There’s a moment in the 2013 music documentary 20 Feet From Stardom where legendary singer Darlene Love reflects on the time when she was working as a maid, cleaning other people’s houses while her festive classic Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) would be playing on the radio. It was a small but powerful reminder for Love that her true vocation was singing.
For years, Linda Bull – the younger half of Australia’s singing sisters Vika and Linda – has taken the lead singing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) in Paul Kelly’s band around Yuletide. Every time she does, she thinks of Love. “The good thing that I took from that movie was look where Darlene is now,” Linda says. “She had the last laugh over Phil Spector.”
In No Bull, the new memoir co-written by the two sisters, they tell of the times when they too went back to day jobs after being dropped by their record label in 2001. Not that they were scrubbing floors: with no previous retail experience, Linda founded a kids’ clothing store, Hoochie Coochie, while Vika took catering and secretarial work between her own gigs.
Nothing in the music business can be taken for granted. After a career spanning more than 30 years, it’s only been in the last three that Vika and Linda have truly bridged the 20 feet the film describes: the gulf in recognition that traditionally separates female backing singers from (usually) the man in the spotlight.
“I always think, what is it? Why didn’t they quite make it?” Vika says. “You can have the greatest songs, the greatest voice – whatever. The stars have to align in some way. You need some amount of luck, you need a lot of talent. You just don’t know what the public’s going to respond to. It’s a funny business.”
No Bull bluntly chronicles the vicissitudes of life in that business. It also gets personal, beginning with the Bull sisters’ life growing up in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne as mixed-race children (born to a white Australian father and Tongan mother), battles with body image and sobriety, and at least one spectacular falling out.
The sisters first came to attention in the late 80s as backing singers for Joe Camilleri’s soul and R&B group the Black Sorrows (with Vika taking a star vocal turn on his hit Chained To The Wheel) before jumping ship to join Kelly’s band. They have, at different times, sung for Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and the King of Tonga.
On their first solo album, Iggy Pop dropped in to record backing vocals for them (on the Kelly-penned I Know Where To Go To Feel Good). That was in 1994. It wasn’t until 2020 that they scored their first Australian No. 1 with an anthology, ’Akilotoa. Their seventh album, The Wait, debuted at No. 2 last year.
The turning point was the pandemic. The sisters’ live-streamed Sunday Sing Song sessions kept them working during Melbourne’s long lockdowns, and introduced them to new audiences, while reconnecting with their existing fans.
Vika credits the sessions for resurrecting their careers, while Linda says it was the best thing they’ve ever done. “We’ve done a lot, but I think that’s the thing I would remember when I’m old – that particular time, what we went through all together and the effect that it had,” she says. “It’s the thing we get stopped for most in the street, anywhere we go.”
This year they were jointly awarded the Order of Australia medal; a few months ago, they headlined the 2000-seat Melbourne theatre the Palais in their own right for the first time. That 20 feet has been a long, hard road. Linda can’t hide her delight at how far they’ve come.
“I always wanted to play the Palais; I always wanted to get a No. 1,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to expand our audience and be ourselves and do things in a way that was natural, and it just felt really good that we did it that way. I’m rapt. I feel over the moon.”
Vika is more circumspect; her glass, she says, is half-empty to Linda’s half-full. She is more restless, too bruised by past experience to consider resting on laurels. Writing the book, she says, has given her the confidence to write more songs: “I do have something to say, and I think I have more to say now than I had 10 years ago.”
Her other primary concern is staying healthy. The most difficult passages of No Bull reveal Vika’s struggle with alcohol, about which she is forthright. “It just caught up with me, and it wasn’t good for me. I was a shithead, basically, and I had to quit! It’s as simple as that. I should have done it years ago.” She has been sober for nearly 12 months now.
Is her self-assessment too harsh? No, says Linda: after one particularly bad booze-fuelled argument, she didn’t speak to Vika for two months. “I’d had enough of that behaviour, to be honest. I’m not fake, neither is Vik, and if you don’t like something you just say so. And she got there, in the end. I’m very proud of her.”
The temporary rift broke their hearts, but Vika says the time they spent away from each other, and the stage, ultimately reaffirmed where they belonged. “We’d had a bit of a rest and done some different things, gone back to the workforce nine to five. That was very beneficial. We had a good think about what we really loved – and it was singing.”
Like Darlene Love, they wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. The “shit times”, as Vika calls them, make their midlife success more meaningful. “We feel very loved and looked after, on stage and off, by the crowd and also from our musician family,” Linda says. “You can’t put a value on that. It’s a good feeling, every single time.”
First published in the Guardian, 27 November 2022