First published in Broadsheet, January/February 1980
By the time I’d finished interviewing Jools and Lynda Topp, twin sisters who sing under the name Homemade Jam, my head was spinning. Sentences started by Jools are finished by Lynda; at times the two voices blend together and speak in unison. I contemplated transcribing the tape with horror. Lynda and Jools are, to use an awful pun, totally in tune with each other. Their familiarity with each other, plus the special closeness that comes from being twins means that onstage their timing is perfect; the two voices soar out and cut off at precisely the same moment even in the most exacting song.
Jools: “I know exactly what Lynda is going to do.” Lynda: “If Jools puts something into a song – a ‘yeah, yah’ or a ‘boogie, boogie, boogie’ I know exactly when she’s going to do it.” Jools: “We don’t practise much. When we come home from work we’re too tired. We use playing at La Cava (an Auckland coffee bar where the twins play) as an impromptu jam session. We like the challenge of going there and not knowing what’s going to happen to each song. Ages ago we used to come out in a cold sweat wondering if we had the names of our songs – we used to paint them on the guitar.” Lynda: “Now when we go on stage, Jools turns to me and says ‘What are we going to do?’ It’s spontaneous.”
Even songwriting is often a joint effort. And spontaneous.
Even songwriting is often a joint effort. And spontaneous. Lynda: “We were coming home from our parents’ place and as we were driving along in the van Jools just said, ‘White line to Georgia’ and ‘I’ve got my hands on the wheel and my wheels on the road.’ When we got home Jools said, ‘I’ll jot this down’ so she was singing in the bedroom and I was in the kitchen and every time she finished a verse I went ‘White Line to Georgia’. What happened between the bedroom and kitchen turned into a song.
The Topp twins have been singing together ever since they can remember. At five they got their first musical instrument, a ukulele, but even before that they would make believe with a tennis racket, and practise in front of the mirror singing into a hair brush. Brought up on a back-country farm, 15 miles out of Huntly, they were isolated from other musicians and concerts. As Lynda puts it: “We haven’t learned from other people, we’ve learned from each other.”
But the family has always been strongly musical. Lynda: “Mum’s always been a closet opera singer and Dad’s always sung. If we had a party at our house we’d always end up singing. Our country music background came from the farm, because most of the music we did at home was country music.” Jools: “We didn’t put on the record player, we’d sing. When we came home from school we used to sing every night for two hours, grab the guitar and play. We never went to concerts or dances. We were just home on the farm, milking the cows. In fact, the cows had a lot to do with our singing. Cows are really into singing.”
“The cows had a lot to do with our singing. Cows are really into singing.”
The country background is also responsible for Lynda’s unusual skill at yodelling. She got interested in yodelling after she heard old 78s of Australian yodellers of the 1930s, Judy Holmes and Shirley Thoms. “The first time I heard a yodel I just sat there engrossed for about three hours. I played it over and over again thinking, ‘How do they do that?’ It took me ages to learn to do it and I practised and practised.” Jools: “We used to send her about two miles up the road!” Lynda: It was a bit hectic for about two years. I’d go to the neighbours and listen to the record, then I’d have to come home and try and learn with no music. I used to go up the hills around our farm and yodel in the hills and the echoes would come back.”
After leaving school Lynda and Jools joined the Territorials “to get to the South Island” and eventually found themselves in Christchurch, a city Lynda describes as “a real music city, a folk city.” In Christchurch they met up with singer Nancy Kiel and through her were introduced to the women’s movement. “We used to go to the pub on Friday night and if Nancy Kiel was singing we’d just sit there and goggle. Then we’d rush home and play for hours and hours. She inspired us to play.”
Up till this time, Lynda and Jools had been playing other people’s music but frequently changing the words when they were sexist or inappropriate for two lesbian women singers. Lynda: “We’ve been changing songs for years. If we sang a song and didn’t know the ending, we’d write an ending ourselves. If we listen to a song and think we’d like to do it we’ll take the song and do it our way.” Jools: “Quite a lot of the country songs we used to do had lines in them that we didn’t like as lesbians, they were a put-down of women or had men as heroes, so we actually changed the lines. There’s a song sung by Slim Dusty called ‘Boundary Rider Blues’ that was a really chauvinist, sexist song. It says, ‘I wish I could see my girl again I’ve got the boundary rider blues.’ Although not all the songs we sing have a distinctively feminist message we never sing about a man. It’s about a woman or a thing.”
The first feminist song was written for International Women’s Day 1978. Lynda: “We had a ring from Di Cadwallader who was organising a women’s concert in Dunedin on the day asking us to sing. So we hopped in the Standard 8 and as we drove along we said, ‘We should write a song for this’. You can’t get up on International Woman’s Day and sing ‘Boundary Rider Blues’. We felt we needed something political to reach women – something that would get them all together. So we actually wrote ‘Freedom’ on the way up in the car. When we arrived at three in the morning we woke up Nancy and Di and tried it out on them.” Jools: “The first songs we wrote were radical feminist songs, they were from our lesbian heart. ‘Freedom’ is a real fighting song, a powerful song. We only sing it when we’re doing a women’s concert or when there are other women on stage. We don’t sing it at La Cava because it’s a special song for feeling strong. It’s a real revolutionary song, it says:
We’ll fight for our freedom
We’ll never be wrong
We’ll just keep on fighting
No matter how long.”
Another feminist song, ‘Sisterhood’, was written especially for the concert at this year’s United Women’s Convention. As Lynda and Jools swing into the song’s lilting chorus the women’s audiences to whom I have seen it performed join in enthusiastically. Jools: “At the convention a lot of lesbian women didn’t want the concert to go on because they think that lesbian women have been giving their energy to heterosexual women all the time, pouring it out, then they just get kicked in the teeth by heterosexual women. But there are some heterosexual women who are going to be on your side. If we can bring women together for five minutes it’s better than separating women. We play for women whether they be lesbian or heterosexual.” Lynda: “At the convention a lot of heterosexual women said that the concert brought all the women together.”
Bring all the ladies together
Bring ’em all together to be strong
We’ll give you something worth fighting for
We’ve been fighting for nothing too long
And it’s called sisterhood
Yes, it’s called sisterhood
Lynda: “If you have a really radical song, then you’re going to threaten women as well as men. A radical lesbian song will threaten heterosexual women and we don’t want to do that. When we sing ‘Sisterhood’, any woman can respond to that song …” Jools: “… because they know what sisterhood feels like.”
“When we sing ‘Sisterhood’, any woman can respond to that song”
To Jools and Lynda, lesbianism and music are inseparable. Lynda: “Music is the channel through which we convey our lesbianism.” Jools: “We put into our songs how we feel. All the feminist songs we write are positively women-oriented and that is because we are thinking about women when we are writing. We are not thinking about how bad men are, just positive things about women. When we’re on stage we’re trying to get across that we’re openly lesbian, and if anything comes of that, then good.”
Lynda: “We get heaps of feedback from heterosexual women because they’re so fascinated by two lesbian women up there singing. We want to get through to women. We’re not consciously singing to get someone on our side. The reason we’re out there singing is because we’re musicians and we really like singing and if by chance the women really enjoy and support us, that’s really neat. We can’t differentiate between being musicians and being lesbians, Jools and I. Because, if we sing, we’re still lesbians, and we’re still musicians. We’re musical lesbians.”
By Sandra Coney with help from Sandi and Clare. And thanks to Jean Volkerling for transcribing the tape. All lyrics copyrighted Homemade Jam 1976. Re-published with the permission of the author.