When an artist releases a new album their concerts often take on a different character, with their regular setlists replaced by a showcase of the new album’s highlights. While this might give audiences a good idea of how the new material sounds live, it does not necessarily convey the clearest picture of the artist who wrote and recorded it.

However, when Emma Donovan launched her latest solo release, Til My Song Is Done, at this year’s Cabaret Festival, she avoided this change in character, introducing both the concert and the album as a return to her roots in country music.

Although she focused on new material, she did so to celebrate her journey as an Indigenous musician, rather than just to promote a new record.

Backed by rhythm guitarist Megan Bernard, pedal steel guitarist Shane Reilly, bassist Ruben Shannon and drummer Daniel Farrugia, Donovan began the concert with the album’s title track, a mellow minor-key ballad. The almost mantra-like nature of the song’s vocal refrain lent a real gravity to the occasion, and the band’s tasteful, restrained playing allowed Donovan’s lyrical manifesto to be heard loud and clear.

As a singer and lyricist, Donovan is a natural storyteller, but as a concert artist, her stories are not just told through the music.

She allows for plenty of time in between tunes to explain the people and places behind the lyrics. Songs like the infectious “Liquid Gold” were given an extra layer of meaning when Donovan detailed the family members who inspired each verse.

The time taken to spin each yarn gave the audience a far greater appreciation for the songs than whatever might be gleaned from passively listening to the album as it was recorded.

Donovan and her band gave brilliant live treatment to several other album cuts. “Away” and “Lovin’ Looks Like”, which on the surface might appear to be simple love songs, were recontextualised for the audience as celebrations of Donovan’s love for her extended family, and her enduring sense of belonging to the Indigenous communities in which she grew up.

With this added context to her delicately understated songwriting, the band’s coolly restrained playing felt all the warmer, and Donovan’s powerful vocal delivery all the more heartfelt.

At the concert’s midpoint, Donovan also performed the album cut “Yibaanga Gangaa (Sweet By & By)” accompanied only by herself on ukulele.

This tune was one of many traditional gospel songs that she had learned from her grandparents Micko and Aileen, themselves singers and songwriters. Their music had been a staple of Donovan’s life as a child, and whose family band had been her first experience as a young performing musician.

After this highly moving tribute to her family and community, Donovan then brought her band back for the second half, the highlight of which was the powerful tune “Change is Coming”.

She introduced this song by casting back to the results of last year’s referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, and although she chose not to divulge any politics in detail, the band’s playing took on a darker tinge.

Her vocal delivery intensified as she asked: “Change is coming / I have to believe it / ’cause if I don’t, what have I got?” As the final chords of the song rang out, it almost felt as if one ought to try and answer that uncomfortable question.

For the final song of the evening, Donovan performed another gospel tune learned from her grandparents called “The Promised Land”.

This time, her singing and ukulele playing were augmented by Reilly’s pedal steel inflections and Farrugia’s soft percussion work. With the darkness of “Change is Coming” still in everyone’s minds, the song’s bright simplicity felt almost poignant, and ending the concert this way could not have more perfectly encapsulated Donovan’s legacy as an Indigenous artist.

She removes country music from its colonial roots and uses it instead as a platform for Indigenous voices and perspectives. Indeed, even before the audience parses a single lyric; even before Donovan addresses a single person directly, the music by its very nature speaks truth.

Emma Donovan’s concert was presented as part of the 2024 Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Read more Cabaret Festival coverage here.

Edmund Black is the 5th recipient of the Helpmann Academy InReview Mentorship. He is working with Graham Strahle to write a series of articles for publication in InReview.

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