By Rose Bassett, Jake Amy and Hugh Heller
Earlier in the year I had the pleasure of chatting with Emma Donovan, a powerhouse vocalist from so-called Australia, whose songwriting captures brutally-honest experiences of grief, struggle and redemption. Emma’s ongoing collaboration with The Putbacks is a revolutionary fusion of American soul music with Indigenous protest song. We talked music industry: representation, gender equality and generational change. Our conversation was warm and Emma’s laugh - infectious. As one of the world’s leading musicians, Emma’s thought-provoking insight draws from her personal experiences in the scene. What follows are some of the highlights of our phone call.
What was it like growing up surrounded by music and performing as part of The Donovans??
I always tell mob: I was a bit spoiled when it came to music and growing up. The music came from my grandparents on my mum's side. I was their oldest grandchild. Mum had five brothers and they all played music. The mob sang a lot, and they wrote lots of gospel music, because I grew up around the missionary days where Aboriginal mob were sent to missions.
I feel like my first lot of gigs or the first time mob was asking me to sing outside my family, still come from them connections, like mob knowing my grandparents or mob knowing my nan and, like my mum even. I sang a lot with the family growing up, like six years old, seven. But then publicly, like when my first gigs were Naidoc gigs.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are very, very tight, you know? Everybody knows everyone. So, a lot of my first ever gigs were around Redfern, Sydney, Yarra Bay, like some of that the Aboriginal community there, mob that you knew. So for me starting off, there was a lot of support, and I was still in school.
Then opportunities came again. I was a part of a trio, The Stiff Gins - they're still around (Nardi Simpson). But that was then kind of my thing, where I stepped outside of the family. I stepped outside of the uncles backing me and that. We just were asked to play in the community, so yeah, I feel pretty lucky for those times.
What does representation in the industry mean to you? What do you think it means to the people who see you perform and hear your music?
Well, my music is always for everyone, every race, every gender. I hope that it just connects somehow to someone. I think more specifically when I'm writing, sometimes the messages that I want to put out are for women [in general], not just Aboriginal women. I was always inspired by Aunty Ruby Hunter. She wrote so many fucking amazing songs that I just thought, “How could she have the guts to tell that yarn?”; her perspective as a Blak woman. Hard things like domestic violence, rape, social stuff… Aboriginal women being accepted in community. I think of writers now, like probably in the last 5 years, and I've gone, “Oh fuck, Aunty Ruby was really truly something”. First of all, her image. Her image was the first thing I noticed about it. Just seeing another Blak woman. Just seeing her represent.
So yeah, I hope that my music is... I hope that it reaches as many people as possible with the stories I'm strong enough to tell, like Aunty Rube. I hope that Aboriginal mob like myself can hear it and see me and go, “Fuck, sis. I feel the same'', or “thank you”. [I'd like to think] it helps in a way.
In the Australian industry, do you think there is a gender divide, and if so, how has it presented itself to you in your career?
I feel like there's always been Aboriginal women less represented in the industry. I'm not sure how that is in regards to this division that the industry makes, but I feel like there's probably a lot more opportunity for other mob to put music out there these days. I feel like there was less representation of Indigenous women when I was growing up. Like there was such a big leap from an artist like Aunty Rube to Christine Anu. They are two different artists, two different age groups, and there was just such a big skip. Whereas now, you know, I feel like a fucking old women now saying this but, you know, there's so many, there's all these young women. There's like, Emily Wurramara, Thelma Plum. There's all these young women they're just firing it. They’re just... you can't keep up.
I feel like there's always been less representation of women in that longer period. I don't know if that's from just less opportunities or maybe women not feeling confident, you know, as an artist to put themselves out there in the industry. I feel like the Aboriginal music industry today is a lot tighter, like there's more opportunities for us whether they're in or out of our communities, there's just a lot more opportunities and the way people are programmed or program Indigenous music, it's at the front line now for a lot of festivals. It's a lot different to you know, old Blakfulla stages and other festivals. Indigenous mob are, they're part of bigger programming or there's none of that little segregated fucking stage anymore - Of "this is where the Blakfullas are gonna play". You know, it's like, we're part of the full programme, we open fucking festivals. That's big fucking change. Like, you know, artists before me, people like Stephen Pigram or the Pigram Brothers, Mark Atkins, Coloured Stone and all them mob used to play in the 70s. They were getting booked for gigs and getting turned away at the fucking door because they were black.
I think there's been a lot of changes that have happened for Indigenous mob. And you know, even if there aren't other platforms, I feel like the Aboriginal community itself has made big platforms for our mob. We've embraced our own mob. Like we're not worried about being a part of mainstream or this or that. Like that was a thing of the past now, I think. There's the biggest mob of us everywhere now.
And I think it's naturally happening. Like I want to believe that it's naturally going to happen. I just feel that bit of change, like even over the fucking last long weekend [speaking on the Black Lives Matter Rally]. There's so much support behind mob now. I feel like, yeah, there's a lot more support in them areas and I think it's naturally happening and naturally making its own way. And even if some of them quota things are in place, I just feel it’s all naturally coming about.
R: It's amazing how generational and societal changes can happen organically in some ways...
I think sometimes in the music industry we're a lot more privileged, like, there's a lot more acceptance. What scares me is society itself, I guess. I've been a part of a lot of different collaborative projects in the arts that have combined Indigenous mob, non-Indigenous mob, especially projects like the Black Arm Band. And you know, sometimes you think to yourself… Like it's so fucking amazing doing work in music together. And you go on tours for like, you know, months or whatever and then you come up and something stupid and crazy happens at home, because you're not in that world anymore.
Sometimes I used to think, you know, we're in that fucking big bubble together and it's like a big fantasy or it's like a big dream that things work or, we don't even see skin colour or music like that. Just because we're there to make music. That's how I feel with the Putbacks - the collaborative band that I'm in now. I don't feel like it's black or white anything. We make music because we want to. We love soul and funk music. We make it together.
And that's why I always say like, it's... artistic mob that are in the arts, we have them, we accept all of that, we want it, we are for change and we can naturally make things like that happen. That's where I feel confident to say that you know, some of these changes can organically happen because that's, that's the people we are. We want to make it happen.
Keep up to date with Emma here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.