Sending Gospel Love from a Hard Lockdown

Vika, Iggy and Linda – maybe they will find that Iggy Pop duet one day!

National Treasures and YMR proclaimed “Matriarchs of the Melbourne Music Scene”, Vika & Linda, in true hard working form have refused to remain idle during Melbourne’s Stage 4 restrictions, and in a burst of creativity have recorded a new gospel album Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso) to be released on September 11.

“I think when we started this we thought we were trying to make people feel happier – it’s now actually that the opposite has happened, they have made us happier and have lifted us. And this has inspired us somehow to keep creating in a different way”

LINDA BULL, MELBOURNE, AUGUST 2020

Like many musicians around the world, 2020 has been an “annus horribilis” – borders shut, venues closed, studios closed and musicians being stranded in their homes. A time when lives are difficult to plan and physical human contact is restricted.

However, for Vika & Linda there have been some highlights – firstly, their “greatest hits” album ‘Akilotoa (Anthology 1994–2006) reached number one on the ARIA Charts. Their first ever number one in a career stretching three decades. During lockdown they have entertained their fans with a Sunday Sing Song live on Instagram – singing gospel tinged songs that provide hope and beauty in these frankly crazy times. Vika & Linda were actually in the process of recording a new studio album of original songs, but due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the album was put on ice. In a fit of creativity fuelled by the response they received from Sunday Sing Song (and their general love of singing), they recorded their album Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso), a collection of gospel songs that speak to our times with an overriding sense of hope – just listen to their rousing rendition of ‘There Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down)’ and those lockdown blues will simply evaporate!

Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso) will be available via streaming platforms, download, CD and a special white vinyl edition. Also for Vika & Linda fans, their debut 1994 self-titled album will also be available on red vinyl, the first time the album has ever had a vinyl pressing.

Vika, Linda and I meet on Zoom. The video conferencing platform where we all have a love and hate relationship with. During the first lockdown it was fun, even a bit novel – meeting friends, drinking wine, talking over each other, letting your friends know that they have left the mute button on, doing quizzes and trying to make our home Zoom backgrounds fit for visual consumption. By the second lockdown, after having 1000 business meetings, we would probably prefer to wear a bucket on our head than join another fucking Zoom meeting. However, meeting Vika and Linda is a fun thing – where we all have some things in common – we have to wear masks when venturing outside, we can only do one hour of outdoor exercise once a day, and we are essentially based at home.

Melbourne Lockdown and Creativity

Brian (BP): How are you coping with this current isolation?

Vika (VB): Shithouse!

Linda (LB): Not great!

VB: We are coping, but it’s shit!

BP: This lockdown has inspired you to produce this gospel album?

VB: The whole thing was we were supposed to start the new record, the originals record, but then the isolation thing happened. So, we started the “Sunday Sing Song” when we went into lockdown the first time, we started to do the Sunday Sing Song – just one song – and it proved to be quite popular. And we thought we can’t go into the studio and make a new record – so why don’t we make a little gospel record and do it as simply as we could. We got our piano player, Cameron Bruce, from New South Wales to do all the band tracks up there. And he sent them down to us in Melbourne – and we sang them basically!

BP: Was it hard to curate and organise?

LB: Yes, we did a lot of Zooming! Talking about the directions that we wanted the songs to go in. We referenced the original songs – many of these gospel songs had multiple versions of them. So, first of all we chose the version of the song that we liked and then we sent it to Cameron – and then we wanted to make it our own and stick to the essence of the song. There was a lot of toing and froing, and then we left Cameron to it. And he knows us so well, he knows that Vika and I can handle shifts in key or shifts in tempo – he might give us a whacky direction and we would say that doesn’t work. We have a good working relationship with him.

BP: Did you both discuss the versions of the songs would use – for example Ry Cooder’s arrangement of ‘Jesus On the Mainline?’

VB: We liked that version because when we were in The Black Sorrows that was the first version we heard of that song, and everyone loved it. So, it was like do we go further back when it was first written. But we liked Ry Cooder’s version for some reason – the timing, the quirkiness of it, and that is why we chose that version of it.

BP: The songs seem to have a relevance in what we are currently experiencing in this pandemic?

LB: I think it is because where we are and when we chose the songs. And obviously we selected songs that spoke to us – so songs like the ‘Memphis Flu’ – that is a pandemic song. ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ – was a hard one for Vik, she really worked hard on that one. Normally you do Etta James’ version…

VB: Yes, with this album I do Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s version, because Etta’s version of that song was more of a love version – what are the lyrics – “Stay out late at night/You don’t treat baby right/There are strange things happening everyday/The love you refuse/Another man will use/There are strange things happening everyday”. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s rendition is more in sync in what is going on today. You know, “We hear church people say/They are in this holy way/Strange things happening everyday” – you know, “If you hew right to the line/ You can live right all the time/There are strange things happening everyday” – that was a better version – the right version for this record. Even though they are very different, Etta got her version from that I think – it sounds like it. Every song we chose for this record, I think, is very in tune in what is going on at the moment. Especially on the song we are going to sing on Sunday.

BP: I look forward to that one!

VB: We are worried about this one coming up, Brian!

BP: Why is that?

LB: The lyrics, the lyrics are very direct. So, we altered them a bit to put them more in line in what we view religious music I guess (laughs) – we are kinda not like preachy! There is a lot of God stuff in there – and we are not like that. So, the lyrics in this song were originally – well, the way I read it, was that if you don’t believe in Jesus that’s your shame and therefore that is why you are sick! And I don’t believe that.

VB: It’s a really old song called the ‘Memphis Flu’ – it was a song we struggled to put on the record – but we thought the lyrics depicted what we are living, what we are all going through – and if you can’t deal with it then…

BP: How is this pandemic and lockdown impacting yourself and your fellow musicians?

LB: It is different for everybody. I mean, some people can’t cope with the shift of no contact. But Vika and I have each other – I suppose if you are a solo act it would be a bit different. Vika and I always have each other to bounce things off and been together through this whole thing. I can’t speak for you Vik – do you like it or not (laughs)…

VB: I haven’t found it…it is hard to explain Brian…because Linda and I have each other – well, because we have done our online thing and trying to stay in touch – that way has really helped us mentally – we are still in touch with our fans, and people say really nice things which really lift our spirits – which makes us say let’s do this again next Sunday. That really helps and has kept us really going – keeping our morale up. If we weren’t encouraged to do that by Lisa our manager, Linda and I would have sat there and said what the fuck are we going to do! Cause Linda and I weren’t really familiar with Facebook and Instagram – we didn’t really use it – we are really very old school!

BP: Well you are like pros now!

VB and LB laugh.

VB: I mean, thank God, now I know why kids are on it all the time. We are very old school – let’s play to the people – we had to adapt very, very quickly.

Sometimes in isolation you have to get dressed up.

The Number One Album

BP: The campaign for your anthology – and congratulation on your number one record – was fantastic.

LB: This is a new venture for us. We signed with Bloodlines – traditionally in the past we would do everything ourselves – and that was for a long while.  And to put our trust in their hands – we went, oh well, let us sit back and watch you for a while – and they were incredible with what they did. With surprises every week. But what is great about them is that they don’t interfere with our decisions in the studio or how we make music – they really enhance our career by putting it out to as many people as possible in really a good way. We were really happy with it.

VB: It was a good marketing campaign – I mean, phew, you have to leave it to the experts.

BP: I was impressed by the styling and the packaging of the collection. Were you surprised by the success of it? I mean that week you were selling more albums in Australia than Taylor Swift!

VB: Yes, we were shocked.

LB: We were rapt!

The bond of sisters.

BP: It’s great that your previous albums are also now available. Did you select the songs that you wanted to be part of the ‘Akilotoa?

VB: Yes, we selected them. We made our own lists. But you know, that has been the best thing signing with the record company too, cause they could get all our back catalogue and put it out there on Spotify and Apple Music. We had no idea how to get around that. It was just a too bigger task for us. To have them do that for us and make it available was something that we wanted to do for a long time but just didn’t know how to go about it. For them to do that for us and make these records available for people, has made our lives so much happier.

One mythical song that I was hoping to be on the anthology was the duet Vika & Linda did with Iggy Pop in 1995 in Peter Gabriel’s studio in Bath, England. The song was ‘I Know Where to Go To Feel Good’. I was hopeful as a close friend of mine tongue kissed Iggy Pop when she was 19 in the nineties – he asked her backstage – in which she duly declined the kind offer.

BP: Will the Iggy Pop song ever see life?

VB: I don’t think so!

LB: You know why? I can’t find it? <laughs>

VB: I think it is somewhere at Peter Gabriel’s studio somewhere! The tapes are probably all shrivelled up by now!

The Reemergence of the Back Catalogue

BP: When you heard the earlier albums, assuming you listened to them again, was there anything that surprised you?

VB: Yeah lot of things surprised me! Some things that I was ashamed for years, I listened and thought that wasn’t actually too bad! You know, what the hell was I worried about!

BP: Some albums that were made over twenty years ago can sound dated – but when you hear the albums, the production and performances sound remarkably fresh.

LB: I was surprised by that too Brian – I actually was a bit shocked. I thought, why were we so hard on ourselves? There are some rippers on there, that we should do live. We used to criticise ourselves for being too diverse, but I think that has been the part that I have enjoyed the most about that anthology.

BP: Is there one particular album that you recall being more enjoyable than others in the making?

VB: I find the studio incredibly hard – Linda enjoys it more than me. But for me, I like the live records – give me a live album any day – <putting her arms in the air> – you just have to sing it and it is done! You mix it and away we go! If you are singing in tune, then everything is great!

LB: You like Tell the Angels! <the Bulls live album from 2004>

VB: Yes, I like the Tell the Angels!

LB: We did that in a pub, that was great!

VB: That’s true we did. But I think all the studio albums had their special moments, didn’t they Lulu? We remember incredibly hard times and really good times. Dinner time was always a good time!

LB: <laughs>

Renée Geyer and fellow musicians

Linda liking the studio experience and Vika not so much, the Two Wings album from 1999.

BP: Working with Renée Geyer on that third album, Two Wings, and having Renéee as a co-producer (where she is not always known as producer) – what was that experience like?

LB: Scary.

VB: It was good, really good. She taught us a lot. You know for all her difficultness, Renée is really sweet, and then she can throw you totally off guard. But in the studio, she was sweet – really nurtured us and showed us what to do. Didn’t she Lulu?

LB: She is very imposing, but she was willing to share her tricks with us, and the knowledge she had. Not everyone is like that. She didn’t have to do that, but she knew that we wanted to learn – she wanted to teach us, and she knew we would listen. And that is why it worked so well.

BP: You have been called national treasures, but you are too young to be called national treasures! How important is your Melbourne music family?

LB: They are very important. We really give a shit about what they think!

VB: Everyone in this industry has been incredibly supportive and we encourage one another. And they write songs for us. You know jeepers creepers!

LB: They trust us, and we trust them.

VB: You get to tour with them, sing with them – you know, its like a special bunch of people – they are incredibly creative.

BP: Do you ever say no to songs people present you?

LB: Yes, we say no a lot. But we usually give a reason – we just don’ go “no thanks” – we say its not where we are at the moment or it’s not going to fit in the record. We don’t beat around the bush. And we don’t make up an excuse – we provide them with a legitimate one.

The New “Originals” Album and Missing Touring

Vika & Linda have been in the process of making their first studio album of original material since 2002’s Love is Mighty Close. The album will feature songwriting credits from illustrious Australian songwriters, such as Paul Kelly, Kasey Chambers, Don Walker, Ben Salter, Glenn Richards (from Augie March) and Chris Cheney (from the Living End).

BP: Has the originals album been held up a lot due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns?

VB: Everything has seemed to have held up this record. We have been trying to make this album for three, four years! Ages! How long, Lulu?

LB: When you went to London (for Vika’s celebrated Etta James show) I started to gather songs and that was at least three and half years ago.

VB: And then it is just like, if touring hasn’t held it up, and now this! And it has been twice – two lockdowns – we were going to start again but no one could fly – it was like just ah, what is next! What did Paul (Kelly) say to you, Lulu?

LB: He said – well, he said a couple of things, one of the records he made a couple of years ago was one of those stop, start records. But he said in actual fact, it was actually a bonus and made the record better because the time you are thinking you would have it finished, other songs would come in, other musicians or ideas for the songs – so he said just go with the flow, be like water and let it happen.

BP: How far are you into the album process? Are there any completed tracks?

VB: We got all the songs. All the songs are there ready to go. We have done pre-production, we done things with Cameron on piano to try and figure out arrangements – and the next stage was going to start recording. We were hoping to have the record done by now – August. We were scheduled to record in July.

<Linda drops out of Zoom>

BP: Do you miss performing live?

VB: Yeah! Yeah, of course! You know the whole thing – the nerves, preparing for a gig, rehearsing, putting on the show, doing all that stuff! We miss our band; we miss our crew. We miss the audience, I am just wondering will we ever sit in a theatre like the Palais again?  How long will take it for two and half thousand of us, sitting at the Palais watching a show?

<Linda returns to Zoom>

LB: They have football games, so we can’t we do shows?

VB: At the Palais it might be every second seat.

LB: I think everything is going to change – everything is going to become virtual.

VB: Oh shit, really?

LB: I do – at least for a while. I think if you want to make it, you have to figure out a way to do it.

VB: I am praying that things change! 2020 is a write off, but hopefully we can do gigs in 2021. It has been very interesting – it has been hard, but for Linda and I it has been a creative period. We couldn’t do nothing, so we had to make the best out of a bad situation. Let’s make lemonade! It has been good for us in a way – we’ve tried to do different things. It is because we can’t go anywhere – it’s like, we have to listen to these songs and decide what we like, and if do we want to do this? And the answer is yes, and it has been really good.

BP: Does it feel unusual when you are performing virtually?

LB: Yeah – well it is like what people are seeing is the way Vika and I are all the time. When you have a performance on stage it is very much what is front of the stage and not behind. With a virtual performance, you are getting both. You are getting things like when we are interacting with each other – people are seeing a different side to us – I think when we started this we thought we were trying to make people feel happier – it’s now actually that the opposite has happened, they have made us happier and have lifted us. And this has inspired us somehow to keep creating in a different way.

VB: But is weird when you are sitting there with a camera in front of you – and you are thinking there is a lot of people out there watching. So, we have to act like it is a performance, it’s a live performance, but its just in our lounge room. We have watched our performances change over the weeks. It has been good. We are learning to speak, well to nothing basically, and knowing that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there. It is nervous in a different way.

LB: When we started it was like, we didn’t care – it was only like our families would watch it. And then when we saw the numbers, we were like, hang on a second! And the next week, it was like, hello – the nerves set in!

Dream duets and sexy Hard Love

At the end of our conversation, I ask Vika and Linda if they have any dream duets – singers that they would like to perform with.

VB: Cardi B!

LB: I think Vik, Missy Elliot, and Cardi B would be great!

VB: No, she’s is too sexual, I couldn’t do that!

LB: That’s why they would need someone that is not sexual, like you Vik!! <laughs>

BP: Talk about sexual, with ‘Hard Love’ some people have asked me is she saying what I think she is saying? I mean Paul Kelly does write some sexy songs!

LB: We got a message on Facebook, about that song being a trigger for a woman! That is how I take the song, ‘Hard Love’, don’t you Vik? You know a bit of strong love – and well, also literally!

VB: I don’t take it literally, I take it – you know- a hard love, a strong love, someone that sticks by you through thick and thin – you know, tough!

Linda and I both concede that Vika is taking the PG interpretation of the song!

Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso) is available on September 11 (Bloodlines)

Website: https://www.vikaandlindabull.com/

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