(Photo by Derek Ridgers)
HOW DOES THAT TRUISM GO? Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t even do that, write about the people who do and the people who teach. And lie awake wracked with envy and bitter regrets.
Or something like that.
Which brings us to Antonella Gambotto (as you may remember the byline from its earliest appearances, as a teenager, in the 1980s in Australia and Australia), or Antonella Gambotto-Burke (for the full status), across a novel, a memoir, several book-length essays on motherhood, feminism and related matters (like drugs), short stories, screenplays, investigate work on human trafficking and the law, literary commentary, and, for those in the UK where she has spent most of the past 40 years, a radio interview program.
So, not a novice then. She’s earned respect, a living, and no small amount of fear – from people she’s profiled and people who worry she might profile them which may be explained by the titles of two compilations of her interviews: An Instinct For The Kill and Lunch Of Blood – along the way. And a daughter.
Yet in what might be called the second half of her life, Gambotto-Burke has found a new love, singing. Not just in some local choir but in an electro/rock duo alongside producer/writer Gavin Monaghan called Mama ft Antonella. She does words and singing; he does music and production; we might be doing a doubletake.
But not only are they serious, they’re actually more than listenable. Good even. A single, I Want What I Want, is out now, an EP will follow. Along the way, Monaghan, as quoted on the duo’s website, has declared his views on the collaboration (spoiler: it’s positive).
“The first time I heard the rich and sumptuous tones of Antonella’s voice was through my studio monitors,” he says. “It’s a commanding, diva-like presence that takes total control of centre stage and breathes righteous fire into any song.”
Further enquires have been directed to Gambotto-Burke. From the UK, she replies; in Sydney I try mostly to stay out of the way.
If we assume that every writer secretly wishes to be a singer, but most wisely don’t try or aren’t allowed, what or who made you think you could do this? More reasonably, you used to sing but never pursued it, yet clearly have something valuable in you. Why did you stop then and what’s allowed it now?
I never dreamed of singing - the opposite, in fact: I refused a number of offers. For example, Alan McGee of Creation wanted me to sing with the Jesus And Mary Chain at the height of their powers but I refused; the thought absolutely horrified me. Various English musicians have wanted me to front bands - guitarists, pianists - and sometimes I started but never really followed through.
I’ve always been really, really shy - not intellectually, but emotionally. Intellectually, I’m fearless.
In high school, I was always singing solos - I deeply loved music - but my life hit the wall at 16 when my grandmother, who lived with us, died. She was the most beautiful woman, and her death was drawn-out - cancer - and deeply traumatic. So the singing just stopped. Boom. I started wearing black. The grief was profound.
There was also this: I was never particularly close to my mother, who was a singer in her youth. She was featured on the 1960s Australian music show Bandstand, which was a trip, but was always scathing when people complimented my voice, so I never really had any confidence in my singing. The seismic shift in my courage took place in late 2019, when Alan asked me to join him for dinner with two friends.
One was a Grammy winner, a high-profile producer. We were all talking - the conversation was hilarious - when the producer suddenly stopped. "You should sing," he said, a propos of nothing. "The way air moves over your larynx. I work with voices all the time, and you’d be really good."
"DO IT! DO IT!" Alan cried.
The producer’s tone was so authoritative and Alan just looked so happy that for the first time in my life, I felt brave enough to try.
So that was really it. Alan and the Grammy Award-winning producer were responsible for kickstarting everything - I had nothing to do with it!
The strangest thing was that when I resumed singing - although that didn’t happen until the third English lockdown, when we were finally permitted to leave the house - I started wanting to wear colours again. My trajectory was the opposite of cool: from black to baby pink. I now dress like a mad person.
Tell me about your musical partner and your choice of musical style – did you seek him out because of the direction you chose, or did that come from your combination? How have you two worked?
Gavin, a multi-platinum music producer who’s sold over 20 million records, produced multiple UK number one albums and singles, twice won BMA Producer of the Year and Studio of the Year, had music featured in multimillion dollar advertisements and productions such as Peaky Blinders, the Twilight films, Austin Powers, and Gangs Of London, was recommended to me by a mate who runs a record label. This guy knew I needed a producer, and said - I’m paraphrasing - "Get in touch with Gavin. He’s a genius. He’s produced Robert Plant and other brilliant artists. Yes, he’s expensive, but so so worth it!"
I felt nauseated when I first Whatsapped Gavin a song. His response didn’t help. He was really curt - "I’m mixing, I’ll get back to you later. If I like the song, I’ll take you on; otherwise, forget it." Twelve agonising hours later, he replied. "Your voice!" he wrote. And then: "But ditch the band. You need to work with professional musicians. I know a stack."
I was in a state of incredulity. Wildly happy, but also shocked.
Weeks later - Gavin’s schedule is always packed - I found myself standing in his Wolverhampton studio, still hoarse after having lost my voice the previous week from nerves. I could barely sing. While Gavin could not have been kinder, he frightened me half to death with his musicianship and cool directives. Eventually, he sat me down and said, "Your voice is huge. It needs a much bigger framework."
Entirely out of my depth, I did something I’ve never before done in a professional context: I burst into tears. A double black belt - he was a member of the Commonwealth Games British karate team and is an experienced weapons handler - he coped.
I was all over the shop. "Look, I have no idea what I’m doing!"
Gavin, in a very patient voice, said, "You’re a diva. Let’s get some proper music behind you."
So I went away and waited. Eventually, he began sending music through, mostly techno. By that point, we were talking for up to six hours every night by Whatsapp. I had no idea whether he liked me or whether his interest was exclusively professional as our conversations never touched upon the personal. At one point, I even wondered if he was gay.
At the time, we were circling around the idea of being in a band. He was initially resistant as he’d toured with the Cult, Zodiac Mindwarp and others, and hated the whole scene - the drugs, the endless tour-bus anal sex loops, the parade of women, the emotional destabilisation - until he realised that I was interested in music, not partying.
A month later, Gavin unexpectedly drove down to London for the launch of Apple: Sex, Drugs, Motherhood and the Recovery of the Feminine. It was a languorous summer evening. The air, I remember, smelled of honeysuckle. We first kissed under a street light. So that was over a year ago.
It has been the happiest relationship I’ve ever experienced.
Working together has been strange and exhilarating – strange because I’ve never before collaborated, and exhilarating because I’ve never before collaborated. The exchange of creative energy alone is an intoxicant. I Want What I Want, our debut single, is all sex and anger and pumping Berlin techno, which we both love, so making it was so much fun - at one point, Gavin leapt up from his chair and began doing Village People-style pelvic thrusts to the drums.
We can fight when we work because we’re both used to running the show. On one occasion, we almost broke up – in retrospect, this was very funny. He said, “Right! Go! You can walk to the station!” And I said, “Fine! But I’ll catch a cab!” And then we both started laughing, went out for Chinese, and returned to the studio. We wrote a song about the fight.
Clearly Gavin’s musical experience and expertise overwhelms mine, so that has been both an incredible adventure and steep learning curve. Our working styles, which were initially very different, are now beginning to dovetail. We’re both perfectionists but I’m more so, pushing for more and more precision: tonal, subtextual, verbal. The slightest lack of congruence drives me bananas, whereas Gavin, despite the technical genius, is predominantly instinctive and driven by feeling.
We’ve written an EP – as yet unreleased – and half of the second album while working on the first, so an enormous amount of work has already been done behind the scenes. Filming the video for I Want What I Want was a dissociative experience, at once completely natural and surreal - you know, stomping about in red latex and a wig with a drone hovering. Gavin was just fantastic throughout, even when I became nauseated after spinning around too violently in the infinity cove. He’s incredibly patient and funny when I become overwhelmed.
Having been up close – sometimes, and hello to you Nick Cave, too close – with the music business and its practitioners, doesn’t literary writing sound a more sensible option for an adult than writing about or making music?
Ha! I write at length about my clash with Cave in Apple: Sex, Drugs, Motherhood and the Recovery of the Feminine.
Outside the sphere of motherhood, I’ve never been remotely sensible. I’m an extremely strict, meticulous and responsible mother - I dote upon my daughter - but in my own life? Never. While I’ve always worked obsessively, often to the detriment of my private life, I’ve never had a job - I’ve always freelanced. I’ve turned down national hosting positions on TV, editorships, absurd sums in advertising.
I even turned down an offer to front a liqueur because I felt it would be hypocritical (I don’t drink). I’ve never owned a car or property. No shares, no super, no private healthcare. I still type with a single finger. I’ve turned down proposals from ridiculously wealthy men.
Jane Austen would have considered me a perfect fool, but I'm madly happy.
So many lives are marred or destroyed by the pressure to be "sensible", to be "appropriate". The lives of people I know who married for economic reasons or companionship or who selected jobs on the basis of status pretty much all imploded eventually - affairs, breakdowns, depression, disturbed children, substance use disorders. A hugely successful law firm partner I knew completely fell apart in his forties, no longer able to cope with anything: a spectacular mental collapse. This wasn't unusual. Some suicided. Reality vs. facade.
I never wanted any of it; the price is just too high.
Even love sometimes needs to change form. On the completion of Apple, my most recent book, I felt as if I’d been shot in the head. The degree of research, thought and writing that went into it was so intense that I needed to shift the focus of my attention. The intrinsic aloneness of writing, the essential headfuckery, had become intolerable. For the first time, I wanted energy, movement. Enough of staring at a screen in a room all day, every day.
Don't get me wrong: entering the world of music as an artist was completely disorientating - who was I to sing? And what if I failed? I should be younger! Taller! Thinner! More beautiful! What was I doing? And then I thought: whose life was I living? As Samuel Beckett said, fail better. Doing what you deeply love - doing what you believe in - to the utmost of your ability must be the ultimate goal.
Outside the demands of the quotidian – bills, emptying the garbage, and so on – I now want to use every single second of my life in a state of near-harrowing love. While that isn’t always possible, it's my driving impulse. How do you really feel? Whom do you really love? What is it you really want? What is it you really need? These are the questions, and I regularly take inventory.
There’s a powerful tonal – in lyrics and delivery – presence on I Want What I Want, a fuck you energy that’s not quite disdain but isn’t pissing about. Love it. Where’s that coming from?
I recently saw a Tiktok reel which was ostensibly about unconditional love but which was, in fact, about feminine abasement - I write at length about this concept in Apple – and I became really angry. In effect, it was an advertisement for The Tragic Feminine.
Women are sold this horseshit on a daily basis, this idea that it’s not only acceptable to be ignored or side-lined in a relationship but that it’s somehow indicative of an elevated consciousness: “I’m know my needs don't matter to you, darling, but I’ll be the wind beneath your wings until you no longer need me.”
A fundamentally Victorian ideal, it’s the sexed-up 21st century take on “the Angel in the House”, one in which the woman is long-suffering, devoted to service, and secondary by definition. Think of Raye singing, “You might as well stick it in”. Amy Winehouse, whom I love with an impossible passion, perfected the Tragic Feminine, infusing it with an anguish that was almost painful to hear – this in the tradition of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, various operas and so on – but it has become a horrible trope. So I Want What I Want is a reaction to that.
I wanted write a song that not only made people want to dance, but which made women and the LGBTQ+ community in particular – I’m bisexual – feel empowered rather than crushed by an antiquated Loser Deluxe gender prescription. I wanted to create a surge of adrenaline in listeners, not simply through the energy of the music, but through the understanding that it can be acceptable to assert desires and feelings in a relationship, sometimes selfishly.
You know, sometimes you just want to get off. It really is as simple as that. Not playing nice, not being understanding, not conforming, being powerful, taking pleasure in being angry, in dominating, in running wild: these are important feelings for people who’ve been abused, and they heal.
Clearly, it isn’t a behavioural prescription for social harmony, simply a tool for release. Which, of course, takes us back to my original point!
I Want What I Want is out now through Beatpoint and Bandcamp.