Felix Riebl: 'I can add to a movement of change'

As Australia grapples with how to correct injustices in the legal system, the Cat Empire frontman Felix Riebl, who this year released a single about the death of 24-year-old Aboriginal woman Ms Dhu in police custody, has a thing or two to say about how musicians can help champion good causes – without taking the spotlight away from the activists on the front line.
By Grace Jennings-Edquist

Your song about the death of Ms Dhu is very political. Are there any pressures on you to avoid politics in your music because it might be unpopular with some fans?
No, I’ve never felt that pressure. I’ve always felt that if the music is good – if it rings true musically – then you can say whatever you want… it doesn’t count for anything if the music doesn’t resonate.

And honestly ever since I’ve written that song, the community response, and the response the family of Ms Dhu has given me [has been positive].

There’s something about writing about something like that that I find very appealing as a songwriter. In this case, I could express a really deep outrage in a really cutting way.

What role do musicians have in raising awareness of social justice issues?
I think musicians and songwriters are in a fortunate position. Because they’re able to do something with their outrage, their heartbreak, or even their joy.

I don’t kid myself. There are a lot of people that are working in activist circles, in political circles, people who are really on the front line of this, and they’re doing it every single day. I don’t pretend that music can change everything all the time. But I can add to an atmosphere, a movement of change.

There’s so far to go. All we can do as musicians is really try to add that.

Tell us about the causes you’ve involved in, and the issues close to your heart.
I’ve been involved in the Australian Conservation Foundation for a long time, and that’s ongoing. [Also,] The Cat Empire supports the Asylum Seeker Resource Center, and has done for a long time.

With all of these things, I really don’t want to say them to sound like a good guy, that’s not why I support them… I’ve never thought of these things as aside from my life, or things that I do to be a good citizen or something like that. I do it because it’s interesting artistically and I can engage in a way that’s interesting and useful.

Are you a feminist?
Yes, in a way. I think we’ve got a long way to go before we see genuine equality between men and women. I’m partnered with an incredibly intelligent feminist woman and we’ve had discussions around that for a long time. I think I’m a feminist in so far as I’ve admired and respected fierce women I’m my life, and I’ve grown up with them, and they’ve probably been amazing models for me.

Eds' note: This interview was carried out before the sentencing in Elijah Doughty's case was handed down.

Find the Cat Empire tour dates here. Felix Riebl tour dates here.

Image: Instagram, with artwork by Nina Abrahams