GRAEME BLUNDELL meets SHAUNA JENSEN GIRL SINGER, BACKING VOCALIST
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?’ ’’