The Singing Mum

2 Oct

Bad Feminist meets Donna Canale, an internationally touring jazz and big-band singer to find out how she raises identical twins, Sara and Lucy, aged 7, and keeps up with her busy schedule.

“I’m not sure exactly what it is to be a feminist today.. Years of travelling aboard a ‘band bus’ with 15 fellas could have knocked the feminist out of me. Having said that, I take no nonsense from any fellas and enjoy the company of my women friends.”

In the UK, to qualify for 52 weeks statutory maternity leave, you must be an employee. For musicians, artists and other self-employed mothers, the rules are a little different; to qualify for Maternity Allowance you must have been self-employed for at least 26 of the 66 weeks before the week your baby was due and earned an average of £30 over any 13 of those 66 weeks. In the uncertain world of the working musician, a regular income and employment are difficult to come by, and will be increasingly more difficult with the implementation of proposed cuts in government arts funding.

While classical music may support brain development in fetuses, and relaxing and creative endeavours are recommended to pregnant women, how does a professional musician balance motherhood with a career that requires networking, late nights and a glamorous appearance?

“Anyone who has kids will go to great lengths to describe the incredible juggling act they perform every day. They’re not exaggerating! I love what I do as a singer, I love teaching and trying to inspire people. I’m even doing a full-time course right now in Acting so that I may have a chance to diversify but stay ‘in the Arts’.
However, the most creative and satisfying thing I’ve done is have a family. I lost my desire to be famous when I was about 14. I did do a couple of hit singles with the producers of the dance act Shaft. ‘Mucho Mambo (Sway)’ hit number 2 in the charts; it was nice to hear myself played on the radio.

A warm and sunny woman, with a soft Aberdeen accent and sparkling, kind eyes, Donna embodies many traditional ‘motherly’ qualities off stage; as a tutor her patience and enthusiasm have earned her teaching positions at both the Guildhall School of Music and the Institute for Contemporary Music Performance. Once behind the microphone her skill as a performer shines, described by The Observer on Sunday as ‘intelligent, perfectly straight and touching’. Donna has been invited to sing across the world. “Probably my favourite tour was The Magic of Sinatra tour with the Andy Prior Big Band. We spent a good year in all the best theatres and concert venues in the UK including the London Palladium and the Birmingham Symphony Hall. I was his ‘special guest’ and got the stage all to my self in the first half of the show accompanied by a fantastic orchestra.”

Donna’s solo album, ‘Thinking of You’ was released in 2002, to critical success, but Donna finds that since the birth of her twins she has found little time to write her own material.  “I haven’t had enough head space to complete any writing since the girls were born 7 years ago. But I often sit at the piano doodling little snippets of songs. One day when I get more peace and quiet I’ll complete all my unfinished songs.”

In an industry that places huge importance on appearance of artists, as well as their vocal talent, the image of a sleep-deprived mother armed with crayonned efforts and glue-spattered school projects may not sit comfortably alongside the armies of 20-something groomed starlets joining the hopeful ranks of stars-to-be. Is there additional pressure on parent musicians to ‘scrub-up’? Are mothers welcome on the smoky jazz stage? Donna certainly thinks so.

“I’ve never had negative attitudes towards me because I was female, but throughout my career I’ve had slight fluctuations in dress size. I can definitely attest that I tend to get offered more work when I’m a size 8/10 than when I’m a 12/14. I don’t believe that artists have ever been, or will ever, be judged on their talent alone! It’s nice to think that ‘the cream will rise to the top’, but there are two kinds of talents; the primary talent is artistry, the secondary talent is salesmanship. There are examples of someone’s secondary talent far outshining their primary, but they still do well. An ideal career would be made up for a good amount of both attributes.”

And what about the kids? Music producer Mike Stock has condemned pop music for ‘sexualising’ children too early.

“The music industry has gone too far, it’s not about me being old fashioned. It’s about keeping values that are important in the modern world. These days you can’t watch modern stars – like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga – with a 2-year-old.”

Donna however, has a more encouraging view of her daughters’ creativity  “Spending  time raising my kids to be happy and secure is more important to me than just about anything else. I’ve encouraged them to play musical instruments and ‘forced’ them to join the school choir, but I have a secret fantasy that they’ll decide to become dentists or architects or something where they’ll earn good money so that they can subsidise my old age”

Between networking, performing and teaching, Donna and her husband prioritize their children and family life, “I do have a lot of support from my husband who is a trombonist, he has to be as hands-on with the kids as me. If we’re both are busy working we barely see each other, but 9 times out of 10 we’re able to make sure that one of us is putting the kids to bed.”

Donna’s album, Thinking of You, is available via her website and you can see her next perform at Pizza on the River, London on October 6th


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