The Bull sisters took their gospel-singing Tongan background and perfectly blended harmonies and carved a decades-long career as both quintessential musician’s musicians and popular favourites. “I like the challenge of creating something out of nothing,” says younger sister Linda. “And then what happens at the end of that process is you get a song that you can sing for years.” By Shaad D’Souza.
Singers Vika and Linda Bull
In the music industry, endurance is an underrated commodity. Only the most exceptional artists have the flexibility and staying power to accrue popularity and success over a whole career. The Bull sisters, Vika and Linda, proved they are one such act this year when 'Akilotoa (Anthology 1994-2006) – a rich, vivid double album of their most beloved songs – was their first record to hit the top spot on the ARIA album chart.
Three months later, the duo’s second record of 2020 – a gospel album recorded quickly in isolation titled Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso) – debuted at No. 2. The commercial success of 'Akilotoa and Sunday over the past few months is the result of a decades-long career of hard work and perseverance against the toughest odds.
“I didn’t expect 'Akilotoa to go to No. 1 – I was quite shocked, but pleasantly surprised,” Vika tells me over Zoom, where she and her younger sister are speaking from their respective Melbourne homes. The anthology marks the beginning of a new era for Vika & Linda, a reintroduction to the duo after nearly 15 years without new music.
It’s a long time between drinks. They have always been active – as scene-stealers in Paul Kelly’s band, in concert and theatre, on SBS’s RocKwiz and countless other places – but hadn’t recorded new material since 2006’s acoustic Between Two Shores.
A new album of original material was planned to follow 'Akilotoa, until Melbourne was plunged into lockdown. “We started doing a gospel song every week on Facebook and Instagram, every Sunday, and things changed then,” Vika says. “People responded very positively to our Sunday Sing Song [video series], so we thought, ‘Okay, let’s make a gospel record.’ ”
Vika & Linda’s Sunday Sing Song videos have drawn huge view counts, and for good reason. Their sisterly harmony drew them initial success decades ago and it’s still their silver bullet, a synchronicity and connection that draws listeners in deep. Hearing Vika & Linda sing each week, even if only through a screen, was an expression of warmth and connection at a time when many people could find none.
“Chart positions are important, but our intention was always to have that music to be soothing and uplifting in uncertain times,” Linda says. “We just wanted to bring some happiness, some sort of lift. That’s what I’m most proud of – that that feeling was received loud and clear, and that people will remember those records during that time for that reason.”
It’s unsurprising that the Bull sisters’ first recording foray this decade is gospel: the form is baked into their DNA. Born in the ’60s to a Tongan mother and Australian father, Vika and Linda grew up hearing the Tongan choir at their family’s church. Their mother was a powerful vocalist, and introduced her daughters to the foundations that would eventually become essential to their music. One of the first films she showed them was Imitation of Life, a 1959 film about American civil rights-era racial inequality; at the end of the film is a cameo by Mahalia Jackson – the queen of gospel – singing “Trouble of the World”.
“Vika and I were really struck by her power,” Linda recalls. “Her voice made our hair stand on end. We hadn’t seen anyone sing like that before, not like that.”
Powerful, unique voices were catnip for the young girls. They inhaled the sounds of Jackson as well as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the inventor of modern rock’n’roll, alongside the more modern voices on Countdown and Top of the Pops: Marcia Hines, Bob Marley, Donna Summer. “If you’re gonna be a singer, you really have to go back and study the greats,” Vika says. “You can’t just be like, ‘I’m gonna be a singer’, and not give a shit about what happened in the past. Those people were very very important, and they paved the way.”
While it was clear early on that the rebellious, Bon Scott-loving Vika would always gravitate towards music, it came as a surprise to their parents that Linda wanted to follow her. Their mother made them a deal: attain a non-musical qualification and you can do whatever you want. Before long, both sisters were deeply entrenched in Melbourne’s pub rock scene. It was a tough sphere for women, let alone women of colour. Vika and Linda were prepared, fortified by a strength instilled in them by their mother, who emigrated from Tonga at the height of the White Australia Policy.
“We had our moments when we were treated very badly. How we navigated it was to actually address it, not ignore it, and not let it affect our inner toughness, because we’d grown up with it,” Linda recalls. “The minute Vika and I stepped out in public when we were little kids, it was like, ‘You’re different.’ When we became more public figures we knew how to handle it without getting into big fights. As performers, we thought ‘No one’s gonna remember that person, they’re just gonna remember my reaction.’ So we tried to be graceful and direct.”
Towards the end of the ’80s, Vika and Linda were singing back-up in the blues–rock band The Black Sorrows, whose style – sometimes grimy and rollicking, at other points more classically pop – suited Vika’s show-stopping, soulful howl and Linda’s softer-edged, but no less striking, country lilt. They contributed to some of The Black Sorrows’ biggest hits, singing lead on “Never Let Me Go” and dueting with bandleader Joe Camilleri on “Chained to the Wheel”. Despite their star turns, Vika and Linda never got ahead of themselves.
“As backing singers, our job is always to make them sound better. We’re never gonna go, ‘Look at me, look at me!’ ” Linda says. Even so, they are powerful drawcards in their own right. They are a staple of long-time collaborator Paul Kelly’s band, and are often given a midset solo section that, every time I’ve seen Kelly, has been met with a rapturous response.
Although Linda stresses the hard work that goes into their harmonising (“We worked hard on our blend, from four or five years old,” she says) Vika acknowledges that there might be something more powerful in their blood coming through their performance. “Tongans are great harmony singers,” she says. “I think we were just blessed with our mother’s voice. And because we’re sisters, we have that very unique sound – it’s like, every family, you hear siblings sing, they have a sound.”
The sisters’ canny fusion of different sounds – rock and soul, of course, but also traditional Tongan music and country – has made them quintessential musician’s musicians. Jimmy Barnes, lead singer of Cold Chisel and a celebrated solo artist, has performed with the sisters a handful of times, and played on their 1996 sophomore record, Princess Tabu. Like many of their other collaborators, he is also a fan.
“Vika and Linda mix gospel, Islander music, pop, blues and even Celtic melodies into a blend that sounds like no other vocal group I have heard anywhere in the world,” he tells me. “The blend of their voices is beautiful, strong and sometimes heartbreaking. They sing together in a way that only siblings can – instinctually knowing exactly what the other is about to do, moving seamlessly as one.”
When Vika and Linda began recording together as lead artists, they initially sang songs written by others. By the time they recorded their 1994 debut, they had already contributed to some of the most iconic Australian records of all time – including Archie Roach’s Charcoal Lane, Deborah Conway’s Bitch Epic, and records by John Farnham and Hunters & Collectors. Consequently, Vika and Linda features a murderers’ row of songwriters, including Kelly, Camilleri, Mark Seymour and Stephen Cummings. But Princess Tabu stands as the sisters’ towering triumph. Partly recorded in Tonga and featuring songs co-written by Vika and Linda, the album is a seamless braid of Tongan music, rock and country, featuring powerful meditations on genealogy and family.
“That was the whole purpose of Princess Tabu, to bring the two cultures together, and make something,” Vika says, naming the album as her favourite of their output. “I would like to revisit that album, and probably finish it off. I think it’s only three-quarters of the way there, you know? But I think there are some really beautiful songs on that record.”
“The album cover says it all, because there’s two of us blended into one,” says Linda. “I think as songwriters, that’s where we really stepped it up – we had to write, we wanted a hand in every single song.”
While both sisters write songs, Vika – who enjoys the process much less than her sister – sees herself more as a powerful interpreter. “It’s like Whitney Houston covering Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’. She can sing the fuck out of that song,” Vika says. “Nobody else had done it like her; Dolly had done it, Linda Ronstadt had done it, a couple more people had done it, but it wasn’t ’til Whitney came along [that it became a hit]. I do agree that you have to be involved, in some way, in getting a song together, [but] I don’t like the sitting down and nutting it out, I find it incredibly frustrating.”
Linda, on the other hand, still writes. “Down on the Jetty”, a spare, sweet heartbreak song she wrote with Paul Kelly on a fishing trip – “Vika was meant to be on that boat,” Linda notes, “but she saw him with his guitar, pushed me on, and said, ‘I’m leaving!’ ” – closes 'Akilotoa. “I’m a details person, Vika’s more broad brushstrokes. She comes in at the end and takes the song from here to there,” she says. “I like the challenge of creating something out of nothing. And then what happens at the end of that process is you get a song that you can sing for years. That to me is really gratifying.”
This push-pull of the sisters’ personalities – a perfect harmony of likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses – is the key to their longevity. Aside from a period of a few months in their 30s – when an unfortunate combination of business and romance caused a brief falling-out – their instincts have been consistently razor-sharp. In 2019, 25 years after Vika and Linda’s release, the pair regained the rights to their catalogue – a contractual condition they fought for when first signing with Mushroom Records.
“We knew that [our tapes] were valuable, even if they weren’t valuable to the record company and we hadn’t sold squillions of albums,” Linda says. Before signing, Camilleri, Kelly and others advised the sisters that control of their own catalogue was a holy grail of contractual clauses; Vika and Linda, in turn, carted Camilleri along to contract negotiations with the label, a kind of hired muscle to prove that, although first-time signees, they wouldn’t be duped.
“We knew that was important for our children if no one else, that they could have those tapes of ours, and they could exploit them in any way they want, without having to answer to anybody. That’s our legacy, our whole musical career. Everything we slaved for and wrote down – under Vika’s stairs.”
That reclamation of their old work, as well as the release of 'Akilotoa, has meant that 2020, as transitory and strange and awful as it has been, is a fresh, exciting new start for Vika and Linda. Sunday has the vigour and excitement of a debut. “We’ve always sort of been in the background, going from the back to the front a lot on the stage, and our natural inclination was to step forward and just do something together,” Linda says. “It wasn’t to hide. If we were more high-profile, we probably would have gone, ‘Let’s have a bloody rest.’ ” Vika sums it up simply: “That’s what Tongans do – they sing!”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2020 as "Soul sisters".
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