Vika and Linda Bull are two roots artists that may not have come across your radar. You ought to remedy that straight away! They are two sisters, based in Melbourne, who have been singing, harmonizing and rocking for many years, delighting audiences in their Australian homeland. Along the way, they’ve supported the likes of Billy Joel and have performed with Iggy Pop. The sisters are members of Paul Kelly’s band – Kelly is a hugely successful Australian rock music singer-songwriter and guitarist, whom a Rolling Stone writer claimed to be “one of the finest songwriters I have ever heard.”
Vika and Linda released a new album this year, called Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso, a fabulous album of rootsy, bluesy gospel songs and we got chatting to Linda about it.
But first of all, because a lot of people in the US and Europe may not be familiar with Vika and Linda, despite their success in Australia, I asked Linda how she would characterize their music?
“Well,” she said, “we’re very hard to pigeonhole. We love harmonizing together and singing together and we cover a lot of different genres. We don’t like being pigeonholed. But I think it’s basically roots music is where our heart is – and harmony. Vika and I have got very different tastes, Vika is more rock and I’m a bit more country. And in between we can cover blues, soul, R&B and gospel. And we love to do that. We love to just sing together – regardless of the genre, we just love singing together.”
Turning to the new album, I wondered what “iso” means. Turns out it’s Australian slang for “isolation.” Linda told me:
“Because we made the album in isolation in the first phase of lock-down in Melbourne, not knowing then that we would have two. The background of the record is that we’ve been singing gospel music for probably about 35 years now.” She and Vika have made a few gospel-tinged recordings along the way, but “this one in its entirety is kind of the next step. We had restrictions with lock-down, so we made it minimally. And I think gospel music actually works really well like that. It works really well when you have very few instruments.”
The album is something of a gem, really pared back, largely featuring the wonderful harmonizing of the two sisters, and backed mostly by piano with those lovely sort of gospel chords that you get with the piano.
“We have piano all over it, in every track, and our musical director, Cameron Bruce, is a beautiful piano player. We’ve worked with him in Paul Kelly’s band, and he took charge of everything with us, helped to select the songs with a lot of zoom meetings. Cameron arranged the songs and then sent them back to us as files and we sang over the top.”
The Gospel According to Iso has 13 gospel songs (with a bit of latitude, we’ll count Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Chuck Berry’s Downbound Train as gospel!), mostly old traditional songs or spirituals like Sinnerman, Walk With Me Lord and Jesus on the Mainline. The album kicks off with a rockin’ version of Claude Ely’s Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down, and once you hear these two sisters harmonizing, and the bluesy vocals, you know this is an album you want to hear. The high quality is sustained throughout, and even though the arrangements are relatively sparse, there’s a nice variety to the way each of the songs is handled.
The album, Linda told me, all sprang from a weekly Sunday sing-song that she and Vika started to do when everything stopped in Australia early in the year. “I went out on Facebook and Instagram live every Sunday morning at 11:00am and we did one gospel song. That grew in popularity to the point where we thought we could make a record. We’d just ring a friend, they played guitar, we’d sing over the top, and we thought we could make a record like that.”
Why, I wondered, did they choose this particular selection of songs?
“We had lots of gospel songs in our back catalogue that we’ve been singing over the years, but we wanted to do something new. So I dug into the gospel collection that I had amassed over the years and we had about 70 songs from all different sources. Then we whittled it down and the focus was mainly just to do something that meant something to us and bring a bit of joy because it was pretty sort of sad over here – and everywhere.
“But we wanted also songs that people knew. So we have Bridge Over Troubled Water and Amazing Grace. But then there are other songs that we thought, we’ll just throw those into the pot because we love singing them – songs by Mahalia Jackson and so on. That’s how it came together.”
It’s a great selection of songs, but I particularly like Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happening Every Day. It’s got a very distinctive Rosetta Tharpe feel about it, with both the piano and guitar work echoing her original version. Linda said she liked Rosetta’s “rock and roll attitude. That’s kind of right up our alley.”
The other song I asked about was Elder Curry’s Memphis Flu. Curry was a singing preacher and guitar player who preached fiery sermons through his songs, backed by the barrelhouse piano of Elder Beck, and featured the stomping feet and clapped hands of his congregation. Recorded in 1930 for Okeh Records, Memphis Flu refers to the flu’ season of 1929 which was the worst since the 1919 pandemic. Death rates were very high, particularly in the Memphis region. The song is often thought of as the first rock’n’roll record and the original is a toe-tapping rocker all right. But Curry’s lyrics are pretty harsh. For Curry influenza was a manifestation of God’s wrath at sinners and there was little compassion for the large numbers of people who’d died as a result of the flu’.
Linda said that when she stumbled across the song, she thought how perfect it was for the current situation – but “the lyrics were very direct. So we tweaked them a bit in the choruses. It’s a gospel song of course, but you’re not going to die if you don’t go to church! But we thought the song was perfect for record. We weren’t sure whether people would love it or hate it!”
Actually, you can’t help but love Vika and Linda’s version, driven by a rollicking barrelhouse piano. The amended version of the song is well-chosen, actually, so timely, and with a great message talking about the epidemic getting the rich and the poor alike, and saying that it’s going to get a whole more if you don’t listen up and behave. Wear your masks people!
I asked Linda if there’d been any sort of pushback against science and wearing masks in Australia?
“There was a bit of a pushback. Yes, there were marches and demonstrations and anti-mask-wearing demonstrations, but all in all, you know, in the middle of all this, there was a black lives matter movement, and people were very observant of wearing a mask and they still went out and protested, so people in general were pretty good. No one loves wearing a mask or being told what to do – I get it, you know, but the result was good.”
Talking about black lives matter, the spectre of racism is something that we’re all increasingly aware of these days. What, I asked Linda, has been her experience in Australia, with her Tongan background?
“Well, yes, we have dark skin. So obviously we look different. So we have experienced a certain amount of racism, but nothing like our mother experienced.” The sisters’ mother came to Australia during the White Australia Policy, which from 1901 basically sought to forbid or restrict people of non-European ethnic origin, especially Asians and Pacific Islanders, from immigrating to Australia. It was only legally disbanded in the mid-1970s.
The racism encountered by Linda and her sister has been “nowhere near as much as the previous generation. So it’s getting easier in some ways, but we feel very strongly about being treated equally, and why shouldn’t we? We are respectful, but we are direct, so I always say we stand up for ourselves.”
The sisters are half Tongan – Tonga is a Polynesian neighbour of Australia, and it’s a heritage they feel proud of.
“Polynesian culture is very strong in our family. And the way they sing – when they sing in church, time pretty much time stops, it’s so beautiful. That’s how we were raised. We were raised listening to the Tongans sing in church, and that’s where we get our voices from. Because they taught us, our mother taught us.”
From listening to Linda and Vika, I’d sure love to visit one of those Tongan churches.
“Everyone we take cries when they see the Tongans fire up…as soon as you walk into the church and they start singing and they get into it, how can you help but not be moved?”
The album finishes with a beautiful, unaccompanied Amazing Grace. The slow tempo and the pure quality of the voices make it an appropriately emotional end to the album. There’s something about this song that seems to appeal to almost everybody, so I asked Linda what she thought it is about gospel music that has such a wide appeal even to people of no faith?
“I think that it’s uplifting and it’s one of those sort of genres that you can lean on when feeling a bit down, or when you could do with an uplift. It lends itself naturally to that sort of universal feeling. You know, we all want to live a little bit better sometimes. Although we grew up in a church and had a very religious upbringing, we think this music is for everybody. And I think that we love singing it because for us, it’s a release. I think it’s ultimately our aim with a gospel record to make people feel better, whether they believe or not.”
Sadly, with the restrictions still in place because of the pandemic, the Bull sisters haven’t been able to go out and play on the road. But, Linda told me, they can’t wait to sing these songs to a live audience. Hearing these two sing these songs live is going to be some experience. I just hope I get the opportunity to hear them.