance between my two worlds. Finding autonomy and self-representation in a world where you can be whoever you want to be. 

HS: Thanks again for your time, Akala. Where can people stream Burnt for You

AN: Burnt for you is on all streaming platforms! The music video comes out on the 1st of February, and can be found on my YouTube channel