This weekend we kick off NAIDOC week with the much loved 1993 debut album from Tiddas, Sing About Life.
The three members of Tiddas came from very different parts of Victoria. But a set of fateful events, the wisdom of some elders and a shared love of music, family and storytelling set their lives on an unimaginable new trajectory.
Lou Bennett, Sally Dastey and Amy Saunders met at a rehearsal of Djaambi, a band headed by Amy’s brother Richard Frankland.
Lou had been recruited to play rhythm guitar. By accident, Sally and Amy heard Lou singing one night and insisted she join them on the mics rather than just playing behind them. Three important women, Aunty Eleanor Harding, Aunty Iris Lovett, and Aunty Faye Carter saw more to these girls than just the backing vocal talent. They encouraged the girls to go and do their own thing, saying that Djammbi was too loud and that they couldn't hear the women's voices.
In those early days the group brimmed with incredible enthusiasm. They knew they had something special going on. They could sit around the kitchen table and sing all day, as Lou recently recalled. They’d start early in the morning, sharing and writing songs, working out harmonies, having short breaks and almost forgetting to eat. They were just too busy having a damn good time together.
The making of Sing About Life was an intensely emotional time. It was not uncommon for them to argue, make up, then do it all again. It wasn’t animosity though, it was creative tension. This friction between them gave rise to a really active time for them as a band.
As three women with two guitars and a small percussion case, they were really portable as an act. They took great advantage of that to gig wherever they could.
Tiddas made sure their first recording together would place their vocals, harmonies and stories as centerpieces of each song. Instrumentation was sparse with barely any percussive elements. Where contributions are made, like bluesman Chris Wilson’s harmonica, Louis McManus’ mandolin or Tim Holtze’s didgeridoo, they add a purposeful richness that beautifully punctuate the song’s story.
Tiddas enjoyed great freedom on this album, something that diminished with subsequent releases as the marketing of their sound and image as a band came to the fore.
Sing About Life struck a strong chord, but success proved to be a double edged sword. Reflecting on it now, Lou Bennett acknowledges that there were huge frustrations associated with the process. They wanted their music to be heard but didn’t want to be pressured to groom and present themselves in a particular way.
She says the band came to be known as 'difficult women' because they weren’t about to say yes to whatever expectations were put on them to fit into a marketing model in order to sell records. Tiddas stood their ground, knowing that being told to lose weight, wear different clothes and pluck their eyebrows had nothing to do with their development as artists.
Since they called it a day, the Tiddas members have all found their ways back to their respective home turfs. Lou has continued her involvement with music the most with roles in musical and artistic theatre direction and of course the critical part she has played in The Black Arm Band collective. But each year on August 10, the women of Tiddas get in touch with each other on the occasion of the band’s birthday. This year marks 26 years since their first gig at Richmond's Town Hall pub.
It never crossed their minds all those years ago when Sing About Life was made that these songs would still mean so much to so many. Lou says she’s still touched when young gay people say her song ‘By Your Side’ saved them and the message of ‘Inanay’ has travelled the world.
But she is perhaps the most taken by stories of a new and younger generation enjoying Tiddas songs.
Recently her partner’s niece’s class performed ‘Poison Blood’ as part of a school production.
"It just gives me goose bumps that, 16 years after we’ve disbanded, young people still sing our music," she tells Double J with quiet satisfaction. "It’s our legacy and we’re really proud of it."