We could all learn a lot from Tina Arena. Her perspectives are so profound that our interview is less like work and more like an invaluable crash course on life – teachings of love and loss, joy and disappointment, the importance of honesty and the beauty of empathy.
Comfortably lounging on the hotel room couch, Arena peers out to admire Sydney Harbour, insisting that she enjoys the view now more than ever. She’s only recently returned to Australia from her adopted homes in Paris and London, but any potential jetlag aside, the 41-year-old remains refreshingly warm and humble. Despite living abroad, she still calls Australia home – and as always, is immensely proud of her Italian heritage.
“I’m a mad Italian, there’s no question about it – I’m seriously passionate, I’m loud, I love to have a laugh, I love to eat, I cook… I’m always cooking for people.”
Filippina Lydia Arena was born on November 1, 1967 and grew up in Melbourne. At the tender age of seven, after adopting the stage name Tina, she starred on Australia’s longest running variety television show, Young Talent Time. Arena blew audiences away with her powerful voice and mesmerising stage presence in what she today considers a “phenomenal apprenticeship”. Suffice to say, it was during these formative years that a star was born.
In the period following Young Talent Time, the songstress worked the club circuit, played in bands and appeared in the production, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. But it wasn’t until 1988, at 21, that Arena emerged as a sultry disco diva, releasing Strong As Steel. One of the album’s hits, I Need Your Body, reached number two on the national charts but offered a striking contrast to the career that would soon follow.
“There are so many cringe-worthy moments,” she reflects. “That’s what makes a career. I Need Your Body: cringe. But a fantastic cringe, not a gross cringe. It shows an evolution and evolution is important… learning from things you perhaps didn’t do correctly. But that’s what was right at the time, so there’s nothing wrong with that then really.”
The chapter that followed thrust the rising star well and truly into the spotlight. Her 1995 album Don’t Ask sold more than two million copies worldwide and is still the biggest selling album by any Australian female artist, more than Kylie, more than Delta. It spawned what is arguably Arena’s signature song, Chains. The self-penned soul ballad signifies the difficulties that she faced over many years within an industry that seemed to perpetuate self-doubt.
“I thought for a long time that I wasn’t qualified to call myself an artist. It’s growing up in this environment too, you’re very much kept suppressed… for most of my life I felt suppressed,” she reveals.
Today, Arena claims the title, ‘artist’, with a sense of dignity and purpose.
“I just let go, I just stopped worrying about trying to be perfect and trying to make everybody happy… it’s absolutely humanly impossible. People are too judgmental. People have a difficult time to sit back and smell the roses and be thankful to be alive.”
Arena has much to be thankful for. She’s just released her latest album, Songs Of Love And Loss 2 – the second volume of one of 2007’s highest selling Australian albums, and is set to tour Australia in 2009.
With the aid of the London Studio Orchestra, Arena yet again showcases her masterful interpretational skills. She breathes new life into an array of hits, including Blondie’s Call Me, Lulu’s Oh Me Oh My and in what is perhaps her bravest interpretation, a stripped back version of Nik Kershaw’s eighties hit, Wouldn’t It Be Good.
“It’s a pretty bold move to make. It’s a very expensive record to make because you’re paying a lot of musicians to play on it. The first album was expensive too… they’re not cheap but they’re worth it because it’s human. All you hear is human,” she says.
Outside of the music world, Arena has even more to be thankful for. Not only is she happily “in bed with a Frenchman” as she proudly puts it, but she insists that her life has greater purpose and meaning since becoming a mother just three years ago.
“It’s made me feel at a very, very deep level. It’s enabled me to really empathise. It heightens everything – it heightens love, it heightens disappointment,” she affirms.
As we discuss her son Gabriel, Arena talks from a place of peace and understated passion. She agrees that she’s determined to live by example, with every hope that her actions tell the story of a woman who is “hardworking, honest and an anarchist”. As if he’s joining us in the room, she continues to impart her pearls of wisdom.
“Never be frightened to do what you believe in and make sure you do things from your heart and for the right reasons. Don’t bullshit about what you do. Be honest to yourself – you owe yourself that much.”
Arena has certainly built her career on honesty. But after some three decades in show business, how can somebody who has lived under the glare of that burning spotlight for so long continue to survive and thrive in what is a rapidly evolving industry?
“Surround yourself with the least amount of bullshit as you possibly can. Don’t surround yourself with ‘yes’ people and people that sit there wiping your arse 24 hours a day, telling you how great you are.
“Surround yourself with people who are constructive. That’s how you get better. My partner doesn’t necessarily love everything that I do and if he doesn’t, he tells me. But I’d so much rather that.”
The truth does indeed set you free.
Tina Arena’s new album Songs Of Love And Loss Volume 2 is out now through EMI.
Tina Arena is touring nationally on the following dates:
Tickets are on sale now.