Life has come full circle for Vika Bull who grew up listening to the late, great Etta James, and now returns to the soul sister’s songs she studied 30 years ago.
Following a sell-out season at the Sydney Opera House and major theatres, At Last: The Etta James Story is returning to the stage on 27 March at the Frankston Arts Centre, for one night only.
Starring the powerhouse talent of Vika Bull, one of Australia’s most respected, powerful soul singers, At Last has garnered standing ovations and rave reviews throughout its Australian tour.
Vika Bull has sung alongside some of Australia’s most iconic voices, but it is in At Last, her first solo headline show, Vika showcases the true depth and range of her soulful, gutsy voice, as she belts out the repertoire of one of the world’s most powerful female singers.
“It was actually hard to decide whether to do it when they first asked me. I originally said no because she is my favourite singer and I thought if I didn’t do it properly I would get crucified,” she says with a laugh. “I grew up listening to Etta James and studying her voice to sing like her so it was all the more important for me to do a good job.”
After some serious soul searching, Vika says she knew it would be a great opportunity, and after two years on the show she hasn’t looked back.
“It has been a bit of a challenge for me but a wonderful experience. The show started exactly a year after Etta James passed away in February 2013, and is a real tribute to her. She is such an amazing singer and most people only know her for At Last, but she has such a huge repertoire,” says Vika, who puts her heart and soul into telling the telling the story of Etta’s turbulent life. “During the show I sing a lot of Etta’s most beloved songs including Tell Mama and Something’s Got A Hold On Me, but there are very low points in her life, and we take the audience through an emotional journey,” says the singer.
“The great thing about her is she was a survivor. She talks about her life as a roller coaster and if she had to do it all over again, she wouldn’t change a thing,” says Vika, who is embracing the chance to be a singer and a storyteller.
“I believe one of the reasons she had such a magnificent voice was because of her life experience.”
Described as a show of raw emotion, punctuated by an intimate telling of Etta’s tumultuous life, Vika guides us through a two-hour narrative concert of the 57 year career of the woman who has been recognized as bridging the gap between rhythm and blues, rock and roll and pop.
For Vika Bull, whose career continues to take her to amazing places, the journey is still going.
“Singing has taken me to some really amazing places and I have met wonderful people,” says Vika, who has been busy touring with Paul Kelly and The Merri Soul Sessions.
“The Etta show is completely different from anything I have ever done though. Compared to a tour like this, the whole theatre world is completely different. I like it because it’s a new kind of discipline.”
Vika has already had a lifetime of adventures, from singing with the Black Sorrows to performing for the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, but this down-to-earth songstress finds memorable moments in the simplest things. “Every gig you have great times, and meet interesting people. I even had a great time in Canberra when I went to a couple of exhibitions and saw Sidney Nolan paintings which were a highlight.”
For Vika, being on the road is not all sex, drugs and rock and roll. In fact, she explains, it is quite a subdued life.
“Because I am using my voice all the time, I have to rest it when I can so you have to sleep, drink lots of water, warm and cool down. And I don’t drink alcohol anymore because that’s really bad for your throat.”
As for advice for would-be singers, Vika says it is most important to remain passionate about what you’re doing and also have a thick skin.
“You have to be committed to singing because you have a love of it. There are many times when you make no money.
You have to have a thick skin because there are times when you are flavour of the month, and times when you are not,” says the mum of a 17 year old.
“My daughter plays bass in a band, and we’ve told her she can do whatever she wants but it is a commitment.”
For Vika the decision to be a singer happened when she was 5, having grown up listening to a lot of country music through to Bill Haley, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis and gospel.
“We grew up in Doncaster and my parents often got Linda and me to sing at church dinner dances. We were surrounded by music and it was common for the Tongans to go to church a few times a week. Afterwards people would come back and sit around playing guitars and singing songs,” says Vika, who was born to a Tongan mother and Australian father. “I just knew it was what I wanted to do and I have always remained passionate about it.”
As with all great artists, the learning still continues for Vika as she takes the show into its second year.
“I’ve had to learn to speak to an audience and have had a lot of help with actors coming in and giving hints on how to connect and tell a story,” says Vika who admits to still feeling nervous before a performance. “One thing I know for sure is we are always respectful of Etta when we tell her story. She was an incredible singer who lived the blues and it is an honour to be able to pay tribute to her in this way.”
Vika Bull is backed by the sizzling hot 8-piece The Essential R&B Band in At Last, The Etta James Story at Frankston Arts Centre on Friday 27 March. Call 9784 1060 or see www.thefac.com.au