Desert Divas is giving a voice to women in remote Australia
Desert Divas Vol. 2 is an eight track showcase of original music from women from Central Australia. Non-profit organisation Music NT facilitated record sessions last year that saw these eight artists paired up with mentors – like Ursula Yovich, Nai Palm (Hiatus Kaiyote), Leah Flanagan and Dallas Frasca – to help bring their ideas to fruition.
These are their stories, performed in their styles. Country, soul, pop, heavy rock and folk all come together in a diverse showcase of these women’s creativity.
They were the boss. That’s the most important thingDallas Frasca
“I really wanted to listen to what the individual artists wanted and not just group them together,” producer and engineer Anna Laverty says.
“Like ‘These are the Desert Divas and all their songs are gonna be quite similar’. I wanted to listen to what kinda music they liked and what kinda music they wanted to make and somehow make that happen.”
“They came along with their song and we helped bring them to life,” Dallas Frasca says.
“But they were the boss. That’s the most important thing, it’s about getting the girls to tell us how they want it done. And everyone was on board with that philosophy.”
More than anything, the role of the mentors seemed to be to support and encourage, rather than step in and change anything musically.
“If you’re an artist, you’re an artist. Sometimes you just need someone to remind you of that. Sometimes you just need people to be there to support you,” Nai Palm says.
Nai mentored 22-year-old Alice Springs artist Rita Tomlins, whose soulful ‘A Part Of Me’ uses an ambitious palette of synth bass, clapsticks, flute and beautiful, off-kilter backing harmonies. It’s the kind of song you’d want Nai Palm to hear, if you created it.
“She was super natural, she just needed to come out of her shell a little bit,” Nai says. “Most artists are like that. It was just really beautiful to be able to give her a bit of confidence in herself.”
“Whenever one of the artists was struggling with getting something, some of them were quite quick to just give up on an idea,” Laverty remembers. “But those professionals who’d been doing it for a long time really encouraged them to stick at it and get through it and finish it. When they did they were so proud of themselves.”
But the mentors passed on some more practical lessons as well. Tips about writing songs, ideas about getting the most out of the music industry and other tools to give them the confidence to take the next step.
“I really wanted to help these women have the confidence to be able to go into a recording studio in the future and know what to ask for and explain that they actually know what they want,” Laverty says.
Another highlight of the compilation is ‘My Spirit Is Free’ by Marlinja woman Eleanor Dixon. She is no rookie, having performed in popular duo Rayella with her father for years, but the Divas project stirred something new in her.
“I did Barkly Divas – they have different Divas workshops that happen in the Territory – there’s one in Darwin and Alice and also in Tennant Creek, which is the Barkly area,” she explains. “I participated in those workshops in 2013 and that was the first time that I decided that I wanted to do music again. It was a good step for me. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
Her homeland is quite remote – around 300 km north of Tennant Creek – so she wanted to grab the opportunity for support when she could.
“It just had a really good feeling,” she says of the program. “I really wanted to learn at that time. Being I the community I thought ‘Well I’m not gonna get this opportunity being on homeland’. It felt right at the time. I thought I’d give it a go. I was determined to get somewhere, that was the first part of my decision of doing the program.”
I want everyone to know that women can conquer the world if we want to.Eleanor Dixon
Dixon came to the project with her song already written and used her time to experiment with new sounds and ideas. Its recording and release are a significant step in her development as an artist.
“It was one of the first songs I’d written on my own,” she says. “Every other time I’ve written with my Dad or with my Auntie or whoever else I did a collab with, but this one was really different.
“It feels like I’m growing as a young woman. That’s the story behind the song itself. My spirit is free, I’m growing, I’m taking chances and I’m learning on my own as well as asking and having support from everyone else. It’s just another step I guess for me as a person and as a woman.”
While their lived experience in the music industry meant they could give the Desert Divas some guidance in terms of both their music and what happens behind the scenes, the mentors believe they received as much from the exchange as they gave.
“I’d just come straight from the Grammys, literally, to Alice Springs, so it was a really powerful thing for me to do emotionally,” Nai Palm says.
“The tinsel of the industry can be a little bit exhausting, so to go from that world to a project that was so beautiful, meeting all the incredible songwriters up there… that’s the thing with these mentor programs – you’re not just there to teach people, it’s definitely an exchange.”
“Honestly, it’s been the most amount of knowledge I’ve learnt,” Frasca says. “I spend my life on the road, but this was a really huge eye-opener to the importance of preserving culture. This fits in with song preservation, of stories and language and all of that kind of stuff. It’s been a really truly wonderful experience.”
To create an environment where that level of competitiveness is gone, I think that’s really healthy, creatively.Nai Palm
The significance of a project like Desert Divas should not be understated. It’s an album made entirely by women, from conception to release.
It tells stories of Indigenous women living in remote areas, stories that just aren’t heard all that often in mainstream Australian culture.
“I’ve been working in the music industry for over 20 years and I’ve never experienced it before,” Dallas Frasca says of the female-only studio environment.
“It’s a very different energy. There is something quite powerful when women join together and are all working towards the same thing.”
Nai Palm believes that energy was conducive to ensuring a positive creative experience for the women involved.
“There’s still these prejudices that are kind of subconscious,” she says.
“For example, Adelaide [Wood] who works for Music NT was telling me that some of the projects in the top end, whenever there was an instrument concerned, the guys would get first dibs because the women were less aggressive about it. So they would end up missing out.
"To create an environment where that level of competitiveness is gone, I think that’s really healthy, creatively.”
Dixon wants to ensure that the female focus of this project is not lost. She wants the project to empower women everywhere.
“I feel like the importance of this is to recognise women in the music industry and women in general,” she says. “Anything is possible when a lot of women work together. I want to give praise to all the women who have been involved with this, who have mentored and helped us and are still supporting us with our music right now. It was all women.
“I want everyone to know that women can conquer the world if we want to.”
For Dixon, Desert Divas is the start of a long journey.
“I’m still on a journey of finding my own style,” she says. “I feel like there’s a lot more to learn from other musicians and artists. I feel like I’m still in the process of finding my own self and finding out what it is that I want to explore. I want to do more experimenting with sound and music. I feel it will take a lot of time, but I’ll just take it slow for now.”
Desert Divas Vol. 2 is out Friday 17 March. Learn more about the program on the MusicNT website.