For more than 30 years, the glorious voices of Vika and Linda Bull have comprised one of the most distinctive, versatile and emotionally charged sounds on the Australian music landscape. Since their multi-platinum conquest of pop radio with the Black Sorrows in the late 1980s, the sisters have forged diverse pathways into soul, gospel, rock, country and the island music of their Tongan ancestry.
Now in their new show Between Two Shores, the sisters tell their own story as they see it, blending together narratives from their own lives and career with their unique vocals and instinctive harmonies through an evocative, moving selection of songs and personal stories.
Premiering at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in June 2019, and followed by a sell-out season at Arts Centre Melbourne in November, Between Two Shores is coming to the HOTA Theatre for one special night in March.
We caught up with Vika Bull and asked her to tell us a little more about the show.
“Well it’s about mine and Linda’s musical journey from childhood to now, and how much our parents influenced us, our church, and television and the bands we grew up with.
“It’s half originals and half covers, music that were kind of forced to listen to as children (chuckles), music we watched as teenagers… our musical life, basically!”
This retrospective was prompted by the sister’s friend and director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Julia Zemiro, who asked Vika and Linda to do show for last year’s event.
“Julia came up with the idea,” explains Vika. “And it took a couple of months to figure it out. Linda and I have very different taste in music. Linda loves the singers like Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Emmy Lou Harris and Willie Nelson. I love Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Ruth Brown, and rock n roll singers like Robert Plant and Bon Scott.
“And that’s how we sing – she’s more of a belter, she can sing a beautiful ballad and a power ballad. But then there’s great singers we both love, like Nina Simone, so we had a lot to choose from to make it an hour and a half, and we had to cut it down a fair bit.”
Of course it’s not just other artists that will be featured on the show, with Vika and Linda having a back catalogue of four studio albums of their own to choose from, the writing of which was shaped not just by the previously mentioned influences of the sisters, but by their mother’s Tongan heritage.
“Mum is so such a proud Tongan woman,” Vika tells us. “She taught us the customs, and took us there to live and learn the language, and Dad’s always had a big love for the Tongan people and always welcomed them in his home, and it’s always just been the case that we’ve had two cultures.
“Especially when we were made to go to the church, the Tongan choir would come back afterwards and sing their songs and Mum would always be playing her Tongan tapes, so we got to hear the Tongan harmony, which was quite a beautiful thing to listen to but we felt we were ‘forced’ to listen to it as children. We never appreciated what they were trying to do back then. Kids have no idea.”
In fact, that lack of appreciation and even shame in their heritage as children was something that Vika and Linda even wrote a song about – ‘Grandpa’s Song’ off their 1997 album ‘Princess Tabu’. It tells the story of their grandfather coming to pick Vika up from school in year one while visiting from Tonga, and her marching straight past him in embarrassment.
“That was a pretty a big regret in my life that I did that to him, and he was really proud and he came to Australia to meet us. I was the only Tongan kid in school and I copped a lot of shit for being brown and to have this even browner Polynesian man standing at the school gate to pick me up was so much worse! Oh.
“So many kids go through that though, I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘I’m Italian and I had the same experience, because my dad used to pick me up in a Monaro’.”
I immediately feel so very sad for all the tiny children out there bearing a burden of shame that should rightfully be borne instead by a culture that raises children who think it’s okay to ostracise and shame others for their physical differences, so we quickly move on to one of her life’s highlights instead.
I ask Vika to encapsulate in just a few sentences, if she can, the experience that first brought the Bull sisters into the public eye and into their greatest period of mainstream success, which was their time with Joe Camilleri and The Black Sorrows. She sighs.
“Ah we were so young, we just went for the ride. It was so incredible. We joined that band when Joe was making ‘Hold Onto Me’ and the minute that album came out and became huge, things just changed. We started touring the world, it just hit us in the face.
“Success came very very quickly, we were 19 and 21, and being looked after, taken out for dinner every night. We were spoilt basically, and we thought that was the way it was always going to be!
“But Joe’s a real workhorse and it was the best lesson we ever got, being in that band. We worked six nights a week, he showed us how to watch every penny and those guys were all older and they looked after us, made sure we didn’t get caught in the traps, we were really lucky, and it’s an experience I treasure immensely.”
While the Bull sisters treasure their time as collaborators and back up singers, it’s time in the studio together that is something they’re truly excited about.
“We’ve been very lucky to be able to work so many different people,” says Vika, “but I haven’t worked with just Linda for 19 years, so that’s what really I’m looking forward to this year. We’re ready to go into the studio, starting recording in June.”
So hopefully, once you’ve caught the stunning 30 year retrospective Between Two Shores at HOTA Theatre on 22 March, there will be some new tunes released to check out by the end of this year, which also means more tunes for the 40 year retrospective. Vika’s in, she says. Ticket for Between Two Shores are available now at hota.com.au.