Three things with Emma Donovan: ‘There’s so much connected to a pot of tea’

No one does country music quite like Emma Donovan, who fuses the genre with the protest songs of Indigenous Australia. The Noongar and Gumbaynggirr woman is perhaps best known as a member of country band the Donovans, and for her work in the Black Arm Band, a project dedicated to the songs of the Aboriginal resistance movement. Her musical CV also includes two Air awards and an Australian music prize, won for fronting the Melbourne rhythm combo the Putbacks, and an extensive solo discography that spans R&B, soul and roots.

Next Friday Donovan will perform in a headline show at the Sydney Opera House. She is also working on her next album, set for release in 2024.

Country music was a fixture of Donovan’s home growing up, as her mother was a big fan of Loretta Lynn. Here the singer-songwriter tells us about the piece of Nashville merchandise she’ll never part with, as well as the story of a few other personal belongings.

What I’d save from my house in a fire

I have so many sentimental items. Most of my home is filled with old things I should probably part with but just can’t.

My mother has been a big part of my life. When she passed five years ago, I kept a lot of her personal things; items that I know were sentimental to her too. I had a funny relationship with her – we would be like best friends and sisters, and we’d fight like sisters too! I’d steal her CDs and would love to wear her PJs when I’d stay. If I had to save anything, it would probably be Mum’s old PJs.

She also had a favourite old mug that I’d grab. She got it in Nashville when she went to visit Loretta Lynn’s ranch. My mum taught me lots of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette tunes, so I have a lot of happy memories attached to that mug.

My most useful object

My teapots. I use them on a daily basis and there’s so much connected to a pot of tea.

I grew up doing lots around the kitchen table. When visitors come, we always head to the kitchen. I remember the feeling of being asked, and being old enough, to make my family a cuppa. It felt as if I was a part of the grownups; it connected me to my aunts and nannas, and I couldn’t wait to make a pot every time we had visitors. To this day, I always make a pot – even if it’s just me at home.

My grandmother was very superstitious. She had a lot of old sayings – “don’t whistle at night, you’re calling an old spirit to come” or “don’t cross butter knives, you’ll cause an argument”. I didn’t know what to believe half the time! I’m not sure culturally where these superstitions came from – our Dhangutti/Gumbaynggirr, Irish, Māori or Chinese heritage. If a pot of tea was being made she’d yell out, “Hurry up and cover the teapot with the lid, a visitor might be coming!”

Related: Three things with Noni Hazlehurst: ‘I bought $10,000 of gold coins and never saw them again’

The item I most regret losing

My mother had an old dressing gown with frogs all over it. I loved that funny gown. My mum’s totem is the green tree frog and she had hundreds of trinkets, pictures and paintings of the frog. When I was playing dress-ups, I always wore her capes and gowns, imagining I was a queen. My daughters now do the same with all my stage clothes, acting out scenes and songs.

I mentioned that my mother recently passed. She had pancreatic cancer – she was only given six months by doctors but gave us a full year. When she was sick, she lived in her gown. It got lost somewhere, somehow, between the hospital and the palliative care unit. I regret not trying to find it. I was also given a frog ring belonging to her and I recently lost that too. I spend a lot of time reflecting on things like this now.

I remember my first Mother’s Day. I flew down for a gig in Melbourne, bringing my mum and my three-month-old daughter with me, and we shared the day together. Mum surprised me with my own gown as a Mother’s Day gift. I never really wanted a dressing gown before that, feeling it was an “old mothers’ thing”, but I really appreciated that gift, and I’m now so glad I have my own.

When I feel sad about her lost robe, I think of the one she gave me. I love most how she snuck it in her luggage on the plane – no fancy wrapping or anything, just giving it to my baby daughter to “hold” and give to me. It makes me think sometimes that there’s a real reason why we lose things – to have and to restart our own memories.