Emma Donovan and The Putbacks are due to play Perth Festival’s Chevron Lighthouse on 9 February as part of the Festival’s contemporary music program. Long a proponent of indigenous arts, in recent years the Festival has increasingly foregrounded Aboriginal musicians, and this year is no exception, with Donovan just one of a number of Aboriginal musicians bringing their music to Festival audiences.
“It’s so engaging. People want to learn it. They want to be included in it. Lots of mob, not just Aboriginal mob.”Emma Donovan
Donovan is a proud Aboriginal woman with family ties that bind her to both coasts of Australia. Her father’s side of the family belongs to the Naaguja and Yamatji people of Western Australia, her mother was a Gumbaynggirr/Dhangatti woman from Nambucca valley on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. She has spent time in Redfern and the western Sydney suburbs of Blacktown and Mount Druitt and for the past four years called Melbourne home, before moving back to Western Australia at the end of 2019.
“I’m down in Bunbury,” Donovan greeted Around The Sound with when we spoke to her on the phone. “I moved there before Chrissy. My family is down here. I lived here when I was really young, because my Dad’s down this way. I grew up around the east coast, Mum’s from up round Nambucca Heads. They did the split when I was about 12 and I left my Dad then.”
Given that Donovan is preparing to grace the Chevron Lighthouse stage, we suggested that her return to WA, as well as bringing her back to her Father’s side of the family, also was good timing for her musically.
“It’s perfect timing,” Donovan agreed, “because me and The Putbacks are ready to release again, another album. I love it. So far so good. I think I’m just loving being near the water again. I’m going to map out a plan for the album soon, and definitely doing more gigs over this way is part of the plan.”
That’s great news for fans of Donovan’s music. Emma Donovan and The Putbacks’ love of soul and Australian Indigenous music saw them burst onto the scene in 2015 with their debut album, Dawn. Five years later, they’re preparing to release the follow up and, speaking to Donovan, you get the sense that her experiences in the years between releases will see this new album scaling even greater heights.
“I think there’s a bit more country in this album,” Donovan said. “The Putbacks aren’t really known for country, but our guitarist, Tommy (Martin), he’s into a bit of rock and blues and country. I can hear a lot of influences there. Musically, the pace of it is pretty cruisy. I lost Mum two years ago, so when I was writing the music, I was still grieving and healing. I reflected a lot on Mum and Nan and I became a Mum in that time, too. So much has happened!
“This time, musically, The Putbacks kickstarted the writing process. So, a lot of the time, I sang to music they had already. So I feel it’s more of a solid collaboration, more of a band album.”
Donovan’s story is one of family and a rich musical heritage that gave her a love of singing, loud and proud!
“All my Mum’s family is from northern New South Wales,” said Donovan, “so with the new album, there’s a lot of songs in language. There’s a cover that we do which is in Ngarrindjeri language, it’s a song from Aunty Ruby Hunter. We’ve been doing small tours of her music last year. It came out of a NAIDOC radio gig that Uncle Archie (Roach) set up a few years ago with the ABC, and we focus on some of Aunty Ruby’s first songs. I’m a massive fan of hers. She was the first Aboriginal woman I heard when I was really young that had recorded stuff and was on TV.”
Ruby Hunter was a singer, songwriter and author who started performing in 1988. Hunter was Archie Roach’s life partner and, for much of their careers, musical partner. Hunter passed away in 2010. Both Hunter and Roach have become part of the fabric of Australian contemporary music and have inspired generations of musicians, particularly Indigenous Australians like Emma Donovan.
“Lyrically, I’m really inspired by the songs that Aunty Ruby wrote. And I’m also having a dig at some of the issues that I like to write about, some of the stuff that’s pretty hard to tell like domestic violence or being in toxic relationships. I’ve got experience with that, so I’ve always had the guts to tell some of them stories. That’s what came through with the Dawn album with The Putbacks.”
Speaking about growing up with her extended family family, it quickly becomes obvious where Donovan got her love of music. “I just brag all the time about my Nan and Pop,” she said. “My Pop died when I was nine and then my Nan passed when I was 16, so I spent more time with my Nan. My biggest memory is just sitting in the church with her. She’d go to church a lot and they’d play a lot of music. My growing up was country music and church music, so country gospel songs. To this day, what I do collectively with my family, what we always do is, if someone passes, we’ve got to go home and pay our respects and our biggest thing in the community is the Donovans are known for singing.”
The influence of those early days remains strong in Donovan’s music. If anything, it’s getting stronger. “The songs that we sing, some of my Grandfather’s songs are well known in the community, and I’m very proud of that,” said Donovan.
“This album is more language. I’ve got some songs from Nambucca heads, old traditional songs like my great, great grandparents were writing and singing from that way. That focus is more Gumbaynggirr language. Then I just wrote a few songs about part of our creation stories from Nambucca Heads and out that way, Gumbaynggirr country, mid north coast (New South Wales), is all about the ocean and how we survived as the saltwater mob. The songs aren’t the full story of our creation, they’re stories that have been passed down from our family and also shared by the language centre at home, the Muurrbay Language Centre. There’s a collaborative thing happening there.”
Donovan’s story is uniquely Australian. Her grandparents were both mission children and her family history is one of dislocation — separation from land, language, culture and family, and all of the generational impacts that result from such abuses. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the lyrical themes of Donovan’s music is domestic abuse and violence. As with many Indigenous artists, Donovan also uses music to reconnect with family, culture and language. Like her elders and peers, Donovan is using music to reconnect and repair the damage to her culture that is a direct result of the European invasion of Australia and years of government policy determined to extinguish Aboriginal culture and family connections.
Speaking about writing and singing in language, Donovan said, “It’s definitely important. It’s part of our identity as Aboriginal people. I grew up with English names like Emma and my brother’s name was Todd. When I had my children, I gave them Indigenous names. That was important to me as an Aboriginal woman growing up with a name like Emma.
“Also, I wrote a couple of songs in language for the kids, as well, with that focus to help them learn simple things in language like body parts or what you would call your Grandmother. Even coming back here (to WA), hearing the language again, I was like, ‘I’ve got some much language to learn’. That was part of the trip, coming back this way, to make sure I learn more of the language.
“I’m going to have to do an album in all the different languages.”
The prevailing sense you get from Emma Donovan, as she speaks about her family and career in music, is one of joy. In a world where, looking both back and forward, it often feels that such emotion is in short supply, Donovan is filled with the generosity of sharing.
Speaking further of singing in language, Donovan said, “It’s so engaging. People want to learn it. They want to be included in it. Lots of mob, not just Aboriginal mob.”
Emma Donovan and The Putbacks play Chevon Lighthouse on 9 February with Ngaiire. Click here for more information and tickets.