Big, Beautiful and Sexy: Casey Donovan
Casey Donovan talks to Andrew Shaw about her upcoming Mama Cass tribute show at Bennetts Lane.
I meet Casey Donovan in an outdoor cafe in Melbourne’s CBD. She’s wearing mirrored Aviator sunglasses and pink Skullcandy headphones. Her nailpolish is pink, as is her waistcoat, and, she tells me, her iPad is... pink!
“I think I’m having a pink year,” she laughs.
It’s nearly eight years since Donovan, who’s about to turn 24, won the second season of Australian Idol as a 16 year old, relegating Anthony Callea to second place. As part of her prize she got a recording contract with Sony and a management team. She brought out an album and won an ARIA for the single ‘Listen with Your Heart’. She became a regular at festivals and on TV, and seemed on her way to becoming a household name. Then it all went pear-shaped.
“I lost where I was,” she admits. “I guess after the show I was busy for two years, being pulled from pillar to post and the days turned to seconds and it was all rush, rush, rush and then it kind of stopped.”
Amidst stories about her efforts to lose weight and her fraught relationship with her Indigenous father, a member of the country band The Donovans, Donovan’s career took a back seat to spiralling tabloid sensationalism. At the age of 17, she was in court taking an AVO against her father after an alleged physical confrontation at one of her gigs. It’s hard to imagine, looking at the confident woman Donovan is today, that there was a period when she seriously thought she might not have a life in music.
“I went out and got a job and was working in medical reception,” she explains. “Did that for six months. And that’s when I started asking myself the questions: is music where I want to be and while I was working nine to five I was thinking, God I don’t think I can do this. I wasn’t doing anything creative, I was getting up, going to work, coming home and going to sleep. That was a down point.”
Her career was foundering under the well-meaning but ultimately directionless guidance of her stepfather. “After Idol you get given management and the label and all these things you have to abide by because you signed the contract,” she explains.
“So after the three years was up my management and I parted ways and my step dad did step in to help me out. But I kind of got sick of him, I’d come home it’d be, ‘Casey, you’ve got to do this, this and this.’ I’d be like, I’m coming home, I don’t want to talk about work. Late 2009 I started doing some shows called the Women of Soul and the person doing that turned out to be a really good manager called Jason Williamson, who’s now my manager. He was someone I needed to step in and be stern, someone I didn’t know. We work well together, we collaborate.”
Very well indeed: reading about Donovan’s career as reported in the press, there’s a definite upturn round about 2009-10. Donovan appeared as Mama Cass in Flowerchildren, a musical about Sixties pop group, The Mamas and the Papas.
“Mama Cass’s ‘Dream A Little Dream’ was a part of the Big, Beautiful and Sexy show,” Donovan says. “People always say she choked on a ham sandwich, but she died of a heart attack, the poor thing.”
Donovan describes Mama Cass as “a beautiful, placid lady”. “I see a lot of similarities to myself: always judged for her weight, always feeling like she’s left out. She always joked around, always being the bigger you’re always taking the piss out of yourself anyway. There were lots of little things that I found out about her.
“I love ‘Dream a Little Dream’ – she just hits all these tones and you go, how do you get that and how do I place that in my face? I’m a very chesty singer so I sing from my guts upwards, but she kind of places it in her nose to get those high, crisp notes. I found when I was in the Flowerchildren and had to sing a lot of things, I could easily place it where she would place it in her face.”
Anthony Callea is forever identified with ‘The Prayer’, following his hysteria-inducing performance on Australian Idol. Recently he sang it on Young Talent Time, and I ask Donovan if she has a song that’s identified with her. “I do: ‘Listen With Your Heart’. That’s my identifying song. I actually took it out of my set for a while because I couldn’t deal with it. Every time I sang it I thought I’m not singing it, I’m just making noise. I’m not emotionally attached to this song...
“Only recently I put it back in and I said to my guitarist, musically it can sound like the original but I can’t do the same melody I’ve been doing. I need to make it mine. It’s great to have that freedom now as an independent artist to go, you know what, I want to do this, have some fun with it.”
She says she’s reconciled her indigenous and non-indigenous background, taking time out to visit Aboriginal communities. “It’s kind of great that after the whole Idol fiasco I went back to where my family’s from and did some learning there, spent some time with the family and made that my journey because I wanted to, not because I needed to.
"So it makes it easier now, I can go out into communities and sit with the kids and have a chat and tell them my experience. I love it, they’re hysterical, they make me laugh.”
Mama Cass – The Tribute Concert, Bennetts Lane, 25 Bennetts Lane, City, Sunday, April 1, 2012. Bookings: bennettslane.com