“One sec darling, one sec,” Tina Arena says down the telephone. She’s been doing interviews all morning, on a public holiday no less, and from the bustling ambience behind her she’s clearly not lolling around in a hammock with a latte to do so. “I’m just trying to put you on speaker phone. ‘Return to call in progress’… Technology ain’t my greatest – I don’t know! I don’t know how we do most things, really, but I think that goes for all of us, right? I’m a little bit guilty of that, putting a lot of pressure on myself. I guess the thing for me, moving forward, is learning how to… just pull back a bit.”
It does seem like something the tireless and revered Australian vocalist might struggle with. Having recently clocked in 40 years within the music industry, she has amassed a staggering record of releases, tours, awards, charity performances and countless appearances. This month she’s performing at the annual Good Friday Appeal, which coincides with the release of her new album Greatest Hits and Interpretations. “I wanted this record to be made because it’s something that I think is a beautiful idea,” she says of the 11-track effort, which features artists including Jessica Mauboy, The Veronicas, Katie Noonan, Ainslie Wills and Jimmy Barnes covering some of Arena’s biggest hits.
“I think it’s really beautiful when you’ve grown up with a song, and sometimes you may not like it growing up but when you get older it may take on something else. There’s all sorts of reasons,” she says of the guest artists and the motivations behind their selections. “There’s been some pearlers. I just let the artist choose what they wanted to do – I put the concept out there, and people embraced the idea, and once the ball got rolling it kind of took care of itself.” Most of the initial logistical concerns Arena stepped back from, because she is keenly aware of her other callings. “First and foremost, I’m a mother, and I have the responsibility of an 11-year-old little boy, who is my priority,” she says. “My family and my partner – his father – they’re my priority, and frankly there are periods where they really stand back and watch me work around the clock, and it can be frustrating for them.”
The teaser video for Greatest Hits and Interpretations is a marvellous collage of Tina’s life in the spotlight, presenting a fascinating chronology from her first singles Turn Up The Beat and I Need Your Body, through smash hits Chains and Now I Can Dance and up to more recent hits like Only Lonely. It must be odd to have such concrete examples of your place in each era and its various aesthetic trappings, but Arena eschews any awkwardness in the name of the greater odyssey. “I think when you’re nearly 50 years of age, you don’t really care about the hair, the costumes, whatever,” she says. “It’s all part of your journey. I don’t believe there’s any individual on this planet Earth that has had an incredibly perfect journey because it doesn’t exist.” And if it did, wouldn’t it be kind of dull? “Yes, life would be incredibly boring, Zoë, if that was the case – absolutely. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a part of it. The hits and the misses and the good choices and the bad hair and everything else are all part of your journey. You go through a lot of different performers’ lives and they’ll all tell you the same story. It’s all part of the process.”
Zooming out even further, Arena also views her journey’s role within the context of her gender and the music industry. She lent her words to the recent Her Sound Her Story photography exhibition and campaign, which highlighted important females in music across the last several decades, and upon her induction into the ARIA Hall Of Fame in 2015 she remarked she wanted “to say to a younger generation of women, ‘This is not just about me, it’s about us, our community; that you can give with strength and dignity’, [and] to say to men, ‘Please don’t be threatened; we need to do this together.’”
The question of mens’ exclusion from feminist discussion sets Arena afire. “It is very, very important, darling – it’s very important that we talk about it,” she says fiercely. “The music industry in Australia, for women, has been a very difficult industry. That is categorical. Women have not been treated equally in the music business. The reason for my comment [to including men] is that I do not have a problem with men – I adore males. I have a lot of really close male friends, whom I adore. I have a partner in my life whom I adore. He is a beautiful man with great empathy, and everything that a person or a woman could ever ask for. So the reason for my comment is that I don’t want men to feel I am attacking them. I want [men] to understand the female perspective.”
Arena describes an in-depth article she read about the musician Ke$ha, whose ongoing personal and legal tribulations with her former producer, including sexual assault, have been displayed through the courts and the media. “The running gags and the commentary that was thrown at her left, right and centre… Nobody deserves to go through that. I mean, Jesus Christ, where are we? The support that she received from Adele and so forth, people saying ‘Stand up for your rights. Don’t feel that you have to be a possession.’ That’s all I’m saying. We’re not possessions, we don’t deserve to be treated like that – we deserve to be treated respectfully.”
Arena’s participation in the Good Friday Appeal – held April 14 at Melbourne’s The Plenary – is something the musician feels incredibly strongly about too, and she’s been a part of the project since she was “a little girl.” “When you’ve got kids, and if something happens to your child, the service that the Royal Children’s Hospital – any Children’s hospital in the country – provides is so pivotal,” she says. “It’s pivotal to the foundation of mankind, really. [We] must do everything in our power to ensure that it continues to evolve, and provides a service to absolutely anyone and everyone regardless of where you’ve come from, what you believe in… it crosses every border for me. They deserve all the commitment that we can give them.”
Greatest Hits And Interpretations is out now via EMI.