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EMMA DONOVAN – TIL MY SONG IS DONE: REVIEW



EMMA DONOVAN

Til My Song Is Done (Cooking Vinyl)

 

MUCH IS BEING SAID about soul/R&B singer Emma Donovan – most often seen as part of Emma Donovan & The Putbacks; here, solo – turning to country on this album. Which is only half right and almost ho-hum.


Not the music she’s making – which is anything but ho-hum as we’ll soon discuss – but the idea that country is such a departure from soul, either musically or culturally for anyone who’s grown up any time in the past 50 years (or 70 years, or more) that it would attract any shock.

It's the same roots. It’s the same spirit. It’s not just Beyonce.


Church and earthiness, sin and redemption. Songs of the working class and underclass. Southern American foundations and storytelling heart. Rhythm and rhyme. And always, even in their most misogynistic periods, always a place where a woman – not just a girl – can sing of pain and anger with as much right and clarity as joy and desire.


Honestly, I’d be more concerned if a good soul singer or a good country singer weren’t plugged into the other, understanding what each genre brings to the other. If you are going to, as Donovan says here, “keep singing my people’s pain”, you’d want to start from soul and country. And that’s where this Gumbayngirr, Dhungutti and Yamatji woman, a most excellent soul singer, a very fine country singer, is coming from.


As for the half right: there is as much outright soul music as country on Til My Song Is Done and separating them would be a fool’s errand.


There’s bango and twanging guitar in Change Is Coming but it’s alongside gutsy vocals – from Donovan and Liz Stringer - that come from the front pews and the protest line, and an electric piano solo that nods to Ray Charles (who knew a thing or two about soul and country’s entanglements) is married to the song’s clip-clopping rhythm.



In the title track, the pedal steel pointing to the long horizon is anchored by a hurt voice that holds the centre like a call from the pulpit; the declaration of persistence, of refusal to concede hope, is hummed by a wistful late night tone that speaks of open skies and unchecked roads.


While Liquid Gold has the chug of a beer-and-dirt-floor bar on a Saturday night, and you might instinctively hook thumb into belt loop and scoot that boot as she calls out “that’s country now, where it all began”, Donovan puts a growl into it all that suggests boots off and head back.


As Yibaanga Gangaa (Sweet By & By) takes the old hymn to a new place being sung in language while sinking its roots deep into country in both senses of the word, Spring Thing, an unabashed country weepy from steel guitar and forlorn tap on the snare to the serenading backing vocals, takes a slight turn to the low-lit nightclub in its final stages. It’s all bridges, and they’re already built.


There is another element to this of course which is we can easily assume that if you’re singing songs of resistance and cultural strength in adversity, then anything you do has soul at its roots and there ain’t nothing more representative of white cultural hegemony than country music.


That assumption is harder to stick, not least because there is a long strain of country music that has kicked against the pricks. But it’s also because, as Donovan sings of her father, the songs you grew up with, that spoke to you and lifted you, can represent all of that defiance and hope and faith.


In any case, as Donovan weaves between weariness, wariness and a focused tenor that could with the right provocation be fury, these songs make it clear that it’s not the mode but the mood that makes the difference. In song after song, she navigates a path that feels so very contemporary but is pitted with worn steps and potholes that tell us these stories go back a long way and we are still struggling on it.


Which is very country. Which is very soul.


 

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