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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Iain Shedden trav­elled to Paris cour­tesy of EMI Aus­tralia.

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

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

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