Casey Donovan found the hard way being the youngest Australian Idol winner was no guarantee — of anything. She’s in Penrith on Saturday, September 14, not far from where she grew up, to sing the hits of Mama Cass, someone who suffered the same weight jokes as she did. She talks to IAN HORNER.
Casey Donovan is now 25. Nine years ago, at 16, she won Australian Idol, the show’s youngest winner. She’s back on the road after a break from the music industry, when she had to get out of music to clear her head and work out where she was going.
She’s found a kindred spirit in Mama Cass, the legendary lead singer of The Mamas and the Papas, who, like Donovan, suffered the barbs of those who criticised her for her weight but, also like Donovan, won acclaim for her superlative voice.
She’s singing all of Cass’s hits at The Joan on September 14.
Visiting Penrith brings Donovan back to the stomping ground of her youth. She grew up in western Sydney where she found primary school a haven for Aboriginal children — she has an Aboriginal dad and a white mum — but high school not so nurturing.
Watch Casey Donovan rehearse Mama Cass's Make Your Own Kind of Music:
“At primary school here in the west there was no colour, no race. Just kids going to school. I’ve been doing a lot of school visits and it’s still very much the same in primary school. I take my hat off to the teachers.
“I spoke to primary kids for NAIDOC Week and one class wrote a NAIDOC speech so they could do a proper welcome and it was just amazing. It made me so proud!
“But I remember when I got to high school myself it was different. Well, you have six periods and teachers don’t have the kids’ full attention for as long as they do in primary school. At first I didn’t take any notice of it but school is a big part of your life . . .
“There were a few amazing teachers in my high school. You know when you see someone doing something they love? And they have that hunger, and they want to teach you, and they can? They were able to talk with kids and level with them and also demand attention when they needed it. That was the best thing. They had a bit of fun but when it’s down to business it’s business.
''Also, you know, kids and hormones, it’s a big, big change going on inside them . It’s different people, all different backgrounds; you kind of gel with everyone, then it kind of just falls apart.
“I was a little bit of a mad Goth at that point in my life. Not doing it for attention and I didn’t cause a scene but we were different to everyone else.
“There was one point where someone said something racist and I just kind of shrugged it off because I’d never been confronted with that sort of racism and bullying at the same time so I was just like, yeah, whatever.
“My English teacher got speakers in for NAIDOC weeks and really tried – there were only five of us Aboriginal kids and it was me and my brother and three others. She brought that culture into the school and we studied all the Aboriginal people who’d done something with their lives. She wanted to give us hope and goals in our lives; to teach us that anything is possible and you don’t have to be stock standard.
“I’m a big beautiful and sexy woman and I’ve been in music for 10 years and I’m still pursuing dreams and goals because of her. I love her for that.
“I dropped out of music five years ago and got a job as a medical receptionist. I wasn’t finding the love any more and, to be honest, there was no money coming in. Compared to singing, medical reception was completely cheese and chalk. I was dealing with people’s stress and anger and, you know, ‘why can’t I see the doctor now?!’ and I’d go ‘I don’t know [weak voice]’ . . .
''There were some funny moments when people would say: ‘Hey, this is Casey Donovan taking my name!’ It did brighten my day but it also made me a bit sad. I’d ask myself ‘Is this really what you wanna do, Casey?’
“And dealing with stool samples was quite a reality slap! Look, I don’t mind talking and helping people but working in a doctor’s surgery and getting coughed and spluttered on everyday, hmm. I had to take that break to be able to re-find the love and the passion for music I once had and that happened when I started working with the Five Alive festivals, a roadshow for schoolkids which educates about healthy living.
“I was a singing mentor for them and it was great to see kids jump up and give it a go. And even the ones who were quite embarrassed, ashamed almost, but once they gave it a go you couldn’t get them off the stage – and that gave me hope again, to see the kids out there, that even though they’re so fearful of jumping up on to a stage with a bit of a nudge they gave it a go and you could see their faces light up. That’s what I missed.
''And that’s the moment I realised music is what I want to do. Because it changes people’s lives. There’s a song for every moment in someone’s life. It’s like a scent. As soon as you hear a song you cried to once it’s always going to be your crying song.
“Australian Idol changed my life. It’s surreal looking back at it now. But though I’ve been slammed for my weight, I’ve never been slammed for my ability. Come on Australia, let’s support our own, let’s not slap each other down!”
Hear Casey Donovan sing Mama Cass's Dream a Little Dream of Me:
What drew you to Mama Cass? “She has this light around her, she’s so amazing. I discovered so many similarities between us. Being the big girl, people were always making a joke, you know, ‘oh, you gonna eat that?’ It was kinda like my life.
Cass has this big finger out at anyone who would dare challenge her! “That’s what I love about her! She had fun, she enjoyed herself. She loved to sing, and loved to dance and that’s what I do! I love to get on stage and break it down! When you’re on stage nothing can stop you, you’re doing what you love and everyone in the room can feel that drive with you and that’s what Cass was. That smile, the way she holds herself, there’s no doubt in her body she’s a strong beautiful woman.
“It’s sad she died so young. I wish she was around longer. I just love Dream a Little Dream. I also love One-Way City. And she did this song with Joni Mitchell on TV, I Shall be Released -- it’s just beautiful, amazing. I love singing it! I’m a sucker for a Cass ballad. She’s a real inspiration.”
Details, bookings: Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, 4723 7600 or jspac.com.au
Casey's homepage: caseydonovan.com
Mama Cass's official homepage: casselliot.com
Listen to Casey interviewed by Ian Horner with Murray Wilton on 2UE Evenings:
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