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Vika Bull: At Last, The Etta James Story

Aussie chanteuse Vika Bull knows how to sing a story. From the throbbing textures in her rich vocal timbre, the story of her songs are always distinct. Whether on stage with Joe Camilleri, Hunters and Collectors, John Farnham, Archie Roach or Paul Kelly, Vika’s vocals carry throughout the room leaving no doubt as to her signature #chocolate tones. Last year, when Vika took to Australian stages to portray the story of Etta James, the response was #phenomenal. Reviews burst with the vibrancy of the music, the dynamism of the story and the representation of the character. For Etta James was indeed a #character.

Etta remains one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, with a style ranging across blues, R&B, soul, rocknroll, jazz and gospel and even lending her sound in 2010 to Avicii’s prototypical dance track ‘Levels’. This is a woman who saw it all, did it all and lived life to the fullest. From abandonment by her mother as a young girl, to featuring in the Echoes of Eden choir, at the St Paul Baptist Church in LA, moving to San Francisco and being discovered by Johnny Otis, to being propelled into the limelight with a multitude of award winning and iconic albums, Etta James and her incredible voice will live #eternal.

As Vika Bull returns to Brisbane for At Last, The Etta James Story with the seven piece Essential R&B band at QPAC on Valentine’s Day (2014), Lady Lex sits down with the Tongan/ Australian #songbird to discuss how Vika captures Etta on stage, what we can expect when she comes to QPAC and whether everything she has ever done has come to this point. 

Last time you came to Brisbane with Etta James, you performed at Brisbane Powerhouse. This time you’re playing at QPAC in the Concert Hall. What differences do you imagine there will be with the show?
I loved the Powerhouse , it was one of my favourite venues in the whole of Australia. I loved the sound; it was so intimate. But QPAC’s a massive stage: and we’ll be set up differently. I like everyone to be close. I like to know the audience is there. I’m telling a story so I try to make it as intimate as possible, so I try to include them a little bit. And the audience enjoys it: they laugh and cry a lot. It’s really hard when I’m singing and I see they’re moved by her story. I have to turn my back and walk away.

What initially inspired the show and what do you think of the story?
Joe Camilleri
suggested for me to sing the show, because he knew I was a massive fan. So the producers called me up and asked if I wanted to do the job. It’s a good story, a very interesting one. It’s sad but a really colourful life. The things that she did, the drugs that she took and they didn’t kill her: she was a survivor. But it was really her singing; the way she sang and could tell a story. 

You’re very different to Etta personally, so how do you manage to draw on those emotions, the hurt and the heartache and the strength to capture who she is?
Had I been younger, perhaps I wouldn’t be able to sing her music. I would be too inexperienced and I wouldn’t be able to sing it properly. Being an older person, being a mother has helped. I’ve lived life a bit. I’ve never lived anywhere near the life she lead: I wasn’t abandoned by my mother, I wasn’t left to run wild on the streets, I didn’t hang out with a street gang, I didn’t shoot up heroin, nothing like that. I’m completely different. I think it’s just life experience so I can sympathise and understand. The lyrics help a lot. It’s interesting hearing Etta sing, because when she sang, she lived that life; she’s lived everything she sings about. It’s honest. It gets you in the gut. 

She received quite a bit of fame towards the end of her life with the younger generation featuring in Avicii’s dance track ‘Levels’. What do you think about this?
It’s fantastic. Kids hear it and ask who it is. If they’re smart, they’ll want to find out more and go back to RnB and the blues, just to hear that amazing voice. I think that’s great for her. And that’s what I like about the show: there are a lot of people of different ages coming along. I think because of that sample, as well as “I Just Want to Make Love To You” in that diet coke commercial, more people are aware of her.

Do you look back over your entire career and feel like everything you’ve done has come to this point?When I started in this business, I looked for singers I wanted to sound like. I knew I was a ‘belter’, that I had that kind of voice. So my inspirations were Aretha, Ruth Brown and Etta. When I first started I listened to Etta James all the time and learnt all her songs. I knew her songs. So 30 years later, when it came to do this show, the only thing I had to learn was the script. Maybe I have slowly being working towards this; I have always used her as who I wanted to sound like.

When you’re on stage performing this show, where does Etta end and Vika start?
I have to sing the songs as close as I can to the original. I still sound like me but I cannot sing like Etta with the rich deep tones that she had. Her inflections, her little runs with the arrangements are so difficult to do – I can’t copy that. It’s something she felt in her heart and she sang. I try and do as much as I can. I just tell her story.

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