Mama Kin’s crash course in Australian music and management

Husband and wife musicians Mama Kin and John Butler run an Australian arts-grant fund while negotiating their own music careers

Mama Kin: ‘We’d ponder on our long road trips why more these incredible, international-level bands weren’t really viable in Australia’

Mama Kin: ‘We’d ponder on our long road trips why more these incredible, international-level bands weren’t really viable in Australia’

Mon, Apr 14, 2014, 01:00

Some people are born ready for a career in music, while others need a forceful nudge in the right direction. Danielle Caruana, aka Mama Kin, falls into the latter category. She is an Australian native of Maltese extraction, and was surrounded by music since birth, with her father and older brothers playing professionally. But during her teenage years she convinced herself that her creative output was “not worth sharing”.

“I had this musical creative urge constantly happening but I kept it secret because I thought it was something that was just meant to be a private endeavour,” she says from her home in South Fremantle, near Perth. “And then it sort of started turning on me. If you try to keep a buoy underwater for a long time, it starts taking a lot of energy to stop it from popping back up and slapping you in the face. All my energy was going into trying to keep this thing down, and it became kind of a toxic force, in a weird way.”

Caruana admits that she had become comfortable putting herself in “support roles” to the creative people around her, including her husband, John Butler, a successful musician and leader of the eclectic band John Butler Trio. It wasn’t until she became a mother that her creative itch was scratched. She began, as she puts it, to make a concerted effort to say “yes” to the opportunities that she was being offered. Within a few months of her change in mindset, she had released her first body of work and was touring. Her first album, Beat and Holler , released in 2010, was a “war cry” of emotion and creative ideas, as she puts it. Her new album, The Magician’s Daughter , is a more considered collection.

“They’re both completely intimate, but Beat and Holler is more ‘this is how I got to this place’, whereas the new one is finally being able to get to the backwaters without panicking,” she says.

The nurturing side

Her husband features on her material, and the pair will tour together later this month, but their collaborative partnership stretches further than most creative couples. This year, they will celebrate the 10th year of The Seed, a not-for-profit arts-grant fund they set up in 2004 with a view to nurturing Australian musicians and creating a network of self-sufficiency within the indigenous music scene.

In the early days of his career, Butler benefited from arts grants from government bodies, but the pair realised there was no model in place for independent musicians to learn how to build longevity within their careers.

“We’d be going around all these festivals and watching these amazing Australian acts,” says Caruana. “We’d ponder on our long road trips why more of these incredible, international-level bands weren’t really viable in Australia, and why these musicians were still having to work second and third jobs to support their music career. At the time, although we didn’t really know it, we were waist-deep in creating a model around releasing music independently in Australia.”

Butler’s success as an independent artist – he co-founded independent label Jarrah Records early in his career and the financial benefits of his success initially got The Seed up and running – meant that creating such a paradigm was a case of applying the model from his busking days “to a bigger scale”.

“You become the performer, the artist, the manager, the publicist and the distributor all in one,” he says. “When it came time to mass exposure [internationally], I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time – so the finances were there, or we had a lot more of the pie, at least. Most of our pie still goes into making our engine hum; to make new albums, to tour this thing around the world. But there’s a little portion of the pie that we can give back [to The Seed]. ”

After two years of the project, Caruana and Butler became aware of a need for non-musicians in the industry to be part of The Seed. A management workshop invites 25 up-and-coming music managers to a weekend retreat where they can share ideas with experienced professionals.

“Music management is actually a very lonely role,” says Caruana. “What people seemed to be missing the most was really strong direction, a really strong strategy: vision, implementation and management.”

“We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but I think that can be a good thing – whether it’s a career, parenthood or starting a grant scheme. If you know the amount of work involved you might never start in the first place,” says Butler. “I think Dan and I have always had big dreams. You’ve gotta jump off the cliff at some stage, and yes, it may be shallow, or it may be deep blue water. You could hurt yourself, and that’s a risk, but that’s the exciting part. Fortune favours the brave.”

Mama Kin play s nationwide this month, including Whelan’s in Dublin on April 29 . John Butler Trio play Vicar Street on April 24 and 25

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