Paul Kelly says you're both feisty and insecure and need a lot of reassurance.
I think that goes for most artists. I think that'd be what you'd say about most people in showbusiness. It's a state-of-the-art thing for most people in the public eye.
I imagine the greatest reassurance you get is when you walk out on stage and perform and you get feedback. What do you actually get from an audience?
Well, it's instant response so it’s always lovely 'cos you find out immediately how everybody feels. It fuels the performance, so it's good.
What if it's a cold night and people are down in the dumps and you don’t get that feedback – can it be an uphill battle?
It's never happened mate [we laugh]. Never happened, and that’s the truth. It's what I do, it's my job, it's what I bring to the table. I bring my talent and that’s why people come out and see me and it usually does the trick.
If an audience doesn’t come in the right frame of mind how do you woo them?
I don’t really do anything. If I had to do anything I wouldn't be very good at it. I just perform. And my performance fuels their behaviour. What I do on stage is what they’ve come to get; it's a happy crowd because I’m giving them what they want. That's the way I look at it. So far, that's what’s been going on.
Renée sings Love Don't Live Here Any More . . .
You’ve said you shouldn’t be afraid of mistakes. Great strengths in a career come from making mistakes.
Yeah, but not everyone knows what a mistake is. You have your own version of what a mistake is. The audience doesn't necessarily have to know it’s a mistake. You do what you do and you take care of your situation as you do it. The audience receives it as is, as the final presentation, and that's what they’ve come for. All the other stuff is just what I have to do to get it out there. And that just comes naturally. It's just what I do.
And, bigger picture, what about mistakes in your career?
Everybody has those. Of course! You know, I can’t list them or name them, you know, but everybody has them. Everybody, you know, fixes things up as they go. It’s your career, your journey through life. And there's no such thing as no mistakes. Everybody has them. It’s how you deal with them and how you move forward after them –that's the most important thing. That you carry on.
Like the time you've spoken about when Polydor wanted to release your album without your picture [many in the US market thought she was black because of her soulful bluesy voice and Polydor feared a sales backlash, similar to the young Elvis Presley]. And you said: "No, I’m gonna put it on."
Yeah, that was a silly thing because it would've probably been a good thing to not have it on there, to get more of an audience, and then they could've found out everything later. It was just a silly decision on my part but there's a mistake . . . you learn . . . as you go.
Yes, it was a business decision but also by sticking to your guns it was a personal decision. You were saying "This is who I am, take me for what I am . . ."
Yes, but I could've proved that in another way and I could've had more success at the time if I hadn’t made that decision. It was a silly thing to rush into because probably more people would've heard about me if I'd gone along with it. And I could've sorted it out later on. But, again, these are things you learn as you go on your way.
I don’t wanna harp on your mistakes but I just laughed when I read you sang the Liberal Party theme song in an ad and then thought "No, maybe that wasn’t so wise". I mean, you’re not even known as a Liberal supporter!
Well, I don’t even talk about that. No one knows if I am or not, frankly And I don’t discuss it. I learnt not to discuss that sort of stuff. I’m a singer and that's the only thing of interest to my audience as far as I’m concerned. So I don’t consider that a mistake. That was just a decision I probably would've handled differently in retrospect. But I don’t regret it. A mistake is something you regret and would never do again. As long as you learn from it, that's all. That's the most important thing.
It's definitely still a man's world, but that doesn't affect my career. I just do it, regardless of whether it's a man's world or not.
Renee sings It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World in 2006 . . .
Is it as much a man's world now as it was when you started out?
Probably. I’m sure it is but I’m at a different level now so it doesn’t really affect me as much, and that song itself helps me sort of get through the man's world because I’m singing about it being a man's world.
You see, man made the cars to take us over the road / Man made the trains to carry the heavy load / Man makes the electric lights to take us out of the dark / Man made the boat for the water like Noah made the ark / This is a man's, a man's world / But it wouldn't be nothing / Without a woman, a woman or a girl
So it's not really an issue for me. Yeah, it's definitely still a man's world but it's not affecting my career at all. I mean, I just sing for men and for women and music is the great leveller, nothing else matters when it comes to music because it speaks to everyone. It sidesteps all that political stuff and what things look like and what they're meant to be. It's music and it either affects you or it doesn’t. My audience loves the music. I just do it, regardless of whether it's a man's world or not.
"All modern music is shit, but my daughter's shit is the best!"Edward Geyer
No doubt one of the most important men in your world was your Dad who said that wonderful line: "All modern music is shit, but my daughter's shit is the best!"
Yeah, well. There it is [laughs]. There's nothing more I can say to that.
Your mother was a Holocaust survivor and you would've grown up with an awareness of what she suffered. How did that shape you?
It didn't really. We didn't really talk about it when I was little. It was more when I was a bit older we got into it, so it sort of became a reality when I was a teenager and after. The knowledge of it was rather a big thing but it wasn't something that coloured my world because my parents had kept it from us when we were littler. They didn't want us to be part of that stuff. I think they handled it pretty well. We knew what was going on but we didn't live it every day, you know?
One of the themes in your previous interviews is the constant message you give yourself of sticking to your guns. What sort of pressures do you encounter these days to compromise?
Well [intake of breath], it's not really something like a mantra I have to repeat to myself. I just do. It's just something I do naturally, you know? I don't know how to do anything else. To me it's just the natural way to be, whatever your morals, or the way you wanna live your life. It's not about having to stick to your guns, you just do. Because that's what it is. There's no alternative to me. There's no choice in the matter. I don’t know how there can be a choice. It’s not about saying to people "I'm sticking to my guns", it's just I seem to stick to what I believe in and that's easier to do than not.
You're making more decisions for yourself now. You said back in the 1970s and 1980s you had management . . .
I've had management all the way up to the '90s. I always shared decision-making. No one's ever been the decision-maker for me. I’m too bossy for that. There's no way.
So why did you ditch the management?
I never ditched the management, I chose to just have an agent. I didn’t consciously decide to start making my own decisions, I was always my own decision-maker and shared it with someone who was more knowledgeable about the business, in the early days, so I just didn’t seem to need it so much later. It was the natural course. It wasn't that I ditched anyone it was just that these were my options and I just went the way I felt the most natural. But I've always had an agent. An agent's always been responsible to find me work. You can’t exist without that.
What will you do for the Christmas shows at The Basement?
Who knows! I never know until I get there. I'm there every year between Christmas and New Year's and I just do whatever's on the table at the time. I'm not even sure of the lineup. It could be anything. It could involve all sorts of old material or new things. It just depends what I'm doing at the time and I never know till I get there. People know me well enough not to assume what I’m about to do because it's always different. And they know not to ask because I don't know myself until it unfolds, until I get up there in front of the audience. Sometimes I just call it on stage. The band know I just call the set as I see it. And that depends on what the audience is like.
What contemporary artists are you listening to at the moment?
At the moment it's just been busy and I’ve been working on my own stuff so I haven't had the luxury of that, but I always go back to my R&B favourites, Aretha, Al Green, Billy Preston, Ray Charles, Nina Simone. They're the staples I can go to if I want to have some enjoyment. But there's not so many new artists . . . I always listen to new artists when they get put in front of me, and I'm always interested, and it's always a fun thing to do, but for my own personal enjoyment I go back to the old R&B greats.
You've said you can’t listen to Aretha so often because she's so strong.
Well, yeah, she's very influential. So one keeps her in the drawer until one wants to have a bit of enjoyment. Then one listens to her, then puts her back in the drawer [laughs]. She's very valuable, so one must handle her with care! ❏
■ Read Ian's other interviews and reviews:
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