Soul singer Emma Donovan returns to Adelaide this weekend, accompanied by Melbourne rhythm band, The PutBacks.
The young Indigenous soul singer released solo album, Changes in 2004 before being called upon to join Black Arm Band where she met bassist Mick Meagher from The PutBacks and they joined forces.
The collaboration has now released the album Dawn to critical acclaim and they will be playing some of that, and more, at Nexus Arts.
Speaking to The Upside News on her way back to Melbourne from Bendigo, Emma tells us she’s just been playing at the old gaol out there.
“I’ve been doing a few fun things lately. We did this really cool gig at the opening of the old gaol in Bendigo. They’ve renamed it Ulumbarra, which is a Djaara name. We worked with the local mob to get some stories and songs together and the history of the black fellas out this way. That’s a little project I’ve been doing which is separate from The Putbacks stuff,” she says.
Having just returned from a series of gigs supporting Paul Kelly, Emma says she feels really lucky to, once again, be a part of his shows.
“We came off the support gig the other week with the Paul Kelly mob. We followed him around to a couple of gigs and opened the nights for him. That was amazing. We got a bit spoilt playing in all the lovely theatres he booked. We’re pretty happy,” she laughs.
Emma has spent a lot of time on the road recently, with some of that time in our fair city.
She was in Adelaide to perform at WOMADelaide and returned for Spirit Festival at Tandanya.
Being her first WOMADelaide performance, Emma says she was nervous, but had the time of her life.
“WOMAD was awesome! We had two really cool gigs there. The first night we had a late gig and we were just getting warmed up. We were all nervous that we were actually playing WOMAD!” she laughs.
“We met some really good mob and once the nerves were over for the first gig, we played our second gig. It was one of the first gigs for the day and we really enjoyed it. WOMAD is so special; the program, hanging out, and trying to catch artists we really love; we loved it.”
Emma Donovan and The Putbacks released Dawn late last year and Emma says she’s been overwhelmed by the positive response they’ve received for it.
“We’re loving it. We were pretty happy when we did the run with Paul Kelly. There was a big mob feeling really good about our music and actually buying the CD so I was overwhelmed by that. On the last night when we did the last show at Enmore, so many people bought the vinyl as well. It’s lovely hearing all the comments of how people feel about it on the vinyl. Hope Street Recordings who we recorded with, they do a lot of vinyl and a lot of beautiful albums,” she says.
“The Putbacks have done about four or five recordings before I came on board to collaborate with them and the feedback has been lovely. I couldn’t be any prouder. We didn’t expect anything. We just wanted to sing and play together; we’re good friends. Me and the bass player and the drummer, we worked together for years with the black armband so we just wanted to play music together. It’s been nice the way the album has been accepted. We can’t wait to keep writing; we have some new ideas for more stuff together.”
The new ideas will see a return to Emma’s musical origins; she started her musical career singing country and gospel in family band, The Donovans.
“My grandfather was a beautiful songwriter and the next album will probably have more of my connection to music which I was brought up on; country and gospel. With Dawn, my family were really lovely and my uncles came forward and were really proud of the work,” she says.
“They started yarning to me about my grandfather’s music. My grandfather has passed now but he wrote lots of country, gospel stuff. I’ve been able to dig around, find some of Pop’s old songs and give my interpretation to The Putbacks. We’ll work out what we can do there, as well as include some traditional songs in my grandfather’s language. It’s opened up a whole thing with the family and how we can come together and share some songs.”
As well as being the catalyst for a reconnection to her family’s music, the release of Dawn has inspired Emma to start her own vinyl collection.
“I’m not a huge collector but with Dawn, it’s opened my eyes to a lot of beautiful music that’s on vinyl. The Putbacks have a huge collection! When we recorded the album, the guys asked if I had a record player and I didn’t, so I went back home and asked my mum. She dug around because we remembered my Nan gave me a really old one a long time ago,” she laughs.
“But it’s opened up a lot with me because my mum does community radio down on the south coast of New South Wales. She managed to give me some 45s of some of the old Indigenous songs, so I’ve started collecting now. I’ve found old bands my grandparents listened to; some of the old Koori singers like Uncle Bart Willoughby with No Fixed Address.
“I ended up scoring a really cool 45 with Warumpi Band originally singing ‘My Island Home’ so I’ve made it a bit of a thing now of, not just collecting cool albums The Putbacks tell me about, but also to find black fella vinyl. It’s started a bit of a hobby. Especially now I’ve got my new, flash record player! I’m loving it.”
Playing on the bill with Kylie Auldist and The Glenroy Allstars, Emma and The Putbacks will perform as a part of the Nexus Live season.
Emma says she’s excited to return to the place where she played her debut Putbacks gig.
“I’m looking forward to being able to come back to Adelaide. My first gig with The Putbacks was in Adelaide. When we first started getting songs together, started getting more serious about our music and thinking about writing new stuff and recording it, the first audience we played to was Adelaide mob,” she says.
“When you’re based in Melbourne and you get the opportunity to play in different states, it says a lot about what the people are into and how many people want to come and be a part of what you do. It’s been really overwhelming so we’re just really excited to come and play to you.”
You can catch Emma Donovan and The Putbacks on May 8th at 8pm, tickets are available through Nexus Arts.
Dawn is available on vinyl, CD and download via Hope Street Recordings.
By Libby Parker