One of Melbourne's most prolific singers talks about her love affair with Fitzroy, the shop she helps run, and her allegiance to Etta James
With her younger sister Linda, Vika Bull has sung with the likes of Bob Dylan, Archie Roach, Sting, Joe Cocker, Paul Kelly, Hunters and Collectors and John Farnham, in front of audiences including the King of Tonga, Nelson Mandela ("he's very tall") and the Dalai Lama. Now she’s flying solo, returning for a second season playing her beloved Etta James in At Last: The Etta James Story – part of a series of narrative concerts by Room 8 Productions that has included Rick Price as John Denver, Jordie Lane as Gram Parsons and Tex Perkins playing Johnny Cash.
Life is still very much a family affair though, as evidenced when we meet in Hoochie Coochie, Linda’s children’s boutique in village-y Fitzroy North. It stocks full only the very most adorable, old-school games and clothes – the sort you feel the urge to buy even if you’ll have to think hard of a kid to give it to.
“Linda and I started the shop in case we wanted to give up singing, have something else to do,” says Vika over a coffee two doors down at Piccante, owned by Linda’s boyfriend. The sisters still work together musically, though – in October, they have a Sunday residency at the Flying Saucer Club. “Linda’s quite artistic – she’s got a good eye for colour and stuff – and it’s full-on family around here. We all know each other.”
The Bull sisters grew up in Doncaster (their grandparents’ house was knocked down to make way for Doncaster Shopping Town), listening to a lot of country through their parents, as well as Elvis, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Haley and gospel. “The Tongans go to church four times a week,” Vika says. “Mum was one of the first here and she started the church, so afterwards they’d all come back to the house and sit around with guitars, singing their songs from back home. At the time it was embarrassing. We’d be playing with the other kids and we’d think, ‘Oh, here they go again’ – but now when I hear those old songs I get very emotional.”
Vika and Linda were taught traditional singing and dancing, and were roped in to perform at dinner dances. “My cousin David used to sing songs like ‘Moon River’ and Linda and I used to piss ourselves laughing,” Vika recalls. They’d tune into 3XY, Countdown and Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday, acting the big pop stars in their bedroom. Since she’d started attending Camberwell Grammar, Vika had discovered pub rock like Australian Crawl and Sherbet from her excitable classmates, and her first gig, aged 16, was Split Endz at Festival Hall (she’s since worked with Tim Finn and he has no idea of the formative role he played), “but it was when I heard Aretha, Etta James and Ruth Brown, I thought, ‘Wow, okay, this is the shit!’”
After leaving school at 17, Vika got a job making coffees at the Black Cat on Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street. Opened in 1982, it was modelled after 1960s cafés and is still thriving today under different ownership. Before too long she’d started a band with co-owner Tony Edwards. Blue Tomatoes did soul covers as well as a few originals, and played at the Batch Box in North Melbourne – owned by Black Cat’s Henry Maas. She also spent a spell as a backing singer for Fear of Flying, and in girl group Sophisticated Boom Boom (named after a Shangri-La song), in which she was joined by Linda.
She’s still mates with much of this “Fitzroy mob” who were to prove very instrumental in her career. She remembers singer Dan Sultan as a young boy, sitting at the end of the counter and playing his toy ukulele, singing while she worked with his mother Ros. Comedian Rachel Berger encouraged Vika to perform, but her first real break came from Rebecca Barnard, who was recording at Platinum Studios, where Vika found work as a receptionist. When the girl Barnard was recording with lost her voice, Vika was summoned into the vocal booth.
In 1988, drummer Peter Luscombe introduced Vika and Linda to Joe Camilleri, who wound up taking them around the world with his band, the Black Sorrows. As Joe told Time Out, back then it was nothing to do 300 shows a year. “He hasn’t slowed down,” Vika laughs at that. In November she’s playing with him again for the first time in 15 years, in a Van Morrison Songbook show with strings and horns. When the sisters moved on from the Black Sorrows in 1994, they decided to release their own album, Vika and Linda, which was produced by longterm cohort Paul Kelly. It was satisfying, when that went gold, to be recognised in their own right, rather than as in-demand backing singers, and it was the first of six albums to bear their names.
In 1997, Vika and drummer John Watson married, with daughter Mafi'iolani being born that year. Unsurprisingly, the 16-year-old is showing some precocious musical talent, picking bass as her instrument. “She loves metal and all that kind of singing, and I’ve got an appreciation for it now,” says Vika. “When I first heard it I thought, ‘They’re gonna ruin their voices’.”
There’s no genre of music Vika doesn’t like, but it’s still the soul sisters that she holds dearest. Her career has come full circle in that she is returning to the Etta songs she used to perform in her teens, this time backed by a band that includes her husband.
“I was too young to sing those songs when I was 17, but I loved the emotion in her voice and the way she could tell a story,” she reflects. “Now I’m older I can relate a lot more.”
1966 Born in Doncaster to a Tongan mother and Australian father
1983 Family moves to North Fitzroy. Gets a job making coffees at the Black Cat on Brunswick St
1984 Joins her first band, Fear of Flying, as a backing singer
1988 Joins Joe Camilleri’s Black Sorrows with sister Linda
1988 Falls for John Watson when she sees him drumming for James Reyne
1994 Paul Kelly produces Vika and Linda. Goes gold
1997 Daughter Mafi'iolani is born
2005 Opens children’s shop Hoochie Coochie with Linda
2013 A year after Etta James' death, tells her story with the Essential R&B Band