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Why Mama Kin Spender is recruiting community choirs for its NZ tour

Community choir: First Chorus Band Of Singers  with Mama Kin Spender at the duo’s album-launch show in Melbourne last year. Photo/Supplied

Community choirs around New Zealand are stepping into challenging new territory, backing rising Australian duo Mama Kin Spender on their tour of the country. 

After 17 years of friendship, it seemed a no-brainer that Australian musicians Danielle Caruana and Tommy Spender would one day make an album together. But it took just a 10-minute conversation to turn that album into a life-changing project – and for their duo to become something much, much larger.

The catalyst was a YouTube video of Rufus Wainwright and a massed choir singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

So, when Mama Kin Spender (Mama Kin having been Caruana’s stage name as a solo singer-songwriter) recorded debut album Golden Magnetic, they made heavy use of a choir on many of the songs. For their live shows, including their upcoming string of festival dates in New Zealand, they’ve invited community choirs to back them on stage.

It was a simple decision, but one with logistical and emotionally intense repercussions.

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Both are seasoned touring musicians. As well as her solo career, Caruana has travelled and played extensively with John Butler, the Aussie blues-roots star who is also her husband and the father of her children. But having to choose and prep a new choir for every stop takes some planning.

That process means employing choirmaster Virginia Bott (of Melbourne band Brighter Later and leader of choir First Chorus Band of Singers) and working six weeks out from every gig via online hook-ups to ensure the choir can learn and rehearse the tracks, then holding a six-hour rehearsal the day before the show. It’s usually done with choirs that haven’t performed to the sort of rock crowds that Mama Kin Spender attract.

For 64 festivals and shows spanning nine months across Australia and Ireland, they’ve been working with co-performers for whom this is all new – something that has had a positive effect on both of them.

“Now we realise, in hindsight, how ambitious this project was – but it’s also been creatively rewarding, too,” Caruana says. “That constant feeling of newness has taken so much of the tour fatigue out of what we do.”

“And we’re outnumbered on stage,” Spender adds. “Because there’s only two of us, we merge into them. So, although we know what it’s like to be out there on stage performing, there’s 20-odd others who don’t – they’re having that first experience.”

Although the songs on the 2018 ARIA-nominated Golden Magnetic were originally written to be performed by the duo – Caruana on her stand-up drums, Spender on guitar and their two voices in wonderful harmony – the slickly produced, melodic album is undoubtedly all the better for its choral element.

Because the massed voices clothe tracks such as Sweet Eddie (about Spender’s youthful affection for Melbourne park Edinburgh Gardens, set to a meat-and-potatoes rock’n’roll beat) and Water and Fire (a shuffling pop groove given an emotional, soulful sheen), the pair say it became immediately apparent the choirs would add a powerful element to their live shows.

From their first experiment, with the 18-strong Spangled Drongos community choir at the Bello Winter Music Festival in northern New South Wales, it was clear that they were connecting with something more important than just the nine personal and observational songs on the album.

“We looked across at the choir and saw the big smiles and them looking back at us like rabbits in headlights – and then, by chance, we asked the crowd how many of them were connected to the choir in some way, and of the maybe 700 or 800 in the crowd, probably 600 put their hands up and hollered,” Spender says. “It created a wave of connectedness that washed away all the nerves – and it is something we now do at every show. It’s shown that choirs really grow from the bedrock of a solid community and it’s so great to be able to tap into that.”

They talk animatedly of the choir in Clonakilty, Ireland, which formed especially for their show and are still performing Golden Magnetic songs for community events; of the Starlight Hotel Choir of homeless people in Fremantle, Perth, who combined with the prestigious Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts gospel choir for Mama Kin Spender’s album-launch show; and the singer at a Sydney show who’d told them the choir had “injected him with hope because he felt connected in a way he hadn’t before”.

“Taking the show out of Australia to Ireland, and now New Zealand, shows it’s not just about one album,” Caruana says. “It’s not a gimmick; it has real legs and a beautiful trickle-on effect from each show.”

Outnumbered on stage: Tommy Spender and Danielle Caruana of Mama Kin Spender. Photo/Wilk/Supplied
The most immediate effect is that Spender has upped sticks with his wife and two kids from Melbourne to move 2700km across country into the same property in the small Western Australian town of Margaret River as Caruana, Butler and their two children. Initially, the idea is to create another Mama Kin Spender album – again using a choir “as a third instrument” – but there are two other projects in the offing.

The first is the shout-out they’ve made via their website to community choirs around Australia (“and in a pipe dream, maybe New Zealand, too, one day”) to create a Sound of Your Town tour, which would involve school workshops, mini festivals in family-friendly spaces and a “deeper community engagement so we’re in these places for 72 hours rather than 48 and leave a larger legacy”.

The second is scouting for a film-maker to create a pilot for a documentary series about the choirs they meet along the way.

“Most people who sing in choirs aren’t professional, so my question is why they’re taking time out of what’s usually a very busy life to meet up with all these other people and throw their voices into the ring,” Caruana says.

“There are times when we sit down with people after the shows and discover how much commitment it has taken for them and that has been amazing. The whole experience has become so much more rewarding than just touring.

“So, what was just that 10-minute conversation has now informed what’s going on for 24 months of our creative life. With another album and more shows and coming to New Zealand, it’s moving to its next chapter. That just goes to show how you can hop on a simple idea and go for a ride and then it can all go full steam ahead.”

The Kiwi choristers from Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch are looking forward to the Mama Kin Spender shows with excitement and trepidation. Hamilton GP Tangi Habib, who is a member of the 20-strong singing group Nick’s Britches, says it’s been a challenge trying to fit in two rehearsals a week around summer holiday commitments.

“It’s a fairly tight time frame but we’re sort of getting it together in some ways. I’m feeling a mixture of nervous and excited. This is on a big stage for us; we won’t have sheet music so it all has to be learnt off by heart, and we have to move instead of just stand,” she says.

“It’s down to the wire a little, but it’s sounding amazing.”

Mama Kin Spender perform at Christchurch’s Nostalgia festival on February 16 with Vocal Collective (formerly the Christchurch Pops Choir); at Hamilton Garden Arts Festival on February 20 with Nick’s Britches; and at Coastella on the Kāpiti Coast on February 23 with Wellington’s Supertronic.

This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.