An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. "One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego. "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. "This same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too." The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?" The old chief simply replied, "The one you feed."
That Cherokee proverb means a lot to Gabriel Vargas. This introspective Native American influence weaves itself throughout his daily life and within his important new release, Like Wolves – a song that traverses the tenacity of old wounds and turning victimhood into empowerment, out now. He has also released an accompanying video that captures the true, undeniable beauty in the way that humans are able to grow and move past traumatic events.
Like Wolves is all-encompassing, and it's not often that a song that carries such weight is put out into the world. The music itself is superb – alternative indie at its finest – yet it is so much more than the sum of its musical parts, as Vargas explains, "Like Wolves is not only a single release in the physical sense but also a cathartic release spiritually and emotionally…it feels like slowly removing the bandage of an old wound – the marks of the past are still there, but there is a newfound strength and hope for the future." Vargas also opens up about the deeply personal influence behind the song, saying, "Initially, it was written about a disagreement I had with my mother, which really was a by-product of a much larger energetic shift and recalibration happening within my family. In 2009 my step-father committed suicide and that had thrown the family dynamic into a bit of a tailspin whereby other revelations came to surface...including that of sexual abuse, of which I and my sister were directly affected by (I prefer not to use the word 'victim' as it implies helplessness and it is something which has now been integrated and transformed into 'empowerment'). So, this whole period really required the stripping away of a facade which had been outwardly projected as a 'picture perfect family' ...and with that came the inevitable arguments and disagreements, as we all went through a metamorphisis both collectively and individally. For me, this whole process conjured up the spiritual image of fire and the burning of the old to welcome the new...and understanding the 'wolves' that we each hide behind..which was based on an old Cherokee Proverb Two Wolves."
The distinctive Cherokee influence is evident not only on the track, through the inclusion of exquisite Native American flute melodies, but also within the breathtaking clip that accompanies Like Wolves. Conceptualised by Ian Ritter, directed and edited by brothers Matt and Trevor Holcomb, whose short film Flat Daddy was nominated for AACTA's Best Short Film of 2014, and starring Vargas' younger sister Raquel and her partner Marlon Castilho, and longtime friend and collaborator Red Horse, the clip follows the story of a young woman who leaves an abusive relationship and, throughout her journey to freedom, is guided by the spirit of Red Horse. Red Horse, through dance and ceremony, evokes the courageous spirit of the wolf which signals the beginning of the woman's newfound empowerment.
Gabriel Vargas fans can expect a deeply effecting, skillful performance from the seasoned artist – and Like Wolves is not only a significant moment for Vargas as that artist, but as a man. Due to the familial and personal connection to the subject matter of this release, he has decided to donate all profits from the online sales of Like Wolves to the The White Ribbon Foundation.
Question: How did a Cherokee proverb inspire Like Wolves?
Gabriel Vargas: I had been familiar with the Cherokee proverb "Two Wolves" for some time, but it only surfaced into my conscious thought during songwriting when the phrase "wolves in the fire" became a core lyrical piece of the song. The idea of these two wolves, each representing opposite parts of our psyche and emotions doing battle conjured up a feeling or vibe where I wanted the song to go...and so the song and music video incorporates these Native American elements.
Question: Was it difficult to share your personal story in Like Wolves?
Gabriel Vargas: It wasn't difficult to share because the story is part of who I am, and my family's shared history...and I think to some degree, an artist's work is always personal - there is a bit of them in each piece of finished work. Obviously in the case of "Like Wolves," we are dealing with issues of domestic and sexual abuse, but having worked through the trauma and integrated it, I feel we are much better served, as artists, to share our stories authentically with the world...and this is one of the important roles of the artist -to reveal the hidden treasures, in both the the positive and negative experiences that occupy our every-day life, so that we may feel more connected to one another.
Question: What motivates you most when writing music?
Gabriel Vargas: Each piece of writing is different, but if i had to say what inspires me the "most" when writing, then it would have to be channeling inclusivity as a theme, with the intention of shifting paradigms and creating positive social change. I love collaborating across genres and cultures and feel if we can use music in this capacity, then we begin the process of co-creating the same energy in our everyday life, and consequently move towards make this a better world for all.
Question: How do you hope Like Wolves empowers other Australians?
Gabriel Vargas: As individuals and a society in general, we carry so much shame and guilt. We hide our beautiful gifts and sacred purpose under this blanket of shame....and a lot of the time, it's not even our shame to carry. So, the majority of our interactions are really based on a version of ourselves we present to others for fear of being seen for who we truly are. "Like Wolves" is about removing this blanket of shame and open-heartedly saying this is "me"... this is who I am authentically and truthfully, in dark and in light...I am all of this and I am ok with it. I hope it gives others the courage to peel away this layer of shame and step into their own truthful purpose because, in doing so it invites others to do the same...and that can only grow and allow for much deeper connections and interactions.
Question: It's honourable for you to donate Like Wolves' earnings to The White Ribbon Foundation; can you talk us through how this charity helped you, previously?
Gabriel Vargas: The charity has never helped me per se; I just feel that given my family history, what White Ribbon do in raising awareness about domestic violence would be a worthwhile cause for me to contribute to. They operate more from a preventative angle via education programs targeted at men...who of course are the main perpetrators when it comes to domestic violence. So, energetically, it felt like a good alignment.
Question: Where did the idea for the video for Like Wolves, come from?
Gabriel Vargas: Looking back, there were so many intertextual influences which inspired the clip. Obviously the Cherokee "Two Wolves" proverb was the main instigator but also the book "Women who Run with the Wolves" by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, as well as Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" played important roles in shaping the story and vision of the music video.
Question: Which music/artists are you currently listening to?
Gabriel Vargas: At the moment I am listening to a lot of music from the Real World Label catalogue. I find myself drawn to and inspired by sounds and rhythms from other cultures. Lately, I have also been delving a bit deeper into my Brazilian roots and listening to artists like Tim Maia, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Clara Nunes.
Question: What or who was your inspiration to go into the music industry?
Gabriel Vargas: I could say a number of artists have inspired me but when i really think about it, I would have to say my lovely momma! Music was rich in her family and she always encouraged singing and dancing in the household. So in a way, she was always the one inviting the music in… and when I was ready to follow this path she full-heartedly supported me every step of the way.
Question: If you could collaborate with another artist, who would it be?
Gabriel Vargas: Well, in a couple of weeks I will be working with Jeff Martin (The Tea Party) who is someone I am really looking forward to learning from. Down the track I would probably say Peter Gabriel and Serj Tankian.
Interview by Brooke Hunter