Tina Arena is relaxation personified. From her easy smile to her long-lashed blink and the turn of her head, she appears to be moving in slow motion. Her silky Australian drawl is so smooth and slow she’s practically purring. Her red wedges are so high her knees are almost around her ears as she sits her petite frame back on the sofa, her feet planted on the floor, her legs wide, and her hands laid either side of her tailored black suit trousers. This is a woman so comfortable in her own skin she wears it like a onesie.
And why not? She’s in a very secure and happy place. Her latest album, RESET, has gone platinum in Australia, spurring a bidding war between UK labels to release it here (Universal won). Before now we only really knew her from her 1994 hit ‘Chains’ (which we still have on our iPod), and we might have bought one of her cover albums for our mum on a particularly tight Christmas, but now she’s back, at the age of 46, with her first original album in more than a decade and an exlcusive London gig on November 6. So where the hell has she been? “I’ve made two French records, I gave birth to a little boy nearly nine years ago, I’ve done orchestral tours; I’ve had a very eclectic career that’s taken me to a lot of interesting places. I’ve toured France and Belgium extensively… I’ve done lots, my God,” she laughs.
This is a very different – and less spot-lit – path to her 1990’s pop ballad peers, such as Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston I point out… and I appear to have touched on a sore subject: “I think one of the greatest sufferances in the music industry is the perpetual assimilation of people – he sounds like this, she sounds like that. The only similarity, certainly between Celine, myself and Mariah, is that we were all Sony girls. Celine is still there. Mariah and I moved on a long time ago. And it’s quite hilarious that people still put us all in the same bracket. If we talk about evolution, Mariah’s done lots of new things, she’s moved musically, but Celine hasn’t really moved. I think all we share is that we’re big voices and we all come from an era when we made a mark.”
Perhaps Arena is bitter she hasn’t shared the commercial success of Celine and co? “I couldn’t give a shit about having 200 million bucks in the bank; I couldn’t think of anything worse actually, because then you’re surrounded by people who are trying to fleece you. There is nothing about that that interests me. What I have been able maintain is my integrity, what I believe in creatively, and musical experimentation. I’ve had incredible creative freedom and kudos, and I can’t put a price on that.” That’s that then. Oh, hang on, no it isn’t… “Also I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years. Those girls have got nearly 20 years; I’ve got 40.”
She’s right, though. Arena started singing on Oz TV variety show Young Talent Time as a child, along with Dannii Minogue, who she is still in touch with. And it was by choice that Arena didn’t sign on the ‘big-time’ line. Back in the ’90s Tommy Mottola, then-head of Sony, as well as Mariah Carey’s manager and husband, was ready to pitch Arena to America as the Australian Celine Dion, but Arena was going through a divorce and didn’t feel like the time was right. “I just think that the universe plays a role when it needs to play a role and it shows itself either by making your path really difficult, or making the elements that surround you unachievable. Perhaps by putting you in the wrong human energies; and my group of people at the time… it was not a particularly harmonious period for me. So the button could have been pressed, but it would have come at a cost. I wasn’t prepared to pay that cost.” Any regrets? “No. I’m really glad that the train derailed because I wouldn’t have had the cultural encounters and fantastic collaborations that I have had, what with America being what it is. My musical tapestry is some-thing I would never trade in for anything else. I feel so blessed to have had the journey that I’ve had, and it just continues to be more interesting as each day goes by.”
It does seem Arena has a good instinct for these things. The universe certainly seems to be agreeing with her decision to make her big comeback now. “It’s really great to come into a place I’ve wanted to work in for ages, but I didn’t think the timing was right for different reasons. I believe very heavily that there’s a right time for everything.
When you’re writing something and you’re thinking ‘I’d really love to release this here or there, or I think this would be appropriate for this or that market’; what you think, what you feel, what you see, is not a mission that is necessarily shared by others. That’s the way it goes.” So why now?
“I’ve refined my craft. I’m probably a little bit like a bloody wine, really, in a cellar. But some wines you’ve got to drink (laughs). Also the right synergies of people have come together – I have a great little family that I believe in. Here in the UK, over in Oz, in France… we’re starting to grow teams and it’s just really gorgeous. It’s nice because we’re slowly building on that and forging relationships that are about evolution, not impact: get in and get out. It’s none of that.”
The result is an album of original, honest song writing with pop ballad melodies. “I am proud of it. I’m proud of its honesty. And I’m proud that people can find a connection with it. That’s all you can hope for, that people can identify. Then it’s completely up to the listener to interpret that sentiment in a way that they want to.”
But in an industry that today thrives on the shock and sex factor, can Arena’s sentimentality for honesty and connection survive? “I couldn’t give a shit what the industry thinks, and that’s really the honest truth. And that’s with all due respect to everybody too. I think that at my age you cannot be sitting there motivated by, and do things to surprise, the industry; you have to do them for yourself.”
And what does she think of today’s pop stars such as Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus? “Justin Beiber could be my son, as Miley Cyrus could be my daughter. [But] I think if they were my children, they probably wouldn’t feel the need to have to expose themselves and leave themselves with nowhere to go. My kids wouldn’t behave like that. You’ve got to seriously question what a 21-year-old’s motivation is when she’s gyrating on something. My greatest concern as a parent is the fact that there is so little left to the imagination. We tend to give people everything, so they don’t have to make up their minds, they don’t have to use their imagination to draw their own conclusions. Is there anything to learn in that?”
Arguably, though, Arena’s album promo shots are pretty sexy: basques, satin and PVC (“elegant PVC”, Arena interjects). Has she not intentionally sexed up her image to fit in? “For me, stylistically I do what I do. I don’t follow anything. I have a great appreciation for design and aesthetics. My mother was a dressmaker and always made beautiful clothes; I’ve lived in France for a long time, I’m from a line of Italians – Italian women have always known how to dress, French women know how to dress. It’s just a part of a culture. It’s not anything that I go out of my way to manipulate. I wear what I think is right for that situation.”
And how about the controversial shot of her smoking on the cover of Good Weekend magazine? “At the end of the day, people smoke and people know that it’s bad for you. This presumptuousness of people always going, ‘you can’t possibly highlight that’… What do you mean? It’s art at the end of the day. It’s just a photo with a woman smoking in it. What’s the problem? It’s okay for you guys to show women half naked and men behaving in a very inappropriate fashion and yet you’re pointing the finger at me – please, get your shit together.”
Whether you agree with her or not, you can’t argue that Arena says exactly what she thinks, and this translates into her music: “I’ve always been pretty revelatory when it comes to my work. Some people like it, some people don’t, and that’s fine. I’m just interested in change. I’ve never been interested in just giving people more of the same as that’s not what I’m attracted to.”
So she’s honest, evolving, and has the ability to wear PVC like a lady. Perhaps Tina Arena is just what the music industry needs right now after all…
Tina Arena’s new album RESET is released November 3 on Decca/Universal.
She is also playing an exclusive London gig on November 6 at St John At Hackney Church. For tickets click here