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CELEBRITY / AUG ‘2016

While John Butler’s career went from strength to strength Mama Kin “fell into a support role, a place of service to my husband and children”

Mama Kin opens up to Ari Chavez about music, motherhood and being married to John Butler.

Words ARI CHÁVEZ

Mama & John

Mama Kin, aka Danielle Caruana, has just woken her bewildered child and the two are creeping through a Blair-Witch-Project-style undergrowth towards a menacing river, their path lit only by a small, wildly swinging, lamp.

It’s an unnerving scene, Mama Kin’s pale face and lank hair reminiscent of someone possessed, her child’s naive trust troubling to witness. All this set to the haunting sounds of Mama Kin’s latest single, Redwood River, from her new album, The Magician’s Daughter.

"There’s a lot of instant gratification these days and, for my kids, I want them to understand that good stuff takes time and it takes practise."
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It’s a cracker of a video clip and a deeply haunting song about that most primal of fears, losing a child. Ethereal, hypnotic and eerie, it worms its way into your consciousness, the wailing lament of a woman possessed, a fragile soul.

It is something of a surprise, then, when I call Mama Kin for this interview, to hear an earthy Australian voice explain that she’s doing that most mundane of things: grocery shopping. She sounds frazzled, her voice dipping and crackling with the poor mobile reception, the demands of jamming a myriad of errands into a few precious hours without children tugging at her.

She tells me she’ll find a quiet corner somewhere, so we can talk. There’s some muttered chat to a shop assistant, the sound of a till ringing shut and some hurried walking.

“Okay,” she says, finally. “I’m ready.”

Mama Kin is not easily categorised. A seeming contradiction, she was born into a musical Maltese family, in which everyone learnt an instrument and was required to perform to entertain houseguests. It was an expectation she resented until she understood that her musicality was a gift that could be freely offered to uplift others.

"While John’s career went from strength to strength Mama Kin, “fell into a support role, a place of service to my husband and children”.
539Mama_Kin_by_Lisa_Businovski_July_2011

Nevertheless, her musical journey has been peppered with self doubt, at one point so pervasive it crippled her. It seems ironic now, given her obvious talents, the success of her albums and tours, her slew of industry awards and her recent ARIA nomination for Best Blues and Roots Album for The Magician’s Daughter, named, incidentally, for her mother, Iris, the daughter of a professional magician. The public affection and industry accolades have been a long time coming however, mostly, the unaffected artist admits, because of her own self-defeating machinations.

While Mama Kin’s brothers, Nicky Bomba and Michael Caruana, used the musical training of their youth as a springboard to becoming successful career musicians, their younger sister floundered. It was partly, perhaps, being overwhelmed by the great shadows of her brothers’ successes and partly, perhaps, just feeling discombobulated.

“I think the distinction here is the difference between looking after yourself and being selfish.”
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“My first access to music was singing, my earliest musical memories are of singing with my big sister and learning harmonies with her,” she stated earlier this year.

 “It felt transcendent to sing with her, our voices so similar somehow, hers so strong and free, and I felt like I was learning to fly with her. I started playing piano at age five and played classical piano until I was sixteen. I found it quite academic, especially in comparison to how my family were expressing creatively around me, all playing contemporary and original music, and I experienced a disconnect with my music during that time and spent years redefining the role that music played in my life.”

While Mama Kin was attempting to redefine the musical shapings of her youth, she bumped into one of Australia’s most unassuming and beloved singer-songwriters, John Butler. In a quintessentially Fremantle story, she stopped a Kombi van she was driving through the Port City to ask him for directions, and, after further serendipitous meetings, went on to marry him seven months later.

1Lisa_Businovski_MG_5157

The pair quickly had two children, a girl, Banjo, 10, and a boy, Jahli, 7, and while John’s career went from strength to strength Mama Kin, “fell into a support role, a place of service to my husband and children”.

It was not an easy transition, in fact it very nearly undid her. Growing up in a family where gender roles were traditional and clearly defined, Mama Kin observed a loving but dominant father, a submissive mother and older brothers who also played out traditionally masculine roles. Determined to be autonomous, she took on, “a masculine energy…I judged harshly when I saw what I thought was submissiveness”.

Nevertheless, when she married and had her own children, she found herself subsuming her creative self, so she could tend to the needs of her family, while her husband soared both creatively and professionally.

"We live a creative, challenging and alive life together with our kids.”
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Mama Kin is, now, categorical about that period of her life, noting that her struggles were about something much broader and deeper than having children, and the infinite demands of motherhood, both sublime and relentless.

“I think sometimes it can be misread as I struggled with the idea of being a mother, or I struggled with the surrender of being a mother,” she says, carefully.

“I think there was that but, what was bigger than that, was that I was really suppressing my creativity. And I had been doing that before I was a mother, but becoming a mother heightened that for me in a really confronting way…I had a massive amount of creative urge and I wasn’t being true to that.”

It was a dark time. Mama Kin has spoken publically about serious bouts of depression and a feeling of shame so burning, “it kept me quiet”.

She fought against it by saying the simplest of words – ‘yes’. When people asked her if she had written songs, if she, like her husband and brothers, was also a musician, would she show her work, she started, tentatively, to reply in the affirmative and, “everything opened and opened some more”.

She pauses. “What I learnt about myself in that process, more than anything, is that there’s no real suppressing of anything. If you put something away, in the back of the cupboard, and pretend it doesn’t exist, it becomes a different kind of thing, a different kind of shadow.”

For an artist struggling to express herself creatively, and feeling somewhat shackled by the demands of marriage and motherhood, being ‘John Butler’s wife’, the private half of a very public entity, rather than an individual in her own right, worth of a singular identity, must have been difficult.

“It strikes me now how strange that expression is because I suppose that is what I was playing at, that I was only a half of something,” she said in an interview earlier this year.

“John is an amazing partner, an incredible champion of the creative in everyone. We have shared the ultimate creative expression and commitment in having children together. I am so grateful that he has my back, but for a long time I pushed him away and resented his creativity in light of my lack of access to mine.

It was a toxic space and I am very grateful that he could still see me through the haze of a smokescreen I was creating. We live a creative, challenging and alive life together with our kids.”

Indeed. John has contributed to some of the songs on The Magician’s Daughter and the two are heavily involved in activism and The Seed Fund, a philanthropic foundation established to support emerging musicians and artists. Mama Kin’s Facebook page is a whirling kaleidoscope of photos of gigs, her husband and kids, jokes, conversations about songwriting and causes and a delicious looking jar of home-made sundried tomatoes. There are a lot of ‘likes’, a genuinely good vibe. Mama Kin is well loved.

In addition, after finishing touring for the year, she is about to start work on a new project with Emily Lubitz of Tinpan Orange. It appears, finally, to be a blessed life. On the surface, those dark days, where she was crippled by shame and anxiety, seem far away yet, in her next breath, she talks of being broken.

“We’re [Mama Kin and Emily Lubitz] doing a project together called ‘Broken Songs’, which is getting together and writing and singing some of our back catalogue songs with the thread of  ‘who are we, in spite of being broken?’. It’s stories that talk about who people are in spite of being broken…I think this idea of, ‘we’re all just broken or we’re all just shattered,’ that’s what makes us amazing,” she says cheerfully.

Her determination to traverse the range of human experiences in her creative pursuits, is the work of an artist who feels deeply and laments often. Touchingly, perhaps given how she battled the moulding of her own upbringing, Mama Kin, appears both preoccupied and concerned about what she is modelling to Banjo and Jahli, both budding musicians themselves.

“My main thing with my kids is to want them to know that they are worth it. They are worth standing for, and they can make a stance for themselves…They could be creative people and expressive people, but they would find that a lot easier if I modelled what that looked like. Also, anything they want to be good at takes time. You need to do the work.

There’s a lot of instant gratification these days and, for my kids, I want them to understand that good stuff takes time and it takes practise, and that includes parenting, and that includes relationships and all that stuff but we get better at it the more we do it. And sometimes we’re bad at it, and that’s okay.”

It’s a refreshing perspective in this day and age, that it’s okay to be bad at stuff sometimes, even parenting. It could be argued that today’s parents, especially mothers, are more pressured and scrutinised than any in history. The parenting journey, particularly for mothers, is often held up to be one of mystical fulfilment, whereby changing nappies, and cleaning up vomit and food spills all day, is all that is required for a nurtured and fulfilled sense of self. Insidiously, motherhood has become an altar at which we are required to worship. And if we don’t, at least not always, are we somehow lacking?

“I think the distinction here is the difference between looking after yourself and being selfish,” Mama Kin muses.

“I’d love there to be in my family a sense that we are accountable to each other, and we are accountable to what we need as individuals, who we are as individuals and who we are as a collective, and that they are sometimes different things and that somehow our job is to make space for all of that. For each other and for ourselves.

Sometimes there’s an idea in parenting that if you’re doing things for yourself, you’re not being a whole parent, you’re being selfish to your children, it’s not fair to them. I think that that is not true. I think you’re giving your children a great gift by being a whole person, and that’s not selfish that’s generous.”

She pauses for a moment, then brightens.

“My daughter, the other day, she was pulling some of the Angel cards – you know, those cards, you pull out different cards when you’re looking for guidance? One of the cards she pulled out was ‘Abundance’. And what it advised her to do was write a list of what it is that defines her abundance…the list included things like ‘shelter’ and ‘creative parents’ and ‘a healthy body’ and ‘great friends’ and ‘a great school’. She was able to articulate a long list of things she was grateful for, and I thought that that was a cool thing and it made me feel like maybe we’re doing alright…And I found the list, and I took a photo of it and I sent it to John, and I said, ‘I think we’re doing okay’.”

Mama Kin is, now, categorical about that period of her life, noting that her struggles were about something much broader and deeper than having children, and the infinite demands of motherhood, both sublime and relentless.

“I think sometimes it can be misread as I struggled with the idea of being a mother, or I struggled with the surrender of being a mother,” she says, carefully.

“I think there was that but, what was bigger than that, was that I was really suppressing my creativity. And I had been doing that before I was a mother, but becoming a mother heightened that for me in a really confronting way…I had a massive amount of creative urge and I wasn’t being true to that.”

MK Lisa Businovski_6189

It was a dark time. Mama Kin has spoken publically about serious bouts of depression and a feeling of shame so burning, “it kept me quiet”.

She fought against it by saying the simplest of words – ‘yes’. When people asked her if she had written songs, if she, like her husband and brothers, was also a musician, would she show her work, she started, tentatively, to reply in the affirmative and, “everything opened and opened some more”.

She pauses. “What I learnt about myself in that process, more than anything, is that there’s no real suppressing of anything. If you put something away, in the back of the cupboard, and pretend it doesn’t exist, it becomes a different kind of thing, a different kind of shadow.”

For an artist struggling to express herself creatively, and feeling somewhat shackled by the demands of marriage and motherhood, being ‘John Butler’s wife’, the private half of a very public entity, rather than an individual in her own right, worth of a singular identity, must have been difficult.

MK signing FNQ

“It strikes me now how strange that expression is because I suppose that is what I was playing at, that I was only a half of something,” she said in an interview earlier this year.

“John is an amazing partner, an incredible champion of the creative in everyone. We have shared the ultimate creative expression and commitment in having children together. I am so grateful that he has my back, but for a long time I pushed him away and resented his creativity in light of my lack of access to mine.

It was a toxic space and I am very grateful that he could still see me through the haze of a smokescreen I was creating. We live a creative, challenging and alive life together with our kids.”

Indeed. John has contributed to some of the songs on The Magician’s Daughter and the two are heavily involved in activism and The Seed Fund, a philanthropic foundation established to support emerging musicians and artists. Mama Kin’s Facebook page is a whirling kaleidoscope of photos of gigs, her husband and kids, jokes, conversations about songwriting and causes and a delicious looking jar of home-made sundried tomatoes. There are a lot of ‘likes’, a genuinely good vibe. Mama Kin is well loved.

MK in the studio March 2012

In addition, after finishing touring for the year, she is about to start work on a new project with Emily Lubitz of Tinpan Orange. It appears, finally, to be a blessed life. On the surface, those dark days, where she was crippled by shame and anxiety, seem far away yet, in her next breath, she talks of being broken.

“We’re [Mama Kin and Emily Lubitz] doing a project together called ‘Broken Songs’, which is getting together and writing and singing some of our back catalogue songs with the thread of  ‘who are we, in spite of being broken?’. It’s stories that talk about who people are in spite of being broken…I think this idea of, ‘we’re all just broken or we’re all just shattered,’ that’s what makes us amazing,” she says cheerfully.

Her determination to traverse the range of human experiences in her creative pursuits, is the work of an artist who feels deeply and laments often. Touchingly, perhaps given how she battled the moulding of her own upbringing, Mama Kin, appears both preoccupied and concerned about what she is modelling to Banjo and Jahli, both budding musicians themselves.

“My main thing with my kids is to want them to know that they are worth it. They are worth standing for, and they can make a stance for themselves…They could be creative people and expressive people, but they would find that a lot easier if I modelled what that looked like. Also, anything they want to be good at takes time. You need to do the work.

08 August 011

There’s a lot of instant gratification these days and, for my kids, I want them to understand that good stuff takes time and it takes practise, and that includes parenting, and that includes relationships and all that stuff but we get better at it the more we do it. And sometimes we’re bad at it, and that’s okay.”

It’s a refreshing perspective in this day and age, that it’s okay to be bad at stuff sometimes, even parenting. It could be argued that today’s parents, especially mothers, are more pressured and scrutinised than any in history. The parenting journey, particularly for mothers, is often held up to be one of mystical fulfilment, whereby changing nappies, and cleaning up vomit and food spills all day, is all that is required for a nurtured and fulfilled sense of self. Insidiously, motherhood has become an altar at which we are required to worship. And if we don’t, at least not always, are we somehow lacking?

“I think the distinction here is the difference between looking after yourself and being selfish,” Mama Kin muses.

“I’d love there to be in my family a sense that we are accountable to each other, and we are accountable to what we need as individuals, who we are as individuals and who we are as a collective, and that they are sometimes different things and that somehow our job is to make space for all of that. For each other and for ourselves.

Sometimes there’s an idea in parenting that if you’re doing things for yourself, you’re not being a whole parent, you’re being selfish to your children, it’s not fair to them. I think that that is not true. I think you’re giving your children a great gift by being a whole person, and that’s not selfish that’s generous.”

She pauses for a moment, then brightens.

“My daughter, the other day, she was pulling some of the Angel cards – you know, those cards, you pull out different cards when you’re looking for guidance? One of the cards she pulled out was ‘Abundance’. And what it advised her to do was write a list of what it is that defines her abundance…the list included things like ‘shelter’ and ‘creative parents’ and ‘a healthy body’ and ‘great friends’ and ‘a great school’. She was able to articulate a long list of things she was grateful for, and I thought that that was a cool thing and it made me feel like maybe we’re doing alright…And I found the list, and I took a photo of it and I sent it to John, and I said, ‘I think we’re doing okay’.”

“My main thing with my kids is to want them to know that they are worth it. They are worth standing for, and they can make a stance for themselves."
ARI CHÁVEZ

Ari has had work published in Australia, England, Japan and Singapore. She has a delightful toddler, Gabriel, who was born with coffee in his veins. She is currently completing her first novel as part of a PhD project.

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