I’ve had too many knives thrown at my back”
After a brutal few years as her nation’s punching bag, Delta Goodrem is back on top, with a number one album and a new TV role. Australia’s sweetheart once again, the “smarter and wiser” singer-songwriter tells Susan Horsburgh it feels like coming home.
On July 8, when Delta Goodrem learned her new album, Wings of the Wild, had debuted at number one, it seemed the universe was trying to tell her something. That date has loomed large for Delta ever since July 8, 2003, when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Back then, as an 18-yearold Neighbours star with a recordbreaking debut album and national sweetheart status, the devastating news caused her world to capsize.
Exactly 13 years later, Delta’s fifth album’s chart success seemed emblematic of another life-changing chapter – one that has brought her full circle, back into the embrace of the Australian public.
“It was just strange,” says the 31year-old singer-songwriter. “The shift with everybody has been phenomenal, back to what I think people felt when they first met me, but now
I’m a woman.”
For Delta, who started in showbiz at seven and became famous at 17 as Neighbours’ aspiring singer Nina Tucker, it has been a rocky, public passage to womanhood. Alongside the nine number-one singles, 10 ARIA awards and eight million record sales, there has been a steady supply of revelations about her private life, from her jilting by tennis star Mark Philippoussis to her romance with teenaged musician Nick Jonas, eight years her junior – and a nasty broken engagement to Irish singer Brian McFadden in between. “In front of the whole country I’ve had a few duds,” she joked of her ex-boyfriends on The Voice last year.
Like many an Aussie star, Delta has been felled by tall poppy syndrome, but never more so than in 2012 when she joined The Voice as a judge and mentor. The social media bile didn’t abate for years, with trolls taking aim at her personality, her dance style, even her perfection.
The result seems to be a cagier, more self-protective Delta. Meeting The Australian Women’sWeekly at Sony’s Sydney headquarters, she is friendly, but there is a steeliness that perhaps wasn’t there five years ago.
“She doesn’t suffer fools,” says her long-time friend and collaborator Vince Pizzinga. “Her resting state is that she’s a loving person – kind and generous and empathetic – but she won’t get pushed around.”
According to Delta, she has discovered the freedom that comes “when you realise you can just be wholly you”. During her 15 years in the public eye, “I’ve seen different storms – I just put my umbrella up,” she says. “To be able to keep a warm and compassionate heart is what I feel is important... You just have to get smarter and wiser.”
Since turning 30, Delta has dropped the shutters on her private life and baulks at explaining the genesis of her lyrics – which can make an interview tricky. Yes, Wings of the Wild, with its soaring vocals and swelling orchestral accompaniments, is an ode to empowerment, yet it’s clearly a big
“up yours” to her detractors, too – but Delta doesn’t want to talk about that. “No quote could really express the gravity of what was going on,” says Delta, who stresses that any negativity has come from a noisy minority. “If you want to know how I felt, you just read the song lyrics.”
So here’s a sample. In Heavy, there is a rapid-fire burst of words: “When it’s hard to breathe and I just can’t get off the floor, I long for days when I was free, a life I lived so long before.”
In her darkest song, Only Human, she sings that she’s “had too many knives thrown at my back”, that she’s “broken” and tempted to “call it a day”. Says Delta, “I can barely listen to that song without being transported to that moment.” Ask her about that moment, though, and she won’t give specifics.
According to Vince, criticism has hurt her, but she makes sense of it through songwriting. “She’s somebody who, even in the face of that kind of adversity, finds something in her core to lift her up and prevail, and in a loving way,” says the producer and composer. “She’s never the person who lashes out – she finds healing through her music. The first thing she’ll do is sit at the piano and just write something extraordinary.”
Her 30th birthday was a watershed for Delta, who turns 32 in November this year. “I literally woke up that morning and felt completely different,” she says. “I went, ‘This is me, this is what I stand for, this is what I’m not going to stand for.’ I purposefully just wanted to be me – to be in the relationship with myself, with my music, and wanted to enjoy my femininity and my feline nature.”
Ironically, she landed the part of Grizabella in Cats last October. In the busiest year of her life, she followed her musical theatre debut with The Voice and scored a role as teacher Izzy in the new series of the Nine Network drama, House Husbands. SBS then came knocking, inviting her to explore her genealogy in Who Do You Think You Are?
“I could never have expected the twists and turns,” she says. Researchers discovered that her great-grandmother, Florence Bray, had a son at the age of 20 after an affair with a married member of Melbourne’s establishment, but went on to work as a musician and showgirl in the US, while her ex-lover was disinherited after convictions for fraud and larceny. “It’s quite incredible that Florence was on Broadway,” says Delta. “I loved that she lived a colourful life and got to express herself through art.” When she learned that her conman great-grandfather “preyed on small people”, though, Delta was reduced to tears. “I believe in lifting everybody up and I want everybody to feel good. It’s a value system that is very important to me, and anybody who disrespects the individual human, I can’t deal with that.”
The daughter of paper manufacturer Denis and her one-time manager, mum Lea, Delta grew up in a sporty household in Glenhaven, on the northwestern outskirts of Sydney. She and brother Trent, now a professional AFL player, had a trophy cabinet outside their bedrooms and did their best to outdo each other. Delta wrote her first song at seven and starred in her first TV ad the same year, before going on to appear in A Country Practice, Hey Dad! and Police Rescue. “It was natural, I didn’t push anything,” says Delta. “People always came to me and I auditioned for things and I would just get snapped up very young. It was part of my blood; it wasn’t ‘I want to be’, it was enabling a part of who I am.”
As a kid, Delta would stick the Top 40 charts on her wall, whiting out the number one artist and writing her own name instead. That focus paid off when she landed manager Glenn Wheatley at 13 and signed with Sony two years later. When Vince met her in 2000, he was “gobsmacked” by the 16-year-old’s voice. “She sounded so accomplished,” he recalls, “more accomplished than people twice her age.”
Delta premiered her piano ballad Born To Try on Neighbours and in 2003 her debut album, Innocent Eyes, rocketed to number one for 29 weeks. At the time, though, she was grappling with a head-to-toe rash, night sweats and a lump in her neck. In this year’s hit single, Dear Life, she alludes to the curve ball that was her teenage cancer diagnosis. The music video has Delta barefooted at the piano, singing, “I’m a survivor”, with flashback footage of her mid-treatment in 2003, wearing a wig at the ARIA Awards. Her sickness, she says, has allowed her to forge a special connection with her fans. “It takes away the taboo conversation between me and people who are going through their battle, and that’s been a gift for sure,” says Delta, who is patron of The Kinghorn Cancer Centre at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital. “I must hear a story daily and it’s pretty full-on.”
She describes her family and friends as the “touchstones” of her life. She checks her phone during the interview, on high alert as her sister-in-law,
Carly, is due to give birth any day to the first Goodrem grandchild (a baby boy, Nate Lawes Goodrem, was born on August 8). Reportedly dating Wallabies rugby star Drew Mitchell, Delta speaks to her family every day or two, and her “sidekicks” are still mostly her friends from primary school, a diverse bunch who range from builders to stockbrokers.
Nothing makes her happier, she says, than having dinner or watching The Bachelor with friends over red wine – except maybe performing live. On October 27, Delta kicks off an Australian tour in Newcastle.
“It is like Christmas to me,” she says. “I just can’t wait.”
“I believe in lifting everybody up, I want them to feel good.”
ABOVE (from left): Brother Trent, mum Lea, sister-in-law Carly and Delta. Family and friends are the “touchstones” of her life.