Epic highs and lows and plenty of close calls - that's what makes a great memoir, and Kate Ceberano's does not disappoint
The first thing you notice about Kate Ceberano is her energy, which actually sends the atoms crackling as she walks in the room. Flashing eyes, a ready roar, warm and funny – she’s your dream conversationalist.
Now her yarns have been made public with the advent of her memoir, I’m Talking. Named after the band she fronted as a teenager, it’s a rollicking read right from the first chapter – but putting it out there for public consumption is a new challenge that comes with a side serve of nerves.
“I kind of rebelled during the process,” she laughs “I’d get my back up when [co-writer Tom Gilling] would cite or give credence to a journalist for saying something particularly nasty, to which I’d go, ‘Why am I giving him that much space?’ But in the end you’ve got to.”
I’m Talking has all the fabulousness you’d hope for from a star with a career as varied as Ceberano’s – shooting a love scene with Russell Crowe (sort of); winning Dancing With the Stars, rubbing shoulders with Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis in the south of France... There are also many harrowing moments. It’s tough to say what is worse – getting a knife pulled on you, going up against Mark Holden as an X Factor judge, or touring the UK with the toxic Five Star.
On top of this, I’m Talking is a fascinating look at the industry from a woman’s perspective. With the exception of the Divinyls’ Chrissy Amphlett’s Pleasure and Pain, there are few, if any, memoirs by female iconoclasts of the Australian music scene. Amateur music historians may have their minds pleasantly blown reading about the usual big players, but this time through a very different filter.
What’s shocking is how young Ceberano was when she first started out: a good 10 years younger than her peers. The original #dreamchaser never finished high school, choosing to find her fortune in night clubs. At 16 she joined Expozay (“we looked like Saturday Night Fever meets The Breakfast Club”) and then defected to I’m Talking – who pioneered New York-style art pop in Australia during the Jurassic Period of Pub Rock. (The band name was even a nod to Talking Heads.)
Ceberano was grateful that her myopia meant she couldn’t see the audience when she was on stage, but off stage, she was free to make many glorious faux pas. In the book, she recalls an incident when she was 17: “We sat down for an interview with one of Sydney’s hippest music critics. ‘You’re so young to be touring with these guys,’ she said. ‘What are your impressions of Sydney versus Melbourne?’ I told her, ‘In Sydney they have these great toasted ham and cheese fellatios.’ She hesitated, wondering if I was pulling her leg ... ‘You mean focaccias?’ she asked. The others were rolling around laughing. ‘Yeah,’ I said.”
Then there’s the story of Chrissy Amphlett trying intimidation tactics on Ceberano at a nightclub: stealing her drinks, verbally baiting her and then smacking a hard kiss on her lips to seal the deal.
At the 1986 Countdown Awards, one of INXS swiped Ceberano’s shiny new bauble from her table when she wasn’t looking and presented it to Jenny Morris, who she had been up against.
“That hurt,” Ceberano admits now, although she became mates with everyone in latter years. “It was only in the telling of the story I felt sad for myself, because it was my brother, Phil, who retrieved it and put it back on the table without me even knowing. Just the fact that he had done that, you know what I mean?”
The same night, Michael Hutchence scaled the outside of the Cosmopolitan Hotel and passed out on her balcony. The next morning, Ceberano scrambled for something sophisticated to say – and failed – and cowered at the idea of being seen going down to breakfast with him.
“I recall overhearing Richard Lowenstein and Michael being asked, ‘What have you guys been up to?’ and they snickered, ‘Oh, corrupting Kylie.’ The idea of people mocking me like that, I couldn’t have coped with it. Although they did anyway – I just didn’t hear about it, that’s all.”
Surely, though, everyone thinks themselves to be a bit of an imposter?
“I’m pretty sure we all do,” she agrees, “but some people camouflage it better than others. There was a girl on the scene at the time, who used to make songs as well, and the world came to her – she didn’t go to it. By contrast, I had to impose and impinge and try to make an effect.”
That’s not to say Ceberano wasn’t fiercely competitive, as she describes quite frankly through her rivalry with I’m Talking co-frontwoman Zan Abeyratne – quite why the band needed two stars, Ceberano couldn’t fathom.
“You are propelled forward by your own ambitions and the circumstances surrounding them,” she says, “and some people get left behind and others get intentionally forgotten. I would say in Zan’s defence, she would have well forgotten me before I forgot her. There was no way of softening my competitiveness during the writing of the book. I’m a creature born to entertain, I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be heard.”
Scattered throughout the memoir are many coulda/woulda/shouldas that might have set Ceberano’s life on dramatically different courses. Take her meeting with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. He flew her to London and put her up in a five-star hotel, before telling her in the studio: “I’ve already had you, I don’t need another one.” He’d deemed her too close (in voice? In colouring? In hair?) to Annabella Lwin, the frontwoman of Bow Wow Wow. Does Ceberano think it’s still the case that record companies have a quota of women they need to fill – and no more?
“I think women in pop today are being programmed to be like men,” she counters, referring to the aggressive sexuality of Rihanna, P!NK and Beyonce. “It’s too long since we’ve had a Dusty Springfield, or a Billie Holliday, Patsy Cline. We haven’t got a broad enough pallet.
“What is being allowed to go forward into radio programming is so adversely influenced by another’s hand that we only ever see copies or pale comparisons. Sia, for instance, is a phenomenal artist, but her most intimate work doesn’t get played on the radio – it’s only when she works with David Guetta.”
On that note, I say, I often automatically assume there’s a man behind every woman in pop. I love Lana Del Ray, but I assume some bloke’s writing her lyrics about being a Lolita with a pussy that tastes of Pepsi Cola.
“You’re probably thinking it because it’s true,” she says. “The only one that seems authentic currently is Lorde because she’s still young enough to be surrounded by parents instead of publicists.”
She laughs uproariously, then reflects: “It doesn’t change as you get older. At the age of 47 I had a whole album’s worth of material I had been writing for [2013’s] Kensal Road, of which only two or three were used. The rest were supplied by the label. Industry people are like busy bees, cross-pollinating everybody. But when you cross-pollinate too much, everything tastes the same. It would be nice to find the Carol Kings.”
Ceberano’s career has now spanned over three decades, but as you might imagine, the ’80s in particular were a blur of fantastic excess. When the drinks started to be free and she was able to shell out on an Alfa Romeo Spider (she didn’t have a garage, but she was a big fan of Fellini films, so what the hell), did she adapt to that lifestyle quickly?
“Yeah!” she rejoins. “The ’80s were insane. They were a bubble that inevitably burst, but we didn’t give a shit. But someone has to pay for it. You can work really hard and you can put everything you make into the centre of the table, but if you’re not managing it, everyone can take some – and before you know it it’s all gone. But I learned about the economy. I don’t think any kid is going to know much about economy these days with credit cards and whatnot.”
The Ceberano tale is far from over – in the past few weeks she’s performed with Gurrumul and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and she’s currently working on the program of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, as its ongoing Artistic Director. I’m Talking, she says, is merely the story so far.
“It’s a rollicking read, but it hasn’t come to its conclusion yet,” she says. “I felt like I was full, but this book cleared off a lot of noise for me and right now I feel like I could fill up chapters again.
“I would perhaps like to be fashioned into something more heroic next time.”
I'm Talking is published by Hachette on March 25.