Shout Sister Shout: Emma Donovan (IWD 2024)

March 24, 2024

Motherhood & Music – Not just the Lullaby

Approx. 10 minutes to read

The seeds of music were planted early for Emma Donovan when, as a child in the 80’s, she started singing in her uncle’s legendary Indigenous Australian band, The Donovans. From small things, big things grow…and on Emma’s career grew to include her forming the Deadly Award winning group, Stiff Gins, performing with the Black Arm Band, and fronting Melbourne group Emma Donovan & The Putbacks

Singer, Emma Donovan

Emma is well and truly keeping the musical flame of her family glowing brightly with such a stellar contribution to music in Australia. Family is important to Emma, and with the imminent release of her fifth studio album, ’Til My Song Is Done, on 19 April, she has this to say:

My new album is honouring that legacy of our family country music ways. That’s exactly what this album is for me, like if they’re proud and they’re happy, if the family is honoured, that’s all I need to know. And mum would be proud.

I know this album is just the start of continuing to stand strong not only for my daughters but for all the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women working in the Australian music industry today.

Emma Donovan

I am honoured that Emma Donovan could take the time to join me in discussing her experience of  Motherhood & Music. Read on to learn how she referees singing matches between her girls; shares her thoughts on creating safe spaces for mums and bubs at concerts; and tells me more about her identity as a musician. 

Emma Donovan’s latest album, ‘Til My Song Is Done

Sonia de Freitas: Hi Emma, how are you and where does our interview find you today?

Emma Donovan: It’s a Monday morning here and I just got my little ones off to school. I live in Bunbury, WA; moved here a year ago to live close to Dad, his wife and family. It’s been a little busy on the west coast over the last few weekends as I was performing at shows for both the 2024 Perth International Arts Festival and the Joondalup Festival.

SdF: Can you tell me a little more about your life as a mother and musician?

ED: Being a mother has changed my life for the best. It’s definitely made my life rewarding in lots of ways, mostly because I can raise my kids up around music the way I was brought up in my old homes. But more so because I can include my children in the Australian musician family and community that I’m a part of. I can give my kids so much. I came from a very musical family, so I want the same for my kids. Before having my children, I thought ‘how am I actually going to do this as a working mum? But to me I have every right to have my kids included in my workspaces.

SdF: How many children do you have, how old are they? Are they musicians too?

Hold On by Emma Donovan & The Putbacks

ED: My kids are five and seven years old; very close in age and they are both musical. The other day we were in the car, and they were arguing over whose verse it was to sing. I “refereed” and told the big one to sing the first verse and the second one to sing the second verse and to do choruses together. They still were arguing that they didn’t want each other to sing the song together. So, we played the song separately for them to sing by themselves. It’s my song Mum says the five-year-old. Ok LOL!!!

I had a giggle cause they argue over a lot of things, but now it’s over parts in a song and I’m ok with that. I don’t mind the odd argument over harmonies and parts. It’s just beginning! I encourage a lot of singing with the girls, they just love music and most of all they love being at my gigs. I gotta fight with them to actually stay SIDE of stage LOL!! They are my Biggest fans! They are very proud daughters of me. Bless em!!

SdF: What, if anything, may have changed for you in relation to the way you thought about music and your ambitions as a musician once you became a mother?

ED: Mostly songwriting as I know I will leave my songs behind for my kids. One day when I’m gone they will listen back, if they are not already listening now. They make out they’re not listening at times, but I know they pick up on the songs I write, the lyrics especially. I have a lot of messages for them and my other nieces and nephews and younger family too. 

Music has become my full-time job to support my children, feeding and clothing them and giving them the things I can. They understand music is my income and work. As they get older it’s easier to explain the reasons I’m away touring for sometimes long periods of time. 

Once you become a working Mother in the music industry you learn quickly about your worth, about time management and respect, especially self-respect! When I walk out the door for a gig, I am leaving my two daughter’s home. I have had to make our home a good and safe place for them with the right support. For many years I was a single parent, and it was not easy!

In this beautiful solo performance, acclaimed indigenous vocalist, Emma Donovan performs Warrell Creek Song at TEDxSydney 2020. Emma shares that she heard her Great-Grandmother sing this song.

If anything has changed for me as a Mother it is that I wanna do my best just for them, teach them a lot about hard work and respect around music, messages and people. I’m also teaching them the love I’ve always had for singing, what I learnt from my Grandparents voices and songs, how it makes me feel, what is important and how to express that through music and song. I told my eldest not to be shy the other day, ‘if singing makes you feel good inside, go for it, let it all out, sing how you want, it’s expression!’

I also told her that her voice comes from her heart.

SdF: How does the experience of motherhood influence your creativity and composition process?

ED: Being creative and writing is always ‘time out’ for myself. I’ve had to make that time to be creative, writing lyrics, it’s like therapy for me in my life and I always find time to write no matter what.

For me after the kids are asleep, if they haven’t put me to sleep too hehe, I do find time to stay up and write new stuff. I love that time; it’s the best time to myself. Sometimes it gets crazy especially when there are certain deadlines, and I am squeezing in time to sort stuff out. You never stop being a Mum. It’s the number 1 gig. But you never stop being a musician too and I’ve learnt to work around it all. It’s manageable, I say loud and write here after the last seven years! But you never stop trying different ways to make it all balance.

SdF: How do you maintain your artistic identity and career trajectory while raising your children?

ED: Wow big, big important question and I thank you for asking. I have to include my kids in everything I do. I can’t separate them from my music career. They don’t belong in a separate basket. They belong with and close to me. It took me a while to understand this but there are a lot of music industry people that struggle to understand this. As a mother I don’t have an identity now without my daughters and I am a proud Mother. I know there are plenty of mothers just like me working in the music industry today who I’m sure feel the same as I do.

SdF: What challenges have you faced in balancing the demands of motherhood with the demands of a music career? Conversely, can you share any unique opportunities brought about by motherhood?

ED: I always thought from the very start of motherhood that having kids around spaces like rehearsals, gigs, backstage, green rooms, wasn’t a space for my kids or family. I felt like I had to keep it separate and always make a good impression; no kids running around or crying babies as an example. I know it’s a tricky one and sometimes it can be awkward when it comes to festival crew, stage crew, gig organisers. But I think the industry is slowly beginning to accept and understand that there are working mums in the music scene who need these spaces to be safer and inclusive.

Importantly my kids get to share experiences alongside me that are unique and of historical importance in their lives. For example, they got to stand side of stage and hear me singing with the late Uncle Archie Roach – they were there and that’s priceless.

Lovin’ Looks Like (2nd single) from Emma Donovan’s latest album ‘Til My Song Is Done

SdF: What role do societal expectations and stereotypes about motherhood play in shaping the public perception of musicians who are mothers?

ED: Over the years there have been times where I have felt judged for being a working mum. I remember the very first time I became a mum I was worried about being judged. I have been inspired by other women who had done it.

And the longer I am in this space as a working musician mum I am way more solid and relaxed. Now I know how to hold myself as a mum – I am confident and owning it. I now support and encourage other young working musician mums to talk about it and tell them to hold their head up. It’s important to stick together and raise awareness of creating safe spaces in this industry for mums and their children and families. We are taking up these spaces as working mums together and we are loud and proud.

SdF: How can the music industry evolve to better accommodate the needs of musicians who are navigating the intersection of motherhood and their music careers?

ED: It’s important for the industry to continue creating awareness around working mums and their bubs, to make sure there are safe spaces mums and families are invited to share. I remember Triple R had a mum and bubs concert and most festivals now have dedicated spaces for kids.

A good start could be that when a show is being booked for a working mum questions are asked up front about what we might need if we are bringing our kids and family to the show. To me that’s a dream conversation.

I know when I am hanging backstage around crew as soon as any festival personnel makes a friendly gesture to me about how they can help accommodate my family and kids at the show it immediately helps me to feel good and relax.

Genuine support creating a safe space backstage for families with access to green rooms and side of stage spaces – that’s the ideal gig to me.

Also, there are musician mums who want to be able to breast feed their bub in a safe space before a show so they can still work. Some mums want to keep working and find ways to juggle and keep doing it.

For me, I had no maternity leave and was not in a position to knock back work just because I had a three- or six-month-old baby. I had to find ways to keep supporting my kids even when they were little. I had to go and work.

SdF: What do you want for the future of music and for your children?

ED: I definitely want to ensure that there is continued support for women, children and their families in spaces such as backstage areas, green rooms and band rooms and also with festival programming by accommodating the little ones whilst Mum does her work.

I want my kids to choose music because they want to. I want my kids to feel welcomed and confident to be in those spaces with me. I want them to continue to feel included and inspired to be in these spaces with me. They are always going to be included in my music!

To learn more about Emma Donovan visit: 

Emma Donovan’s new solo album ’Til My Song Is Done is out April 19. To pre-order visit:  

For more information on International Women’s Day visit: 

Sonia de Freitas – Author
Photo credit: Cathy Kirkpatrick

Keep an eye out for my next interview in the Shout Sister Shout: Motherhood & Music – Not just the Lullaby series where I interview Amber Kenny.

Did you miss the previous Shout Sister Shout instalment? Read Mandie Vieira’s interview here.

Thank you to Eastside Radio for making the Shout Sister Shout: Motherhood & Music – Not just the Lullaby interview series possible.

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the many lands on which I am privileged to work, learn, teach, create and perform. I extend my respects to all First Nations People. 

Share "Shout Sister Shout: Emma Donovan (IWD 2024)"