Entertainment editor John Turnbull talks to Australian singer Christine Anu about family, history and the music of Aretha Franklin.
Independent Australia: Thanks for your time today Christine. You’ve been playing music professionally for over 20 years, how do you see the Australian music scene today compared to when you got started?
Christine Anu: It’s a completely different beast. The availability of technology allows anyone, man, woman or child to make their own music and upload it, and that music can immediately be heard by anyone around the world.
That change really blasts the control out of corporate hands and gives power back into regular people. Artists can control what they release, when they release it. I think the music industry has responded by trying to take control in other areas, in areas that many people don’t even realise.
One of the biggest of these is deals between record companies and TV stations that show big sporting events — the half-time entertainment is exclusively taken from that company.
IA: Which explains horrors like Meat Loaf playing at the grand final a couple of years ago…
CA: Yeah, it’s all Sony related and you’ll see artists performing at events based not on fan interest or anything else, just that they happen to be signed to the right record label.
On the other hand, you’ve got reality TV shows that feature a star of yesteryear as a judge or host and that exposure allows them to showcase their new material.
A lot of these people had their first bit of success when the Internet was still the ‘Inter-what?’ ‒ like Mark Holden ‒ and now they have a book to launch, so a television show is a perfect vehicle for them.
Established stars need TV far more than TV needs them — there is an almost endless supply of vaguely famous people looking to sell something. From a media perspective we’ve got to a stage where babies get famous before they’re even born.
Once upon a time, my private life was just that — private, but now if I’ve got an album to sell I need to make the choice of how much I’m going to open myself up to the media. It’s all about providing currency; if an artist can get column inches or TV time in the week their album comes out then sales are likely to be higher and, to be frank, everybody needs that these days.
Social media is a very powerful vehicle for that.
IA: You raise an interesting point about TV reality shows. You spent time as a judge on Popstars, how would you compare that to things like The Voice?
CA: It’s interesting. Popstars brought Bardot into the musical arena and, while it was a reality TV format, it was a little different to the shows today.
Australian Idol was an established format at the time and, of course, they discovered Guy Sebastian and they were always going to be bigger than Popstars ever would.
But what the experience really taught me was that I’m not the right person to be a judge on TV, let alone a great puppet for the producers to make a story up around.
The way that I was raised, I was never prepared for 15 minutes of fame, like my children and most of the next generation seem to be. The level of scrutiny that comes with being on TV, the cameras focusing super-close on your face and the judges picking apart every aspect of your performance is incredibly difficult.
I’ve never agreed with the ‘instant pop star, just add water’ approach and I’m very glad I was able to come into the music industry in more of a traditional way. The way I see it, the challenge of the music industry isn’t winning a competition, but establishing yourself as an artist and making a career out of it. You have to reinvent yourself and push forward every day of your life.
IA: Talking about reinventing yourself, do you look at contemporary artists like Miley Cyrus or One Direction and try to approximate their sound, or is it more about keeping your music relevant from a big picture perspective?
CA: It’s not about the sound, it’s more about the vehicle — the vehicle being television, social media. I mean, I’m never going to be able to sound like a five piece boy band and I think my daughter would cringe if I ever attempted such a thing.
The thing is, I’ve worked so hard at building a brand that I would just be shooting myself in the foot to try and change what that brand is. People starting out in the industry should know what their brand is and work hard to build that brand, for me that’s My Island Home.
Everything that aligns with My Island Home and Australia, that’s what people conjure up when they think of my name. That’s my brand, and I think if I tried to sound like One Direction I would just freak everybody out and be called mutton dressed as lamb.
IA: I often ask what advice people have for young artists getting their start in music and that sounds pretty solid…
CA: You’ve got to know what your brand is.
Are you like bubblegum where the flavour is going to run out? If so, you need to find a good producer who can help you evolve your sound as your career develops.
Don’t sell out for the sake of having a number one chart hit if it means you have to compromise who you really are inside. You have to go out and sell your music and people are good bullshit detectors.
IA: Particularly those who read independent media…
CA: Right. The other piece of advice would be to work with other artists. Collaboration is a great way to expand your range and maybe attract new listeners: “Christine is playing with an orchestra, that sounds interesting.”
Paul Kelly has always been a master collaborator. Those sort of reinventions are great, because they provide a lateral way of thinking about your own music.
In terms of pushing yourself and getting involved in the publicity machine, it’s important to realise that it’s a necessary evil — you might hate it, but it’s in your best interest to use all of the communication tools available to you.
IA: Makes a lot of sense. Can you tell me a bit about your experience with the TV series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’
CA: Oh, Who Do You Think You Are was a great experience. I’m glad I had the opportunity to be a part of that.
To be honest I didn’t think that there was enough documented stuff in my history to make a story, given that birth certificates weren’t really around for black people who weren’t even considered citizens. On top of that, my mother didn’t own a camera, so there weren’t a lot of photos around of my family.
When I was given the folder with all of the research they did, including a lot of stuff that they couldn’t fit into the program, I immediately went out and made a big scrapbook – ten of them, in fact, with photocopies of everything – and distributed them to my family.
It’s wonderful to have that archive, because I never would have had the time or the skill to track down all of the stuff they found. It’s a great legacy for my children, and it opened up conversations within my family that were long dead.
IA: Let’s talk a bit about Rewind; what first led you to the music of Aretha Franklin?
CA: It’s funny, I’ve kind of been skirting around it for my whole career, afraid to sing songs that might highlight any flaws in my ability. I was afraid that people might see me for the imposter I am.
But when I finally made the leap I think I was ready; I’d done a lot of work in my ‘job’ to get to that stage, combined with my life experience, being a mother, getting through relationships.
I’m not afraid to make the leap, to tell the stories in my own way. I decided early on that I didn’t want to be the karaoke queen. I didn’t want to focus on the Blues Brothers or the 80s era, which I enjoyed when I was a young girl. That was a comeback of sorts, and her voice was better than ever.
The duets she did with Annie Lennox and Elton John, George Michael — bloody stunning. Her pop reinvention in the 80s was nothing like the soul and the gospel influenced stuff that she did earlier, or the jazz and blues stuff she was doing when she was signed to Columbia Records.
All of that stuff I had just come to know of, so I wanted to start by going back. My set includes tracks like Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which Aretha did a version of.
When she was first signed to Columbia, I don’t think the A&R guy, John Hammond, knew what to do with her. She was talented in a way that 23 years earlier, a 17 year old Billie Holliday was, but with the Jazz and Gospel influences, she just took it to another level.
IA: How do you choose the set list from night to night?
CA: I’ve always had a couple of Aretha songs in my regular set, so when this opportunity came up, I already had a foundation of Aretha songs, and songs that other artists had written that she had covered. Hence, REWIND: The Aretha Franklin Songbook tour.
Songbook needed to be in there because they’re not all Aretha originals; You’re All I Need to Get By was written by Tammy Tyrell and Marvin Gaye. She did Bridge over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel, which came about by her singing all of the nominated songs for artists at the Grammy Awards. She sang the shit out of that song, went into the studio the next day and it became one of her hit singles. Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles, she does an amazing funk version of that. The hook is completely different to the original, but it was just the way she sang it that blew me away.
Aretha’s ability was such that when she covered a song, that was it — nobody touched it after that. She wasn’t shy of trying different genres, like when she did Nessun Dorma after Pavarotti pulled out 20 minutes before a Grammy performance. Just amazing.
IA: Did you take any specific inspiration from Aretha for the tour?
CA: She was never afraid of her abilities. I needed to take that gutsiness when I approached Rewind — avoid the temptation to play it safe.
Most producers just wanted to focus on the softer stuff, the more ethereal sounds that my voice can produce, never the gutsy, soulful side of things. But I want to sing the way I want to sin and, during the days of being signed to a record company, I just got tired of being told how to sing, how I should sound.
Finally, I can do a bunch of songs from an artist I really believe in — I channel the best. I want to be Christine the soul singer, and I think I’ve finally found the sound that I’ve always wanted to sing.
IA: That’s wonderful. Best of luck with the tour and thanks very much for your time, Christine.
CA: Thanks very much!
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