From mourning to dancing. Mama Kin Spender leant on each other with creative tears, but emerge with joy and clarity
Danielle Caruana has been busy signing vinyl album covers. "It's really cool. I've never made vinyl before," she says excitedly on the phone from Melbourne. Caruana is the woman artistically known as the soulful singer and songwriter Mama Kin.
The albums are being autographed by herself and her long time friend singer/songwriter Tom Spender. Together the pair have created a duo called Mama Kin Spender and the aforementioned vinyl records contain their brand new album Golden Magnetic.
"In an age where... the release of an album becomes more of an abstract event because it all happens digitally it's nice to go against the tide and make something so tangible, so tactile and be like, 'This doesn't make perfect sense, but it's beautiful.'"
The pressing of vinyl is by no means a cheap undertaking, but when told that the decision is one that makes artistic sense for Golden Magnetic, Caruana laughs and says, "Thanks for saying that. We need some encouragement on why we are spending all this money on this... retro form of releasing music. But I felt that too. I felt like it needed to be framed in some way."
The pair have been pals for a while now, and it was after their last respective solo release cycles that Caruana and Spender emerged both feeling somewhat despondent.
"We were both at the same part of our creative cycles as far as we had released music and we'd actually toured our last releases together. And we got to the end of it and we were a little bit discouraged, to be honest.
"We were like, can we keep doing this? We've both got two kids each - separately, we were asking those questions. And then we thought, well let's get back to what we love about it, which is, we do love writing music, we do love singing together. Let's just delve into that and not think about the greater outcomes for now. And in that process we were leaning on each other with creative tears."
Caruana has been immersed in music her whole life, and began her solo career in 2006. Prior to that she provided backing vocals for the John Butler Trio of which her brother Nick used to play percussion and drums, and whose lead singer - John Butler - is Caruana's husband of nearly two decades.
Her solo albums Beat and Holler (2010) and The ARIA Award nominated The Magician's Daughter were very well received, and Caurana has come to be a regular fixture at festivals across Australia, performing her soulful, roots, gospel influenced songs. She is well known and well loved by Australia's inner musical circles, and community is her calling card.
It is the value that she - and indeed Spender - places on community that forms the essence of Golden Magnetic.
"I sent [Spender] a YouTube clip of Rufus Wainwright performing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah with a thousand strong choir called Choir! Choir! Choir! [filmed] in Canada, and it reduced us both to tears and we were like... let's create a body of work as a duo and then perform it with choirs everywhere we go. Like, just perform with people of the place that we are performing. So when we are performing in Wollongong, we'll performing to Wollongong with Wollongong. And when we're performing in Melbourne, we'll' be performing to Melbourne, with Melbourne, you know? And so what went from a very simple kind of nest healing, kind of co-sharing space devoid of an agenda, became very a complex idea."
Then the writing began, yet the distance meant that Caruana and Spender had to use a different approach. "I live in Margaret River and he lives in Melbourne so we live very far away from each other and so we wrote separately throughout the course of the project and brought our body of work together."
Caruana and Spender wanted to strengthen their songwriting skills and enlisted in a unique songwriting program.
"When we were writing the album we used a platform called 'I Heart Songwriting' which was created by a woman in Brisbane called Francesca de Valence. It's... built for writers who want to [get] 'writing fit'. It's a ten week course. You're paired up with nine other writers - so ten writers, ten weeks. You get a word prompt every week and you get an hour to write the song. Whatever you write in an hour you [record and] put a voice memo up and nine people critique it... So Tommy and I were part of the same group just so we would get our writing fitness up so when we got together we would be able to write quicker."
The plan proved to be a good one. "As it turned out, most of the album came from those writing sessions so by the time the ten weeks were up we had twenty song ideas between us which we had both heard and critiqued, and it was very obvious to us which ones stood out."
One song from Golden Magnetic makes a particularly good example of how this songwriting method worked for the pair. Take for instance the reflective and warm ballad Carry Me. "I wrote that when I was in a difficult time. I remember turning up to my hour not knowing what to write. The word prompt was 'bird'. I had the feeling of being nestled in a bird's chest - I just wanted to hide in the feathers of a bird's chest and that song was born from that idea."
The song was sent to Spender over the waves of the Internet from Fremantle to Melbourne and he loved it straight away. After that, Caruana said it needed only to be "embellished by Tommy's guitar sensibilities and by choir," and not re-worked too much.
While this song is one of the slower records on Golden Magnetic, much of the album is brimming with toe-tapping joy.
"We have a very joyous relationship. We're very cheeky with each other. We bring out each other's funny side. So inherently the relationship is very light and fun. The songs were born out of 'our hearts are a bit sore,' [but] that's not what came out in the songs, which is awesome and really exciting. The songs had an energy we needed to be dosed up with."
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The latest single The Air Between Us, along with its music video, captures thats joy.
"I love that video. It was so fun to make, and it was our first foray into creating content for the album together and we're excited man. I feel like I'm a little kid when I'm around Tommy. I feel like we're both school kids and we are just so thrilled to be doing a project and we love the songs. And we love each other's writing, we love singing together and I'm so grateful to be doing it."
While both Caruana and Spender's voices are deliciously rich together, it is the choir that will take listeners of Golden Magnetic to wonderfully goosebump inducing territory.
The choral group on Golden Magnetic is a supergroup sitting alongside the super duo.
"We hand-picked people we were big fans of in Melbourne... Ainslie Wills, Kira Puru, Timothy Harvey, Ryan Downe, and our choir master Virginia Bott - and Tommy and I."
This studio choir will be replaced by the different choirs that Caruana and Spender are performing with.
"Everywhere we go we perform with 12 to 45 people," says Caruana. "I'm on drums, he's on guitar and we are co-singing all the songs."
The idea that started with a YouTube clip of a Leonard Cohen cover by Rufus Wainwright and 1500 voices has turned out to capture the spirit of community that Caruana and Spender so dearly cherish.
"It's ticking a lot of boxes for us. Tommy and I are both very passionate about the power of community and the importance of community. As people who have families, we understand the great importance of the village so when we tour we want to tap into that."
To know Danielle Caruana is to understand how much she serves and thrives off the people around her. Indeed her artist moniker Mama Kin is the very characterisation of family and nurture. And she lists the women in music who inspire her with all the affection in the world.
"Corrine Wilkie - she is the manager of The Cat Empire - and she's one of those people who has always been a champion in my own career in far as being up for talking things out. So encouraging, so enthusiastic, so straight forward. Just a clean shooter. And visionary. My own manager Clara Iaccarino is an amazing woman too. If I look on my Instagram feed right now - people who have released albums in the last week - Ruby Boots and Abbe May. And there's Scarlett Stevens from San Cisco. Stella Donnelly - just so many incredible women. Isabella Manfredi from The Preatures. Maggie Collins who is the programmer of Big Sound. There are just so many awesome women in the music business. And they are all - they're doing it. Clare Bowdtich - one of my earliest influences. I came into this as a mother so to see another mother - she's a huge inspiration for me and a great friend. I surround myself with women who inspire me all the time. And any time I'm asked by a woman for my time, to workshop something, I'm very quick to give it to them. I really believe in us supporting each other the best way we can."
It is said to whom much is given, much is required - a sentiment not lost on Danielle Caruana. "What you can get in a ten minute convo, as far as a moment of clarity from somebody who is outside your confusing frame, has been invaluable to me in my career and I would hope to offer that to other people as they come through."
It is fair to say the duo that is Mama Kin Spender and Golden Magnetic will offer fans, friends and strangers alike the clarity both Caruana and Spender now possess after confronting and emerging from their own uncertainties. And many people will emerge in the same fashion.
Golden Magnetic is out Friday.