• P.O.V
  • By Emma Brain
  • Agency

Mama Can

In 2005, Danielle Caruana and her husband, John Butler, established The Seed Fund – a philanthropic organisation born from countless conversations on the road in the early days of touring. Meri Fatin spoke to Danielle about childhood experience, the impetus behind the fund and the joy that comes from celebrating tiny wins. 

Illustration by Adrian du Buisson

Meri Fatin [00:01:41]

The first time I spoke with Danielle Caruana was around 2005 when The Seed Fund was first begaun and I was struck immediately by her presence. When she launched her first album Beat and Holler in 2010, she and her brother Michael came toI chatted to her with me at the RTRFM studios and played live. I’ve thought about that conversation a lot and I’ve listened and sung along to the anthemic “You Tore My Heart Out” a stupid amount of times. In 2014 Danielle ran a session at the School of Life called How To Be Confident. I heard she demurred at the initial invitation to present that course. I was bemused by thatthat, but I shouldn’t have been.

Danielle has made no secret of her vulnerabilities and it’s interesting to see how much more powerful she seems with every admission she makes about her limitations. When the Seed Fund was set up by Danielle and her husband John Butler it was a wild Medusa of a thing; the initial scope sent sprawling by the beautiful grandeur of their wish to make good of all the injustices that they saw. Now, The Seed Fund is a refined concept designed to make good by creating strong community in the music industry. Danielle’s sense of direct responsibility to make a difference however still pervades every aspect of her life. (to DC) I heard you laughing!

Danielle Caruana [00:02:56]

No, no it’s good (laughs)

Meri Fatin [00:02:58]

So, let me ask you about a recent Instagram post you wrote celebrating your dad and his generosity with strangers because I have wondered about where your awareness of social justice and of “other people” germinated.

Danielle Caruana [00:03:14]

To be really honest, it’s less about an awareness of social justice and more around the idea that as a community, we are completely accountable to each other and responsible for each other. I think that experience came early on in life as my family learned to survive as immigrants and the way they banded together with the community of Maltese immigrants. My parents came over with four kids and then had my sister and I in Australia. My mum ran a daycare at home. My dad did several jobs, was a door to door salesman, worked in concrete and then eventually built up his own business. They started from scratch and were amidst a community of people who were also doing it really hard, raising kids, learning a new language, trying to assimilate and dealing with constant racism. They took great relief in coming together at least once a week, and our family, the Caruanas, were responsible in those gatherings for bringing the joy. We brought the music. We were the music at every christening, wedding, dinner dance, baptism, Holy Communion, confirmation and everyone came to everything. It wasn’t like, “so and so’s second cousin is having a confirmation, surely I don’t have to go?” No. You went to everything that was happening and it was all like a life raft.

Hey Dad, I know you don't do insta but here is where I tell people about what's important to me. Knowing you at this stage of your life, as a tender, loving, patient (mostly) and gracious being is one of the greatest gifts in my life. I love so many things about you.
Image: @mamakinpics
Hey Dad, I know you don't do insta but here is where I tell people about what's important to me. Knowing you at this stage of your life, as a tender, loving, patient (mostly) and gracious being is one of the greatest gifts in my life. I love so many things about you.

Meri Fatin [00:07:22]

So where did the strangers come from? Because it’s one thing to be kind and inclusive in a community, but what you are saying is that there were other people?

Danielle Caruana [00:07:30]

There were always other people in our house. We always had someone who was in the middle of a divorce living there or my brothers’ friends who couldn’t live with their folks, or so-and-so who’d lost their job. I loved that about our home. It was open. And then the stranger’s thing. I don’t know where that came from, other than I think my dad felt that if he took care of people then maybe he and his family would be taken care of when in need. He actually takes great pride in being charitable. I think he looks for opportunities to be kind and helpful

Meri Fatin [00:08:47]

And yet that’s exactly what you came up with as the original idea for The Seed Fund.

Danielle Caruana [00:08:53]

I know! (laughs). Yes totally. I see that now!

And you know, I’ve never connected the idea of my dad’s generosity to what we created at The Seed but that is a beautiful link and I’m really grateful that you’ve put that there because I do have that real deep sense of — what are we doing for each other? How can we make it better for everybody? I often feel overwhelmed by ‘the fight’ ‘the struggle’. I am so terrible at conflict and so terrible at fighting back, but I’m good at making good.

Meri Fatin [00:10:46]

As you started to see injustices out in the world, was the teenage or early 20s version of you a protester? Were you angry? What were you like?

Danielle Caruana [00:11:03]

I’m not a very good protester. I’m not someone who is very good at fighting bad. I am someone who is overwhelmed and bewildered by acts of meanness or malice. I’m always looking for how I can be kind and how to make good. Sometimes I wish I was a better fighter!

Meri Fatin [00:11:44]

Well, you come at it from a different angle.


I come at it from a different angle. Even if I only can make tiny, tiny good. Like last night I got my teacup to float in the bath, and considering how I’ve been feeling lately, that little moment of beauty spoke volumes to me.

Danielle Caruana [00:12:10]

I wish I was better at fight for social justice. That’s why John (Butler, Danielle’s husband) is a great match for me because he’s absolutely a justice-minded person and I’m a kindness-minded person and that’s why I think The Seed idea came to fruition, because he was wanting to make it right and I was wanting to make it good.

Meri Fatin [00:12:39]

Tell me about how you came up with the original idea of The Seed Fund because it’s a cool story.

Danielle Caruana [00:12:56]

The first ramblings came on tour. We were in the van doing long drives and we were like “hey, there’s so many great Australian bands out there, how can they not be getting played on radio… if we ever get money we should set up a fund. Like as if we’re ever gonna get out of this van, playing, driving from festival to festival. And then Sunrise Over Sea happened (John Butler Trio’s third studio album debuted at No 1 in March 2004 and went gold in its first week of release) just after the birth of our first child, and because we had released it independently in Australia, we did have money.

So, we were in this dingy hotel room somewhere in middle America trying to make a career in that massive market, and we thought maybe we should do that thing we had spoken about many moons ago on those long drives. And literally as our daughter Banjo crawled around on the disgusting sticky motel room floor, the idea flowered… we would create a fund for artists by artists. Who knows better what an artist needs than artists?

I made two phone calls. One to a woman named Jacqui Geia, she was the only person I knew in the arts community who was a grant writer – a connector and a total maverick thinker. And the other call to Carlo Santone from Blue King Brown, who was someone we had been friends with for years and would constantly call and brainstorm ideas with. It was a two-minute conversation – “hey we’ve got this idea and you’re the first person we would want to do it with” and they were both like yeah yeah yeah yeah. We got back to Australia, sat in Jacqui’s backyard and in that one meeting came up with the categories that we were going to have the first year: Professional Development, Social Activism through the Arts, Music Marketing,Music Workshops, Art by Refugees – which was only open to artists awaiting their asylum application. It was ridiculous how broad the categories were in hindsight. Our naivety was really something to behold

Meri Fatin [00:16:14]

But was the impetus for each of them the fact that you’d actually seen that need in the community in your own personal experience?

Danielle Caruana [00:16:22]

We’d seen and experienced the need in the very recent establishment phase of our own careers. That was our strength I think – we were only one step beyond being emerging and having that perspective of what it really is like in the trenches. John had received a couple of pivotal grants from thegovernment and they had helped to get him into the right place at the right time. But there’s just not enough of those. Our naivety was that money was the best thing we could offer. It was only after the first year of giving away money to stop gap people’s shortfall in projects, that we got to thinking about what was needed outside of funding. We thought back to how often people would ask us about our management set up, or team set up, or advice on publicity, and we realised that what we were all missing was an opportunity to brainstorm with each other. So, the management workshop was born out of “let’s think of something that we can do that is more about learning and connecting than giving money.


Meri Fatin [00:17:37]

And what did you realize your strong suit was?

Danielle Caruana [00:17:39]

Our strong suit was we could pull all of the people who we already worked with into a workshop space for three days. It’s a crazy idea. Pulling thirty emerging managers and self-managed artists and workshopping ‘what is it to be self-managed? what is it to manage? what are the skillsets required? what are we responsible for and how can we support each other? what are some examples of pathways which are a little more off the beaten track?

We’re now about to deliver the twelfth one – three hundred emerging managers later. And what happens in that space every year has been an ever-evolving thing. We want to be speaking with people and empowering people who are right on the edge of the industry, who are creating the industry right now. We want to connect maverick thinkers to become each other’s support network. We’ve renamed the workshop ‘The Future Makers’ because we want to do everything we can to empower them to create the industry that we all want to see.

Meri Fatin [00:18:48]

I was really interested that one of the previous participants talked about the extreme sense of relief from being able to have those conversations. I’d love to a bit more about what happens here

Danielle Caruana [00:19:13]

They’re conversations around the idea that there is not only one way to do this. Management is a creative endeavour and art is a creative endeavour. The mixture of the two should be a mixture of identifying a vision and then creating a great roadmap to get there that is absolutely of your making.

We also try and do as much uncoupling between the artist and the manager as far as understanding that people often get into management as “I just love this music SO MUCH,I have to work with you,” passion play. Eventually, you have to recognise that you are running a management business. We lose so many great management operators from sheer burn out – financially and energetically.

We also try and place the artist in the center of the industry. What is the industry if the primary producer of the art and their manager, get paid the least up until the point where it becomes unviable? So, how do we position the artist to be at the center of their own industry and value them a bit better?

You know the workshop is a little bit academic and a little bit philosophical. The amazing thing is that thirty participants walk away each year with a network of peers from all around Australia. I think they come in thinking that the biggest deal they’re going to get is hearing from industry professionals and they leave realising that they have a community.

Check this seedy bunch of Future Makers: 2019 Management Workshop participants - an AMAZING group of individuals, feeling inspired and connected, not only to each other but to the other 10 years of Seed Alumni. What a SQUAD.
@theseedfundau
Check this seedy bunch of Future Makers: 2019 Management Workshop participants - an AMAZING group of individuals, feeling inspired and connected, not only to each other but to the other 10 years of Seed Alumni. What a SQUAD.

Meri Fatin [00:24:08]

And do you challenge the participants to really reflect on their sense of who they are and what they represent and how they want to be in the world?

Danielle Caruana [00:24:18]

And why. Do you know why you’re doing this because that’s what you’re going to have to return to every time you hit a roadblock. And that’s what’s going to help you inform what your next step is. A small step towards your actual ‘why’ rather than what you think the industry’s imposed ‘why’ is. Because what is the industry if it is not us? We are the industry. We’re making it on the daily. So, what are we making? What standards do we assume are being placed upon us, that we are complaining about, yet perpetuating by our daily practices? So we’re sort of taking the lid off the idea that the industry happens to us and we need to reshape ourselves to fit it, rather than we are IT.

Meri Fatin [00:25:32]

I wonder how having these conversations year on year and building a community of which you are like the centrifuge fuels your recognition every year of why you’re doing this. Why do you do The Seed Fund now in 2019?

Danielle Caruana [00:25:59]

Because it just keeps showing me the power of connection and how important it is to break the myth of isolation and I need that as much as every participant needs that. I do it as much for myself and for my own remembrance that I am part of the community. I get a double kick back when people are like yes,we’re in this together! I feel just as vulnerable. I subscribe to just as many of the myths of isolation as every other manager and self-managed artist and emerging manager does in that room. And I think that’s why I can keep the conversation at its edge because I’m at the edge myself

Meri Fatin [00:27:04]

But it is the strangeness of being a creative person as well isn’t it? A lot of what you develop is done in isolation but then you deliver it, it is such an extraordinarily different space from whence it came.

Danielle Caruana [00:27:21]

It is so tricky; moving between those two spaces with fluidity takes a lot of organization and requires a lot of structure and a maverick mindset. And that’s why I think every person in that room is a hero. The thing is how not to let it slip because whatever that spark was that got you from your bedroom to your first gig or from being able to write your first press release or to book your mates’ band because you really believed in them or whatever that thing was still lives inside you. So, let’s actually go back and remember what that thing was. The real reward comes from actually carving a path of your own making. That’s where the real reward is.

Meri Fatin [00:29:15]

And also knowing that as an artist you can be in an industry and be truly excellent in your product and be critically acclaimed, be decades into what you’re doing and still be living hand to mouth

Danielle Caruana [00:29:31]

This is why I’m constantly saying ARTISTS you are the CEO. You have to make sure you are the CEO of your business. When you get a manager, you don’t resign from the CEO position. Yet so many in the music industry do this. And then we blame the manager. No no no – don’t blame the managers. You checked out. The manager is a navigator. You’re the driver.

Meri Fatin [00:31:07]

You must get a lot of feedback from the people who’ve had the privilege of coming to a Seed Fund workshop. Is there something that someone said to you that’s stuck in your mind, something that spoke to you deep down?

Danielle Caruana [00:31:39]

You know what, it’s actually the unspoken. It’s the hugs on the way out. That last day when everyone’s leaving and they’re mostly speechless and there’s tears and there’s this feeling of connection and relief and “oh my God maybe I can but holy fuck I’m so overwhelmed. But oh my God, maybe there is a way.” That is huge for me. And then the other thing is seeing them out in the world. Bumping into them at conferences, at festivals. To be like “Hey! Hi! I was at the workshop!” “Oh my God, what year?” That is the best for me, actually watching them out in the world doing it. You know what OR choosing not to do it; going “yeah, I just realized that I wasn’t really much of a manager”. Like, thank God you realized and didn’t waste the next four years of that artist’s career

Meri Fatin [00:33:13]

I want to ask you a little bit about your own music because you are still very much a happening thing with Mama Kin Spender. I read that you were filled with doubt about your own musical ability because of how many gifted musicians there were in your family. It amazed me because I mean, you know that I’m a huge fan of yours. So, I want to ask you about the sense of being good enough, as a musician, because I remember being deeply moved the first time someone looked me in the eye and said, ‘you are enough exactly as you are’. And I wondered how that statement makes you feel?

Danielle Caruana [00:35:35]

It feels like a statement I would like to believe, and I believe it when I’m in the space that things are going the way that I think they should. However, I probably can’t hear it when I’m struggling or frustrated with how things are or rather aren’t progressing. At those times I try to remember to believe my own advice, which is that a block is an opportunity to create a career that’s of my own making. But that’s hard.

And so, one of the biggest things to me is how important it is to build a network of peers and associates. Vested interest partners – and also non-vested interest people – who you can call on, unpack things with. Because that support network – meticulously created and taken care of – it’s just vital.

So, I feel just as vulnerable now as I did when I released Beat and Holler. I feel just as vulnerable as I did the first time I hopped on stage and did our first gig. We opened for John. Just my brother and me. And even that, the fact we were opening for John, made me feel like a complete fraud. There’s times when I feel just as vulnerable and there are times when I feel totally on top of it. So, do I feel like I am “exactly enough”? I suppose that depends on which lens I am wearing and how hard I am being on myself, and how realistic and flexible my expectations are. I keep trying to remind myself to live with an attitude of high optimism and low expectation! That helps.

So I had a slump. Put a post up on insta about it, and a lot of people got in touch with me on the DMs to check if I was OK. So beautiful. So much love in the face of vulnerability. Never ceases to amaze me. A few friends even said “Just let me know if there is anything I can do!” A familiar phrase right? One I often say when a friend is in a time of need. However, here’s the thing; When I’m down or slipping, or anxious, or depressed, as much as I am in need of support, I can’t think of one way that anyone can help me. That’s part of the condition of the isolation of the whole fkn thing:: “no one can reach me/help me/hear me/support me... I AM THAT I AM ALONE” 
Thank you to all of the people who have been reaching out. All of you generous souls who offered help. I feel very loved by my community near and far. To those who elbowed in yesterday, and then graciously exited, your intuition was profound and I am your humbled and grateful recipient and student.
@mamakinpics
So I had a slump. Put a post up on insta about it, and a lot of people got in touch with me on the DMs to check if I was OK. So beautiful. So much love in the face of vulnerability. Never ceases to amaze me. A few friends even said “Just let me know if there is anything I can do!” A familiar phrase right? One I often say when a friend is in a time of need. However, here’s the thing; When I’m down or slipping, or anxious, or depressed, as much as I am in need of support, I can’t think of one way that anyone can help me. That’s part of the condition of the isolation of the whole fkn thing:: “no one can reach me/help me/hear me/support me... I AM THAT I AM ALONE”

Thank you to all of the people who have been reaching out. All of you generous souls who offered help. I feel very loved by my community near and far. To those who elbowed in yesterday, and then graciously exited, your intuition was profound and I am your humbled and grateful recipient and student.

Meri Fatin [00:38:06]

I hear you. I just want to ask you one last thing. To me it seems thatone of the great things that you have done up until this point is your work with The Seed Fund. Creating this strong community for musicians and I wonder at this point how you reflect on that as an achievement, as a legacy.

Danielle Caruana [00:38:50]

I’m so proud of the work we’ve done. It is still John and I, and Carlo is still involved and Stacia, who came on in the first year of the fund. Jacqui passed away shortly after realising the first Management workshop, but her legacy is still alive. I couldn’t do it without them. So, I feel proud of us, of who we are as people, as friends, as colleagues. I am proud of who we are in our community, and the way we keep pushing the envelope. And, what I’m most proud of is the fact that we’re still willing for it to change year after year and to not become comfortable – because the thing we delivered in the first year would actually be still fun to deliver now. But it wouldn’t put us at the edge of the industry and the edge of what we want to create in the industry. I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve been so brave.

Meri Fatin [00:39:59]

I don’t know if you remember that after our preliminary chat prior to this conversation I emailed you to say that I’m always amazed at how I go away from our conversations feeling like you throw me a ball of wisdom that I’m only just strong enough to catch. I go away grappling with our conversations and I always feel like it’s been a privilege to have some of your time. Thank you so much for today.

Danielle Caruana [00:40:30]

That’s very, very generous. And thank you for that beautiful intro you wrote. I was laughing. I was like oh my god someone actually sees me like this! I don’t see myself like that today Meri so thanks for holding up a mirror.

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