June 09, 2012
Christine Anu channels Aretha Franklin to get her own bit of respect, Cris Kennedy writes
With her 1995 album Stylin' Up, Christine Anu made her name as a singer with a bright future. While the album had a hit with the fun song Party and the gorgeous Monkey and the Turtle, based on a traditional story, it was her cover of a song written by Neil Murray of the Warrumpi Band for which she is still most known.
With her Torres Strait Islander heritage, Anu made My Island Home her own, and touched an emotional chord not just with an indigenous audience but greater Australia. The song is still in high rotation on commercial radio, Anu sang it at the Sydney 2000 Olympics closing ceremony, and after a long day of interview for her current project one gets the impression the dozen or so journalists she has spoken to before me may have mentioned it a couple of times. Anu has parlayed the profile the song gave her into a full career in the 15 years since, from film appearances (Dating the Enemy, Moulin Rouge, Matrix Reloaded), television work (Pop Stars, Play School, The Wiggles) and a number of extended seasons of theatre (Little Shop of Horrors, Rent). She has released four albums since, and stands as one of our most successful indigenous performers, a role model for all young Australians looking for a career in the performing arts.
Anu is currently touring the country with Rewind … The Aretha Franklin Songbook, playing Friday at the Southern Cross Club. The show was her manager's idea, after Anu had talked about wanting to get back to performing live, but the impetus for this tour came when her 2010 single Come Home failed to chart. ''A lot of money went into that to no fruition,'' she says, ''so I guess I wanted to go hide out doing other things.
''I could be singing My Island Home until I'm 80, but this is such a departure, such a tonsil and lung workout, it's a chance for people to see me in a different light,'' she says. ''She crossed so many genres, an Aretha set list is so varied and different it gives me a chance to demonstrate how far I've come as a performer. I want people to see that I'm more than just one song, but a singer and an artist with the talent to sustain a career.''
The show includes performances of Franklin's signature songs Respect and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, and Anu is releasing an album of these songs to coincide with the touring show. Her publicist has posted a few tracks from the forthcoming album online for me to listen to before our chat. Respect and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman each has a fresh interpretation in a slightly higher register than Franklin's. I'm a real fan of what she has done with Since You Been Gone, and I want to know whether it's hard to put a new stamp on songs when audiences might expect her to stick close to Franklin's phrasing and style. ''You've got your own personality and uniqueness and you need to give that to the song,'' Anu says.
''When you've got a song like (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, which was written for Aretha by Carol King, asking how you can make it your own is a very important question,'' she says. ''There have been highs and lows in my life and while I don't have a career as long, there are certainly enough experiences to look back and draw upon, parallels in my life experience you can use to connect to a song. I find all you need is to be honest and truthful and those notes come from somewhere,'' she says.
Anu sings for me when she is explaining how Franklin took works of other artists, like The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby. She becomes Franklin, stripping the hook from the familiar song and giving it a gospel feel, and it is obvious that she is not only a great student but a great fan.
''I love everything she's done,'' she says.
''She is able to work across every genre, her singing changed pop music and I've fallen in love with her all over again … She doesn't read sheet music but watching old clips it's fascinating watching her listening to the musicians and singing little interjections between the gaps and when her notes come they just explode.
''I'm not trying to be a technician in the way I perform [this show],'' she says, ''but the truth that people hear night after night I'm sure has silenced my critics.'' Critics, I ask. Surely not the lovely Christine Anu. ''Everyone has critics, otherwise you'd be living in a rose-coloured-glass world,'' she says.
''I'm gonna be realistic about that. Not everyone's going to love you, and if my whole career is going to be judged on that one song, at least they love it.'' I'm a fan, and I tell her as much. I'm excited to share that only in doing my research for this interview did I realise Anu does the vocals on one of my favourite songs. The song in questions is Now Until The Break Of Day, where Baz Luhrmann cast Anu as the Faery Queen from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. YouTube it. Amazing. ''That was an interesting experience,'' she says, ''and all of these experiences inform each other. As an artist you need a change of pace to refresh yourself, fill yourself with something new.
''Right now I am channelling Aretha which is full-on and what I need, so I'm not even thinking about the future.''
Rewind … The Aretha Franklin Songbook plays Friday, June 15, at the Southern Cross Club, Woden