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Family ties: ‘Crossover’ by Emma Donovan & The Putbacks

By Doug Wallen
Straddling funk and soul, the singer/songwriter’s latest album has family and culture at its heart

In the six years since Emma Donovan released her first album with The Putbacks, she has become a mother and lost her own mother. Those deep family ties are threaded purposefully throughout Crossover, an emotionally high-stakes follow-up whose title refers to moving beyond this life.

Of course, the word doubles as convenient shorthand for the genre- and culture-bridging union of Sydney-based singer/songwriter Donovan – whose mother and father came from the Gumbaynggirr and Dhangatti, and the Naaguja and Yamatji people, respectively – and The Putbacks, a Melbourne five-piece who have backed other singers and released their own instrumental music. Together, the two creative forces cut their own path through vintage-style funk and soul (and well beyond) while echoing the protest songs of both Indigenous Australia and black America.

Such layered meaning is characteristic of Crossover, starting from its opening title track, a tender ballad that could be mistaken for being romantic until the lyrics directly refer to Donovan’s mother, Agnes. “You were the sugar and the cream / Gluing the family dream / You were a healer of hearts / Our matriarch,” sings Donovan. A powerful declaration of devotion to her mother, who died of cancer while Donovan was pregnant with her second daughter, the song demonstrates how The Putbacks play in close conversation with Donovan’s nuanced singing. Rather than lock into the kind of upbeat groove they know so well, they hold back at a warm and serene simmer. Even the radiant keyboard flourishes from Simon Mavin, who also produced the album, are kept delicate and discreet.

Another matriarch informs Crossover: Donovan’s departed grandmother, Aileen, who formed the family ensemble The Donovans with husband Michael and their six children (including Donovan’s mum), playing church songs and country music alike. Emma sang with The Donovans as well, starting from age seven, and met her future collaborator Archie Roach while still a child. She pays loving tribute to Aileen on lead single “Pink Skirt”, named for her grandmother’s distinctive fashion statements. Against a sweet groove that evokes What’s Going On–era Marvin Gaye, Donovan details rural fishing trips with “Nanna” and the valued wisdom she now passes on to her own daughters.

Musically, the album draws not just on Motown legends like Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but also the classic runs enjoyed by other American soul labels, whether the raw and funky snap of Stax (think Otis Redding) or the devotional glow of Hi Records (think Al Green). Informed as much by those individual dynasties of soul music as by the church songs of her youth, Donovan inevitably recalls Aretha Franklin, especially in the way she commands the utmost emotional power without it ever feeling showy. The Putbacks follow suit, slipping across stylistic lines and drawing from the shared pool of experience that comes from playing in bands as diverse as Hiatus Kaiyote, The Bombay Royale and The Meltdown.

Drummer Rory McDougall and bassist Mick Meagher first met Donovan through Indigenous music collective Black Arm Band, to which all three have contributed (including Donovan as artistic director and Meagher as musical director). It’s fitting, then, that Crossover features a Black Arm Band song, written and composed by Ruby Hunter: “Yarian Mi Tji” (called “Yarian Mitji” here), sung in the South Australian language of Ngarrindjeri. Donovan also sings in the northern New South Wales language of Gumbaynggirr on “Warrell Creek Song”, a new arrangement of a traditional song that some of her relatives sang during their time.

Between its trance-like vocal delivery and a jazzy organ solo, “Warrell Creek Song” perhaps best encapsulates the album’s open channel of communication between traditional and more contemporary modes of expression. Meanwhile, “Mob March” is a mighty salute to the ongoing battle for Indigenous rights that feels even more urgent in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement (“Wearing our colours proud / Red, yellow and black / Screaming land rights / Reclaiming everything back”). Denouncing racism and prejudice by name while The Putbacks lean into an effects-streaked guitar solo and increasingly dramatic drum fills, Donovan reminds us that convincing protest songs are by no means a thing of the past.

Although the sizzling funk strut of “Leftovers” broadcasts more of a celebratory mood, it’s actually a hard-hitting condemnation of the perpetuated cycle of poverty. “How much we got left of the leftovers? / How much of the rent can I spend?” sings Donovan, spiritually harking back to her 2015 version of Ruby Hunter’s hardship-exposing “Down City Streets”, which she sang as a duet with Hunter’s partner Archie Roach, with The Putbacks behind them. Imbued with a real live-in-the-room feel, “Leftovers” showcases the spontaneity and tightness of this practised band (which also includes guitarist Tom Martin and percussionist Justin Marshall), as well as the more democratic approach to this album compared to 2014’s Dawn, which was primarily written by Donovan and Meagher.

Thanks to Donovan’s sustained gravitational pull as a singer, even songs centred on themes such as successful friendship (“Pretty One”) and sensual romance (“Hold On”) prove just as poignant as those exploring family and culture. With its dark, shuddering shroud of psychedelic rock, “Don’t Give Up on Me” turns a heartfelt plea for patience into a breakout anthem that lets The Putbacks show off more subtle tricks, like pivoting on sprightly organ interludes to leaven the song’s sheer intensity.

The connecting tissue of this album is an ambitious depth of feeling, both lyrically and musically, that makes this collaborative partnership seem like it could tackle almost anything. Crossover marks a serious leap forward from Dawn, and Donovan and band savour every moment.

Doug Wallen

Doug Wallen is a journalist based in Victoria.

@wallendoug

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