Tina Arena is petite and fierce. She gazes intently at her subject as she listens, lacks any frills or false airs, and carries a certainty of self that one might aspire to within minutes of being in her company. There’s a heartening story to be read between the lines of her album releases. One in which a child star survived the music industry to make it out the other end a mature, collected woman, and, as she approaches her fiftieth birthday, still with mic in hand. “I found that I was just over-accommodating, and over-trusting, and just didn’t respect myself. Which is the reason why I went through that trauma back then. Because I didn’t put myself first,” she says, as we sit down at her record label’s offices in Woolloomooloo, Sydney.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Tina’s recording career. Forty years is plenty of time for a woman, no less an artist, to find her voice, crystallise her message, and achieve the seemingly modest task of accepting oneself. She’s celebrating the milestone with a new two-disc album, the first of which features her greatest hits (need we list Chains, Burn, Sorrento Moon?) and the latter, subtitled Reimagine, sees a collective of peers and newcomers reinterpret highlights from Tina’s career. For example, Australian singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke delivers a stunning yet haunting rendition of her 1995 hit Heaven Help My Heart. “She’s a master,” says Tina. “There’s not many in the world like her. She reinvigorated, gave me hope in, that song. To pull it back and strip it completely naked, and make it that raw, it just made me go, ‘Oh God – that’s serious!'”
Here’s our catch-up with the beloved, booming Australian icon, who talks of her personal and professional roads-less travelled, what motherhood has taught her, and why it was time to honour her past.
You’ve spent a lot of your life flitting between France and Australia, whether living, performing or raising a family. When you’re there, are you a different you?
Yes and no, yes and no. It’s a different landscape, you know. Because I’m a public figure, I don’t always feel free, so sometimes it’s really tricky and tough, and sometimes it’s easy, you know? The easiness for me is that I can be absolutely me, and nobody has that pre-judgement at all, ’cause they don’t really care. The French don’t really care what you do, and… Australians, philosophically, if you think about the history of this country, people came out to Australia because they committed petty crimes. So this place is a penal colony. What happens with penal colonies? There’s a mentality that’s perpetuated that, over a period of time… there’s always a sense of inferiority here, that I have really felt, and I really felt it overwhelmingly so a few years ago, when I realised that even as an Australian woman, I was apologising for who I was. I had no reason to apologise for who I was, because my relatives didn’t come here because they stole a loaf of bread, bless their hearts. My family came here because at the Second World War in Italy there was no food, there was no work, and my family, who were farmers, had to think outside the box. So they came to this distant, faraway country called Australia, they came here with a dream, and a trunk full of just linen and their wedding presents, and they started their lives from scratch. So I have a very different sensibility to that. But I don’t feel apologetic for my past.
“Parenting with every generation always has a new layer of things to deal with. But, man, I think that my generation has copped the hamburger with the f*cking lot.”
So, yes, [the French] do embrace their love. Yes, they do embrace their philosophy. Yes, they are a culture where love has a sense of poetry. We don’t have the same sense of poetry here, ’cause we’re too busy trying to keep up with the Joneses. And if we, oh my God, heaven forbid if we were to ever look at love in a poetic way, perhaps that doesn’t make us look right.
In a previous interview, you said, “Self-confidence came to me around 33 or 34, when I began to dig through the layers.” I wondered, when you began to do that, what did you find out about yourself?
I found that I was just over-accommodating, and over-trusting, and just didn’t respect myself. Which is the reason why I went through that trauma back then. Because I didn’t put myself first. I allowed an opportunity, or a situation, to engulf me, when I should have had the strength to go.
Why were those years so formative for you?
I should have known better. It was revelatory for me, because I had closed a book that was really out there, and was in the middle of starting to learn about life, and learning about myself, in a country, in Paris, where everything was new to me. Approaches, sensibilities, train of thought, perspectives, everything very different. That discomfort was important for me. I had a lot to learn. But I was craving that as well, ’cause I needed to learn something else. I thought, “Jesus, maybe I’ve got lots of things to learn.” Turns out I did, I had lots of things to learn.
“I think you’re not ever going to get much more brutally honest than me. Except that when I started being brutally honest, it was not fashionable. Everyone would try and shut me up.”
In the new album, when you enlisted these singers to reinvent your songs, was this you giving back, in a sense?
At a certain point in time, in 40 years, you need to step back. You need to take stock of what it is that you’ve lived. Contributed, perhaps not contributed enough. To be able to smell the roses too. So that body of work being re-imagined by these artists, gave me mixed emotions when I received them back. I thought, “Woah, am I doing the right thing here? Is it going to be perceived in the right way? I hope so.” I really hope so because, I guess in a sense, whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s also important that I take the time to respect where I’ve been. Because my circumstance is incredibly unusual, and I can’t ignore that.
Do you look back often? And is it a pleasant feeling to recast your mind?
Being a woman and having an opinion was very difficult in the early days. Not particularly embraced, absolutely not. But, you know, I think you’re not ever going to get much more brutally honest than me. I’ve always been brutally honest, you know. Except that when I started being brutally honest, it was not fashionable. Everyone would try and shut me up. I’m by no means embarrassed of my past, I really think that it was time to honour it.
You admit that, at times, you’ve been your harshest critic. Are you also your biggest champion?
I don’t know. I think that I’m a good champion for the overall cause, of whatever project… I like positivity around a project, ’cause I believe that that’s what makes it either positive or a negative experience, and I want it to be a positive experience for all. I can’t possibly enter something from a narcissistic perspective ’cause I find it really boring.
So now that you’re a mother to your son Gabriel, do you know yourself better? Is that something that having a child has offered?
Yeah, you get a better sense of who you are, but you also are thrown a few new things to juggle, which is really tough. As parents today, particularly of the last decade, which is the case for me, I think parenting with every generation always has a new layer of things to deal with. But, man, I think that my generation has copped the hamburger with the f*cking lot. And that’s, you know, I spent last Saturday in f*cking social media world and trying to explain to our son that, you know, you’ve got to watch social media because of the negative connotations of it. Whilst it can be a great tool, explaining to them, and giving them limits, and so forth, and posing to them the incredible dangers.
“I can’t possibly enter something from a narcissistic perspective ’cause I find it really boring.”
Particularly with being in the limelight.
I didn’t have to deal with social media; I didn’t have to deal with people telling me I was a f*cking idiot, you know on [Young Talent Time] when I was a little girl, and trolls, and people… You know, gratuitously commenting for… who knows and who really cares? I didn’t have to deal with that.
What does an hour of “you” time comprise? What do you do?
Walk. Cook. Sit in my little garden. I’m meditating a lot more now; I need it.
When you look back at your career, at age 20, then at 30, and at 40, what are the marked distinctions?
I think at 40, you don’t really have anything to prove, other than to prove it to yourself, and doing it for the right reasons. Twenty is, you know, it’s tough in your twenties. It’s competitive; you’ve got something to prove. Thirty, it’s still hard work, you’re still constructing, and then the forties you get to a point where you go – if you’ve been fortunate enough to land – you go, “I’m alright. C’est la vie. Whatever.” I’ll enjoy the ride, wherever it may take me.
New album Tina Arena Greatest Hits and Interpretations is out now.