On the release of her 25th album, the singer discusses learning stage craft from Chrissy Amphlett, her Last of the Mohicans mentoring scheme, writing a musical with Eddie Perfect, and avoiding rock’n’roll suicide
Time Out has certain expectations about meeting Kate Ceberano in person. There’ll be that gimlet-eyed good grace one finds in celebrities who know the ropes and refuse to get tied up in them; a cordial civility that will drop like yesterday’s soufflé once the dictaphone’s turned off. Not that we’ll blame her – who wouldn’t have to stifle a yawn talking to another reporter some 25 albums down the track?
As it transpires, we couldn’t be more wrong. Hurricane Kate explodes into the room, crackling with energy, talking in hyperbolic acrobatics, peppered with enthusiastic expletives. Nothing, it seems, is off limits – she’s as open and breezy (warning: segue coming) as her new album, Kensal Road.
This release marks Ceberano’s first in 10 years of original material. She’s co-written with alt-country singer Jeremy Lister (with whom she duets on ‘You and I’) and rising Malaysian star Yuna (‘Magnet’), as well as her mainstay, Canadian songwriter and producer James Bryan – who’s worked with Nelly Furtado and Axle Whitehead. Right from the offset, with the Hawaiian harmonies and ukulele twonking of ‘Garden State’, it’s the sort of sunny pop Furtado, VV Brown, Paloma Faith and even Lily Allen craft to lift our spirits… but with the vocal chops that could only be her own.
Kate, this is a beautifully sunny album… which is not how I recall Kensal Road in London.
Well, the thing about Kensaltown Studios that turned me on is that it was like an old school out of To Sir With Love. It’s a studio occupied by DJs and hip-hop artists and musicians… you might the Specials coming in to rehearse or you might get Adele, or Marina and the Diamonds, and then you might have an all boy band upstairs from Germany… it was completely without discrimination and embodied the heart and soul of making music.
It had this studio that was perched right on the top with 360 windows and no sound control, so you could hear the hurtling of buses through the recording and you’d have to stop if there was a hydraulic drill going off. I thought, “This is my kind of recording!” It was like everyone there knew the secret password of how to be a part of that chaos.
It’s true the album is very sunny – and it’s not gonna change the world in what its tone is – but when you perform it live, it has all the best of my Hawaiian upbringing; the collectivism that I’m actually very much into. I’m a person that, if I can’t take everyone with me, I don’t want to go.
As the artistic director for the juggernaut that is the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, you’ve nurtured some really interesting talent. Does it give you hope for the music industry, where the focus of attention has funnelled down into TV show contestants?
We’re in a state of bureaucracy in the music industry and that’s fucking as far as I’m concerned. It’s keeping everyone equal, which we’re not, and it’s keeping everyone rich off false products in my opinion. After 25 albums, the thing that only just struck me is that the only thing that’s original about me is the sound of my voice. So to that effect I’m not concerned if material is ripped off. If your voice is easily replicated by artists who can easily sing like you and duplicate your shtick, then you’re less able to be that rare thing that people will show up to a gig for.
Even I’m Talking [the funk-pop band she formed in 1983] was a very innovative, highly alternative dance band. We were the first in Australian history to make disco music, set up against the Divinyls [more on them later] and Cold Chisel. We were quite ready for rotten fruit and vegetables most nights, but people would tweak their heads like Labradors, wondering if they actually liked it.
It was coming from that post-punk British era and I think that still resonates in me, that collectivism. You had Ian Dury and the Blockheads, you had Squeeze, Paul Weller and fuck, who else? They were all supporting their thing without kind of any sort of apology – I loved that. Loved it.
What does your daughter, Gypsy, think of the new album?
I’m sure there are families that are like,“Where did you come from? You have no genetic reference to me at all,” but this one came out of me a carbon copy. When she heard the album she said, “Mum, you’re not old-fashioned anymore. I can hear this played on Nova or on Fox.” Yeah, maybe if it had been recorded by someone 25 years younger than me – but that’s OK, I’m all good with that.
My husband is a filmmaker so together all three of us colluded. I told my husband, “Maybe we should do a Black Keys sort of version of ‘Lonely Boy’ – you know the video where they have a static shot of this really enthusiastic person performing the song? We thought Gypsy could sing the song as me; just do it in one take. She said, “Yes, Mum. That’s how we will get it on Nova – because you need a younger person to sing your songs.”
I used to work for a radio station where the mantra seemed to be “too old, too old…” but if most people think back to their teenage years, they were keen to explore the music of generations gone before.
I was 13 when I got Golden Years by David Bowie, and I absorbed Kate Bush – who must have been in her twenties, but I was only a teenager. Again, it’s this bureaucratic vision of the industry being funnelled. I think focus groups and surveys have no place in the music industry. You need to let the people themselves tell you what they are choosing. I listen to Triple J a lot because I feel that if there’s a war going on, then they are still winning.
You just beat your drum any way you can. Robert Plant released that album Raising Sand with Alison Krauss that I really love. And I was actually inspired by that album for Kensal Road, because I wanted to be in their place – they sounded like they were truly enjoying themselves and they weren’t doing it for anyone else’s satisfaction, to tick off the boxes. T-Bone Burnett did the production on that. When we produced this record, I was there to say, “Less compression, I want more noise, I want more atmosphere.”
You sing a line about watching people watching you – are you really studying the audience?
Oh, I am looking at them probably more than they are looking at me. I love watching people watching music; I think they are fascinating. You can tell a lot about a person’s inhibitions – or lack of – based on how they are receiving music. It’s very unexpected, there will be some people in the crowd, you are certain are not enjoying themselves, and there are the one who will came up to the line-up afterwards, saying that they had a spiritual experience. I am not very uncomfortable with attention anymore, though. I’m probably least comfortable with my body these days.
You have a fantastic body. I’ve noticed that in interviews with you, you tend to bring up your age or appearance, as though someone else will otherwise.
It’s weird… after all the years that I’ve been photographed, it now conflicts with the way I see myself. I’m coordinating costumes, minimal costumes, but with kind of a theme, for Kensal Road, and I’m really interested in fruity colour and piling up on jewellery, and enjoying that kind of real femininity again. I love decorating my body, I just don’t like being photographed as a body.
Tony Bennett said the best thing – and my ambition is to grow up to be Tony Bennett – he said, “There’s no such thing as good or bad music, and there’s no such thing as aging music either.” That takes a lot of self-confidence to be able to state that, and to truthfully live it. I think I’ve done my mid-life crisis, between 38 and 43. I was grieving for a loss of a certain identity I’d created for myself.
My favourite artists growing up were Roberta Flack, Joni Mitchell… and they only got more and more interesting as they got older, so with them as my mentor, I reckon aging is going to be really easy.
My manager, he’s such a bloke, such an Italian man, and he has a stable full of women – and we all drives him mental. From Paris Wells, to me, to KT Tunstall, his new signing, we cover a spectrum of difficult women, of all ages. He often makes a comment, “I wish I had you when you were young.” I understand what he means – there’s a moment in a person’s career when you are discovered and it only happens once. And I understand when it happens… it’s better than any drug that’s ever been invented. It takes you to a place that is so far from life. It’s inexplicable. It’s like one thing exploding into another.
He just wished he’d been there, because I think that what he’s trying to say is that now we are in the process of endurance. It is a difficult thing to state because there’s actually no word that’s not going to sound like it’s awful. All I can say is that I forgive him for that because I can understand. I know he always thinks all the things we could have done. But I am quite happy, I am actually quite happy.
Tracks like ‘You And I’ on Kensal Road sound quite like they belong in a musical. Have you ever tried your hand at writing a musical?
I’ve written portions of one with someone I worked with on South Pacific – Eddie Perfect. I’d love to have his acid wit. If he was like the Woody Allen of my generation, I would just want to know that I was like the Judy Davis of his cast. He wrote a song I performed, which I gave to the label. The chorus is “Heartbroken girls are getting thinner every day / Ladies in love are getting fatter” – right? And he was using this metaphor of how the way women love is identified within our bodies, and he was so on the fucking money. He says, “But that doesn’t matter / There’s just more of them to handle…” He just takes this sacred cow and elasticises it… and coming from my mouth, I never felt more powerful. It’s one of those things that I hate acknowledging in myself – that when I’m out of love and distraught, my life force just leaves me, and when I’m in love, it’s like, “God! Where did these kilos come from?”
[With the potential musical] I’m just doing sessions to sharpen my pen. I went from a very dialogue-heavy collection, which I was writing with people like Eddie Perfect and the guys from the Bamboos, with a theme of iconic women. I wrote about Joan of Arc, writing songs as if I was them. I loved that project and I don’t know where it will end up, but there are about 80 songs. You get on a roll!
You played Mary Magdalene in the 1992 stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar...
That was so important to me. Yvone Elliman, in the original film, was from Hawaii. I’m watching it as an 11 year old in the ’70s, and coming from white Australia, I identified with her. I thought, she’s from Hawaii like I am, she’s Eurasian, and she’s singing the song I would love to sing.
It planted the seed to allow myself to imagine that I might be able to do music as a career. Because, god help me, I had no other talent. It was either become a stripper, become a singer, or a drummer in an all-girl band – which I’m working on now.
Because you do drum, don’t you?
Wait… what do you mean you’re working on an all-girl band?
I’m in the very embryonic stage of creating a foundation, which I’ve called ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ because it’s about passing down wisdom from experienced artists to young artists. I want to find a funding body that can afford to fund artists like meto take a young artist on tour with them. The artist interns under the senior artist and learns about stagecraft, lighting, budgets and touring. Already I’m taking on two girls – one of whom is a young artist on Triple J Unearthed and the other who is just a lovely singer – who have struggled to get gigs. Getting a fan base is the most important thing an artist can get in their career. And you can’t do that virtually. I mean you can, but you don’t know who exactly is following you and whether they buy your work.
So now I’m virtually in an all-girl band, because [on the Kensal Road tour] we’re all singing and one of the girls is playing.
So we’ll start to see some Ceberano Jrs running around? What will you teach them?
There would have to be a certain etiquette in this mentorship – the younger artists should be taking notes and absorbing. The girls that I’ve taken on board have enough person initiative to show that they don’t need to be babied. And if I yell at them for not playing the tambourine correctly, they’re not going to cry. (Laughs)
I used to do flamenco dancing and I often found that the senior dancers were very wary about passing on certain tricks. They would show you the steps, but they wouldn’t show you how to put it together, as though they were maintaining their own immortality. There was a pecking order, but it seems to have been eliminated in this country, but that’s what we need more of, in my opinion. I would love to be a fly on the wall with an act like Clare Bowditch and just quietly observe the way she works. There’s something undignified and unromantic about just being coached as to how pop music works. You earn your stripes and you earn your right to roar.
When you were just starting out you were supporting the Divinyls… and as Chrissy Amphlett mentioned in her memoir, she kissed you – in quite a threatening way.
No, she didn’t just kiss me, she raped me. And she rang me about that when she was writing her memoir, to ask me if she could put it in. She said something really fucking powerful. We talked about the pecking order and she said, “I was really threatened by you when that happened.” She was talking about when I was discovered. I was the new kid on the block – I was a teenager – and she’d been working really hard to be who she was. She was really kinda powerful, she knew that. And then at the club late at night, she just started on me… It’s still in my dreams. Taking my things, interrupting me… really just like a bully in a schoolyard. Because she was my hero, I was so savaged, I just burst into tears like a baby.
She knew what she was doing, but to her credit she said, “All these years, I have very few regrets about the way I lived my life. I have one regret and that is I did something to you I’ve never really forgiven myself for.”
So with the mentorship, I don’t feel obliged to be kind and supportive of the kids… I don’t see it like that. I want to promote art, and the truth behind life on the road. When I did a lot of her support, at the time there were only three or four women touring. So I was watching her on the side of the stage.
So she mentored you in a way by just performing.
Well, she did. I watched her throwing her body about with no fear of consequence on the stage. I watched her attacking men in the front row. And I got a great deal of courage. So she wrote that in her book and I do feel connected with her – and I feel that I forever will.
I'd love to see a laneway named in her honour. She is a fierce and potent example of women in rock’n’roll, and we can only hope to live up to half of what she is and what she meant to the industry. She fought for her place and she won it and she kept it.
We have AC/DC as our mentor of Australian music, but that first Divinyls album is still impregnated into my DNA. It certainly inspired me to be the kind of performer that is very immediate. Chrissy was very able to respond appropriately, she ‘stage crafted’ – that’s what it is. What I love most about these people – and even myself, if I was to admire anything – is the kind of live tools we live on, on the road. And there’s no one who could do a better show than those people.
Given that you were discovered as a teenager, how have you managed to avoid the pitfalls of the industry – the drink, the drugs, the public humiliation?
There are many reasons why I didn’t fall into the pitfalls of what can be called rock’n’roll suicide, I actually don’t have the personality to go that hard. Maybe I am too ambitious… I don’t know how to describe it.
In one interview, Adam Ant, who is bipolar, describes his doctor telling him his symptoms. He replies, “Yeah, but that’s everything you need to be a pop star.”
(Laughs) ADHD has probably put me on stage, and then I have just been the happy Hawaiian. I have more energy than most people – that’s true of my brother as well. I can simply live my life by my choices. I think that the path that I travelled – and the path of Scientology, I might say – is very connected to Buddhism. I think that there are multiple dynamics of life that all support each other, that are essential to have in good order so that everyone can survive.