Unchained - Tina Arena
by Jane Margetts
Fame is a powerful thing, intoxicating aphrodisiac that often forces the peeling back of layers of skin for the person that lies beneath it. It's heaven and hell rolled into one and for Tina Arena the consequences are no less.
Ensconced in the industrial heartland of Richmond, Melbourne, at the once-popular haunt for musicians, The Cherry Tree, Arena turns and states with unwavering passion, "I'm completely exposed, and that's just fine. It really doesn't bother me".
"I've enjoyed showing everyone a side of me I'm sure people never thought existed and I'm really happy that people have got the right perspective now. That's the thing that makes me really joyous, the fact that what people are seeing now is not a charade - that they are really seeing me and I'm incredibly naked. But it's great. There's nothing wrong with it. I'd be worried if I was hiding something or if I had something to hide."
For Arena, above all else, it's just the way she likes it. As with her naked, soulful shuffles through sly funk and beautiful, pensive acoustic portraits on Don't Ask, her debut album on Sony Records, sees her exploring a new phase of her life as a young woman coming to terms with a new found maturity while swimming through her own turbulent emotions. It earmarks a new chapter in the life of Tina Arena in more ways than one.
"It'd kinda funny", she offers, between sips of coffee. "I'm even starting to get into a little bit of the alternative sound. At first, it was a bit difficult to understand why people focussed so much energy on negativity and manic depression lyricism, which I couldn't quite get a grasp on but today everything I listen to I absorb like a sponge."
The young, volatile, extreme woman and fully-fledged songwriter has always known hardship, through which she seems to have come to terms with her own demons. Her earlier years as one of Johhny Young's Young Talent Time team now seems like a distant memory, and in the hour we spend together, she'll return through her mind's eye to the time when her life began an even more astonishing journey and the storybook journal took a different twist and turn.
It was December '91 and a 23-year-old Tina Arena sat on a plane alone. She took one last , lingering look through the portal window at her home and with a heavy heart she felt the plane career down the runway, Los Angeles bound. "It was bizarre", she remembers, "I was very emotional because I was leaving home and I had no idea of what was going to be ahead of me. I was very frightened, feeling extremely vulnerable, excited and exhilarated. When I arrived there I was like, 'Yeah, this is okay' and as I went along and as the days passed by it was like, 'Oh god, this is tough.' But I stuck at it. I moved to LA to get to know who I was because everyone was saying 'She's this, she's that, she's a camp' and so on. Something told me to get into song-writing, back to where it's at. It told me to open my heart and my mind."
If Australia's reaction to Arena's Don't Ask is anything to measure her success by, then her instincts guided her perfectly. "To some degree this album was a conversation piece with myself", she says. "It's funny. You don't plan for it to sound like that but, I guess, it does in a sense when you look back. I think upon completion of this album I learned that I was a person of substance. I realised that there was a lot more than I had ever given myself credit for. I doubted myself for a long time. The greatest thing about the album was that it was the best therapy anyone could have given to me, and, in turn, I gave it to myself."
Arena's eyes stray through the window of The Cherry Tree. She remembers her childhood years as a daughter of of an immigrant family and the Egyptian woman who both encouraged her musical aspirations and talents and baby-sat for her often.
"I was smartly handicapped at school", she confesses, "and today, it feels like I went out and found my niche. I just didn't wanna be stuck in some 9 to 5 chained-to-the-kitchen-sink environment. Yes, to some degree I am a domestic engineer at home. I find it very therapeutic, but it's not something I could do constantly. I have to use my mind. I really enjoy that."
By November '90, Arena - struggling to escape the restraints of her musical past - released her debut album, Strong As Steel, an apt title in retrospect to the overwhelming trait she most personifies in the flesh. The singles I Need Your Body and The Machine's Breaking Down followed.
Soon afterwards, she worked with David Atkins (in Dynamite) and saved her money so she could eventually embark on her Mecca to the City of Angels. There she found herself and learned the most valuable lesson of all.
"I realised that it wasn't easy for starters, and that it was going to take a lot of hard work", she says. "I realised for the first time in my life the incredible sacrifice and dedication that is required if you're wanting to be an international star."
The smoke envelopes her again as she exhales. Her eyes twinkle - she's only just begun.