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Vika and Linda

The Australian Music Vault Liner Notes series aims to deepen the connection between artist and audience as we build an ongoing collection of exclusive stories.

Vika and Linda Bull are in a reflective mood. They are pondering the set-list for their Arts Centre Melbourne performance in November and there are many highlights in their illustrious 30 year career they wish to include.

Between Two Shores, named after their 2006 album, sees Vika and Linda taking the audience on a journey through a selection of personal stories and songs. The only problem is, there are just so many to choose from and the sisters don’t always agree. As the duo mentally calculate their back catalogue of six studio albums as well as numerous contributions and collaborations with The Black Sorrows, Paul Kelly and C.W.Stoneking, “we both have very different tastes in music”, Vika confirms.

The show has also made the women analyse their impressive career trajectory since coming to prominence with The Black Sorrows in the late 1980’s.

It’s been a backwards career in that our success came first.

Vika

“It’s been a backwards career in that our success came first,” admits Vika. “We were well known with the Black Sorrows. We didn’t serve that much time on the street like a lot of singers do. And then we didn’t have that success translate the way people thought it would.”

When they left The Black Sorrows in 1994, their record company wanted them to make an album of soul covers. The movie soundtrack to The Commitments was big at the time and the label were hoping to capitalise on its success. Vika and Linda refused. Instead they made the record they wanted to make. Their eponymous debut album, Vika and Linda, included many different styles and genres and peaked at No. 7 on the ARIA Charts.

“We did wonder if we should have listened to them,” muses Linda, “but we knew we wanted a long career. So we didn’t make the choices people wanted us to make. We sort of bucked against that. That also made our career harder”.

Photograph by Sean McDonald

Music was a big part of the Bull household when Vika and Linda were growing up in the north-eastern Melbourne suburb of Doncaster. Their father is Australian and their mother, Siniva, was born in Tonga and migrated to Australia in 1959 when the White Australia Policy, which discouraged migration from non-European countries, was still in force. Vika and Linda speak highly of their mother’s resilience during that time and of her steadfast refusal to back down on her strong beliefs.

“When I started high school,” recalls Vika, “the principal suggested it might be easier to change my name to Susan which is my middle name, as it would be easier for the other students to pronounce. My mother just looked at him and said, ‘Why? What’s so hard about Vika? It’s two syllables!’”.

Vika and Linda believe their mother’s strong will grounded them in their earliest musical days when they were just starting out in the heady, macho and often intolerant pub-rock culture environs of the early 1980s. Whatever was deemed different was singled out and attacked. It was a scenario Vika and Linda experienced many times.

The racism we copped in those days was pretty bad.

Linda

“The racism we copped in those days was pretty bad,” Linda admits, “Vika’s nickname was Coke and my friend’s sister called me Darkie — that was their affectionate term for me. I mean you tolerate it but you are aware it is happening”.

The sisters were also barred from entering certain venues because of their race.

“That happened about four times in pubs in Western Australia. We’d have to go back to the hotel and get changed. And we got spat on. That was the worst.”

Linda’s first ever gig was singing with older sister Vika and the Bachelors From Prague. It was a total disaster, only because she was so nervous.

“I sat in my Datsun 120Y and got stuck into a bottle of vodka thinking it would calm me down and when I got up on stage I completely lost the note. It was so bad. Since then, I have never walked on stage pissed. I only did it the first time.”

And the first time Vika sang on stage?

“I think I might have been 17. I went to a party and met this girl. She said, ‘I’m in a band, come and sing with me.’ So I went along to the Central Club in Richmond. They were called Fear of Flying and they had this great lead singer John who wrote all the songs. It went from there.”

Crowds noticeably went from jeering to cheering when the sisters joined The Black Sorrows in 1988 and had their first Top 10 hit with the single, ‘Chained to the Wheel’. Since then, Vika and Linda have risen beyond the ranks of backing singers, where they began their musical journey, to become highly regarded and celebrated vocalists in their own right.

They are on speed-dial for the likes of Paul Kelly, Kasey Chambers, Richard Clapton, the RocKwiz Orchestra and a plethora of the country’s finest musicians. Vika and Linda’s professionalism, versatility and those glorious voices have set them apart from other singers in the Australian musical landscape and given them career longevity spanning 30 years.

“When we are booked for a show, we stay booked,” explains Linda. “We’ve built a great trust with all the people we work with. We’ve learnt to never let people down. You don’t have a long career if you treat people like shit or turn up late.”

At this juncture in their lives, Between Two Shores seems the perfect vehicle to share their stories and to showcase the diverse pathways they have forged through soul, gospel, blues, country and the island music of their Tongan ancestry.

“We really want to show how we became singers without bashing people over the head,” laughs Linda, “we’re gently trying to show our influences, which in the beginning, was singing along to the radio. It was something we always did”.

So prominent were the radio jingles and TV ads in the Bull household, that they incorporate a medley in the show that includes music from the Louie the Fly TV commercial.

“It’s pretty fun that bit,” adds Vika after performing it to Adelaide audiences earlier in the year, “people don’t see it coming”.

On a more personal level, the sisters have also included one of the first songs they wrote together, ‘Grandpa’s Song’, which featured on their 1996 album, Princess Tabu.  The ballad is written from Vika’s point of view as a sheepish five year old when her proud Tongan grandfather arrived at the school gates wearing his traditional tupenu.

“I cursed at him all the way home telling him to never to pick me up ever again and I ignored him. Linda and I were really horrible to our grandparents and I’m only just coming to terms with that now. Writing that song was our apology.”

Vika and Linda concede there were other awkward moments growing up, when their Australian and Tongan cultures clashed.  

We were just like any other family, except every Sunday the Tongans would dig up their back yard and cook their umu and sing. It was a bit embarrassing because it was so loud!

Vika

“We were just like any other family, except every Sunday the Tongans would dig up their back yard and cook their umu and sing. It was a bit embarrassing because it was so loud!” says Vika.

“We would hide under the bed because we were in middle of suburbia” adds Linda.

Fellow Doncaster resident and songwriter Mark Seymour grew up around the corner from Vika and Linda and gets a nod in Between Two Shores with the song he penned for their debut album When Will You Fall For Me. This year, the song celebrates its 25th anniversary and they are reminded of the music video which is steeped in early ‘90s fashions and clichés.

“Oh my god, that video was bad,” laughs Linda, “you know what our kids do? They put it on at family events to embarrass us!”.

When talking about their respective children, Linda and Vika each have a daughter, it is clear their brood are their proudest achievements, over and above their illustrious career.

Vika recounts how she was always told that once she had a child, her time in the music industry would be well and truly over. Thankfully, this hasn’t been the case.

We just said get stuffed, we’re having kids

Vika

“We just said get stuffed, we’re having kids,” Vika emphasizes, “and because of our mother and the Tongan way of life which is very extended, our kids came on the road with us. We have our family to thank for helping look after our children on the road”.

Linda continues, “It makes us very proud because our kids want to be around us. And they’ve grown up around musicians all their lives. I think that’s a good thing. Our lives were on hold for a time when we were raising them. That’s probably why we’ve not made a new record in 19 years”.

Photograph by Sean McDonald

Talk quickly reverts back to their role model mother and then to other mentors Vika and Linda have looked up to over the years. Understandably, between them both, there are many.

“Venetta Fields was amazing,” says Linda, “she taught us how to sing on record, in tune and quickly. We were slow when we started and she was so patient”.

They also cite Renee Geyer, Paul Kelly and Pete Luscombe as great advisers, and the guy who gave them their big break, Joe Camilleri. “We owe him a lot. He pushed us to the front of the stage, giving us lead songs to sing and backing vocals. He had us working six nights a week in the Australian pub-rock scene. We were always touring. That’s how we learnt. It was a great education.” says Vika.

They marvel at their peers who are still touring and playing and think about their own legacy.

“I want to be like Paul (Kelly) and Joe (Camilleri) and be singing till we’re in our 70’s,” Vika admits, “Our direction has been difficult because of our different musical tastes but now we know what we want to do. And we can sing better now than when we were younger”.

Many music industry folk have labelled the Bull sisters Australian rock royalty because of the career they’ve maintained and the roll call of luminaries they’ve shared stages with, but that doesn’t sit well with either them.

“It’s always been about being in the industry and doing something we love,” states Linda, “We never wanted to be famous. We just wanted to be good”.

 

Arts Centre Melbourne and Australian Music Vault present, Vika & Linda Bull – Between Two Shores, 21- 23 November, 2019, Playhouse.

As part of the Australian Music Vault’s commitment to celebrating the stories of Australian contemporary music, the Australian Music Vault Liner Notes series is a way for audiences to gain a more insightful understanding of the artists programmed on Arts Centre Melbourne stages. The meaningful relationship we have with these artists allows our commissioned music journalists to delve into their musical legacy and go beyond what is presented on stage. These long-form, exclusive stories will deepen the connection between artist and audience as we build an ongoing collection.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jane Gazzo

Jane Gazzo is a broadcaster, TV presenter, music journalist and published author who began her career in radio, aged 16. Since then, she has presented nationally on Triple M and Triple J as well as BBC Radio 6 in the UK and has hosted television shows such as Recovery on ABC TV. She spent eight years as a presenter on Foxtel's Channel V, where she reported from music festivals, red carpet events and hosted live TV shows, interviewing some of the biggest and best names in the music world.   

Jane is chair of the Australian Music Vault Hall of Fame advisory committee and serves on the board for government youth organisation The Push. Her first book, John Farnham - The Untold Story was published in 2015.

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