Songwoman Deline Briscoe has a powerful voice. With 6 children, between herself and her partner, she likely needs it.
Since first becoming a mother at 19, the singer has traveled widely, touring as a vocalist with baby in tow for acts such as Archie Roach, Emma Donovan and Radical Son. It’s a path that hasn’t always been easy, especially for a mother. “When I first began touring as a solo parent”, she says, “I had to be really firm about what my needs were. At first I was told they couldn’t afford it, but eventually companies came around and invested in a quality artist that is always reliable.”
Taking the ebb and flow of creative life in her stride, Deline weaves traditional Yalanji language into her music, and into her family life. “I find the best way to learn language is through song. It’s a huge part of our traditional transfer of knowledge, or oral history”. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly: “Motherhood called for conscious decision making about what type of music and art I became involved in, as I would often think about the way my children might look back on my career when they are older.”
We’re certain they’ll be looking back with pride – and possibly a healthy dose of awe – at this story of resilience and celebration.
Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
I am number 6 of 7 children. We are all 12 – 13 months apart and grew up in the small country town of Innisfail, an hour south of Cairns, QLD.
Growing up, we had very little money, but so much fun. My parents very rarely put the television on as it was always ‘broken’ – we only listened to my mum’s Gospel vinyls.
I also grew up with a beautiful South Sea Islander/Aboriginal family who I know affectionately as Father and Aunty Rita. Father is a Jazz singer and Aunty Rita a Pianist, so I absorbed a lot of music from that household as well.
And what about your family now - how old are your children?
Between my partner and I we have 6 children. We each had 2 children when we met, and now have 2 children together who are the only ones living with us full time. We have an equal mix of 3 boys and 3 girls, ranging from 6 to 20 years old.
In your album Wawu, you speak about combining two worlds. Is this something you have to do as a mother too? How do you approach raising your children with a strong connection to their culture?
I grew up with a very strict upbringing. My Dad was very strict in the way we pronounced our words in English, using manners, and correct grammar, but he also wholeheartedly embraced my mum’s Yalanji Language and encouraged us to speak Yalanji every day. There were even some words that we had to say in Yalanji. If we ever spoke those words in English it was considered a swear word.
I have used a similar principle of weaving Yalanji into our every day speech. I encourage the kids to teach their friends those words, so that they do not have to change who they are when they are around people that they spend a lot of time with and care about.
My two older children have Samoan heritage, and so all of us have learnt some Samoan and use this in our daily conversations. The other 4 children have Motuan (PNG) roots, and this is also interweaved in our language and home life.
Why is keeping indigenous languages alive important to you?
Yalanji language holds so much knowledge which is directly linked to the lands that the language comes from. It is so important to keep this knowledge alive and moving forward with each generation, for the survival of our culture and for the survival of our respective homelands.
I find the best way to learn language is through song. It’s a huge part of our traditional transfer of knowledge, or oral history, and I am continuing that by singing lullabies to my children in Yalanji and speaking every day in Yalanji.
In Wawu, you reference your family story in the era of the stolen generation. Are these stories you will share with your children? How do you approach that?
This is the beauty of the expression of music and art. There comes a point where each of my children listen deeply to the music and lyrics, a point when they hear the depth of the story for themselves and the music speaks to them. When this happens, they are ready to ask those questions. In my reply I always try to be honest, with age appropriate answers, and explain to them that this is why I use art and music for healing.
How did becoming a mother affect your music or your identity? Did you find you wanted to create more or step back after the birth of your first child?
My first child was born in New Zealand when I was at the very young age of 19. I had already been touring for two years before that, and so having my first baby a long way from my home country I slowed down and took a year and a half off. However, every other child after that I felt like I knew what I was doing, so I was back on stage and sometimes even touring within two weeks of their birth.
I believe that having a child so young kept me grounded and even though it limited my opportunities, I did not ever feel like I missed out on anything. Instead I felt extremely blessed, and my career followed the ebb and flow of life – eventually finding the balance between motherhood and my musical career. Motherhood called for conscious decision making about what type of music and art I became involved in, as I would often think about the way my children might look back on my career when they are older.
I was a solo parent for 8 years in Melbourne with no family living there, and as a solo mum I invested my time and creativity in other company’s projects such as Black Arm Band, Malthouse Theatre, Ilbijerri Theatre. I also toured as a support vocalist for artist such as Archie Roach, Emma Donovan and Radical Son. While I was a solo parent and had younger children I made career choices that meant I could still be creative, but not have the responsibility of organising the project and tours.
As an artist working in the creative industries, do you think there is enough flexibility and support for mothers working in the arts? What are some of the challenges you've faced?
When I first began touring as a solo parent, I had to be really firm about what my needs were. At first I was told they couldn’t afford it, but eventually companies came around and invested in a quality artist that is always reliable.
It would have been great to have access to a change table, bottle warmer and breastfeeding facilities backstage. Now there seems to be a bit more flexibility and support for mothers in the arts, as I have noticed little play areas, fridges for bottles, and bottle warmers backstage at some festivals and venues, which is a positive step forward.
The greatest challenge was finding the balance between work and home. As a musician you have to take the work while it’s there because when it’s quiet you still have to make ends meet. You can’t take sick days or holidays so the pressure is always on – hence why I was back at work within two weeks. Unfortunately my story is not unique. I know other musicians who are ARIA award winning composers and well known performers, who have either worked right up to their due date or were back on stage or in the studio within two weeks of childbirth.
Do you take your kids on tour with you? What's that experience like?
I usually tour with my children up until they are two years old as the flights are free during that time. In each city I would find family or friends to help with the babies while I am in rehearsal or on stage.
Once they turned two it became unaffordable to tour with them anymore. I would usually have friends help with babysitting and pay a small fee to help them out, but if I go overseas I would have my family from Cairns come to my place in Melbourne and spend time with the kids, or take the children up to my sister in Cairns and pick them up on my way home.
I have been fortunate to tour with some beautiful people who genuinely love my children. They have Aunties and Uncles in all different art forms from all over the country.
What does a typical day look like for your family?
After many years on a tight rope trying to juggle and find my balance, I feel like I have mostly succeeded in sustaining a good routine for our home.
We usually start by getting the children off to school; a little walk through the bush to the local primary school. Mum and Dad come home and begin our day with a coffee, and start working in the home office, organising gigs, meetings, or recording in our home studio.
At 3pm we walk back to the school, pick the kids up and if there are any after school activities we go to those.
If I am touring I usually try to book flights to depart and arrive home in the middle of the day so as not to interrupt the morning or afternoon routine. My partner and I are both musicians, so we try to arrange it so one of us is home with the children while the other is on tour. Sometimes we overlap and that’s when our families step in to support us.
What's your favourite piece of parenting advice?
As a Mother of 7 I figured my Ngamu (Mum) knew what she was talking about when she said “listen to your child. Your babies see much more than you think they see, and know much more than you think they know”. And, “children need consistency in everything you do and say, so make sure you always follow through”.