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Four decades on, Tina Arena is still doing things her way

interviews Mar 11, 2021

She's an ARIA Hall of Famer, a record-breaking Australian artist, a Member of the Order of Australia and simply 'a mum'; what Tina Arena has never been is conventional.

Bursting onto the television program Young Talent Time in 1974, aged eight, she went on to become the show's longest-serving cast member and one of the first ethnic faces to appear regularly on national broadcast.

Image: 1977 album cover

Forty-odd years later, she's as popular in Europe – especially France, a notoriously difficult market for foreigners to crack – as her native Australia, performed the roles of some of musical theatre's most feisty leading ladies (Eva Peron in Opera Australia's Evita; Roxie Hart in the West End production of Chicago) and sold over ten million albums. And at a time when the music industry may be telling her it's time to stop, she's about to embark on a national tour.

She's previously railed against the fact that 'someone of a certain age and certain experience and certain gender is no longer relevant – says fucking who?'

Despite what the Australian music industry thinks, she says, in her typically forthright style, 'I will decide when I want to stop doing what I do, I will not allow a system to define me or tell me what I should and shouldn't do.

'I don't give a shit what other people think about my age or is she this or she doesn't fit that... I am so comfortable in my skin, I'm actually really enjoying myself in my 50s because I actually feel free. You can't put a price on that.'

I am so comfortable in my skin, I'm actually really enjoying myself in my 50s because I actually feel free.

The Enchanté tour kicks off in May and will showcase her greatest hits across the decades. So how do you choose a set list to please everyone when there's enough chart-topping material and song covers to tour several times over? 'I just have to choose what feels right for me.'

What she does promise is that fans will be 'taken on a journey; [it's] something that I try and do each and every time I go out, I've never really been good at rehashing anything. That's just not a part of my spirit.

'So don't expect things to be rehashed... It's very lyrically driven and sonically they're jewels. So I'm really looking forward to [fans] discovering that, looking into the importance of the stories you're telling, those lyrics, those concepts, food for thought, things that make people feel something.'

It's very lyrically driven and sonically they're jewels.

During lockdown, Tina also began working on some new songs and some of these, she says, will be performed at her upcoming concerts.'There was so much to talk about with accumulated experiences. So it's a really beautiful, beautiful time to be able to reveal those things now. And the Arts are certainly going through a Renaissance, which happens after major things happen in any society and after a certain period of time, so it's an exciting time to be able to bring out new stories.'

... it's an exciting time to be able to bring out new stories.

Aside from the powerhouse voice and the range of emotion it encompasses, Tina's appeal – her transcendent quality if you will – comes from the honesty in her lyrics and performance. 'I've got strong values, I have very, very strong perspectives.'

From Gen X to the LGBTQI community, from the festival-going Gen Z crowd to Scott Morrison (who considers his love for her music as 'bordering on unhealthy'), her music has the ability to communicate universal truths about love, courage and freedom to her audience. In 'Now I Can Dance', she sings 'I have compromised / But I'm finally free of the past'.

Her songs are instantly recognisable. Earlier pop hits such as 'Now I Can Dance' and 'Sorrento Moon (I Remember)' were played on such high rotation on the radio and in households around the nation that they became the backdrop to our summers; her album Don't Ask is reportedly in a quarter of homes in Australia. Meanwhile, later ballads such as 'I Want to Love You' and 'Karma' showcase her versatility and emotional scope. With a career spanning the pop charts, musical theatre, television and rock operas, she's considered one of the greatest Australian voices of all time.

She says, 'I feel so incredibly lucky that it's been able to transcend generations. I think now looking back in retrospect, there's a lack of that pretentious "follow, do what everybody else does because that's what's going on at the moment", that's the fashion. I've never been seduced by that. I find it very uninteresting, it's not art for me. It's just not. It never has been, it's never been my inspiration. My inspiration has always been truth and transparency.'

I've never been seduced by that. I find it very uninteresting, it's not art for me.

When making the selection  for her upcoming tour from her decades-long repertoire, she stumbled across songs that have never been performed, that subsequently made it onto the list.

'I thought it was time to pay tribute to those stories and interestingly enough, I think from a thematic perspective, those songs that I have not performed and that had been penned, almost have far more relevance today than the time that they were actually penned, which is an exquisite surprise.'

The past year has brought the music industry to its knees, and the continued uncertainty, she says, brings her a lot of angst.

'The thing that makes me anxious in the world that we live in today is the constant changing of parameters. And the fact that somebody at the drop of a hat can say "close the border". That's frightening. Working in and among that kind of constraint is obviously an unsustainable template.'

As a board member of the Australia Council, the federal government's arts funding body, Tina is very vocal about the current state of the arts in Australia. She struggles with the double standards where concerts can be cancelled overnight, 'but you can have a football game.'

'I love sport, I think sport is great... It's wonderful for the collective. No one is disputing that. But, you cannot [give preference to] that above art. And when sport has preference above art, that poses a problem for me, for all of us, as it should. We need to change that.'

And when sport has preference above art, that poses a problem for me

Equally scathing, though, is her opinion on how the music industry treats women and how 'females in my industry have always gone to battle. And that is so tiring.

'I was vocal with the #MeToo movement before anybody knew what it was. I was frowned upon, I was called lots of names, I've been bullied most of my career, in all sincerity. And I think the beauty of being in my 50s now is that I have the hindsight of being able to be very objective about that... and going fuck, I'm proud that I've survived that.'

I was frowned upon, I was called lots of names, I've been bullied most of my career, in all sincerity.

She's also not a fan of smartphones and the scrutiny and self-criticism they afford. 'I think what I struggle with about the 21st century is that imposition, where everybody thinks they are free... Because I don't think we're free at all, thanks to those devices that have been sold to us as a tool.'

The Enchanté tour, then, will be the antithesis of this, the filter put on interactions behind a screen. For Tina, one of the highlights will be 'reconnecting with people and being able to do my job, something that I love, that brings me joy and that brings other people joy.

'I'm just really looking forward to to getting out there and seeing people, fans, new people, whoever decides to come along and enjoy. For me, I'm just so excited to be able to do what I love, you know, and I'm looking at that aspect, going "bring it on". How exciting is that?'

I'm just really looking forward to to getting out there and seeing people, fans, new people

Just don't ask her for a selfie.

Get your tickets for Enchanté: The Songs of Tina Arena on TIX.

Image credits
Photographer: Bernard Gueit @bernardgueitstudios
Makeup and hair: Huw James @huwwitha_w
Stylist: Nick Lord @nickwlord

Catherine Mah

Catherine likes to run, eat and read but not simultaneously. If you can't find her doing these things, she's most likely sleeping.