Everyone always talks about how tiny Tina Arena is, but it’s her calm that I notice first. As I wait for our interview at Collingwood’s Red Door Studio (the door is actually black, but maybe that’s the joke), she breezes past to pose for a couple of quick snaps.
The 49-year-old pop queen is dressed in casual glamour, like she’s just popped in between a cafe date and the afternoon school run. There’s no sign of a diva in her easy smiles and chatter. Moving upstairs to the bohemian loft, she arranges herself with unaffected grace on an armchair and instantly starts talking about her teenage son.
“You never have any idea when you have your first child,” she says. “It’s like wearing a blindfold and someone is saying, ‘follow me’. Parenting has always been daunting, but we’re parenting with an extremely thick layer of technology that none of our predecessors have had to deal with.”
It’s a knack to be this relaxed and familiar with a stranger – particularly a stranger who is busy taking notes. But Tina has been doing this a long time.
This year marks 40 years in the business, since her first gig as a child star on Young Talent Time. She’s celebrating with a national tour and a retrospective album featuring the high points from her solo career.
Revisiting her back catalogue has been akin to working on her memoir, she says.
“The songs are like snapshots of growth, of somebody who was just doing what felt very natural growing up. It’s a journey that I feel almost chose me, instead of my choosing it. When you’re so young, unless you’ve got a monstrous IQ, do you really know what you want to do? It was something that felt very natural for me, to be able to perform and have that expression.”
It’s fair to say Tina likes to talk, offering her opinions and philosophy with a disarming frankness. Her conversation can feel like an unfiltered stream of consciousness, but there’s no doubting the sharpness behind it.
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As a life story, Tina’s new collection is fairly exhaustive. By the time she began her adult pop career with 1990’s Strong As Steel, she had been in the public eye for almost 15 years.
Today she refers to that album, which relaunched her as a sexy disco diva, as her “technical first record” rather than her debut proper. It was, she says, the product of being “polluted” by other people’s expectations.
It was only on the follow-up, 1994’s Don’t Ask, that she started taking control, co-writing each of the 10 tracks. The album was a smash hit, but Tina says she was never able to enjoy the success it brought.
“Don’t Ask took off monstrously. That was wild. After In Deep, the pressure was deep. I was very angry. I’m not sure if anybody is put on this planet to be perfect and to maintain a sense of consistency.
“The idea that I had to be on top all the time was bullshit. I wasn’t aware I was breaking new ground. I was working relentlessly at the time, so there wasn’t time to stop and smell the roses. That’s what’s lovely about now. I can look back and go, ‘wow, what a time’.”
As well as the pressure from her record company to maintain a steep upward trajectory, Tina was also dealing with her disintegrating marriage to her then-manager, Ralph Carr.
In an act of desperation, she made a new home for herself in France, where she felt finally free of the expectations and baggage that had tainted her solo career. She built a new career by releasing two successful French-language albums and found love with Parisian artist Vincent Mancini.
In 2005, she gave birth to their son Gabriel.
But back in Australia, there was a sense that she had turned her back on us, as she gave prickly interviews implying she felt unappreciated in her homeland. She told one journalist that we simply don’t know what to do with a passionate woman unafraid to speak her mind.
“There’s this idea that if you’re a woman and you say something about it that you’re frustrated,” she says now, her voice firm and level. “That you’re envious and bitter. I just go, ‘ladies and gentlemen, let me make something really clear to you – my job on this earth was never to be bitter because I have nothing to be bitter about’. All I’m saying is that, while men as a gender expect respect I don’t understand what makes them think we don’t deserve it as well.”
Ironically, it was speaking her mind that reignited Tina’s connection with Australia. On being inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2015, she gave an apparently impromptu speech laying into the double-standards applied by the local music industry to women artists – particularly older women artists.
“Who decides in radio that a woman at a certain point in her life no longer becomes viable?” she asked, before exhorting female artists to choose for themselves when it’s time to stop.
Widely applauded, the speech seemed to carve out a new role for Tina in public life, transforming her from an ex-child star to …
“… an elder stateswoman,” Tina says, finishing my sentence. I quickly protest that I wouldn’t have chosen that word.
“It’s what happens and I’m kind of comfortable with that. I think that speech made a lot of people stand up and take notice because they didn’t have the courage to say it themselves. I think I spoke on behalf of a lot of people.
“I think it resonated because what came out of my mouth was genuine honesty. It wasn’t premeditated and it wasn’t meant to shock or insult. I never meant to hurt anybody’s feelings.
“But what I refuse to buy into is the American thing of ‘everything is great’. I do not adhere to that and I struggle with our country’s adherence to the philosophy that you can’t say things because you’ll rock the boat. Well, the boat needs to be rocked.”
This reconnection with her homeland is more than metaphorical. Tina and her family recently returned to live in Melbourne, close to her old family home in Moonee Ponds.
She credits the “unbelievable realists” in her family with keeping her sane during the dark days of the late ’90s, but I wonder how it feels coming back after almost two decades.
“Really comfortable,” she says. “I notice that a lot of people return to their own stomping ground. Human nature has an interesting way of coming full circle and it’s OK. You come back and you reconnect with your family. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Talking about circles returns us to why we’re here. The new album and ensuing national tour. Greatest Hits & Interpretations contains a second disc featuring Tina’s songs covered by a host of Australian stars including The Veronicas, Jimmy Barnes and Kate Miller-Heidke.
While the ARIA Hall of Fame induction suggested Tina had earned her place in Aussie pop pantheon, these tributes offer definitive proof.
“I felt the full gamut of emotions. I feel blessed that the community embraced it. I hoped that people wouldn’t see it from a narcissistic perspective. The fact people were so receptive to collaborating on that made me really proud.”
- LISTEN \ Tina Arena’s Greatest Hits & Interpretations is out now through EMI. tinaarena.com
Tina Arena’s national tour dates and tickets: tinaarena.com/tours
- Sep 12 – Civic Theatre – Newcastle, Australia
- Sep 13 – Ulumbarra Theatre – Bendigo, Australia
- Sep 15 – Plenary – Melbourne, Australia
- Sep 16 – Plenary – Melbourne, Australia
- Sep 17 – Costa Hall, Deakin University Waterfront – Geelong, Australia
- Sep 22 – WIN Ent Cent Theatre – Wollongong, Australia
- Sep 23 – ICC Sydney Theatre – Haymarket, Australia
- Sep 24 – Canberra Theatre – Canberra City, Australia
- Sep 26 – Princess Theatre – Launceston, Australia
- Sep 27 – Theatre Royal – Hobart, Australia
- Oct 05 – Thebarton Theatre – Adelaide, Australia
- Oct 06 – Crown Theatre – Burswood, Australia