INTERVIEW: Christine Anu on her new single, Aretha Franklin and fighting ageism
Image: Karen Watson
Interview: Danielle Doporto
Christine Anu is one of Australia’s most beloved entertainers. Since first making it big in 1995 with the hits ‘Party’ and the now iconic ‘Island Home’, Anu has released nine albums, appeared in numerous TV shows and movies, including Moulin Rouge! and The Matrix Reloaded and won five ARIA Awards from 17 nominations. She is about to tour her tribute show Rewind - The Aretha Franklin Songbook across Australia and we recently caught up with her to chat about her incredible career, the tour and what the future holds for her.
Hi Christine! So tell us about what has been happening over the last 12 months?
I have been on a tour for the last 18 months, 2 years performing my show called In Conversation And Song in a variety of schools throughout the eastern seaboard.
So obviously this goes beyond your standard sort of musical concert, you're getting some important words out there?
Yeah, right? So, most importantly where that's concerned, I'm engaging with a whole generation of people whose parents or grandparents grew up with my music. I've come into the schools and they've done a bit of research or they've watched me on YouTube, so I get there and the kids are all singing my songs along with me. It's so cute. That's been the most fascinating part of the tour, engaging with the kids and talking about culture. It's not a straightforward rock concert. I’m teaching language, I’m teaching cultural dance from the Torres Strait, so it’s kind of a full-on cultural experience by Christine Anu.
That mirrors what we're hearing more and more with a lot of other aspects of life which is engagement. It’s all about interaction. It's nice to hear that you're bringing that to musical performance.
All by sheer accident really. You just try and test it, try and test it and see what works and then if you've performed it the same way a dozen times and every time you get the same reaction in exactly the same spot you know you've got something that really works. But you know, that's what I've been doing for the last couple of years and I’ll be hanging up that show to swap it over to the Rewind - The Aretha Franklin songbook.
Let's talk about that, again it sounds like a different take on the typical tour, bringing Aretha Franklin alive. This is the second time you have done this tour isn’t it?
Oh gosh, I originally recorded the tribute album back in 2012. I was extremely intimidated by the idea of doing Aretha Franklin. The process was intense - what songs do you choose when you're choosing Aretha Franklin songs, right? [But] when you come to see the show or if you hear me sing Aretha songs, I don't sound like Aretha, I sound like Christine singing an Aretha Franklin song. I haven't changed the arrangements and I haven't changed the key. So, I still sing in a high voice and I don't muck with the arrangements at all. If you've listened to a lot of her songs from the early 70s when she was at Atlantic, the songs are like two and a half minutes long. They're really you blink and you miss it, seriously. So there's a lot of singing to be had. She loved a good belt, she loved to sing right up there with the angels in heaven. Some of the notes are just stupid.
You have previously said your current mission is to really blast through this awful ageism that women are facing in society. Not just obviously in the arts but all across society. Aretha, she was singing right up to the end. You are still going so strong. Tell me about this mission to end ageism?
I will not end it though. I will not end it because there's soulless people out there. I mean women look at each other as an age. You know, we give each other a hard time when we're trying to defy age and we give each other a hard time when we're looking our age - “you let yourself go, haven't ya?” I think we're our own worst enemies as well. It's just so hard in the music industry. I look back at music videos of myself and publicity shots from the early years. I honestly thought then I was never going to get old. And I don't feel like I'm old now because you got music in you and music never makes you feel old. And I'm getting reminded that I'm older, this industry sucks how it's all about your image. And then you know, poor Madonna, it's like “act your age, you're mutton dressed up as a lamb.” Piss off, it's Madonna! What are you talking about?
It's a bit of a rock and a hard place. You're damned if you do try to keep young and damned if you don’t.
That's the point I'm trying to make. I should be able to be the person I want to be no matter what. It's hard enough getting out of bed, right? Where are we celebrating the women in the Australian music industry?
This circles back to ‘Heal Together’ this lovely single you've put out collaborating with other First Nation artists for the Healing Foundation. Do you find that this track and this kind of project is helping you to reach younger fans, who perhaps aren't so much aware of Christine Anu?
Yeah, absolutely. I loved the track that John Legend did with Common (‘Glory’) for the movie Selma. I loved the idea of that almost gospel, very uplifting, hopeful song that's got an MC. Doing spoken word the whole way through I thought “That is just the shit right there. I want to do a song like that."
I'm going to ask a topical question of you. Obviously, the documentary The Final Quarter was dominating the news in the last couple of weeks shining a light on how far Australia has to improve with issues surrounding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Do you have a reaction to that?
I haven't seen the documentary but I loved the fact that the documentarian who filmed it didn't feel the need or desire to actually have Adam Goodes involved in it. There was enough going on in the media to string together just exactly how the media stirred things up. They're the troublemakers. I was absolutely disgusted at the time to the point of tears often about what was happening in the media and the comments on social media as well. But, I love the positive reactions, that's what I've been reading mostly about, the honesty and bigness of people to say “I got it wrong and I'm happy to say that I did.” That's the win-win for me. [Adam Goodes] is a great man who will always be remembered for encouraging a better dialogue about race relations in Australia.
I'm mindful that I'm doing it myself here, I'm asking you questions about entire communities as an ambassador when you're not out there as a community political leader. You’re out there as an artist. Do you get a bit resentful that minority people are expected to represent their whole communities? The fact that this is a big part of your job beyond your art?
I wouldn't say resentful. I think burdened, momentarily burdened. I think I've gotten better with that as I've gotten older, feeling that I'm not a spring chicken any more and I do have something to say. My voice matters. And what I think and what I have to say could absolutely influence a younger mind who's possibly sitting on the fence about something. I mean I was three years away from being born when my mother and father were allowed to vote. Just before that, they were considered flora and fauna for god's sake. It's about recognising who have gone before us and the sacrifices that they have made or the things that they have fought for just to stand on equal footing as their white Australian neighbour. It motivates and drives me every day. I hope in my lifetime that all Australians come to recognise that we need a treaty. We need an internationally binding legal document that recognises the sovereignty of the First Nations people of Australia.
The work you're doing with kids at schools, that sort of thing is going to have such a tangible benefit.
I can't even begin to tell you the immediate effect that I have on children from the time that they walk into the hall and I stand behind that microphone and I walk amongst them and I look at them in their eyes and I sing to them and I perform to them and I speak to them. I know I'm speaking to them because they smile back at me. I have the most wonderful reaction leaving the schools because they're like “You're amazing, you’re a good person.” It's like yeah, I’m not a singer, I’m a person. That's right, that's who I am.
Can you tell me about how your lived reality is stacking up against your early hopes and expectations when you first entered the industry?
People still think I'm rich, that hasn't changed! I did not think my career would last this long. What mattered to me was that if I just kept on plugging away and working away, that the groundwork and the foundations that I laid would perhaps give me a sustained world where I could just keep working. If people see you work hard, they'll want to give you more work. I guess I never really saw how hard I worked until I look back on it now.
Do you think things are getting easier or harder for women and especially minority women in the music business?
There is so much community support around women and around diversity. The amazing Vicki Gordon putting together the Australian Women's Music Awards last year. It's changing, the conversation’s changing. There's so much more support and visibility and funding for women who come from minority groups or who are immigrants who have just come to Australia. There's so much more community support around that nowadays than I remember ever when I was coming up as a youngster. I thought, “I'll never see the light of day after this first album.” I'm invited to a lot of community organisations so I see that it's different now, I see that it's changed.
I guess the best place to end this chat is forward-looking. What's next for you?
I am recording two albums at the moment. Very, very different projects from each other. One of them is a project I've been wanting to do for years and years and years, it involves my mum. I really wanted to do something with her, it'll be a language album. There's just so much music I'm finding out that my granddad actually proposed. So, I'm on a massive mission to find his songs at the moment because I’ll be recording them, and my mum and I will be writing the other half of that album together all in language. And the other one I'm doing at the moment is half originals and half covers. Covering awesome women. But I haven't done any albums in a while because writing really isn't something I enjoy doing. But I'm forcing myself to do it, I'm forcing myself to do something that makes me really runs to the hills. When something makes me run to the hills, it makes me want to do it more. Why are you afraid of that? You should probably run towards it. Get in there now.
Tickets for Christine Anu’s Rewind - The Aretha Franklin Songbook tour are on sale now.
August 24 - Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. Tickets here
September 7 - Freo.Social, Fremantle. Tickets here
September 12 - Southern Cross Club, Canberra. Tickets here
September 19 - Brass Monkey, Cronulla. Tickets here
October 26 - Montreal Theatre, Tumut. Tickets here
November 2 - Jetty Theatre, Coffs Harbour. Tickets here
November 9 - The Vanguard, Newtown. Tickets here