"The Indians are the Italians of Asia...They are both people of the Madonna - they demand a goddess, even if the religion does not provide one."
Gregory David Robers, Shantaram
Up until recently, Australian rock and pop was dominated by the concept that a musical act was generally a group of mates rocking out with their cocks out. Even today, the idea of a solo artist is more the exception than the norm in a country where the collective of mateship remains stronger than the individual.
The 80's music industry was a world where the number of female acts (musos or singers alike) was positively miniscule in comparison to the number of men in the industry.
Kate Ceberano was arguably the first of the local goddesses that the Australian public were demanding. She was still a teenager when she broke the mold by straying from the group I'm Talking that had established her as a female vocalist to be reckoned with.
In those early years of her career, she quickly established herself through a combination of likeability and genuine talent. But there was something that separated her from the others.
Australia had already claimed Olivia Newton John as their own, and later, Kylie Minogue who arrived in 1987 would eventually earn the title of Pop Princess, but ONJ and Minogue were never really part of the Australian music industry. They were Australians who were loved more for the success that they achieved outside of Australia. And in the case of Minogue, it was a hard earned love. Australians en masse loved her as a soapie star, but resisted her musically until she had been indoctrinated by Michael Hutchence and blessed by association with Nick Cave in the 1990's.
Ceberano, like a handful of other local artists (Renee Gayer, Chrissie Amphlett among them) was genuienly a muso in a muso's world, and this laid the foundation for her acceptance by the Australian public. But whereas the trajectory of Geyer and Amphlett's career were linear, there was something about Ceberano that seemed to fight the idea to conform.
Part of Ceberano's charm was that she was always thoroughly, a suburban, down to earth girl. Her charm continues to see her through bad career decisions and creative missteps, but it has to be said that there is an underlying appreciation in her willingness to constantly stray at a musical level, to actively sabotage herself at a business level, sometimes in aid, and sometimes in opposition to her own artistry.
This was evident right from the beginning. I'm Talking were an arty pop-funk group that grew out of Melbourne's burgeoning dance scene in the mid 1980's, and as their lead singer, it was assumed that when she stepped out solo, that she would build on from that foundation. But in 1988, with the accompaniment of Wendy Matthews, Ceberano released You've Always Got The Blues, a curveball release which quickly established her as an Adult Contemporary fave. It seemed she was distancing herself from her roots, but in fact, she was broadening herself, as just a year later, she released her benchmark Brave album, brimming with pop, dance and funk covers which screamed "Pop!" and dominated the mainstream for a year.
Brave could have been, and should have been the start of a long run of pop-dance hits, but it seemed Ceberano had no intention of following that route.
In yet another of her trademark curveballs, she seemed to defiantly go back into the direction of jazz, deeming a release with her own septet, Like Now, complete with cubist inspired cover art, the only logical way forward. And here in it became established that Ceberano's every move could only be unpredictable (she followed it with the criminally ignored Think About It; another pop album experimenting with textures and sounds which more than occasionally were house oriented).
The constant to and fro, and shifting of genres and audiences probably created a patchwork fanbase that could never really unify musically, but it also served as the basis for a sort of longeivity, where there was no longer any sense of how contemporary or relevant she was. She simply was, and if she recorded something of interest to your specific tastes, then you could be pretty much guaranteed that the quality, intent and soul where all there for the taking.
Those jumps in and out of different musical worlds occassionally yielded huge commercial and critical gains, particularly in the early 90's when she hosted her own acclaimed television series Kate Ceberano and Friends which was commemorated with a sensational soundtrack, wowed audiences with her turn in the arena style Jesus Christ Superstar revival, all the whilst continuing to record and perform live with her own band (alternating between her own septet and the Ministry of Fun).
But during the 1990s, mainstream interest in her began to falter, allowing her to experiment with her songwriting, secure in that she still had a record deal, but without the pressure of needing to produce a hit to remain in work.
Another commercial resurgence came for her in the form of Pash and its massive success alongside the accompanying compilation album True Romantic seemed to reinforce the genuine affection Australian audiences hold for her, as would again be demonstrated when she won her season on Dancing With The Stars.
But I'm fighting the fight for Kate not because of her occassional commercial endurance, but instead for the fact that she is something of a one of a kind. In Italy, people are always asking me about Australian artists, particularly female singers. Aside from the Minogues, and the new generation of acts such as Sia, it's Ceberano who always comes to mind, not because she is consistently brilliant (she's not), or not because she's got a mystique (she's as suburban as they come, but in the best possible way)...it's because in many ways, she has carved out something of a European style career for herself. She's unafraid to really dabble, to push herself. She has created a singular niche for herself, but the goodwill of her public is genuinely wider than the arc she herself has sketched for herself.
Where she lets herself down, is in the latest arc her career has taken...somewhere along the line, she or the people behind her seem to have lost their faith in her own creativity, and have instead pushed her down a line of covering other songs, standards, that allow us to enjoy her voice, but frustratingly, don't give us any sense of where she is at on a personal or artistic level. And although hers has always been a career where dalliances in other people's music have often reaped rewards, its telling that her last spectacular release was the self penned The Girl Can Help It (2003) which, perhaps by not reaching a significant mainstream audience, crushed the last strands of that sassy, self assuredness that set that original train on its unpredictable course all those years ago. Search it out. It's a spectacular album that personifies her talents much more so than Brave or even True Romantic ever did.
To give you a few more clues on how thoroughly good she can be, I'm grouping some of her best songs into the two divides that she has since established for herself. Covers and Originals. Check them out and fight the fight for Kate.
Bedroom Eyes, Love Dimension (1989) from Brave. Intelligent pop, the soundtrack of 1989.
Everything Will Be Alright (1991) from Think About It. Hard to find, but a fabbo uplifting house number.
All That I Want Is You and Love and Affection (1994) from Blue Box.
Time to Think and I Won't Let You Down (1999) from True Romantic. Latter covered by Zucchero (RANDOM!)
Sunburn from The Girl Can Help It (2003). One of her best. The sound of a late Australian summer afternoon.
Beautiful Life from The Girl Can Help It (2003) from True Romantic.
Young Boys Are My Weakness
Feeling Alright, I Can't Make You Love Me and The Cake And The Candle from Kate Ceberano & Friends
I Don't Know How To Love Him (a very special performance ;) )
Love My Way from Nine Lime Avenue
Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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