The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

THE first lyrics Shauna Jensen can re­mem­ber singing on television are ‘‘ a dream is a wish your heart makes’’ from the Walt Dis­ney an­i­mated ver­sion of Cin­derella . It was 1960. She was seven years old and ap­pear­ing on a long- forgotten Satur­day morn­ing chil­dren’s show.

‘‘ In the movie Cin­derella en­cour­ages her an­i­mal friends to never stop dream­ing,’’ she says with an abashed grin. ‘‘ I sang in front of this scenic door­way at the be­gin­ning of the show, which then mag­i­cally opened into the king­dom of show busi­ness.’’

Jensen has never lost faith in her dreams even though some of the rain­bows that have come her way have sul­lenly frowned when they fell rather than smiled, the way the song sug­gests they should. The 53- year- old with a pow­er­ful voice, full of dark power, edgi­ness and ma­tu­rity, is calmly rec­on­ciled to the no­tion that not ev­ery singer’s jour­ney takes them to be­ing ‘‘ the next big thing’’.

She wears a red heart- shaped pen­dant around her neck, but her dark eyes peer at you with that mix­ture of cu­rios­ity, de­ter­mi­na­tion and a sense of dis­tant hurt that you can see in the faces of most vet­eran per­form­ers.

Th­ese days cel­e­brated as Aus­tralia’s lead­ing gay house diva (‘‘ I am, ah, a les­bian,’’ she says hes­i­tantly, then laughs at her ‘‘ so de­murely’’ vol­un­teered ad­mis­sion), Jensen’s early years as a singer led her to be­come one of Aus­tralia’s great back­ground vo­cal­ists. She recorded and toured na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally with many top rock and pop acts, such as INXS, Jimmy Barnes, Billy Thorpe, Pow­derfin­ger and Hugh Jack­man.

She is also the voice be­hind count­less ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns ( David Jones, Sus­san, P& O, Toy­ota, Coca- Cola, McDon­ald’s among the hun­dreds) and one of Syd­ney’s most in- de­mand stu­dio singers. How­ever Jensen be­comes ag­i­tated when peo­ple say she ‘‘ sings other peo­ple’s songs’’, as though to sug­gest some per­sonal lack of mu­si­cal char­ac­ter. Or that she’s ‘‘ a singer’s singer’’, a char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion she loathes. ‘‘ What does it mean? Is there such a thing as a plum­ber’s plum­ber? It means you are a great singer but no one knows what to do with you.’’

She once be­lieved that ev­ery­body could sing. ‘‘ But there are peo­ple for whom the sy­napse in their brain, that gap sep­a­rat­ing neu­rons, just does not fire. There is a fun­da­men­tal dis­par­ity be­tween what they hear and what they can pro­duce out of their mouths.’’

The best and bravest vo­cal­ists are singers first and stu­dents of singing later, she says. The in­tu­itive de­vel­op­ment gained by singing through­out child­hood — vo­cal strength, tim­ing, an ear for har­mony and an un­der­stand­ing of match­ing in­stru­ments — can­not be man­u­fac­tured later in life. ‘‘ My Greek grand­fa­ther was an opera singer once no­ticed by the great Caruso’s man­ager and my mother’s sis­ter sang at Covent Gar­den,’’ she says. ‘‘ I’m ge­net­i­cally blessed and I’ve never had to work very hard. In my blood­stream is a voice.’’

She sang all through school, and end­lessly at home with her sis­ter, Stephanie, and told her dis­ap­prov­ing par­ents that she wanted to do noth­ing else. ‘‘ They were bas­tards,’’ she snaps, dis­mis­sively.

She learned to sing by ear be­fore she knew what mu­sic looked like on a page. She could ap­pre­ci­ate the shape of a song, the way it re­flected thoughts and emo­tions, at a sim­ple, ba­sic level and found her vo­cal iden­tity when very young.

This un­der­stand­ing is what singers call feel, she says, as in ‘‘ that singer has a great feel’’, and has some­thing to do with the bal­anced align­ment be­tween in­nate and tech­nique.

In 1969, while still at school, she joined a Kings Cross band, Pur­ple Vi­sion, play­ing in one of the area’s seed­ier clubs, and once sup­ported Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs.

‘‘ It was my first taste of the side of show busi­ness that was dan­ger­ous and seedy. The

mu­si­cal­ity bounc­ers wore coats six inches thick and fights broke out all the time.’’

Other bands fol­lowed, though she failed an au­di­tion for Hair in 1969 but later found her­self per­form­ing in Jim Shar­man’s pro­duc­tion of Je­sus Christ Su­per­star , her first ex­pe­ri­ence of ensem­ble singing. Then, along with other cast mem­bers, she dis­cov­ered the jin­gles busi­ness. ‘‘ It was a de­cent liv­ing but I al­ways had a band go­ing, the rock thing. I shunned cabaret, which con­jured up images of se­quins, though you should see how many I wear now.’’

Dis­il­lu­sioned by ‘‘ the rip- offs, un­der- award pay­ments, sex­ism and crony­ism’’ of the ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness, she lost her pas­sion for mu­sic un­til she be­gan singing back- up vo­cals for Barnes af­ter he left Cold Chisel in 1983. ‘‘ The way the uni­verse brings things to you,’’ she says, shak­ing her head. ‘‘ The sound was fat, very black and very rich.’’

She toured with Barnes for sev­eral years, one of the back­ing an­gels who an­chor and el­e­vate rock singers. Work­ing with the screech­ing, wail­ing Barnes was like work­ing on the front of a freight train, she says. ‘‘ I never knew what to ex­pect, es­pe­cially when he was in the be­gin­ning of his ad­dic­tions. The mu­sic grounds you, but he par­tied too hard, ly­ing down on the floor singing and even dis­ap­pear­ing sud­denly.’’

She even­tu­ally suf­fered tin­ni­tus, that ex­as­per­at­ing sen­sorineu­ral hear­ing loss caused by nerve and cell dam­age to the ears. ‘‘ He plays as loud as pos­si­ble. It took a year to re­turn to nor­mal.’’

Now, along­side her dance mu­sic ca­reer (‘‘ it’s as pow­er­ful to me as rock’’), she has a suc­cess­ful teach­ing busi­ness, con­sults with work­ing pro­fes­sion­als and in­structs soapie star­lets who want to be pop stars. ‘‘ I’ve had some who are ab­so­lutely tal­ent­less and scored top- 10 hits in this coun­try and over­seas with songs com­pletely fab­ri­cated in stu­dios. If I let my ego get in the way I get deeply dis­turbed. I teach them to sing the notes and then I hope for the best.’’

Jensen’s pub­lic profile re­ceived a boost in 2004 when the Seven Net­work en­listed her as a judge on the fourth se­ries of the ill- fated Pop­stars Live when be­hind- the- scenes ten­sion de­pleted the ad­ju­di­cat­ing panel. Her abrupt, un­flinch­ing defence of some of the young singers, and her fierce at­tacks on oth­ers, brought her great dis­ap­proval.

‘‘ Just be in the game I thought. It was a huge les­son in learn­ing to have no in­ter­est in what peo­ple think about you.’’

This is the only way to sur­vive for the long haul ac­cord­ing to Jensen; her ad­vice to those who want to sing is sim­ple: do it for your­self first.

‘‘ If you are singing in a club, for ev­ery three peo­ple who are sit­ting there, one is go­ing to hate you, one will love you, and the other will say: ‘ There was a singer?’ ’’

Pic­ture: Re­nee Nowytarger

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