Emma Donovan is an Indigenous musical artist from the legendary Donovan clan of the mid-north coast of New South Wales, of Naaguja, Danggali, Yamatji and Gumbaynggirr heritage. She co-founded The Stiff Gins, has sung with the Black Arm Band, as a solo artist, and in collaboration with Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, Christine Anu, Yothu Yindi, Paul Kelly, Shellie Morris, Dan Sultan and her cousin Casey Donovan. Her main style is soul, but she’s worked in reggae, folk, R&B and gospel.
Recently she was executive producer and consultant on Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow, the filmic story of Roach and Hunter’s legacy. Donovan’s currently fronting The Putbacks, preparing The Old Rugged Cross, a retrospective of her evolution with Paul Grabowsky, for imminent touring, and was nominated twice in the 2021 ARIA Awards for The Putbacks album Crossover.
She chose to speak about the influence of her grandparents, Micko and Aileen Donovan.
So your grandparents Micko and Aileen Donovan were the start of your music career. Can you tell me about that?
I think I was about nine when Pop passed away. By that time I’d learnt a lot of his songs, when I was young, like the first time I started learning harmonies and singing. I had more time with Nan. With Nan the memories are really strong; the family would sing a lot with Nan. They’re my biggest influence, because when I hear my nan’s voice I feel that most of my voice is from her.
So my grandmother, she’s Dhangutti, and her name was Aileen; her mother was a Quinlan and a Bradshaw. She was born in Kempsey, but she grew up around Burnt Bridge Mission, a Seventh-day Adventist mission out there. Pop was from Bowraville Mission and he’s the Donovan of the family, and his mother was Dhangutti. So that’s their family names.
Nan would have known a lot of the old hymns and sung a lot of them. He was musical, the story is that Pop learnt a lot of music from the missionaries. There’s funny stories of Pop borrowing a piano from the nuns and actually breaking it! I know Pop was involved with some older bands, he sang with community and he would have sung with all his cousins. Gumbaynggirr mob are known for singing. And this is where all the country music comes in. When I heard songs really young it was always country, then a lot of it was gospel style. There’s one song in particular that I learnt really young, called The Promised Land.
Country music from America, gospel… songs full of feeling.
I remember the old songs my grandmother sang: a lot of Hank Williams, Jim Reeves. And there were singers like Roger Knox, Col Hardy, a lot of the Black Aboriginal country singers: my grandparents had all them connections with, too. It was a big scene. And the other yarn was, they’d have these dances, they called them old barn dances, and my grandfather would play a lot of instruments. He played guitar and piano. He had another brother that played organ and they had a band, they’d have these little dos. Mob would come along, put some money on the door and they’d fundraise: a lot of these shows were for community. They sang a lot to raise money for Aboriginal health or other things. Our family is known for funeral time. We always get requests to sing at funerals because of the churches and ceremonies and these songs my grandfather wrote about the afterlife. Pop died really young, he was 54 or 56. Nan didn’t make her 60th.
Do you think your grandparents wooed each other with their music?
Yeah, I reckon that’s what brought them together more. They married really young. It’s just ironic that Nan sang and Pop was so musical and that was the story: they had six children and one of them was my mum, and the five brothers.
My nan was really loud, she spoke really loud and vocal, and my mum was the same. I feel I’m a lot like her. When I sing with my uncles a lot of their voices are like Pop’s voice, he had this really soft, pretty voice and then Nan had this big powerful voice. They did really cool old covers too, there’s an old country song, it’s an arguing song. There’s a recording of them at one of my uncles’ weddings: Pop’s just being silly and talking about all the arguments you have as a married couple, but then making up is lots of fun…
It was funny them sorting out songs with key – we all laugh when we hear recordings of them because they changed key. Pop would sing his verse in his key, and he’d change the key up a tone or whatever for Nan to do her verse, and then they would have compromised somewhere in the chorus when they were doing it together. There were a few key changes when you’d hear them sing.
Sounds like the perfect metaphor for a good marriage.
It’s so beautiful to hear it, because no one really does that in songs anymore. There’s a recording in the Canberra archives. They’re yarning to this man who deposited and collected lots of stuff. You can hear their beautiful voices and them laughing and some of the music that Pop wrote, and some that they sung together.
I’m proud yarning about them and thinking of all the things I was brought up having with them, especially the music side. Musically that was the start for me. My mum, I think at some point she might have wanted to do music more, but in them days, you know, she moved to the city to get a job and help send money back to Nan and Pop for her brothers. She was a beautiful singer too: she was asked to go on tour with Jimmy Little, and she couldn’t do it. There were things that Nan and Pop were expecting of her. When I was six, Mum discovered that I had this little voice, and she pushed me.
The family just idolised them as a couple. I’m proud, always, to tell everyone, even the cousins: well, I’m the oldest grandkid, I had more time with Nan and Pop. I feel there’s a whole tribe of grandkids now, even great-grandkids, and they know, they know that there’s songs and there were these two people who, yeah, who were musical and left us with all this musical love and inspiration.
We’d go to Tamworth every year for the Country Music Festival. We’d all go as a family, all the uncles, Nan and Pop, all the cousins. We’d be in every category. I wasn’t born Emma Donovan, my father was [named] Councillor. The rest of the family would all enter as Donovan, so I entered Emma Donovan, and that’s how I’ve stayed. It made my dad really angry! I was like, “Dad, I have to do this, this is the name, this is the legacy.”
It’s nice sharing it. I was trying to think, was there a book or something that means a lot to me, and I couldn’t think of anything that means more.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "Emma Donovan".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription