The soulful, honest voice of Emma Donovan will be gracing the WOMADelaide stage this March, accompanied by Melbourne rhythm band, The PutBacks.

Emma Donovan and The PutBacks.
Emma Donovan and The PutBacks.

Emma, released a solo album, Changes, in 2004 before being called upon to join the Black Arm Band where she met bassist Mick Meagher from The PutBacks and they joined forces to create beautiful music.

Australian music legend Paul Kelly has said of the collaboration: “Emma Donovan’s undeniable deep soul voice has met its match at last in The PutBacks. They sass and kiss, twist and twine like a totally-into-each-other feisty couple. Dawn is the perfect marriage of singer and band.”

Dawn is, of course, the new album by Indigenous soul singer Emma Donovan, and The PutBacks, which is a gritty and heartfelt record of songs telling tales of grief, struggle and redemption.

Recorded in one room on eight channels of analogue tape by Hope Street Recordings, the production of the album reflects the authenticity and rawness of its content.

“The PutBacks introduced me to Tristan and Bob from Hope Street and the album Dawn is probably the 15th album off their label and that’s pretty much what they do. That’s what’s special about them,” Emma says.

“It was a little bit new for me but there was a lot of trust there from the beginning. We got a small grant and we had a bit of money to do proper pre-production where we jammed a lot of the songs and arranged them in a different space, and then came together in the studio. I was really thankful for meeting the Hope Street mob. Seeing a lot of the other music on the label makes me really proud to be a part of them.”

Inspired by her tour with the Black Arm Band, Emma got together with The PutBacks and decided to tell her stories through her music.

New album, 'Dawn' out now.
New album, ‘Dawn’ out now.

She says her band mates: Rory McDougall (drums) Tom Martin (guitar) Mick Meagher (bass), Simon Mavin (Hammond organ) and Justin Marshall (percussion) who helped her get through a difficult time and inspired her to be honest.

“I suffered a bit of anxiety and depression and I still probably do, but I was in a really good place with people like Mick and Tommy. I’ve been in such a safe place from the beginning. As a songwriter some songs are very personal but with those guys there was that respect there where I could feel brave and confident to do it,” she says.

“I’m very proud now. It’s been a very big part of my healing. I was also touring heaps with Uncle Archie [Roach] and I remember singing beautiful gospel parts with sisters like Deline Briscoe and Auntie Lou Bennett, and then coming off that tour I just let it all out. I worked on things with Mick and the album just started writing itself.”

Emma Donovan and The PutBacks are a marriage of soul, rhythm and ideas, and has given the singer, who has been nominated for multiple Deadly Awards including Female Artist of the Year, a new lease of life.

“I met them mob back when I first started with the Black Arm Band around 2006 and we did some remote touring together. We were always kind of connected and I think it was a lot to do with the kind of music we liked and shared. I knew them mob were mad soul funk fans and knew a lot about that type of music. We used to share stuff all the time,” Emma says.

“We were looking for any excuse to have a little play and a sing outside of the Black Arm Band and then we got invited to play at Adelaide Festival at Barrio, so we thought we’d better get serious! We kept writing and it started there.”

Born in Sydney, Emma started her musical career singing country and gospel in family band, The Donovans.

Skip forward many years to her performances with the Black Arm Band and The PutBacks, and Emma has decided to take herself back to her roots.

“My collaboration with my family, and later with the Black Arm Band, shows me I’m still learning. Lou Bennett has been one of my biggest mentors and she was artistically directing Black Arm Band with Steven Richardson, who I respect as an uncle. Being on stage with amazing indigenous artists, and being a younger artist, I had to learn about a lot of songs and I think I learned a lot about our history in those songs,” she says.

“But being in the Donovans or just being at home with Nan and Pop, were the times when I first learned the harmonies and learned the courage to get up and sing. For WOMAD I’ll bring out some of my country and gospel roots. We’ll play some of the songs from the album but I asked Mick, if we could learn some of my Grandfather’s songs and make them our own. He’s passed now, but I know a lot of his music and all my uncles play his songs. I want to keep those songs alive.”

This March will be Emma Donovan’s third time at WOMADelaide and she is pretty excited about coming back to the festival so she can see all the other acts.

“I’m definitely looking forward to playing, but one of the biggest things for me at WOMAD is running around seeing the amazing program. I get more excited about the amazing program and organising myself to see everything. It’s a great time for me and the band to get out and see bands we love!” she says.

WOMADelaide is on from 6-9th March at Botanic Park, Adelaide; tickets are available from the WOMAD website.

You can buy Emma Donovan and The PutBack’s latest album Dawn here and view the clip for ‘Daddy’ below.

Story by Libby Parker

Photo courtesy of Emma Donovan and The PutBacks