Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images and voices of people who have died.
“This is my record,” Ruby Hunter would often say.
Producer Jen Anderson recalls the singer was justifiably proud and primed to be making her debut album.
“I got the impression that she had supported Archie [Roach] a lot, and would continue to do that, but she really wanted to make her own mark,” Anderson tells Double J.
She really wanted to bring women to the fore with this recording.”
Hunter’s first decisive step in achieving that aim was to insist on having a woman on board to help her take her first recorded musical steps. Anderson was primarily playing violin in bands like The Black Sorrows and Weddings Parties Anything and composing for soundtracks and theatre.
They first met when Anderson played on a couple of tracks on Archie Roach’s Jamu Dreaming record in 1992. At that stage, her production knowledge was built on time spent hanging around the studio with Joe Camilleri, and her experience was limited to her own early works.
Nevertheless, Anderson was Ruby Hunter’s choice.
Being the first Indigenous woman to sign to a major record label was a huge breakthrough for Hunter. It was due to her persistent tenacity, plenty of self-belief, and somewhat as a result of a knock-on effect, according to Anderson.
“She was an incredible woman, Ruby,” she says. “I reckon she really would’ve had to push to get that chance. She never as much said that. The record company was interested in Archie and I always got the impression that this was just a bit of a sideline.
“She had the one song, ‘Down City Streets’, on Archie’s  Charcoal Lane record and I think that had given her the confidence to forge ahead and write some of her own songs.
“I wasn’t privy to what actually went on between the record company and her, but that’s the impression that I get, that she probably kept putting her hand up and saying, ‘What about me? What about me?’ and they decided to give her a go.”
Anderson still recalls the thrill of those first days working with Hunter.
“I’ll never forget the day she came around to my house,” she says. “She had this bunch of songs on cassette and we demoed them on a rudimentary eight track recorder that Mushroom had lent me. She was incredibly excited about having been given the opportunity to record these songs.”
Hunter came prepped with songs and lyrics written in her beautiful handwriting, Anderson remembers, and she also had clear sound and collaborative ideas in mind.
“She knew she wanted to play spoons on ‘Kurongk Boy, Kurongk Girl,’ she wanted Tiddas involved in a few songs, Dave Arden on guitar and Tim ‘Froggie’ Holtz to play didge.”
Anderson contributed to song arrangements and the rest of instrumentation on the album and easily recalls her single biggest challenge as a producer over an intense 14-day period of recording.
“She actually had quite a difficult voice to record,” she says. “It’s so deep and dark in timbre. It wasn’t easy to capture her voice well, but when she starts that song [‘A Change is Gonna Come’] ‘Black woman…black life…’, it just brings goosebumps. There’s something in her voice that is timeless, something that really evokes the length of time that Aboriginal people have been here in Australia.”
For ‘Modern Day Girl’, a little impromptu customisation was required from didgeridoo player Tim ‘Froggie’ Holtz.
“When he turned up, he didn’t have his didge,” Anderson says. “So he just went outside and got a bit of pipe, a bit of drainage PVC pipe. I don’t know where that came from… He chopped it off a little bit to get the right pitch and then played this amazing track on a pipe!”
This landmark album is a collection of songs that stem from sorrow, hurtful and troubled times, but told with a voice of strength, wisdom and resilience. In life, on stage and within her community, she was a larger than life personality to the people that crossed paths with her.
And with songs like ‘Proud, Proud Woman’, ‘Women’s Business’ and ‘Kutjeri Lady’, Ruby Hunter let people know how much she cherished and embraced the many vital roles that women fulfil.
“They are cohesive because of her past experiences, her beliefs of how women should be viewed in the world and what she was seeing going on in her own community,” she says.
Jen Anderson nominates her favourite moment on Thoughts Within as Hunter’s poignant and stirring ‘Aunty Sissy’.
It’s lyrics, ‘To my Aunty Sissy, you took me in, when I was young….and you became my best friend’ portray a time of vulnerability and salvation. With a beautifully supportive violin part delivered by Anderson, the song honours the lifeline one woman extended to another.
“It has so few lyrics, but it says so much,” Anderson says. “It’s captured very closely, it’s very emotional for me.”
With close to two and a half decades since this album’s making, time has given Jen Anderson new appreciation for what she and Ruby Hunter achieved together with this album.
“It was a great break for me,” Anderson says. “I wasn’t aware of the cultural importance of it as I am now. And I certainly wasn’t aware of being a woman, as such, in the industry. I wasn’t really thinking or aware of how rare that was. I’m much more aware of it now.”