HOW TINY TINA TOOK ON EUROPE AND WON
Tina Arena may have more fans in France than at home, but the ARIA Hall of Fame is about to honour the singer’s 40-year career, writes Iain Shedden
The quiet, leafy Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne isn’t the first place you would come looking for international pop stars. Its tight, deserted streets are adorned with houses that are handsome without being ostentatious, some behind high walls, others more graciously offering tiny, smart gardens and ornate brickwork. Tina Arena’s house is a little different, at least for the moment. The front and back are awash with debris, building materials and — inside — a few builders, one of whom is her partner, French actor, singer and artist Vincent Mancini.
The couple are in the middle of renovations on the place they have called home since 2009, although these days they spend half their time in Melbourne, where Arena grew up. The family plans to move permanently to Australia when their nine-year-old son, Gabriel, is ready for high school.
Arena, 48, is big in France, bigger than anywhere else. She’s something of a celebrity in sleepy Nogent-sur-Marne. Locals stop her in the street to inquire politely about her next venture. “Luckily for me most of the time it’s very friendly,” she says. “I’m very fortunate.”
The singer’s latest venture is her new album Eleven, released this weekend, so named because it is the 11th album of her recording career, but also because she likes its astrological implications, 11 being a figure of enlightenment and artistic sensitivity. Like its predecessor, 2013’s Reset, Eleven is a pop-heavy collection, featuring songwriting collaborations with, among others, Kate Miller-Heidke, Hayley Warner and Evermore’s Jon Hume.
The album’s release coincides with the announcement this week that Arena is to be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame at the ARIA Awards in Sydney on November 26.
While Australia hasn’t always been her strongest market, the accolade is recognition of a proud Aussie’s 40-year career, one that has taken a number of musical turns since Tiny Tina emerged as an eight-year-old from Moonee Ponds to charm a nation on Young Talent Time.
Since launching her recording career with the single Turn Up the Beat in 1986, Arena has enjoyed chart success in Australia with singles such as Chains, I Need Your Body, Burn and Symphony of Life. Albums including Don’t Ask (1994), In Deep (1997) and Just Me (2001) brought chart success not just in Australia but also overseas.
She has had bouts of acting on television and in musical theatre, has worked as a mentor on television talent shows such as The X Factor and on a revived Young Talent Time, and has sold more than 10 million albums, making her one of the country’s most successful female artists. “I feel very privileged,” she says of the ARIA nod. “I would never have believed it 20 years ago if someone had said I was going to be in the ARIA Hall of Fame.” Her last brush with the HoF was inducting her mentor and YTT’s host Johnny Young in 2010.
We’re sitting in the lounge room of the Arena home, an area free of rubble, its walls adorned with Aboriginal art, the adjacent entrance hall dominated by a grand piano around which some of the songs on her new album were written, an experience she says involved much drinking and laughing.
Arena looks younger than her 48 years, something she puts down to good diet and regular walking — that and the demands of being on stage for two hours a night. “I hate to think the calories I burn during a show,” she says. “I’m feeling good. I’m really happy. I don’t have a problem with turning 48.”
She has no problem either with her new album, which was recorded in Sydney, Melbourne, London and Stockholm, as well as in Paris. The album is a mix of atmospheric electronica ( Unravel Me, Overload), smouldering anthems ( Wouldn’t Be Love If It Didn’t, Love Falls, Not Still in Love with You) and dancefriendly pop ( Magic).
At this point in her career, with a new album to promote, it might come as a surprise that Arena, a natural soprano who says singing has
been second nature since she could talk, is considering taking singing lessons. “It’s about building strength,” she says. “You’re never going to have the strength you had as a 20-yearold. I’m not obsessed about my voice. It feels very natural for me and I get so much pleasure out of it.”
Arena’s first singing lesson came at the age of seven, not long before she made her YTT debut.
“I’m glad I did,” she says, “but I already knew how to sing. I learned about breathing and technique.”
She’s proud of her time, more than six years, on YTT, although looking back she can see it was also hard work. “We worked like Trojans,” she says. “It wasn’t slave labour, but it was phenomenal work. That was my apprenticeship. It was a loving, safe environment. It was a very protected hub. There were no external elements apart from the public. The rest was just family and friends. We didn’t have to deal with social media.”
Family is a recurring theme in Arena’s conversation. She’s happy that motherhood has made her re-evaluate her career. “At the end of the day you only have family,” she says. “That comes first.”
Arena describes her own childhood, as the youngest of three daughters born to Sicilian immigrants Giuseppe and Franca Arena, as “traditional”, something that strongly influenced her in shaping her music career. “The thing with most immigrants,” she says is that “because a lot of them don’t come from an education, they usually want what they didn’t have. That was opportunity, education, the capacity for their children to build their own lives and not have to struggle the way they did. That gives you an incredible appreciation of things, too. As a mum now myself I appreciate even more the sacrifices that they made for me.”
Her proudest moment, she says, was performing The Flame at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. “I was really proud because my family was in the audience, including my dad, who remembers the 1956 Melbourne Games. He sobbed the whole way through it.”
Between her departure from YTT in the early 1980s and that Olympics appearance, there have been down times as well as successes.
It took a number of years to make the transition from child star to adult performer, during which she had a stint as a club singer, amid periods of self-doubt about whether she had the tal- ent to pursue a full-time career. “There’s that whole thing of growing up thinking you’re not good enough,” she says. “Did I think I was as good as everybody else? No, I didn’t.
“A lot of that was due to the fact that it had been a difficult evolution from being a child star to be being taken seriously as a singer-songwriter in my 20s. Coming through that transition was really painful. I knew it was never going to be a walk in the park.”
Even when her career was well under way, with a handful of hits under her belt, further insecurities surfaced when her four-year marriage to her then manager, Ralph Carr, ended in divorce. It was a pivotal time for the singer, a transformative one even, when she says she became empowered not just as an artist but as a woman.
“I was more worried about my spiritual self than my career,” she says.
“You don’t have a career if you’re spiritually broken. It was traumatising, but I picked myself up and I really learned a great deal from that experience.
I immersed myself in work and learning something new and engaging. That healed me. Had I taken a different trajectory perhaps I would have put my career in danger. I chose to stay true to myself and my music.”
By the time of her divorce in 1999, Arena was already a success in France following the huge response there to the album In Deep. That success was consolidated with the release of her next album, Just Me, in 2001. France was be- quickly coming her biggest market. “I had no expectations back then,” she says. “I had just closed one chapter in my life and decided to move on, get my head down, backside up and work. So I did. I got lost in my work and work at that time was so rich.
“I was travelling and I was learning. I was doing things in English and in French. That stimulation really allowed me to grow. I think the French saw that I was enjoying it. They learned a little bit about my nonchalance, which they found very attractive — when you’re propelled into another culture with a completely different sensibility and approach on things and you are curious to have a go.”
Arena considers Just Me an epiphany, not least because she got to work with legendary producer Nile Rodgers, who by then had brought his talents to recordings by Duran Duran, Madonna, INXS and many others.
The album was also about asserting herself as an artist. “I was proud of my first record and my second record,” Arena says, “but the turning point for me was the third record, which spawned the song Symphony of Life, which is still played today.
:I’m very proud of that. It was a moment of discovery for me. It said I’m not just a flash in the pan. I have a serious need to create and I need to service that need.”
And she still considers Rodgers a good friend. “We still get along well,” she says. “He is a very stylish, intellectual musician. He’s a very bright and cultured man.”
To many people’s surprise, Arena wouldn’t make an album of original material until Reset 12 years later. In between came the blossoming of her relationship with Mancini and the birth of their child. Also Arena delved into the classic pop songbook with two albums of covers, Songs
of Love & Loss I and II, tackling orchestral arrangements of material by Burt Bacharach, Carole King and REM, among others.
There were also performances with orchestras in Australia, something she would like to do again. “They are not cheap exercises, though,” she says. “You have to pick your moments with that.”
Arena looks forward to enjoying the acknowledgment of her peers at the Australian music industry’s gala celebration on November 26. She’s quick to point out that receiving the honour doesn’t mean she’s entering the twilight of her career.
“It’s not the end,” she says. “Not yet. I don’t have another 40 years in me.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but I’m touched by the recognition. It will be an emotional night.”
Tina Arena’s album Eleven is out now through EMI.
I’M TOUCHED BY THE RECOGNITION. IT WILL BE AN EMOTIONAL NIGHT
Tina Arena will be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame
Tina Arena in 1994, far left; Tiny Tina as the 13-year-old star of Young Talent Time