Robyn Archer — Musical theatre legend and queer icon

Robyn Archer — Unapologetic queer manifestations and the Menopause Blues. David Blanco from the FUSE team spoke with Robyn about family, music, and her 'Australian Songbook'.
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Robyn Archer, is a strong LGBTIQ community Member, Australian singer, writer, stage director, artistic director, and public advocate of the arts, in Australia and internationally. Photo by: Claudio Raschella

Australian musical theatre legend and queer icon Robyn Archer AO is touring Australia with her highly anticipated new production, ‘An Australian Songbook.’ 

Since the 1970s, Robyn Archer has captivated audiences nationally and around the world with her memorable interpretations of the cabaret works of German composers including Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and her unforgettable one-woman shows such as’ A Star is Torn’. Archer has produced memorable works for theatre and television, including the adaptation of her ground-breaking cabaret revue, ‘A Pack of Women,’ which screened on the ABC. 

In addition to performing and writing, Archer has been the Artistic Director of major arts festivals across the country and is the first woman to direct a major festival of the arts in Australia. She has strong connections to the Canberra arts scene and was Director of the Centenary of Canberra and the National Festival of Australian Theatre. In short, Robyn Archer is a pioneer of Australian musical theatre and a bonafide LGBTIQ+ national treasure. 

With ‘An Australian Songbook,’ Archer and her band take audiences on a melodic journey through our nation’s history, with each song offering a personal and political snapshot of Australia’s identity.

The show’s lovingly curated setlist avoids the expected Australian music ‘standards’ and instead features works from First Nations songwriters right through to convict era laments and songs from contemporary composers, including Bon Scott and Kate Miller Heidke. 

David Blanco from the FUSE team spoke with Robyn about family, music, and her upcoming tour of her band new show ’An Australian Songbook.’ 

 Robyn Archer. Photo by: Claudio Raschella

Can you tell what does being a musical performer mean to you? 

For me performing is a joy and at times, a hard task. My dad was a singer and stand-up comedian, so I grew up alongside music, and from a young age apprenticed myself to Dad. I sang in my great grandparent’s pub from the age of four. My first real performance was when I was about 12 in one of Dad’s variety shows. So, performing is in my blood. It’s a combination of discipline, hard work and ingenuity and you must train for it, the same way an athlete does. 

I think lots of people look at performing from the outside and view it as glamorous, thinking how wonderful it is to be publicly appreciated. I often point out that tradespeople, for example, carpenters or seamstresses, do their creative work mostly in private. As a performer, however, you are under scrutiny.

People in other professions toil away at their craft and if they make a mistake, it’s generally not made public. As a live singer, you take your life in your hands every time you get on the stage. For me, performing is hugely pleasurable, but not without challenges.

What can Aussie audiences expect when they come to see you perform your Australian Songbook? 

First and foremost, great music. It’s a show with an alternative viewpoint and lots of laughter, drama, and emotion. I’m working with wonderful musicians on this show. All my band members sing, which adds to the show’s musical richness. I’m accompanied by George Butrumulis, a very fine accordionist who has played with ‘The Black Sorrows’ and ‘Jump’. Cameron Goodall founded ‘The Audreys’ and is also a great actor. My pianist, Enzo Pozzebon played the role of Gareth Evans in ‘Keating the Musical.’

The show has a range of styles reflecting my eclectic musical tastes. There are art songs, musical theatre, country, and some folk music. I also sing some of my own compositions. The oldest song I perform dates to 1827 as well as works by contemporary songwriters including Kate Miller Heidke and Rob Davidson, who has crafted a song from Julia Gillard’s legendary misogyny speech. Another standout is Lou Bennett’s beautiful song ‘Jaara Nyilamum,’ which I sing in language. 

Robyn has captivated audiences nationally and around the world with her shows such as ’ A Star is Torn’. 

How did you choose the show’s songs? 

I approached the selection process from various angles. First, I considered composers. For example, there is a song included that I composed with Paul Grabowski twenty years ago and I have recently refreshed its lyrics.  

I also had to consider the musical quality of each piece and whether our little quartet would be able to perform it effectively. We don’t have a rhythm section or use bass or drums, but we can boom it up for a rock and roll sound! 

It was important for me to have a balance of male, female, and other composers, as well as some of my own material. There are some terrific voices in there, really interesting voices. 

I also visit Australia’s settler period and it would have been easy to include the standard, lyrical pioneer songs but I chose one by man called John Magarvie, a Presbyterian minister who did a huge amount of research on the Aboriginal people living near the Hawkesbury River. His song is a convict lament in which he mourns the people he left behind in the ‘old’ country.  

The show’s songs may seem unrelated because they cover different genres, historical periods, and subject matter, but ultimately, they land in the same place. I wanted these songs to make the audience feel they took a journey full of humour, politics, and emotion.

Could you comment on how you see the current state of Australian music and songwriting? 

Clearly, songwriting continues enormously in this country. There’s an enormous amount of music being written, but the outlets for getting it heard are different now. I have a songwriter in my family, a young man of twenty-two, who makes music with his mates in his bedroom. They release it online and don’t perform at all!

I hope that with the recent focus on women’s issues along with increasing incidences of discrimination against the LGBTIQ+ community, that Australian songwriters continue to write about important issues. 

At age 15, I was earning money in coffee lounges, singing largely from the American protest repertoire. So, the ability of song to carry social issue messages was instilled in me from a young age and my first album had my own lesbian and feminist songs on it. 

When I was thirteen and coming out to myself, I had absolutely no role models and anybody my age would say the same thing. When I started to be flown to Sydney for appearances on ‘Bandstand.’ The network would put me up in Kings Cross and I accidentally came across drag queens. 

I returned to Adelaide knowing there’s other people that are like me. Even though things have changed vastly since then and there are role models and kids at school who are proud and brave to come out, we can’t ever get too complacent.  

My hope is that Australian songwriters will continue to use their skills to bring social issues to the fore in that strange way that artists can. I know that now since the lockdowns, venues and presenters are trying to make up their losses. I feel this has led to an emerging trend to play to the middle ground. I hope Australian songwriters aren’t suffering too badly and remain inspired to keep writing on the more difficult issues in entertaining and enlightening ways. 

Part of the National Portrait Gallery collection, this image is of Robyn Archer sitting with Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1972 to 1975). Photo by: Neil Duncan 

Does the show include songs that you consider address the Australian LGBTIQ+ experience? 

I have memories of cross-dressing when I was nine: and apart from my own unapologetic queer manifestation on stage, there are pertinent references to ‘queendom’ in the show. I released my first album in 1977 and it included lesbian-themed songs. My Australian Songbook includes songs from that record. 

There are also songs with a feminist bent. I do ‘The Menstruation Blues’ and ‘The Menopause Blues.’ There’s also a song inspired by my mother’s wartime tales called ‘The Backyard Abortion Waltz’ about a friend of hers who tragically died from a backyard abortion in Adelaide in the 1940s. And of course, a highlight is the song of Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech as well songs by Australian female songwriters. My show definitely speaks to the LGBTQIA+ community as a political ‘other.’

Robyn, do you have an Australian song that you consider to be a ‘guilty pleasure’ that didn’t make it into the show? Mine is Sim Dusty’s ‘Duncan.’ What’s yours? 

Look, I don’t know that I can answer that because many of my guilty pleasures did end up the show! ‘Gymkhana Yodel’ is undoubtedly one of them. 

I have such admiration for Joy and Heather McKean who I almost met when I was fourteen when we were recording in the same studio. They were married to Slim Dusty and Reg Lindsay respectively and because they were married to these two famous male country singers, their careers were overshadowed. Their music, in particularly their yodelling, has since been rightfully elevated. 

I don’t feel guilty about my pleasure in yodelling. When I yodel, babies squeal, and dogs come and kiss me! Doing ‘The Gymkhana Yodel’ with the boys is definitely a guilty pleasure. 

Given my voice’s natural range, if my parents had sent me to classical singing training, I could have been a very good mezzo soprano. But it would have ironed out the crack between my chest voice and my head voice and I wouldn’t have been able to yodel. So that was a blessing in disguise!


“One of our great cultural advocates… she remains an icon.” – The Saturday Paper

Robyn Archer is an Australian singer, writer and stage and artistic director.

Robyn is a proud member of the LGBTIQ+ community and a public advocate for the arts both within Australia and internationally. She began singing professionally at the age of 12 and embarked on a singing career encompassing a wide range of repertoire and one-woman cabaret shows. Robyn Archer has also written and devised many theatre works and is an acclaimed arts festival director in Australia and overseas, her directing credits including the Adelaide Festival and the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

She was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia in 2000 and has won two ARIA awards and a Helpmann Award. This is a special three hour interview with Margaret Throsby from her Saturday Morning interview series in 2017.


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Robyn Archer — An Australian Songbook

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