Ursula Yovich has always wanted to do her own show to perform the songs that she’s always wanted to sing, but when the Adelaide Cabaret Festival Director David Campbell approached her in late 2008, she had reservations. She’d just had her first baby, Jala (now two years-old) and wasn’t sure if she’d have time or be able to cope.
Well, lucky for us, she took the chance and together with her partner Stewart O’Connell, started recording her childhood stories. Her one-woman show, Magpie Blues, debuted at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2009 and Ursula hasn’t looked back since. She says that although it’s a work that is continually being developed, so far, she’s only had good responses to it.
“I think with any work there is always the feeling that it might not be accepted. It’s my own life and experiences and while that kind of stuff is boring to you because you’ve lived it and it’s your everyday life, somebody else might look at it and find it quite interesting,” says Ursula.
Magpie Blues is essentially Ursula’s story about navigating her way through life being of mixed heritage and why music is so important to her. Surprisingly for one so talented, Ursula says she didn’t really grow up with a lot of music around her. She started singing as a young girl and didn’t get any formal training until she was at high school when, at the age 13, her father enrolled her in singing classes. She later joined one of the local youth theatre groups and she says things just happened from then onwards, but that it didn’t come naturally.
“I remember a Christmas concert at my primary school when one of the older Indigenous girls sang a solo. I remember it vividly and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ Later, whenever I had to perform in theatre or choir, I was scared out of my wits but, even though I was scared, I just did it,” says Ursula.
Ursula says that Australians often forget that there are a lot of people with mixed heritage like herself, and it’s these people who have particularly reacted well to her show.
Magpie Blues has enabled Ursula to reclaim her heritage.
Raised in Darwin with her Dad, both of Ursula’s parents live in Darwin and speak English as a second language. Her mum is a Burarra woman from Maningrida in North West Arnhem Land and her father is a Bosnian Serb. She says that she has personally experienced a loss of language and culture from both sides of her family, yet they’re both from strong rich cultures.
One song that will thrill audiences in particular is a version of Over the Rainbow (made popular by Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz) that incorporates her mother’s Burarra language, Serbian and English.
“I’ve got a really eclectic taste, but one thing that features a lot is language and the importance of language. I do a few songs that incorporate language and perform other songs in different languages like Italian, Burarra and Serbian. These are things that move me more than the top 40 pop songs. Music conveys so much emotion that you don’t necessarily know what’s being sung. It’s soul to soul, and you know what’s going on,” says Ursula.
Although acting has always been Ursula’s main event, she says music is her first love. That said she’s starred in over 20 productions like Capricornia, The Sapphires, Natural Life, Nailed, The Sunshine Club, Nathaniel Storm, The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Little Ragged Blossom. In 2007, she won the Helpmann Award for her performance in Capricornia and had significant roles in Jindabyne and Baz Luhrmann’s epic film Australia.
“I’m still in the theatre world and performing my songs. For me, at the moment, there’s a lovely transition period in my life towards music. My life is music. I’m writing songs and doing things I’ve been meaning to do for many years, but been too afraid to try. That’s what Magpie Blues has enabled me to do. I’m really lucky to have two skills that I’d like to think I’m really good at and I’m always working. I’m really, really fortunate, ” said Ursula.
Ursula’s show Magpie Blues is a part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival during October when she’ll also formally release her first full length CD, LIVE containing the songs from Magpie Blues. In October she’ll also take the stage in Brisbane performing with the female diva group Singaot Sistas including Emma Donovan, Merenia, Ngaiire, Georgia Corowa and Ajak Kwai who together tell musical stories about their diverse Indigenous backgrounds. Ursula is also still an ongoing member of the widely acclaimed Indigenous super group, the Black Arm Band.