Kate Ceberano talks longevity, romance through song & an absolute thirst for music

What do you ask an artist who is not only so prolific and influential, but an incredibly assertive, humble, and passionate talent? How do you discover, or even uncover something new about an artist whose career spans over 30 years? These were just a few of the thoughts bumping into the edges of my mind as I prepared for my interview with the one and only, Kate Ceberano.

Music journalism in itself is as much about the process of discovery as it is about passionate storytelling and in talking with Kate, creativity, passion and an absolute thirst for music was the very backbone of our conversation; something that I’ll carry with me in my back pocket for many a year to come.

In the lead up to her performance at the Adelaide Fringe Festival tonight (March 10th) and on Saturday, I spoke to Kate about this passionate writing process, her absolute thirst for music, and overwhelming lust for life, all of which, were so incredibly infectious.

You’ve been playing and performing for such an incredibly long time, most recently you’re about to play at the Adelaide Fringe Festival on the 10th and 11th of March, what’s keeping you so passionate and keeping you doing what it is that you do best?

Well I think first and foremost it’s because I’m a musician. It’s part of my DNA… You never really feel like you’re arriving at any particular point. It’s more like you’re heading to understand more about yourself and others through your music. I reckon that’s the thing that keeps you in the business for the longest time; your songs may date and you’ll date obviously, you go in and out of vogue, but because your primary interest is being a musician. You can never ever drink long, enough or deep enough from that cup. You’re just constantly thirsty. (Laughs) It’s just so true! Ask anyone that works with me; I’m just incorrigible, I can never seem to get enough or discover enough.

I love that you mention it’s part of your DNA! I always like to ask artists why is it they like to play music, and that sentiment is so much a part of their answer. It’s just who they are. It’s as if it’s coming out of every single pore of their being almost.

It’s inexplicable, you can’t really find out where it begins or where it ends. You just know it is. You also unfortunately know too, and it happens with a lot of great artists, that you may discover that you just don’t have it. They don’t have the driving force to help them recover from failure and help them to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after landing flat on their face which is inevitable. If you have a 30-year career, there are many things that are going to go right but there are many things that are going to go wrong too! (Laughs)

Have you ever had any sort of an inkling of, “Maybe I can’t do this”?

Oh, you do all the time. It’s unfortunate, but part of the nature of an artist, is to be self-doubting. I wonder actually if we’re built that way? We strive to either control or repair or predict how we might feel about something and we’re constantly asking those pointed questions like, “What are you, what are you trying to do here, and do you think you’re doing it well enough?”. There are some days you know it’s really quite satisfying to find out you weren’t crap and then there are other days where you get off stage and you go, “Oh yeah I was definitely crap tonight!” (Laughs)

One of my most favourite quotes from you, is; “I’m in need of no one” – featured in Her Sound Her Story, curated by Michelle Grace Hunder and Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore. Is that something you’ve carried with you from the start of your career to now or is it something that really developed over time?

I do sometimes truly feel that and then there are other times I think I just say it out loud in the hope that I’ll feel that way. I know that it didn’t start that way because I was always so greedy for approval. I kept asking other people for the longest time, “Am I good enough? Is this good enough? Will this work?” Eventually I realised that no one could really ask the question other than me. So in the end it was inevitable I had to be satisfied with my own answers on that.

There’s this incredible sense of assertiveness to you which is so infectious and I’ve always wondered, was that always there or did you cross that line like you said and say this is who I am?

Aging is a natural bonfire for vanity, you have to throw off all the things that are bringing you down. Fortunately, and unfortunately as well, as women we have a lot more to throw off along the way. (Laughs) You sort of burden yourself with a variety of things especially women in the arts. There are so few of us that actually survive.

I always wonder if it’s because the boys tend to be more communal? At least the ones I’ve known always seem to have a little mob. But of the women I’ve actually travelled and walked this path with, like Chrissy Amphlett or Renee Geyer or Wendy Matthews, or even Kylie for that matter, we always seem to be, for a lot of the time, alone.

It’s funny, in the last two days I sang to about 30,000 seniors. I was singing a song and it struck me, that I was only just now, (because I’m 50 now), just at the right age to even understand what the song was about. You can only understand love from all angles once you’ve kind of hit 50 and beyond. Up until then it’s like improvising, you just bring it on. You truly understand the nature of love from 50 onwards, I think, because suddenly love means many things. When you can learn to love the things about you, or the things you’ve hated all your life, or the things you wish you could change, and you can just say, “You is what you is”, that’s going to give you a lot of strength.

Speaking of love, particularly as a part of song writing, there’s usually a common theme running through your songs about love and romance. What is it about songs and song writing that make it so easy to talk about love in a way that you can’t do during a normal conversation?

I know, isn’t it amazing! It’s one of the art forms that’s the most exposed in terms of how vulnerable the artist is who’s delivering the conversation. In many ways you’re kind of wearing your heart on your sleeve or this open wound, and you’re doing it for everyone. It’s kind of gorgeous in a way. For us, we can put it on and take it off (hopefully), but for the audience, what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to lift them by matching an experience they’ve had or move them out of this feeling that they’re the only one.

I feel like that’s exactly why we seek out and find those songs too.

Exactly!

Asking ourselves, “How is it that I’m feeling? Please somebody feel the same as me.”

Exactly right. I have a personal theory about that. It’s like you’re meant to be a bit of a sonic mirror. As an artist, your part of it has to be selfless. If the artist gets too much in the way then we don’t look at ourselves, we’re simply looking at the artist. That’s not interesting to me. I prefer it when the artist is throwing up this moment for you and you get lost and transported.

I think these songs become so much a part of our lives and become those missing pieces along the way, and really become associated with those feelings about what’s going on around us.

That’s definitely true. Some artists actually even resent the fact that some of their songs become notorious, the ones that they’re often asked for the most, they kind of begrudgingly roll their eyes and exhale and kind of, “I’ll do it but I don’t want to have to sing that song again”.

I’ve interviewed a lot of artists about that and I ask, “Why are you so upset that this song is so beloved?”. They say so often, “Because it’s not my favourite”. But by doing that, you begrudge all of these millions of people who have these moments attached to that.

Does that then factor in for you personally with what songs you put on your set list?

All roads sort of lead back to “Bedroom Eyes” for me. (Laughs) I hated that title then and I still hate it now, it’s not a phrase I think I’ve ever used in my life. It’s not something in anyone’s vernacular, for that matter. What I love though, and this is what I’ve learned to love about it, is that in 1980, there was this kind of post punk British pop scene happening. Coming out of that, there was a lot of reggae and ska music which I actually really love. Artists like UB40 and The Specials, it was sort of this British take on Jamaican music. The fact that I still get to play some pop reggae and people still find it completely adorable is always going to be great. It’s lovely.

Do you have any surprises up your sleeve for your Adelaide shows? For example, not many people may know, that you’re actually a phenomenal drummer. Is that something audiences will get to see over the next couple of days?

The Fringe offers the artist an opportunity to indulge a little bit. It’s a great time. I do a lot of corporate work because my daughter is in high school now and, in order for me to be home, I take a lot of those big corporate gigs. For me to settle into my own original music, just with my band and deconstruct it a bit, will be really great. In the great words of Brett Whiteley – he’s a painter from Sydney, “You have to violate your own comfort”. It’s going to be very intimate.

I’m going to go and get back into my own songs, and get back into the songs I’ve been writing as of late but, there will be hits as well. The audience won’t feel like I’ve neglected them. The Fringe is a beautiful chance to kind of reboot and recalibrate… The audience is informed to just take a big giant chill pill and don’t judge just enjoy.

I love that you mentioned writing new material as well which is always exciting to hear from any artist, what was the last thing that inspired you to write something?

I had this most delightful invitation by Steve Kilbey from The Church and another friend of mine Sean Sennett and they’re both writers, and we’re all living in different states. They sent me all of this poetry and I just composed all of this music for them, and… I love these songs… A lot of my history, the music I was listening to as a kid ranging from the Beatles to Bowie and beyond have influenced the composition on it. I’m very inspired by it.

I love it when a colleague or a peer says, “What would you do if you weren’t you, don’t do this as if it was for you, do it for something broader”. Because then suddenly, you’ve got no barriers, you just go for it! I’ve really enjoyed that process.

Finally, do you have a particular sentiment that you’re really living by at the moment?

…I think it’s a bit like, “surprise yourself” you know? Don’t be so easily pleased, and work hard.

Kate Ceberano plays in The Garden of Unearthly Delights at the Magic Mirror Spiegeltent on March 10th and 11th – grab tickets and further information here.

Image supplied by Tasha Curato.