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Mahalia Barnes shares her love of Aretha ahead of Joondalup show

The life and music of Aretha Franklin will be celebrating in an electrifying show featuring some of Australia’s most acclaimed vocalists this February.

As part of the Joondalup Festival Jada Alberts, Emma Donovan, Mahalia Barnes, Thando, Karen Lee Andrews and Thandi Phoenix will deliver a performance that showcases 32 songs that defined the golden age of soul music and the legacy of phenomenal artist, Aretha Franklin.

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OUTinPerth spoke to Mahalia Barnes about the event and her love of the iconic soul, gospel and pop singer, and Mahalia told us she couldn’t wait to be bringing the show to Western Australian audiences.

There are a few different singers in this show, how do you go about diving up the songs and choosing who gets to sing each song, that must be quite a battle? 

The incredible team who put this show together had already done a few shows in New South Wales last year, and I actually wasn’t a part of it, I was in the middle of a big tour and they had some other incredible singers doing it. So, I’m slotting in, I wasn’t meant to be there initially – so I’m thrilled!

It’s an interesting thing because I actually only got the set list the other day and was going through and seeing who was singing what, and I was like, “Oh, I love that song!” and “I love that song.” and really, I’d be happy singing any of the songs, because they’re such fantastic songs.

I’m a huge Aretha fan, and every single one of those songs is one I want to sing, or I have sung, or I will at some point. The other singers are amazing, some of the best singers in the country are involved in this show. It’s going to be pretty spectacular.

Do you remember when you first heard Aretha Franklin, or has it always been there for you? 

I think it’s always been a part of my life; I mean my dad was brainwashing me from a really young age is how he describes it. Playing lots of soul music and gospel music, blues and rock n roll. I can’t remember not loving Aretha Franklin.

One of the first songs I sung when I started doing shows – when I was a teenager and probably had no business singing it – was one of her songs I’ve Never Loved a Man, which I used to love singing. I just really enjoyed it.

I don’t know how much I knew about loving a man at that age but when you listen to Aretha’s music you just hear her heart, her soul, her pain, her joy, her love. It’s all in there, and I really connected with that.

I was listening to some of her music last night, I grabbed one of the many CDs of hers that I have, and it was her singing the American Songbook, I it made me think about what a massive range of music she recorded during her life. 

Absolutely, she obviously had that amazing gospel thing from growing up, but I think one of my favourite albums ever is one of hers, Live at the Phillimore. I love live records because you get to hear all the crowd energy, that connection between a band, an artist and an audience, it creates a really unique experience.

On that album she does all her classics, the hits that people would normally think of as being Aretha, but she also does Eleanor Rigby, she does all sorts of stuff. I think the thing with Aretha is whatever she sang, it was undeniably Aretha, it was suddenly her song.

That’s one of the things I love about her is she puts so much of her character and her heart into every note that came out of her body. It’s pure Aretha!

There’s no greater example of that than when she offered to step in last minute at the 1998 Grammy Awards to cover for Pavaorotti and sung Nessun Dorma. 

Absolutely, I was very lucky, I actually got to see Aretha live once. She obviously didn’t come out this way often, it was a long journey on a boat, and she was one for flying.

I always wanted to see her, and I hadn’t had the opportunity. There was a trip that I was on over in America and we happened to have two days off. I was with my now husband, and we thought we’d just see what’s on, and we did a bit of googling.

Aretha was playing down near Dallas, so we thought, “Well, it’s kind of far – but it’s not as far as coming from Australia – so we looked online, and we found some tickets, booked flights, hired a car and booked into a random hotel.

Off we went, and we flew down and we were sitting in third row, which was ridiculous. She was incredible. She was getting older by this point. One of the things that stood out to be was she had this amazing band, but there was a lady at the front who was just a tambourine player.

Aretha was phenomenal, I thought she was just killing it. But then she got a special guest, and it was one of the Temptations, and he started singing and he was frighteningly good, and it was almost as if she kicked into another level.

She literally kicked her shoes off at the piano and stood up, and then just took it to another universe. It’s like she was, “Really, you’re going to get on my stage and sing like that – okay.” I actually couldn’t believe I was there, it felt really surreal to me.

I loved that in the program she had a recipe for her fried chicken.

After the show we went back to the hotel and were sitting in the lobby bar and were just sitting there saying to each other ‘Oh My God, we just saw Aretha Franklin!” and then the next minute a tour bus pulled up and we realised they were staying at our hotel.

We were miles from the gig, and we’d just randomly picked this hotel because it had availability and looked okay, it was 30 or 40-minutes’ drive from where the show was on, and there were heaps of other hotels along the way.

The band are getting of the bus and I’m thinking “That’s the drummer, and that’s the bass player, and then sure enough she waked in to the hotel.

My husband said to me, “You’d better go and say hello.” and I’ve met plenty of celebrities in my time, being in the family that I’m in and the word I’ve grown up in. That stuff doesn’t faze me, but I was completely star-struck.

I thought I might as well, she was standing at the elevators, waiting for the lift, and I went over and said, “Hi Miss Aretha, I’m Mahalia from Australia.”, that’s all I could say, and I thought, “I sound like such an idiot”.

She replied “Wow, that’s a long way to come.”

I said, “Thank you for your music.” I just blurted something out, it was so embarrassing, and I walked away – but I got to meet Aretha!

Still to this day I can’t believe that happened, but I’m thrilled I got the opportunity to see her while she was still here, it just blew my mind.

This show shares her music and her life, what lessons do we take away from Aretha Franklin’s life?

I think that people don’t really know that she had a tough life. I was talking to my friend Prinnie Stevens the other day, she’s also doing this incredible show called Lady Sings the Blues that covers all these different amazing singers, Aretha being one of them.

She made the point that Aretha refused to answer questions in interviews, just ignore, or straight out lie. She’d just say ‘No, that didn’t happen.”

Prinnie’s point was she didn’t want to tell you, but all you have to do is press play and hear her sing. The show may have some surprises for people who aren’t aware of what she went through and how things played out in her life. She faced a lot of struggles.

But, if you really listen to her sing, and you open your heart up, you really feel the things that she went through, you hear the heartache, and the hurt, the joy and the passion, the fire, the love and the fun – you can hear all of it.

It’s a really great thing to put on a show where we can share some of that story in all different ways, and it’s a really interesting format.

I’m really thrilled to be singing alongside some incredible artists. Thando is one I’ve been wanting to meet and sing with for years, Thandi Phoenix is a gorgeous girl, and she works so hard. Emma Donovan and Karen Lee Andrews are two of my favourite singers in the world, and two of my favourite humans.

I’m really looking forward to getting together and getting to sing some of the best Aretha Franklin songs for the audience, it’s going to be lots of fun.

ARETHA: A love letter to the Queen of Soul will be performed at Edith Cowan University on March 8th and 9th as part of the Joondalup Festival. Tickets are available now via: www.joondalupfestival.com.au/             

Declaration: Graeme Watson is also an employee of Edith Cowan University. 


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