Aussie singer-songwriter finds an authentic musical voice

by Sara Harris

“I must admit the music I do is a bit daggy,” says Tokyo-based singer-songwriter Donna Burke with a laugh, rejecting any slick, “groovy” image in favor of the old-fashioned, down-to-earth comfort the colloquial Australian term implies.

Donna Burke

It’s become a trademark of sorts, featuring as it does not only in the tone of her first CD release, “Lost and Found,” but in the name of the label she founded, Dagmusic.

This is a story of a woman following a dream and finding her own voice. The Perth native said she always wanted to be a singer, but never “had the guts” to do it in her own country.

Turning 30, however, gave Burke the push she needed. Five years on, she has taken her 10 years of classical voice-training and built a narrating and singing career, making recordings and commercials and performing live with a band.

The next step, she decided, was to have the true Tokyo musician’s “calling card” — her own CD.

“I wanted a CD that I can give people that’s not a TV commercial, children’s song, techno dance tune — that I have to apologize for and say, ‘Well, it’s not really my thing.’ I wanted something that is, like, ‘This is what I like to do.’ ”

Burke, however, had also heard more than enough horror stories from fellow musicians about working with overworked staff at record companies, or big wigs who wanted too much creative control. Her solution? To do it herself.

“I think [musicians] make it into this mythical, mystical process that only a record company can do,” she said.

But with little more than her own studio experience to go on, she proved that assumption wrong, relying on a network of contacts to find out what she needed.

At the beginning, Burke admitted, she was “clueless.” The hardest part, however, was not figuring out the industry lingo, or promoting it in Japanese-language media. It was, she says, “getting started.”

The tunes she has “found” and brought to life, accompanied by English guitarist Bill Benfield, 47, are all personal favorites. The CD is an eclectic collection of folk-rock, traditional ballads and even one of her own songs, and features “Danny Boy” next to “Annie’s Song” by John Denver, and Dylan’s “Forever Young” with the “I’ve Got a Crush on You” of George Gershwin.

“It’s all about me,” she said. “I do Irish music, but I didn’t want to make an all-Irish CD. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the Celtic singer from Tokyo, because I’m not. I’m not just a jazz singer and I’m not just a pop singer. I like lots of different things.”

Initially embarking on the project on her own, Burke soon enlisted the help of fiance Benfield, a versatile guitarist who brings his eclectic interests in Celtic, blues and folk to the project. Benfield came to Japan in the ’80s from London, and has been active musically in Tokyo’s Irish community.

Ireland and Irish music have been important to Burke ever since she was in her 20s and first heard the Irish artist Mary Black. Both Burke and Benfield are part of a Celtic band that performs regularly in Tokyo, and almost a third of “Lost and Found” is devoted to Irish music.

On the CD, the pair is joined by other Tokyo-based musicians, including ex-Mott the Hoople artist Morgan Fisher and producer Stephen McKnight, and the result is some interesting arrangements. Their pop/jazz-flavored “Annie’s Song,” featuring Fisher on piano, is a nice twist and contrasts well with the acoustic version included at the end. “I’ve Got a Crush on You” takes on a folk-song feel at first, Burke’s clear, balladlike treatment intertwining with Benfield’s acoustic guitar accompaniment. Then midway, Burke powers up the jazz inflections and Benfield adds a new layer, switching first to mandolin, then to slide guitar.

The pair’s love of country and bluegrass idioms shines through in the swinging humor of “I Love You Honey” and in Burke’s own composition, “I Need a Wife.”

Ideally, Burke says, she and Benfield would like to tour Japan with the material from “Lost and Found” before beginning work on a follow-up.

For their second CD, scheduled to be recorded next year, the duo will feature original arrangements of Chinese folk songs, which, Burke says, have the same haunting qualities that she finds so attractive in her beloved Irish music.

In fact, Burke plans to build up Dagmusic’s offerings with a new CD every 12 to 18 months. Now that she knows the routine, she says, it should be a piece of cake. “It’s really empowering,” she said, snapping her fingers to show how simple it seems to her now. “It’s a real learning process. Now I’ve done it once, I think I’ll go out and do it again.”