August 12, 1996 Volume 148, No. 7
The song's dark note of tragedy is given the dramatic twist only a diva can deliver: "A simple kiss like a turnin' key/ a little click and the lock's on me." Then there are the soaring vocals, belted out as if she were an inmate in the prison of life. "I'm in chains!" wails Tina Arena, her voice rising above a crescendo of electric guitars. She should know: in two decades of show business, the Australian, 26, has gone from child star to sex-kitten poppet to the slick songstress she is today. "Chains is about the frustration of being constantly pigeonholed," says Arena. "And I've fought that--not for one or two years but for the majority of my career."
Now, perhaps, the diva inside Arena has broken free. The soulful Chains, which reached the Top 5 on the Australian singles chart in late 1994, signaled the arrival of a seriously grown-up talent. And Don't Ask, the album that spawned the song, became the country's highest-grossing title of last year, selling more than 600,000 copies, the most ever by an Australian female recording artist. Then there were the Australian Recording Industry Awards (best Australian album, best Australian female artist, best Australian pop release for Chains, which also won song of the year) and a sellout national tour. But if 1995 saw Arena's local ascendance, 1996 sees her rising to world diva status: Chains, which went Top 10 in Britain, Ireland and Holland, received respectable airplay in the U.S. as well. In fact, she is now based in Los Angeles as she tries to conquer the American market. "Everyone here at Epic really believes in her," says David Massey, senior vice president of the Sony record label. "Tina's is definitely one of the great voices."
With its mainstream melange of soul, pop and gospel, the album Don't Ask more than meets the mass-marketed diva pitch. Through interpretative conviction and sheer lung power, Arena renders both moving and heartfelt lyrics that on paper might seem cliched or formulaic: "You wait a long time to find your dream and hold on to it/ and all I needed was to fly" (Sorrento Moon). Nor is she bereft of irony: "Wouldn't you know it," she sings on the plaintive Wasn't It Good, "I've lost my courage/ isn't that funny, me lost for words?" But it is Arena's song-writing prowess (she co-wrote the album's 10 tracks) and deft way with a keyboard that distinguishes her in the diva stakes. "There are very few divas you'd see go and sit and play a fantastic piece at the piano," says Massey. "Live, she can blow you away."
It was Arena's volcanic voice--first unfurled in 1975 when she was a youngster appearing on the Young Talent Time show on Australia's Network Ten--that blew away Melbourne music manager Ralph Carr. The relationship was first professional (he took over her management in 1993) and then romantic (the pair married last December). "She could do anything," he recalls. "Technically, Tina's perfect." But at first Carr didn't believe a word she was singing: "It wasn't a matter of teaching Tina to sing with feeling; she had to feel it personally." And so began Arena's three-year odyssey to write her own material, culminating in Don't Ask. "I figured, if I can get some great songs and surround her with the right people, we can have a shot at the world market," says Carr of the album, which was recorded in Los Angeles.
While her musical influences read like a diva roll call--"Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holliday, Linda Ronstadt, so many, so many singers, my God"--Arena doesn't like the loftiness the tag connotes. "I'm just a woman with something to say," she declares. With her light brown-streaked hair held off her face by a pair of reading glasses, it is a pared-back Arena we get these days--as seemingly devoid of artifice as she is of conspicuous makeup. She communicates directly, honestly--like the best of her songs--through large, chocolate-brown eyes and a tremolo voice. "I am what I am, and I don't pretend," she says. "Don't pretend."
The middle of three daughters raised in a close-knit Italian family in Melbourne's working-class Moonee Ponds, Filippina Arena (her first name was abbreviated to Tina in 1975) was always a precocious talent. At age 3 she would imitate the Spanish, Italian and French songs in the family record collection. At 6 Arena became a regular on Young Talent Time. For the next 7 1/2 years she was Tiny Tina, the child star with a penchant for big ballads. But while she could belt out Streisand and Donna Summer hits with startling force, Arena never really made them her own. Even her raunchy 1990 hit I Need Your Body--the video flaunted a pouting rock starlet with cleavage and attitude to burn--seemed less Tina than Madonna.
Six years beyond her vixen phase, Arena has matured and mellowed. "I'm probably a little bit more boisterous onstage because I'm having a great time," she says. "Very simple things turn me on, you know. Family, all that." Success hasn't unleashed a diva-size ego, either, insists husband Carr. "I've been in situations with artists where suddenly they're on another planet," he says. "But Tina's remained Tina."
It hasn't been easy. After leaving Young Talent Time in 1983, Arena finished her Higher School Certificate, worked briefly as an insurance clerk and sang backup for singer Lionel Richie on his 1987 Australian tour. But flying solo, the child-star albatross hung around her neck. Turned down by every major Australian record company, Arena was told to lose weight and change her name. She defied the advice, fueling her energy into years of pub rock, learning how to hold her own with a band. "Tina's got an incredible lot of guts," says rock-industry commentator and friend Molly Meldrum. "Those ups and downs of her career, those hard times and trying to be accepted, have molded her into the performer that she is today."
In 1991, despondent with how her career was tracking, Arena moved to Los Angeles to learn the craft of song writing. "I was absolutely, squealingly frightened," she recalls. "Very emotional. Minutes that I was absolutely, unbelievably high, and minutes that I was unbelievably low." But rattling her chains, Arena turned her own stories into song--Sorrento Moon is about the nostalgia of childhood, Wasn't It Good is a paean to first love--and found her own voice.
And image. These days it's sophisticated, adult contemporary. Her stylist, Pierre Baroni, keeps her CD and video visage artful but approachable; carefully calculated not to distract attention from her music. She knows her every career move is monitored, but Arena seems to be holding the steering wheel. "Am I a control freak?" she shrieks with laughter. "Yes!" Indeed, nothing can suppress the sassy Italian, who apologizes for being too animated.
And nothing can suppress--and few can surpass--Arena onstage. This is her natural-born arena, where she truly gives of herself. "I would like people to say, 'Great record, greater live,'" she says. It's here her personality is allowed to match the largeness of her voice. At a concert in Melbourne last October, a fan screamed out, "I love you, Tina!"--to which Arena replied: "I love you too, darling, but I can't see you. I'm as blind as a bat up here." Later, a pair of red underpants were flung up onstage. "Who do you think I am?" she said with exquisite comic timing. "Tom Jones?" No, Tina Arena. A diva to die for.
--With reporting by Alix Clark/Los Angeles
Tina Arena Age: 26 Born in Melbourne, Australia Lives in Los Angeles Her 1995 album Don't Ask sold 600,000 copies
Australia's top female recording artist first made a big splash in Europe and is now trying to establish a U.S. beachhead