Emma Donovan: ‘I Wanna Celebrate My Songs And My Stories Now’

18 April 2024 | 1:51 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

Stepping out of The Putbacks’ “funk-soul bubble”, Emma Donovan hopes to “get street cred from all the uncles and the mob” through the release of her stunning new solo record ’Til My Song Is Done’, which pays tribute to her country heritage.

Emma Donovan

Emma Donovan (Credit: Ian Laidlaw)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this article contains names of people who have died.

In a live setting, the always-outstanding Emma Donovan delivers every single syllable with emotional heft and the utmost care, leaving us feeling shattered, but also in awe of what we’ve just experienced. As soon as Donovan leans into the mic, her serene presence and flawless singing (a given) will make you sink comfortably into your chair (if it’s a seated venue), safe in the knowledge that she won’t fuck anything up. You’ll also feel something afterwards.

Her vocal performances throughout new solo album, Til My Song Is Done, blew our already sky-high expectations out of the water. And to hear Donovan singing her own story further elevates the listening experience. 

No rest ‘til this voice is heardUntil the day that we see change / Then I'll keep singing my people's pain…” – Donovan’s lyrics during the title track act as a statement of intent. In the accompanying presser, this proud Gumbayngirr, Dhungutti and Yamatji woman is quoted as saying: “It feels like history is repeating itself because we are still singing about issues that are as relevant today in this country as they were back then. I wanted to acknowledge how tiring and hard this can be, but how writing these lyrics gives me the strength to continue and to keep singing.”

This song documents how Donovan was feeling around the time of The Voice referendum last year. “More so how I felt after,” Donovan stresses. “It’s still a relevant song; it doesn't matter whether we have a referendum or we don’t, you know? I would’ve loved for it to be positive, but regardless there’s artists like myself who always wanna sing-up and make positive change – and wanna see change – no matter what.

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“Sometimes I find it hard to talk or say things – especially after something like the referendum where it’s hard to express how you really feel – and music is that platform… It’s another level where we can communicate and, yeah! That [form of] expression is always a healing thing for me.”

Over the past decade, Donovan has fronted the multi-award winning soul-funk outfit The Putbacks. “For this album, I’ve stepped out of the funk-soul bubble with The Putbacks,” she points out, “which I have sat comfortably in for close to ten years and pressed record on them beautiful albums I did. There's something about doing your own stuff that’s so nerve-racking, but I’ve gotta find all the trust for myself.

“It’s always a massive struggle, but I wanna celebrate my songs and my stories now, you know? I have two little girls that look up to me that I sing and write music passionately for. I know they’ve got big sets of ears that are listening for Mum and that means a lot. So, yeah, I have to own it. And, for me, music is my only income, too; I look after my girls that way – it gives us a home! – so there’s lots of work to be done.

“I was a single parent for a while and understanding my place in the industry, and also my place as a mum. There’s that thing of being a mum first but also being a muso first – because that's your work and your income – and sometimes you don’t have a choice, you know? You‘ve just gotta get out there. But it’s a lot harder for women, because most of us are the head of that family home and being responsible for the little ones. And I love yarning about that now. I’m comfortable in my space to put that out there, because there’s a lotta women like me that are in the industry.”

She’s descended from a long line of musicians and sang with her family's renowned country band, The Donovans, as a child. “When I was really young, like six and seven, I sang lots of the gospel and country music,” she recalls. “I’d always be singing with the uncles and Nan and Pop. I was one of the older grandkids so I got to have Nan and Pop for a long time before they passed.”   

As one of The Donovans, Emma performed alongside Micko and Aileen Donovan (Nan and Pop), her mother Agnes and five uncles, including Uncle Ash (“Mum’s baby brother”) who she invited to play guitar on this latest album.

“He plays guitar like Pop. So I was like, ‘Oh, I wanna make sure I get someone from the family to come play rhythm.’ So Uncle Ash came. I remember havin’ the demos, and they weren’t even mastered, and then I was at a family party or somethin’ and he’s playin’ it!” she says, laughing in disbelief. “I was like, ‘Unc, it’s not mastered yet,’ you know? But I couldn’t stop him, because I knew straight away that he was proud. It’s already a good sign. He wanted everyone to hear.”

When asked whether her own husky, gutsy vocal timbre closely resembles another member of her musical family, Donovan nods and smiles. “Well, I like to say it’s my nan. My nan, vocally – even when she just spoke – was very loud [laughs]. We get a bit rowdy here in this house – or I do, my daughters are very loud.

“It was Nan and Pop that sang, and the way they complemented each other – they just had these beautiful harmonies, it was actually amazing how they sang... I know that some of the uncles say that I sound like Nan; it's a massive compliment. And I have to look at myself in the mirror and go, ‘Oh, my God, I look like my mum!’

“It’s been six years since I lost my mum. I feel like I’ve kind of slowly accepted her passing. It was a very big time for me. I became a mother in the time that I lost my mum. And if you listen back to some of The Putbacks albums, the album Crossover [2021] was me finding myself… I didn’t wanna let go of her. It was very, very hard, because we were so close.   

“We’d all head to Tamworth Country Music Festival every year – Mum had this whole thing where she’d take whoever wanted to come – and she’d take me there and put me in the busking competitions, and talent quests; any competitions that were there. I’d just be singin’ loads of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn songs. She played me a lot of their music. I just loved it. I still love it to this day – like, when we play country music here – so it’s cool. The girls are listenin’ to it now. And Dolly Parton, you know? That was my upbringing.”    

During her mum’s final moments, Donovan has admitted, “I knew she was going to go, and my uncles were like, ‘Come on, sing for her now’.” This experience inspired another of Til My Song Is Done’s standout tracks – Sing You Over, a gentle waltz – which features Paul Kelly plus lap steel and harmonica.

Emma also played alongside Uncle Archie in the travelling Black Arm Band project and shares, “I’m most inspired by artists like Uncle Arch and how he would tell stories, in his own perspective, to connect. And that was the biggest inspiration for me: if there was anything I wanna continue doing, it’s that and hopefully being inclusive of mostly our story – the indigenous aboriginal voice, you know? – and what we have to say and share.”

Another important creative connection for Emma, Mick Meagher – also a former Black Arm Band member and The Putbacks’ bassist – co-wrote and produced Til My Song Is Done.

“We were just sendin’ ideas back and forth. And I’d be like, ‘Oh, whaddaya think of this?’ I think I was more asking him, like, ‘Is it alright?’ – yeah, my confidence again, you know? Asking him if those tunes were any good, pretty much,” she observes, laughing.

Donovan often laughs heartily throughout our Zoom chat and her eyes dance with excitement, particularly while discussing her latest solo musical endeavour. At one point she even apologises: “Sorry if I’m talkin’ too much now, gettin’ excited!”   

Of her upcoming solo record, she emphasises, “It’s my voice there, vocally and lyrically,” before acknowledging the “incredible musicians and beautiful people” she assembled to play on the record, including drummer Danny Farrugia: “When we were singing Sweet By & By, the gospel one about ‘on the beautiful shore’ – that’s the English words – I remember tellin’ him about that and then I said, ‘Oh, it would be cool if we had some kind of sample or something to do with the ocean. Or have some kinda representation of the waves or the ripples of the water.’ And then, musically – with his beautiful heart – he finds these percussive instruments that represent the ocean. So that’s what you hear on the album.

“I know I have beautiful connections to them musicians – who play from their heart – that will help me tell my story that way.”

Donovan cites Liz Stringer, who features on the album’s powerful opening statement, Change Is Coming, as one of her favourite songwriters. “I wrote the track, straight-up, like, ‘I’ve gotta get Liz!’ Oh my gosh, I’m nearly getting emotional, but her album [2021’s First Time Really Feeling] was a big part of my life. I still get very emotional talking about Liz, because there’s just some albums that get you through some big stuff, you know? I remember just livin’ off that album, it was very special to me.

“When I was writing Til My Song Is Done, I was listening to a lot of Liz’s songs and stories and that’s where I was coming into some of my own strength, by myself.

I feel like we have a similar path: we’re very independent and we find ways to, creatively, stay in this space, you know? For ourselves. So when I wrote Change Is Coming, I thought of her magical voice – that voice that pulls you in. I absolutely love her and I’m just so happy to be singin’ alongside her on this album. I really feel like it's a solid duet; I can have a good sing with her, you know?” she admits, chuckling.      

“Because I just looked up to her so much, I was so nervous and I didn’t know how to approach it. But I thought, ‘You know what? We’ve just gotta find a way, ‘cause there’s no right way – you’ve gotta feel it. Especially with a vocalist like Liz, you just wait for it. And hopefully one day we'll do that song live together, too, you know?” (Editor’s Note: please make this happen stat.)

“Havin’ someone like sister girl, like Liz, alongside me – I know there’s solid women like her in the industry that I have to lean on. And that’s why when I say there’s a lot of positive change for me also – steppin’ into this solo path, I know that there’s so many women to lean on to make it happen. I’ve gotta have that hope and I always will, you know? And that’s one of my biggest strengths, yeah.”    

Til My Song Is Done concludes with Yibaanga Gangaa (Sweet By & By), which Donovan sings in Gumbaynggirr. “I had a few language words that I knew growin’ up,” Donovan explains, “but not as fluent as what people can yarn-up today. I still get a little bit, ‘Oh, shame,’ when I go back home and try to speak to my family in Gumbaynggirr. But I have a good go and I do it through music – that’s my way of contributing. And to have something there for my family to learn Gumbaynggirr.”

“I had to do that one,” she stresses. “There’s all the old hymns and that, that Nan and Pop used to sing, and that one [Yibaanga Gangaa (Sweet By & By)] was my tribute to them, you know?”

Translating this “old gospel song” proved difficult, however. “I had to workshop that with some of the old fellas and make sure it was more of a natural way of saying things. You know, ‘black fella English’ first,” Donovan says, laughing. “Then translate that to the language parts. But, yeah! It felt like it was flowin’ by the end.

“I just can’t wait for mob to hear that. It’ll be beautiful. And they’ll use it in community, you know? Like they might play it at – I grew up singin’ for funerals; not just myself, we’d sing as a whole group, as a whole family. There’d always be requests, ‘Oh, would the Donovan families come in?’ Blah-blah-bah’s son or daughter or aunty or someone had passed and then we’d all go. And it’s still like that… There’s always gonna be plenty of Donovans to sing for family and gatherings. And that’s the beautiful thing about my family, I guess, and that’s what I'm proud of – we can do that.

“If there’s anyone I’m trying to impress here – and I keep sayin’ it – it’s my family. And, you know, if I do something on my own, I’ve gotta get street cred from all the uncles and the mob,” she confesses, cracking herself up. “And not to say that I haven’t had that over the years, it’s just a different style of music for me and I know it’s closer to some of the stuff I was brought up on, and the sounds that the mob from community, and my family, can relate to.”    

Til My Song Is Done is out April 19 via Cooking Vinyl Australia.