In an industry where young singers are too often lauded at the expense of their older counterparts, Kate Ceberano has proved to be a stand-out exception.
Much has been written about her: starting with her upbringing in suburban Melbourne, the daughter of an American father of Portuguese-Filipino descent and an Australian mother whose forebears were among the country’s earliest settlers.
As a teenager Kate worked as a back-up singer with The Models, before finding fame with funk band I’m Talking. She went on to play Mary Magdalene in the stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar and later, Bloody Mary in South Pacific. Kate hosted her own late night cabaret-style show on ABC TV, was a judge in the inaugural season of X Factor Australia and won Dancing with the Stars.
She worked as a TV travel show presenter, co-wrote her memoirs, raised funds and awareness about breast cancer, was crowned Queen of Moomba and sang the national anthem at the 2015 AFL Grand Final. Along the way she’s also found time to raise Gypsy, her now teenage daughter, with husband Lee Rogers, who is a film producer, writer and director.
You might say Kate Ceberano has done all right for a girl who left school at 15. So what’s still on her ‘to do’ list? She shares some insights with Rosemary Desmond.
Has turning 50, which is a milestone for most people, made any difference to the way you look at your life or your career?
I think I’ve always been fairly courageous but a little bit stupid. Sometimes I’ve struck out and gone and done things very enthusiastically, and then thought: ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’. I feel like reaching 50, half a century not out, is a time to relax and have no regrets. If you are going to do something and you do it, well great, you did it, so what? So you don’t just sit around and discuss it and analyse why you should not have done it and who would have done it better. You lose that comparative analysis when you are comparing yourself to others and other types of protocols... you are free in a way. I remember seeing my grandma, because when we were children, we thought 50 was ancient and when my grandma was like a geriatric at 40 in my eyes, because she had grey hair... what I remember most clearly about her was that she was completely free to do what she wanted to do, she didn’t seem to be hinged to anyone or anything. I like to think it’s the new 30... it’s whatever you want it to be, that’s what 50 is. I’ve seen some pretty old 30-year-olds in my time and I’ve seen some pretty juvenile 60-year-olds who could do with being a bit more mature. To me as a musician and as an artist, I feel I might have come into my time.
It seems you have been something of a ‘free spirit’, leaving home at the age of 15... why did you do that?
Because I couldn’t drive then and it was the only way I knew I could actually pursue my passion (to sing).
You sing soul, jazz as well as pop, so what is your favourite style of music?
I never want to commit. I certainly go through different phases and there are different trends, depending on how old I am. Certainly in the ’80s, pop music was what I was interested in because that’s how old I was at the time. Very unusually, I started off with jazz as my first love and I don’t know why. I spent four months of my life at high school at home with glandular fever. I watched midday movies avidly and I think I was just completely in love with musicals of the 1950s.
You’ve been acclaimed for your voice... have you had any formal training as a singer?
I tried as a kid but because I was so interested in so many things at a time, it frustrated the teachers. I remember going to a guy at the Victoria College who was a renown opera coach and he asked me to make a choice there and then. He said: ‘What are you going to do – are you going to be an opera singer or are you going to be a pop singer?’ I didn’t want to commit at the time and so I said ‘hmmm... not sure.’ He said: ‘Out! I cannot teach someone who doesn’t know’. In a way I was relieved that he’d kicked me out but I wish now I’d had the sort of musical training (opera) singers have... they teach them languages, written music and scores and how to read them. They altogether become much more intelligent musicians and I feel that I am an intuitive musician.
Do you think it is particularly difficult for women to remain at the top of their game because of the culture of youth and beauty?
Our bodies have a shelf life, so you either have to be prepared to find a dream or an occupation that isn’t solely reliant on your vehicle, which is your body. You have to stay committed to keeping it dynamic and strong and healthy and to a degree, I’m very committed to keeping it healthy but I can’t keep it thin because it’s just not interesting to me and I can’t keep it young because that’s just insane and it doesn’t work that way. So I try not to trick myself into being anyone other than who I am and I just have to work harder at loving who I am.
Do you have any career goals you have not yet accomplished?
I’ve a big goal to somehow stay in the business and to be relevant as best I can. I love being able to present new music. I like writing songs and I like writing with great writers. The people I admire are George Harrison, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Bruce Springsteen. What I love about them is they are so true to their art form. They don’t falter in the face of age.
Do you think you would have another go at cracking the American market?
I really would love to work that out. There was an artist named Sharon Jones who
just recently passed away. She was a big inspiration to me. She was always a great singer but from 50 onwards, she started a career that blossomed internationally and part of the beauty of her success was because she was 50+. We shouldn’t be so surprised. The majority of artists who have been loved in their lives are all over 50 now – John Farnham, Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – he was singing until he was aged over 70.
How important is your charity work?
I think it is a necessary part of what we do. If you can be of use to the community around you, then you should and when I’m asked, I help wherever I can. I’m glad I can help and give back and secondly, I think if you can be exploited for the right reasons, then you should.
This article by Rosemary Desmond originally appeared in the April/May 2017 edition of 50 something magazine.