It’s going to be a big year for Vika Bull. A long awaited Vika & Linda album, accompanying tour, and even a new Paul Kelly album – as Vika says, “Beautiful….his best work ever!”
It is hard to believe that Vika & Linda have not made an album of new material since 2002’s Love is Mighty Close. Even though the Bull sisters have been in the Australian consciousness for thirty years since their powerful, beautiful, harmonising vocals appeared on The Black Sorrow’s Hold on to Me (1988) album, the Bull sisters have only made four studio albums and one album of re-recorded updated versions of their songs, since their eponymous debut was released in 1994.
Despite their lack of prolificity, Vika & Linda’s profile has not waivered for many reasons. Being part of the RockWiz orchestra, including both television exposure and a national tour, and of course, appearances on Paul Kelly’s albums, recently most notably 2017’s Life Is Fine, where Paul gave Vika and Linda a song each to contribute to the album. Vika’s powerful and expressive rendition of “My Man’s Got A Cold” – Vika’s voice distinctive, pushing the fabric of the song, as she laments her lover who is stricken down with “man-flu” and who is even saying no to the offer of fellatio! While Linda’s gentle and country tinged vocals on the track “Don’t Explain” sizzles with emotion. Their appearance on Paul’s album and worldwide tour was a welcome reminder of how their voices, either harmonising or solo, have been a mellifluous feature of Australian music for the past thirty years.
Vika and I have a conversation in a Carlton North café, where we are dining on a chicken and leek pie and more importantly having a few alcoholic ginger beers. Yes, Lick Pier, your ginger beer is delicious and Vika and I would be great brand ambassadors! Take note!
Vika & Linda’s debut album came out in 1994 – it reached No. 7 on the ARIA Chart and reached platinum status. Produced by Kelly with Vika & Linda, the album contained songs from such Australian music luminaries such as Kelly, Stephen Cummings, Joe Camilleri and Mark Seymour. It was a commercial sounding album, as exemplified on the Seymour penned “When Will You Fall for Me”. The album was a genuine success, and if the Bulls had any doubts in leaving The Black Sorrows, they would have been placated by its success.
In November 1994, the Bulls supported Billy Joel on his Australian tour for three weeks. During the next year they toured Europe with a backing band. While in the UK they spent a week at Peter Gabriel’s studio in Bath recording their next album, The Mouth of the River (a compilation of songs from their debut, plus some new tracks) which was released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. Vika can’t remember if she met Peter Gabriel, however it wasn’t a time remembered fondly for the Bulls, which included recording an unreleased song with Iggy Pop (on the track “I Know Where to Go to Feel Good”).
<BP> Did you sing with Iggy Pop?
<VB> We did, when we went to England and did WOMAD. We went to Peter Gabriel’s studio in Bath – we did this recording, we made this album called The Mouth of the River, and I hated the whole experience. I felt as if I was out of my depth. Iggy Pop and Johnny Depp came to the show in Bath and saw us play – and Iggy sang a song with us the next day. But it never got put on a record.
I don’t know. It was really good. It was probably the best song we recorded, but then we did a whole record, and then – it was this open session that you record, and anyone can come in and watch – and I found that…I found that was freaking the crap out of me – everyone has to leave!
Is it a personal thing when you are recording?
Yeah! Cause you have to do a good performance. And then you have the added pressure of people watching you. And we didn’t have that experience. So, Mouth of the River isn’t one of my favourite records, and not one of my favourite experiences. Even though it was one of the most beautiful studios I ever went too in my whole life. And there’s that bloody stream running through it!
Instead of going down a more commercial route, the Bulls decided to co-write songs on the sophomore studio album (consisting of new tracks) and move into another direction – an album infused of sounds from their mother’s birthplace, Tonga. More personal, more “world-music” sounding, and overall a more ambitious affair. Princess Tabu was released in 1996. It wasn’t as successful as the debut and reached no.30 on the ARIA Charts.
When the first album came out in 1994 – the eponymous album – you went from a more commercial sounding album to something that was more personal. Was that something that was thought about?
Yeah it was.
Was there pressure to do another commercial album?
Yeah there was. There was a lot of pressure from a lot of different people – record companies – but they let us – sort of – do what we wanted to do. But looking back, I think that we should have listened to them – you know – do another kind of commercial record or they wanted us to do a soul record – maybe we should have done that. But then, it is what it is.
Even though Princess Tabu was Tongan influenced, would you ever do a recording devoted to Tongan music? Do you feel attached to that?
Yeah, we do. It’s interesting you bring this up – because my husband mentioned to me the other day, ‘Why don’t you drag up some of those songs from Princess Tabu – cause that’s a ripper record’ – and I thought, ‘maybe we should’! – so maybe we will go back and look at that.
I played it the other day, and it seemed so emotional – the melodies, the harmonies, the clarity of the voices …
We had a good producer on that called Jeremy Allom – and we all went to Tonga – and came back and made that record. We are going to Tonga again next month…
Did Princess Tabu have a theme?
Kind of yeah. It could have had more of a theme, had we concentrated a bit more! Finished off a few songs a bit more than we did. That’s why John (Vika’s husband) was saying you should go back and look at the album, and the songs you didn’t finish properly, then tweak the lyrics and write them again, and go on and re-record it. Which I think is a good idea. “Grandpa’s Song” – a lot of people like that song, but I find the lyrics on the song a bit naïve – so we sang it for the first time in years in Darwin last weekend – I didn’t really want to do it, because I am like, ‘Ugh – we wrote this when we were inexperienced songwriters’ – like a primary school student writer – you know what I mean? (She laughs) But people wanted to hear it. And when we did it, people clapped – like ‘Oh yay – they are doing it’. So, we did it for them, they paid to come and see us. That’s the least we can do, do the song for them.
Vika & Linda normally just call up their friends and ask them for songs. As they have worked closely with many Melbourne musicians, they have formed a trusted music family over the years. However, there is a misconception that they don’t write songs – most of the songs on Princess Tabu were co-written by the Bulls, and with their next album, Linda will be co-writing with other artists. Vika indicates that she is “scared” to write songs while Linda has the greater appetite to write.
Normally you sing songs by other artists, but some of the songs that were co-written on Princess Tabu were exceptional – is there a reason why don’t write your own stuff? Aren’t you confident?
No. I need to collaborate. Linda is better at it than I am. She is much better. With this new record we are trying to make, she is doing a lot more writing, but in the past, I never felt confident – because everything that comes out of my mouth, it is like ‘I have heard that before’.
Are you too self-critical on yourself?
Yeah. Also, every melody is like – ‘I’ve heard that before’ – I guess I am just scared. But I should have taken a lot of people’s advice, and just kept at it every day. Linda and I should have done this, kept at it every day and practise, because you do get better. The more you do it, the better you get.
With the songs you sing by other artists, do you have to feel an emotional connection with the song before you decide to record it?
Have you turned back songs?
Yeah. You instantly know if it is going to suit you or not. And lyrically as well, ‘Can I sing that’? You know that matters a lot, actually. And then, if its got a catchy melody even better. Sometimes it has a really great melody, and you go ‘love the melody, but Jesus, not sure if I can sing that’ – and then you go back and ask, ‘Can I go change that – or write something else’.
Do they get offended if you say no to a song?
No. They tend not to, I mean if I say no, it means I can’t sing that. But yeah, we have to have an instant connection to the song. And we know straight away…
With this new album, are you looking at collaborating with different songwriters or with Paul Kelly?
Paul has written a few for us already. Kasey Chambers has written a few for us already. Linda has written a few with Paul. Dan Kelly has written a few with Paul. Um, who else – when I was away in England last year (for the Etta James show) Linda said, ‘We should make a record’, so she got the ball rolling, and rang everyone up. She is the real songwriter in the partnership.
You are discerning when selecting songs?
I mean if Sia wanted to write us a song, and we didn’t connect with it, we wouldn’t do it, even though someone like Sia wrote it, we wouldn’t say ‘We have to sing this because Sia wrote it’. If it didn’t suit us, we wouldn’t do it.
Vika & Linda are both Melbourne born girls. Vika was born in Richmond in 1966 and went to Camberwell Grammar. Her mother arrived in Australia in 1959 as a nursing student, when the disgraceful White Australia Policy was still in place, where her mother endured some racism.
Her father is Australian, and seemingly their family remains close, with her parents and Linda living close by. Vika & Linda have their own respective families, with Vika being married to renowned drummer John “Watto” Watson (a drummer that plays with James Reyne and is now also a drummer for the band Rose Tattoo), and they have a 21 year old daughter. The Bulls Tongan heritage remains important, where they have visited Tonga many times, and even performed in front of the late King – Taufa ahau Tupou IV. A funny fact is that the sisters don’t speak Tongan, even though they have sung in Tongan. In one song, their mispronunciation of the Tongan language confused!
When you go to Tonga is it more family based? Or do you play in front of crowds?
No, it’s just a holiday. But, Paul Kelly is coming with us on the next trip, so hopefully we will write some songs while we are there – because how the new album is going at the moment, it sounds a bit more kind of rock and roll, kinda bluesy, so if we can finish the record off over there – you know, because we like that heavy rock and roll stuff, but we also like the harmonies – because we are harmony singers – but we will see how this one goes. We thought about getting old Tongan songs, cause the late Queen of Tonga (Salote), was a poet and she wrote lots of beautiful laments, so we thought about going back and studying those….
Is it about keeping languages alive? I think some languages are being taken over by English – like in Eurovision!
But Eurovision is great, don’t you think? I love it! (Laughs) If we do go back and do an album like that, the language has changed, so a lot of those songs that we have sung, Tongans say it’s in old Tongan – and the language, like every language changes – so we have to find someone that can teach us how to sing in new Tongan.
Do you speak Tongan?
No. Only a couple of things.
So, when you sing, you are singing phonetically?
Our mother has to teach us. And it’s tricky. There are little subtleties, that if you say something, it can completely change the meaning – when we recorded in Tongan last, we just mispronounced one slight thing and Mum went, ‘Oh no!’ I said, ‘What do you mean, “Oh, no”’, and she said, ‘The opening line is meant to be “This is my life”, and the way you have pronounced it, you have sung “This is my behind”’!! And we recorded it, mastered it, and put it on the CD! It was too late to change!
Vika and Linda Bull came out of nowhere when they became part of The Black Sorrows. Their voices added an emotional and soulful edge to Joe Camilleri’s compositions – the record buying public responded well – with Hold on to Me (1988), Harley & Rose (1990) and Better Times (1992) becoming big sellers, with the albums reaching No.7, No.3 and No.13 on the ARIA Chart. The Bulls with The Black Sorrows became well known, with numerous TV appearances, good radio airplay and heavy touring schedules.
Obviously, Joe wasn’t happy when the sisters decided it was time to leave the band, but Vika remains grateful of his support and influence – not to mention putting the sisters at the front of the stage.
What is the difference between Joe and Paul (in dynamic) in playing live?
Yeah, very different. Joe is more…kind of free, doesn’t have a setlist, just sings whatever he feels like, you just got to listen to him, and see what he’s gonna do…and then he will kind of solo on stage, and then he will make someone else solo, and it will go for ages, and then he will…you know, you just have to be constantly watching him.
Was that hard?
Yep! Cause you just don’t know what he is gonna do! But then, when you work with him over a long period of time, like we did, you get to know him. So, you’re like ‘OK’! Whereas Paul is more structured, here is a setlist……
You were saying how Paul was generous in giving you a song, I suppose Joe Camilleri did as well…
Yes. He was the first to give us a break. You know, “Chained to the Wheel” – so, he, he was the one that said ‘shit, ok, she can sing a verse’ – and you know, and not putting us at the back – as backing singers – he always put us at the front.
I always remember you being very visible in their clips – being at high school – and you were there. To me, as a kid, you guys (Vika and Linda) came out of nowhere.
Yeah, well we did sort of – we joined that band with Hold onto Me – that became huge. Because, when we joined the band, he almost finished the album. And we came in and sang “Chained to the Wheel” on that record, and then we started touring it, and that album just took off.
How did Joe react when you left The Black Sorrows?
No, not too good. He didn’t like it. He was pretty pissed off. But you know, we just said to him ‘We got to try and have a go and do our own thing’. He was really good about it, he said ‘Okay, I understand’ – but, you know, he did a lot for us Joe – he took us around the world, he trained us up. Us with The Black Sorrows was a good dynamic, I think, the three of us. I think we worked well together. And putting us up front, we were like ‘Shit – he’s putting us up at the front!’ You know. We just can’t stand there and look like a couple of dags and sing! We quickly had to develop our stage craft.
When did that stage presence come in? I assume when you were young that you weren’t that confident?
That’s exactly right, we weren’t confident. We did stand there, and went, we look stupid – and Joe would jump around the stage – always dancing – he is a really good showman. And we watched him and learnt from him.
Would you tour with Joe again?
Yes. We did Red Hot Summer. We were the guest vocalists with him. That was fun! It was just like riding a bike!
Paul Kelly has made a new album, which Vika describes as his best. It was recorded concurrently with 2017’s Life is Fine. Kelly is one of Australia’s most regarded songwriters, and immensely prolific. His quality of songs don’t diminish, despite the brisk rate of albums. Vika greatly admires Paul.
Vika talks about Paul’s large fan age bandwidth, “Last year, this year – we did Groove in the Moo. And it’s a young, regional festival – it’s for kids! And every single kid in the audience – and the audiences were huge – 10,000 kids – were singing every single word to every single Paul Kelly song”.
I thought about that. Jen Cloher released her album, and it reached No. 5 – everyone bought it that first week, and then it fell out of the charts, while with Paul, his albums hang around in the charts for a while, so obviously he has a big audience attracting all different ages.
That is the thing about Paul. That’s what so incredible about him. He has done that – he has got all his old fans, and then they’ve had kids, and they have become fans, but then he keeps on writing new stuff, putting new stuff out, touring, you know……
Even though you are on a Paul Kelly album, do you ever listen to them, and appreciate them?
Oh yeah! Yeah, he has a new album coming out – I think it is his best work ever.
Are you and Linda on that?
Yeah. There is a whole list of singers, his daughters sing, we sing, Kate Miller-Heidke sings.
Is there a theme on this album?
Yeah, there is a theme. And it is beautiful.
He is so prolific. He does so many things, and the quality never falters.
I just shake my head! I say, ‘What the fuck’! You know, when we did Life is Fine, he recorded this new one at the same time. So, we were making two albums at the same time. We would go in the studio everyday, and we would do this, this, this, this and this – and then we finished touring Life is Fine, he went back to the studio and finished off the new one. And. It. Is. Just. Beautiful. I sent him a message and said to him ‘I think this is your best work ever’.
Do you think the concept of the album will last in the era of streaming?
I hope so, because Paul has just made a beautiful album from start to finish, it has a theme, and you know, you listen to the whole album as one piece. And it is a beautiful piece of work. And I think when people can do that, like he can, then make a whole album. Paul is a songwriter, he is able to do that – he has experience – and because he does it every day, he is good at it. He always has something ticking in his head, he is always thinking – and then it comes out, and it’s like ‘Holy shit, how did you think of that!’
What about your album? Do you think of it as a collection of songs that have a theme…?
That’s what it gonna be. It’s definitely got a theme – the songs that we choose, or the songs that Linda is co-writing with people, has to be on the same sort of the theme.
Despite their heavenly harmonies and working as a duo, both Vika & Linda have different tastes when it comes to music. This is evidenced by Vika doing a show in homage to Etta James, and Linda doing a show with Sime Nugent devoted to the songs of Willie Nelson. These different tastes, life experience, long break and renewed confidence will set the scene of their new album. And who knows, maybe one day we will get a solo Vika Bull and Linda Bull album?
After Princess Tabu was released in 1996, only two albums of new material were released, namely Two Wings in 1999 and Love Is Mighty Close in 2002. As Vika says, “Maybe having such a long break – of 17 or 18 years – maybe it is good that we record this new album now, because we know exactly what we want. We have always had a hard time deciding what direction to take – because we both have very different tastes”.
How would you describe your most comfortable singing style?
It’s rock and roll. It’s rock and roll and soul. Gospel, kind of. I like those belters – like Etta James and Aretha Franklin.
You did a great job on “My Man’s Got a Cold”.
Thanks! It was a generous thing for Paul to let us to do that – Paul letting us sing upfront – it’s really generous of him.
Linda’s voice is beautiful in “Don’t Explain” (on the last Paul Kelly album). It is almost country-tinged.
It’s a beautiful song, isn’t? Linda takes more of the country and reggae – so I am trying to get her to sing, to do a couple of numbers – I am trying to sit back and do a few more ballads, and let her do more of the rockier stuff, because she can do it.
People assume that you have the bigger voice, but when you sing softly, I find it hard sometimes to differentiate between the two voices.
That’s the thing Linda does have a powerful voice – when she lets it rip. It’s like…finally!
Is it a lack of confidence that she doesn’t let it rip? Or is she still finding her singing style?
You see, it might be a confidence thing – or living in my – you see, I am the older one, I was the one that wanted to be the singer. And, I sort of dragged her into it – maybe she sort of thinks that she…she is in my shadow. I am always trying to tell her, ‘You can do it’. Because – in that 18 years we got married, had kids, you know – Linda has separated from her husband – you know, been kicked in the guts a few times, it has made her stronger, and made her a bit more confident.
With the new album are you harmonising or doing different lead vocals?
There will be each lead, and a couple of duets.
To me, you both sound more confident in your singing now, then when you were younger.
It’s life experience. You have a lot more to draw upon. And you sing it with better emotion. And you know, it’s true, the older you get the better you get as a singer. You can tell a story much better. And it’s not bullshit! You can tell when someone is bullshitting, and you can tell when someone isn’t.
So, when you left school you wanted to become a singer?
Yeah. That was also the plan. It was always since I was a little girl. Not so much Linda, she wanted to be an artist – like a screen printer ….
Does Linda enjoy singing?
She loves it. She is a very creative girl, Linda. Visually as well. She does a lot of the – you know, she can draw, she has a good eye for stuff.
Has she designed your album covers?
No, she hasn’t really – you know, she is very critical of things though – what we should wear, how we should look. Singing wouldn’t have been her first career choice, had I not dragged her into it.
Would you always see yourself as being a unit as Vika and Linda or would you see a Vika Bull or Linda Bull album?
I hope she does her own record. You know, I hope one day we both can do that. But like I said, sometimes it is difficult, because we like harmonising together. That’s our sound.
What about the dynamic? Is it more comfortable singing when together – obviously you have done the Etta James show. Is there going to be an album out of that?
We have made a live record. We just sell it at shows. Linda is about to do a…Linda is doing a new show with Sime Nugent – it’s called Stardust, songs of Willie Nelson. That’s going to be at the Arts Centre next month.
He is a great songwriter Willie Nelson. Some people forget that.
So, you know, it is good for her to do things like that as well. It helps her grow as a singer, I think, and she loves that music, that sort of music suits her voice.
Does she like Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch?
Aha. Her voice would be suited to that stuff, it’s beautiful. It will be a beautiful show. I can tell you that, because the show has been announced. Only just announced.
Are you doing any more Etta James shows?
I am going to England in September. Doing the show for a month. Going with my husband, he plays the drums on the show.
That will be fun.
Yeah it is fun. It’s great fun!
Is it across the UK or a residency?
Everywhere. On a tour bus with the whole band. The thing about those shows though, you know, I don’t want to say “tribute” – what’s the word?
Homage! Homage! You know, which I prefer. And you do that, and you come back and do your own thing – you have to be a bit creative – it’s good to come back, and like what we have been doing, to build up a new set of songs. I think it is very important as an artist.
Is it hard making a new album – especially when you are touring in between and making appearances on other artists albums? Is it hard to get that focus back?
Na. Oh, it’s hard because when you come home – na, it’s not hard, if you still work and do those things to make money, and then use your spare time to be creative.
When do anticipate this new album be released?
Next year. We are going to record it in February.
Have you recorded any tracks yet?
No, we just got demos. We are trying to do some live shows and work them in, and then hopefully – we got most of the record. See how we go! Just put it out there, see what people think. I mean shit, what have you got to lose?
Do you feel as you get older, do you worry what the public will think of it?
I don’t give a shit! What I mean, is I want people to buy it, but I don’t care what people think of me anymore. You know what I mean?
I think you are pretty likeable! I think a lot of the Australian community like and know the Bulls!
You know, we had our haters as well.
Like everybody. And in the past, that would have really hurt me. I would let one person upset me, and I would be in bed for a day. Now I’m 52, I am like ‘So what?’ – you can’t love everyone, they don’t like us, fair enough! But just don’t be malicious – sometimes you get people out on social media – what do you call those people…?
That say nasty shit. Why do you have to do that for? I don’t go on the internet and say nasty shit about you.
Is it hard for older Australian musicians – maybe more so female – to get exposure?
You know, it’s hard to get exposure. It is a young person’s game. It really is. It is hard for women our age. You know, hats off to artists like Rebecca Barnard, she writes her own stuff, and she is always creating and doing stuff, you know – her latest record – I haven’t heard it – but I heard that it is absolutely beautiful. I think Rebecca is fantastic because she does that. I think it is because Linda and I come part of a package, that we get some exposure. I don’t know what it is. All we have is the ABC. It’s great, but they don’t play a lot of music. It is narrow. You really have to go out there and tour – that is the only way you can make money.
Will you tour with the new album?
Yes, we will have to tour it. You know, if you only played to 20 people, sometimes you have to go back there, to build it up again. We have been in the game for thirty something years now, and people like RockWiz have given us a break, being on TV, things like that help a lot.
It’s air time. Even though you haven’t made an album for a long time, you are still in the Australian public’s consciousness.
And because RockWiz gets such big audiences to the shows. Doing the live concerts at the Palais. It’s a big audience, it’s 3000 people. And then they do that right around the country. So that gives you a lot of exposure. ‘That’s right, that’s those two girls from blah, blah, blah – I will go and see them next time they play’. Everything like that really helps. Linda and I are extremely grateful for that, for Joe, to Paul, to RockWiz – that takes us on tour with them. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. We wouldn’t be able to do shows to full houses.
As Vika says this, I feel this welling up of feeling – even though Vika & Linda have been exposed to some great artists, and have had some fantastic opportunities, it is their talent which has been the deserving and attracting beacon. Earlier in our conversation, Vika compliments the way that Courtney Barnett is likeable, and is not after an “image”, but enjoys playing her music. Vika & Linda are similar to that – their voices, their harmonies – their different music tastes, and their lack of ego and narcissism, make them one of the most endearing people in Australian music. Vika & Linda are one of the best voices in Australian music – watching Vika belt out a song is truly wondrous – her confidence, her power, her range, her phrasing, and her mission to feel the song – is remarkable. As we end our conversation, I watch Vika cross the road – she jaywalks – they say that Tina Turner had to insure her legs as they were part of her brand – with Vika, it’s her voice and her aura – I hold my breath, until she safely reaches the other side of the road.