Stepping Into A New Arena - Tina Comes To
Grips With Her Past
by Nui Te Koha
On Tina's Terms
There was a Time when Tina Arena thought her Young Talent Time and Italian background were holding her back. NUI TE KOHA finds a new singer no longer haunted by her past.
Sometime last year, a symbol of Tina Arena's very public childhood went on sale. It was Television House, a building of washed stone and polished floor boards that has an enviable, easterly vantage point over the city.
Arena, however, considered it a room with a view for entirely different reasons.
Here, she says without a hint of melancholy or nostalgia, all those years ago, was where her vision started to take shape. She was Tiny Tina then, the Young Talent Time child star with a penchant for big, emotive ballads.
"I trod the boards there, I sang there, I danced there, I dreamed there," Arena recalls of the building where the show was rehearsed and taped each week. Importantly, the sale of Television House had a wonderful karmic significance for Arena.
It was very much in line with the lyrical themes of her most recent albums, in particular, her pride in acknowledging, and, in some ways, reclaiming the past as a means of moving forward.
Ironically, she was in Las Angeles writing Burn, a gentle ballad defining the path of a dreamer, when the building which housed so many of her childhood ambitions went up for grabs.
Arena's husband and manager Ralph Carr, spotted the "For Sale" sign and jumped on the phone to his wife. It was the middle of the night in California but Arena's answer was automatic.
"Put in an offer."
"I don't care," Arena trumpeted. "Just get it!"
"I didn't have the money at that point in time," Arena says, shifting the conversation back to the present day, "but I told Ralph: 'I don't care what we have to do, I'm prepared to hock myself, I want that bloody building!"
"I remember getting off the phone, banging my head with the receiver, and thinking: 'What have I done? What have I done?' But it's my history. It's who I am. I love that building. I spent some of the greatest years of my life in that building. It's alive, it oozes creativity, and there was no way I was going to let a property developer convert it into a wharehouse. Over my dead body."
These are strange days for Tina Arena.
She has triumphed as an artist against a tide that has seemed at best, contradictory; at worst, fickle. Put simply, most were scared of her past. And she was almost talked into believing her detractors.
Arena, they said, would not be a relevant force in pop music with the ghost of Young Talent Time overshadowing her.
As a songwriter Arena, as one of her biggest hits would later say, was in chains. "These feelings - about the past, about what I'm doing now, about where my life is heading - have always been there, deep inside," Arena says. "I had suppressed them. I don't know why. Fear is the only thing I can think of. Fear that I was not being heard on any level, not being given the chance to show or express myself. That's like putting a strait jacket on someone."
Those who don't know any better will accuse Tina Arena of feeling sorry for herself. However, what distinguishes Tina Arena from angst-therapy lyricists is the way she speaks from her soul.
Her new album In Deep has been delivered at a crucial, almost spiritual time for her, in which she has had to evaluate the fallout of the 800,000-selling Don't Ask LP. It's a comeback in every sense of the word.
Don't Ask, released in late 1994 and plundering every award imaginable the following year, was the end of a heartbreaking stretch for Arena.
In all reality Arena thought she'd serve her most promising years watching doors slams shut, having demo tapes rejected, and trying not to hear wisecracks about her ethnicity and unmarketability.
Subsequently, Don't Ask emerged as an album that, certainly lyrically, demanded Tina Arena be accepted on her own terms, or not at all.
A bona fide phenomenon, it sold nine times platinum, and, at the 1995 ARIA Awards, scooped gongs for Song of the Year, Best Pop Release and Best Album. That Year, Arena was crowned Best Female Artist.
The first single, Chains sailed into the top 10 charts in the UK, the Netherlands and Ireland. Arena was nominated Best International Newcomer at the Brit Awards, and Highest Selling Artist at the World Music Awards.
The success of that record, and the inference that fans identified with Arena's struggle and breakthrough, set up an interesting premise for In Deep, on which Arena examines themes of commitment, love, betrayal, a continuing need for expression and, importantly, the past.
Arena's explanation for the grit, guts, passion and command in her voice tells the whole story.
"I've been to hell and back, in so many different ways," she says, her eyes glazing over. "This record, and the questions I asked when I made this record, come from a very different place."
For the In Deep recording sessions, Arena aligned herself with top line musicians including producer Mick Jones, a former member of Foreigner and another musician who had fought his own share of career and personal highs and lows.
Jones was started by Arena's frank assessment of her situation.
"I guess I was a child star ready to be thrown in the bin," she says, recalling the conversation, "and I was doing everything I could to stop them from putting me in there."
His advice was simple. "Be yourself, feel it, and give it everything you've got," he told her. "Don't do it for the sake of it. Do it because you really want to do it."
"The irony," Arena says, "is that I've always done it for that reason. I have always been passionate, I've always believed. It's just that, for many years, I was telling a lot of people who didn't believe. They couldn't see the vision."
In fact, they couldn't see past Young Talent Time, the Melbourne television institution which adopted the precocious and vocally-gifted Arena, aged eight, in 1975, and kept her in the spotlight until she left in 1983.
The show's creator, Johnny Young, said recently that he remembered Arena as a child who was in a hurry to grow up.
"That's because I was a midget trapped in an older person's body," Arena laughs. "I was a very peculiar four-year-old. I'd throw on my mother's girlfriend's shoes and jewellery and parade around the house. I was insane back then. Elements of eccentricity came through at a very early age."
The middle of three daughters raised in a close-knit Italian family in Moonee Ponds, she was born 29 years ago as Filippina Arena. Urged by Young, she changed her first name to the more showbiz-style "Tina" after joining Young Talent Time in 1975. Her parents still call her Pina.
"Home, family is such a big part of who I am. When I'm away I miss my family. I miss my friends, and I really miss Moonee Ponds. It's the place where I grew up, and it's still a place I can learn from.
"Mooney Ponds," she says, smile widening, "will keep anybody level-headed."
Arena says she was aware of her ethnicity from an early age. At age three, she could imitate Spanish, Italian and French songs in the family record collection.
"I know my (Italian) heritage and I'm proud of my heritage. We were taught to be proud, and I am proud. As a kid or as a teenager, I just did the usual, normal things. Being ethnic didn't come into it."
"I was a real tomboy more than anything else. That's what I really remember."
Her approach to the new album reminds Arena of Young Talent Time.
"We would all get together and try different things, watch the song go from something really rough, rehearse it a few times and turn it into something incredible."
She admits she was a bit of a leader in Young Talent Time: I guess I was, I tended to lead them - but not offensively or obnoxiously. I'm a passionate person. There was just an enthusiasm, something I loved. I loved contributing. I loved bringing something in. But I knew what my role was. I was there to sing. I knew I was there for my voice. I definitely wasn't there for my feet, mate."
Still, and despite the publicity, Arena did not let Young Talent Time rule her life.
"I had a strong group of friends outside of what I did on television. That was the best thing, that support. They didn't believe any of the hype, even though I might have wanted them to," she laughs.
In 1983, when Arena left Young Talent Time, her mother landed a sobering blow.
"She told me: 'that's it kiddo! You're taking two
years off, and you're going back to school.'
"Whaddya mean?" Arena complained.
"Year 11 and Year 12," her mother replied, "and don't talk to me about anything else!"
"I think at that point I was resigned to the fact of: I'm happy to not work for a while, happy not to sing and dance in front of a camera, happy to bow out for a while."
"I took time out to know myself a bit better. I hung out, started going out, started dating, which I had never done before. Very, very normal things."
She worked briefly as an insurance clerk ("I wanted to try the nine-to-five thing, she smiles, "but it wasn't for me") before deciding to go back to her true passion: music.
Arena was railroaded into some forgettable early recordings - Turn Up The Beat in 1987, and the formidable, Strong As Steel in 1990.
But while her past achievements had inspired her as a means of getting ahead, others were not so sure.
"A lot of the excuses came down to marketing," Arena says. "How do they market somebody like me? It was never about my ability as a singer, so I never saw marketing as a good reason to knock me back. Give me a good enough reason and I will bow out gracefully, very gracefully. But asking 'why?' and not being given a proper answer will frustrate the hell out of you."
To add insult to injury, Arena was made to sit and watch successful pop star marketing at work. At the time, it was Kylie Minogue in her Better the Devil You Know phase, flames shooting from the video screen, Minogue wearing Michael Hutchence's ring, writhing in the arms of a black male model.
"I have nothing personal against Kylie, I like her and I have the utmost respect for her," Arena says. "What she has done with her art, and she did it as such a hard time, paved the way for people like me later on. I have a very deep understanding of what she went through. But what people were telling me made me disheartened and angry. I was angry that doors were closing in my face because of aesthetics; it wasn't my ability being questioned, but my ethnic look really put them off."
"I was angry with the fact that I had to look and fit certain criteria in order to be considered 'hot'. By no stretch of the imagination was I anywhere near as beautiful as Kylie, and as they kept feeding me that, I started to believe that I didn't have what it took, aesthetically, to pull it off."
In fairness, Arena says lyrically, her early work was not too profound, but her knack with a melody was evident.
"I have been concocting melodies ever since I can remember. If I had a buck for every melody I've lost," she laughs, rolling her eyes. "I reckon I could've renamed myself the (hugely successful songwriting team) Holland/Dozier/Holland of Australia. The spirit of songs were there."
Still, every record company turned her down. "I was never there when the demo tapes were taken around. I would never have coped. I would have hidden under a rock. In those days, I was not emotionally ready to be put in a room and have somebody tell me what I already knew. Why be subjected to that? I think it was more difficult for Ralph. He knew deep down, the potential, and I think it was increasingly frustrating for him than it was for me. I think, ultimately, it made me loose my self-esteem. I became really withdrawn and it stopped me from growing."
Ralph was Ralph Carr who met Tina Arena around that time. Bad advice from others - the I Need Your Body single, basically - had taken its toll.
Arena had no input on the album, which perhaps explains the busty, bold, bad video for Body, essentially three-and-a-half minutes of singing cleavage. For the image-makers it was a heavy-handed and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to transport Arena as far as possible from her Young Talent Time past.
Carr, who told Arena that while he found her ability "technically perfect" he didn't believe a word she was singing, offered to help her. "I remember exactly what Ralph told me," Arena swoons. "He told me: 'When I see you on stage, I feel a great sense of excitement, it's like going to see your favorite rock 'n' roll band.' I kept thinking: 'What does he mean? Is it the tone? But he said it was the dynamics.
"What an interesting way," Arena says mischievously, "to define your interest."
Carr - a musician by trade, manager by choice - is, by Arena's definition, "a great motivator who always sees the big picture." He doesn't see himself as a frontman, but he's a bloody dynamo behind the scenes. He's the kind of man you can't paint a pretty picture for. He's a reality guy."
"If you start dancing," she laughs, "he don't like it. I fell in love with his sense of initiative. I like strong people. I was very attracted to his strength and his mind. The way his mind ticks is what I find extremely attractive about him."
Arena and Carr married in December 1995 in Melbourne. Is Arena's image of marriage all that it's cracked up to be?
"I was never seduced by the fantasy of marriage because I've seen so many people f...ed up by the reality of it. I watched my parents have a very good and loving partnership. Marriage, to me, is about partnership and respect for one another."
The future, Tina Arena says, is about freedom and truthful, honest expression. She went online for a cyber-chat recently, fully expecting the worst. And she got it.
"Some people were really rude," Arena giggles, "saying things like 'Show us your two left feet' or 'Dance a bit more, you goomba'."
"If you can do any better," Arena fired back, "join me on stage." The response was quick, to the point and unprintable.
Yep. Reality bites.
And Tina Arena, she rocks. Still.