Thursday 27 November 2014

Emma Donovan: "A New Dawn, A New Day" [Interview]

The name 'Emma Donovan' may be new to most but her credentials as a vocalist and songwriter stretch all the way back to gracing stages at the tender age of seven years old.  While there have been various musical unions and collaborators since that time, it’s the magic she now makes with The PutBacks which is proving the very perfect chemistry to propel all involved into premier names in soul music.

Courtesy of the incredible HopeStreet Recordings label – whose catalogue in of itself deserves your attention – ‘Dawn’ marks hopefully the first of many musical pairings between the powerhouse Australian team of Emma Donovan and The PutBacks.  As mentioned, Donovan, having initially earned her stripes by singing as a part of the family band, The Donovans, at an incredibly young age, also attended talent competitions around the country.  The résumé expands to forming the vocal acoustic group, Stiff Gins, releasing her debut solo album ‘Changes’ in 2004, and joining the travelling group, The Black Arm Band, chalking up touring duties across England and Canada.  

Conversely, the gritty and bluesy funk injected into ‘Dawn’ by The PutBacks has seen the band open for fellow funk luminaries, Charles Bradley & The Menahan Street Band, The Bamboos and Booker T.  They also have a series of 45s and other excellent releases through HopeStreet, but it’s ‘Dawn’ – which also acts as the band’s own first full-length release as well – that marks their crowning achievement to date.

Together with Emma Donovan, they deliver such a distinctive and unique interpretation of soul music that it’s almost hard to draw upon any comparisons amongst today’s artists.  Any soul music fan knows they’ve stumbled onto a real gem in those rare instances.  It’s soul music that’s part country, part rock, part gospel, part blues; the lyrics have been touted as depicting ‘Emma Donovan’s life through song’ which is an incredibly apt description, but when you couple that with a voice that resonates every single emotion like it’s being experienced within that single moment, it makes for an undeniable moment for a listener.  It’s a distinction that not just turns listeners into fans, but fans into believers.

It’s our great pleasure to have secured time with Emma Donovan for an exclusive chat to celebrate the brand new album release of ‘Dawn’.

IMRAN MIRZA: Having come from such a musical family, what are your earliest memories of music growing up?
EMMA DONOVAN: Just singing and learning songs with my grandparents, also my mum’s brothers who played lots of instruments and sang together and waiting for my turn to always get up and sing with them.  It was usually with other visitors and family around or at birthdays and weddings [that] I would be encouraged to perform.

Do you have fond memories of your time in The Donovans?
Yeah, most of my memories with my uncles was playing with their regular gigs at leagues clubs and RSL clubs and getting up to do a few songs all the time.  After learning harmonies, me and [my] cousin would be allowed to stay for the full set.  I remember that feeling – I felt all grown up and a part of my uncle’s band more because I knew how to take the other harmonies and my uncle’s harmonies really well.  It was almost like initiation into the band – I had a place.  It was the same for my other cousin/little sister girl, when she finally knew all the chords well enough to play rhythm guitar.
Most of our learning and singing days together was travelling to regional NSW for the Tamworth Country Music Festival every year in January – it’s the capital of country music in Australia.  As a family, and individually, we entered many talent quests together, we were in nearly every category: female vocal, male vocal, duo act, group act, gospel, Australian, there was a Donovan in every entrance of the categories.  Fun times for us.

Who have been the strongest influences in developing your style of soul music?
I think singing country gospel music always had a lot of soul in it for me, Loretta Lyn and Tammy Whynette were my biggest influences growing up.  I use to sing that style so naturally growing up, singing with my Mum and Nan.  Later, by my teens, leaving home, I discovered my first big soul artists I was introduced by some friends to, in Australia was Renee Geyer and my dad had me crazy about Etta James and LaVern Baker.

You must be thrilled with the success of 'Dawn' – how would you say that release differs from your previous efforts?
I feel like the right people have been involved with Dawn from the beginning – it’s the right mob of good people by far that I have ever worked with, right from writing the songs with Mick and Tom (from The PutBacks), that process from the very start had a lot of respect and safety around it, very gently handled.
Taking these songs from The PutBacks and receiving songs from the band too have been handled with care and integrity, honest and the biggest mob of love without getting all gooey here! Relationships are tight and solid and there is a lot of trust that this album has been built from.  I think that differs from any other mob I have worked with and I know it’s the reason it’s got to people in a good way, with lots of goodness attached.  I humbly hope that it stays and continues this way.

How did the process of recording 'Dawn' come together?
A lot of time aside from work, kids, partners, family, gigs and home.  Taking that time to just slowly work on ideas a day or two at a time.  The main part of it was in early grieving stages of loss and hurt so I was in survival mode, and with the help of brother Mick, that kept the first part of the writing happening.  It had to happen because it was a part of healing, and safely songs were forming a skeleton.
From there, more playing with the full band happened and the magic of The PutBacks came together, rehearsing the song ideas and everyone then putting their two cents in.  Wow, what a process!  I was in my glory by this stage, seeing this amazing band come together as a melting pot and make these songs.  I was all ears and eyes, and I loved that feeling of rehearsing.  During that time, I had briefly heard of HopeStreet too and got to meet Bob Knob from the label.
The PutBacks and HopeStreet already had a solid recording relationship … and so I was learning a lot from them and was so excited but at the same time a little nervous.  I had to build a bit of my own courage.  I just loved how much they care about every little detail and how much courtesy there is in this room of humble musicians.  When we kept playing the tracks live, I couldn’t help but notice how much love was there and how much everything was specifically about the song itself, nothing else.

What's been a notable musical highlight for you thus far?
Definitely writing and being a part of the collaboration with The PutBacks – it’s been a dream being able to work with this band.  Honestly can’t wait for more gigs – don’t think we have gigged enough so just looking forward to some playing live.

Who would be a dream collaborator for to either record or perform with?
I’m a big fan of Lisa Kekaula, lead singer from The Bellrays.  I have seen her live in Melbourne at the Corner Hotel, and I am so in love with her voice and the way she performs.  She is the Boss!  A friend gave me her stuff last year and she inspires me, I am also a long life fan of many India.Arie albums – I have followed her for years, and, of course, my very first soul dream vocalist, Renee Geyer.
Talking about all my favourite singers too I can’t help imagine if I ever recorded with my Nan, the queen of my heart, what it would sound like, her voice was royalty.

What one song from the album would you play to win over a prospective new fan?
Probably ‘Over Under Away’, it sums up the album for me and I love the arrangement and the way the band makes their grand entrances.  I love that moment in the song, it means a lot to me, doing that bit live I properly have to hold myself together.

We'll save 'Over Under Away' for another post but will leave you with the gem of the band's lead single: 'Daddy'.

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