Hard lessons hit the right note at WOMAD
David Leha, known musically as Radical Son, says his music is influenced by his life experiences, of which he has had many.
“Mum is a Kamilaroi woman, and I was raised by her, with my younger brother, pretty much on the road,” says the Sydney-born artist.
David settled back to Sydney as a 17-year-old, but by the age of 21 had spent time in some of Australia’s toughest prisons and found himself addicted to drugs.
Now he has seen musical success, with the recent release of his debut album Cause & Affect, along with an upcoming performance at WOMADelaide, and as part of an Opera Australia production. But he says things still aren’t easy.
“Change is a natural progression of life, but it hasn’t been a complete change,” he says when asked how he turned things around.
“I still struggle with the patterns formed as a youngster. Some of those patterns affect the quality of life that I live. Some are good, some not so good.”
David offers the example of his struggle with drugs, which continues behind the scenes of his musical career.
“It’s something that I started as a young boy and even up ‘til the last Christmas that passed, there was still an impact on my life,” he says.
“It was serious. I was for a time, in the last 15 years, experiencing moments when I was living on the street and having to do the harder drugs on a daily basis, and I was able to cut that back.
“And up until the Christmas just past, I thought I was able to handle that, but I felt that I had hit rock bottom once again and for the first time in my life, I wanted to end my life.”
David has found help in the form of men’s groups.
“I’ve done things like men’s groups, in particular, in Redfern there’s a men’s group called Gamarada, and I was also going to the Aboriginal Medical Service, where I had my first counselling session,” he says.
“And I remember, at first, I was going there against my beliefs. My beliefs that I did not need that to change. That change was something I could learn to do myself. I was going because I had outstanding court letters and I thought that I would get a lighter sentence if I played that game.
“But one thing led to another within those groups. I learnt how to speak openly and honestly, and I met others who were also trying to do likewise, and things really did start to change for me.”
Although David says these groups have helped, he speaks openly about his ongoing struggle to break the cycle.
“To be honest, it’s still something that I struggle with today,” he says.
“I was able to go to work, I was able to come home, put the food on the table, make sure the bills were paid, and do these things in my professional life, and my domestic life. I thought I had it under wraps.”
But things weren’t that simple, and David now finds himself enlisting new strategies to tackle the problem.
“Since Christmas, I’ve started going to seek professional help on another level and I’m actually having my first family counselling meeting today,” says the husband and father of eight.
“But, I tell you what, I’ve also started going to Narcotics Anonymous, and I’ve only been twice, but that keychain they gave me for the first visit, I show it off proud and it’s on my keychain. It says ‘just for today’.
“I’ve seen another psychologist at the meeting and it helps me being able to talk about things. You know they’ve put me on some antidepressants. It’s a combination of things, I think. It really has to be hit hard with different methods.
“I’ve even got my cultural advisors, my mentors for music, my mentors for culture, they all speak another language to me. My friends have offered to help – there’s so much in place.
David says this variety of resources is important for him.
“I’ve got all these people helping me. Some people may not need all the things that I’m going through, but I feel better for having them,” he says.
“It’s like, I guess, doing drugs itself, some people can handle it, some people can’t. It’s like alcohol – some people can drink a couple and they’re gone, some people drink all night.”
David says his willingness to talk openly about his struggles is inspired by the people he has met and honesty he has seen at men’s groups.
“I remember that I walked away from there believing in that kind of openness and honesty,” he says reminiscing about a particular meeting.
“I just think the biggest fear is, say we were doing things the wrong way, but we just continued along that path because we failed to address the conversations honestly. Unless we’re honest with ourselves, it’s going to continue on in yet another cycle.
“I believe that’s something that I would like to see more of. I see so many people pointing fingers and being judgemental. I’m very judgemental too. And I don’t agree with that, I don’t think we should.
“It’s one of the issues I have with my son. My oldest son is seventeen now, and I feel I want to try and help him, especially with his sports — he does a martial art, and in my mind I want to try and point out his weaknesses and get him to work on them, but what I failed to see is that I was too focussed on his negatives, rather than his positives.”
David’s focus on self-improvement also extends to his music.
“This year, I do have goals to be able to learn an instrument. I’m choosing to just play guitar first, but I’d love to play the piano. By the end of this year, I’d love to be able to jump up on stage, by myself, and do a 20-minute acoustic set,” he says.
“By the time I was 24, I was married and had a couple of children and that’s when I started writing music. Really just poems to begin with. I’ve been into music since then, about 15 years now, mainly just as a lyricist and a vocalist.
“It’s been quite a journey between then and now, both off and on stage.”
You can see David perform at WOMADelaide at 8:45pm, Sunday March 13 on the Moreton Bay Stage.
If you need support, advice or information about drugs including alcohol, please talk to a GP or health professional.
Family Drug Support 1300 368 186, www.fds.org.au
Lifeline 13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au
National Drug and Alcohol Support Services Directory www.ndasd.com
Specific information for people aged 25 years and under:
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, www.kidshelp.com.au
eHeadspace 1800 650 890, www.eheadspace.org.au