It seems inconceivable now that there was once a time that Danielle Caruana didn't dare create music. The youngest of six precocious siblings – some of whom travelled the country like a Maltese-Australian version of the Jackson 5 (including Nicky Bomba, now leader of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra) – she went on to marry virtuoso musician/activist John Butler. She is a major player in The Seed Fund, which provides arts grants and practical support to Australian talent, but cowed by other people’s talent, she seemed destined to fall into the “behind every great man there’s a great woman” role.
Fortunately for us, Caruana tackled her fears head on when she realised how important it was to inspire her children. She released a fine debut album as Mama Kin in 2010: Beat and Holler. This February 22, her second album, The Magician’s Daughter, is released – and with it she's raised her game. Caruana’s favourite singers – Aretha Franklin, Joan as Police Woman, Gillian Welch and Laura Marling – all deliver a raw-nerved emotion and spirituality just by the quality of their voice, and her ability to do the same will make her an enduring talent. Time Out tracks her down to Western Australian bushland for a chat.
Danielle, The Magician's Daughter has a feeling of folklore to it, of tales being handed down from generation to generation. Was your intention for it to be nurturing?
My biggest thing with my music is connection – and that might be simply connection to the songs, or a connection to a hidden emotion or a buried grief. It might be a connection to a loved one; it might be appreciation of a loved one; it might be feeling connected in light of feeling disconnected because you think that your experience is only your own.
I think that music can sometimes play the role of making you realise, “Oh wow, I’m not the only one who that’s felt this deeply and therefore I’m not bad” or “I’m not wrong or I’m not different. I’m just one part of the human condition.”
There's a Native American influence to some songs – like the delightfully spooky 'The River As She Runs'.
The interesting thing about writing this album is I didn’t write only stories that had happened to me. I pulled on other people’s experiences, or fiction – and through that, by putting my own experience into them, they become familiar. Our experiences are common to each other if we dare to share them. Connection and nurturing is very much what I aim to do in my life so music is another extension of that.
We have so much desire, don’t we, as humans? So much desire to be understood, or desire for things to turn out as we want them to turn out, or desire to feel connected. I think all of the songs hold a thread of desire in them.
How do songs come to you?
Some of the songs arrive fully formed in my lap by grace of some other force and I have to just do my best to keep myself out of the way and get them down. Some I have to work hard for and I kind of get a scrap of an idea then I craft it out of sheer will and determination and the desire to paint the picture of the emotion I’m trying to communicate. As a songwriter the most important thing to do is to keep finding different ways of writing songs, because if I only count on one method I’m stuffed.
I only used to have the only method where they’d arrive fully formed on my lap and I would say, "Thank you God and next time you come along I’ll surely be ready.” But those times between songs felt very, very long and feel very, very frightening, so between the last album and this album I did some songwriting courses. I did a lot of co-writing, I just started trying to hone what it is to be a more deliberate writer. And I saw some really inspiring pieces about it and did a lot of research on what writers do and I think the most important thing is being quite strategic about it and turning up and having a craft so that when a nexus of an idea comes to you, you have a way of excavating the whole picture – and that’s been really exciting as a writer to start delving into that.
You've spoken of your doubt in your talents before you put together Mama Kin. Do you think such self doubt might be a trait of many female artists?
Definitely. I don’t want to be brushstroke here, but women tend to be more risk averse than men. When I became a mother, my risk aversion went through the roof. I went from having not a great attachment to life, no great aversion to death, to becoming a mother and thinking, “I can’t die. This child is completely dependent on me, for wellness. There is a whole different investment in life now.”
As an archetype model, I think women are risk averse because we have to be! (laughs). We bear the future, the continuation of our race, in a different way that men do. Men can father many, many children, women can carry, at a stretch… 15? These days we’re lucky to carry two.
You have two children, Banjo (ten) and son Jahli (seven) with John Butler and ‘I’ll Be Ready’ is about the initiation of giving birth to a child. But can you see this pattern of doubt in your daughter?
Yes! My son is so sure about how good he is, it’s almost embarrassing, but she is so sure about how shit she is at stuff, it’s also embarrassing. Hopefully they both will even out. Literally, I have to inspire humility in my son, and inspire bravery in my daughter. The humility will carry her through to understand the subtlety of things that he will potentially never understand. It is an interesting comparison that I think is beautiful between men and women.
Given how frustrated you were feeling before forming Mama Kin, was music a lifeline for you?
If I could’ve written a mental health plan, in hindsight I’d say this has been a huge part of it. It’s been absolutely a part of my wellness and will continue to be for the rest of my life. I need to create, I need to write, I need to make music, I need to sing it. I need to be singing often. Without it – not wanting to sound cliché – it’s not just my whole heart, it’s my whole being that gets stuck. Previously I was completely stifling it, completely denying it. I would write and then hide what I had written. It was acutely and painfully private.
Is it a logistical nightmare co-parenting with another musician? I'm picturing lots of Excel documents.
There is a big spreadsheet and there is a lot of colour coding! I feel like we’re getting really good at it. I feel like it’s less like taking off one hat and putting on another, and more like different aspects of the same being. It used to feel quite jarring. But what I’m finding is that our kids see us as two creative people who are always either writing, recoding, or touring. We’re a happy family, and we’re healthy, and we’re connected, and we make really solid time for each other. We address our needs as individuals and as a unit. I think that is really healthy for us. I feel like we’re OK, I really do. I’m not interested in having a monoculture, I want a diverse biosphere.