Kate Ceberano: 40 Years, 30 Albums, ONE HELLUVA SHOW

By Ley Shoemark

Australian treasure, Kate Ceberano, has forged a heck of a career. She has spent 40 years in the record industry with a staggering 30 albums to her name, ten of which hit the top 10, with 11 platinum albums, 8 gold albums, 15 Top 40 singles, 4 ARIA Awards, and 19 nominations to boot.

It’s a heck of a career, alright. But Ceberano is far from done.

I was thrilled to talk to her about her 30th album, the celebratory My Life Is a Symphony, and her subsequent tour and Canberra show. After all, there’s plenty to talk about.

Ceberano is marking the mighty milestone in style, having recruited the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra no less. A career retrospectus of sorts, it’s a varied tracklist featuring well known hits as well as some hidden gems.

Of course, such an endeavour isn’t the case of simply slapping orchestral instruments atop established songs, as the veteran Ceberano well knows.

“I have worked with symphony orchestras throughout my career,” she tells us. “The fundamental difference, this time, is I have approached it in more of a bespoke way.

“Orchestral arrangements are naturally a big task. You try to project yourself into a future crowd, to see if people will enjoy listening to those songs in that setting. Will they like the songs with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra? Or am I just taking a great big ego trip?

“Professionally, you take the leap of faith when making an album like this,” Ceberano continues. “I’m so happy with the result. The response to the tour indicates people are open to the experience, which has been intense to put together, and I’m beyond excited.”

I suggest to Ceberano that it’s her career, after all, and with 40 years she can damn well do what she wants. While she was unsure about the album’s reception, she needn’t have worried. The metamorphosis of fun, power-pop classics into sweeping orchestral delights is a joy to behold.

Of course, she couldn’t undertake such a venture alone, with Ceberano enlisting only the best and brightest to work on such an important endeavour.

Roscoe James Irwin is a genius,” Ceberano says, of the singer songwriter and her arranger/composer. “This young adult is so old school, and when preparing [My Life Is A Symphony], I told him I wanted to incorporate different influences, from West Side Story to Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory and everything in between.”

For Ceberano, it seems like Irwin was the natural choice.

“Irwin and I have met in different places over the years,” Ceberano recounts. “He was an artistic director for James Morrison at his Jazz Academy in Mount Gambia, which is where I first met him.

“He was the music director for The Cat Empire and did arrangements for The Bamboos as well, so Roscoe has come from a background with a mixture of funk, pop, and jazz, at the highest levels.”

One of many massive hits for Ceberano was 1999’s energy filled single Pash. On My Life Is A Symphony, the song has transformed into an intimate love song which is, frankly, remarkable.

Ceberano is equally blown away by the result.

“With everything I have experienced throughout my entire career, I still have moments where I think, ‘Wow… Is this really happening?’,” she says. “I still ask myself if I am deserving of this; of the nostalgic beauty of this version of Pash.

“It ended up being Pash that I asked (arranger) Roscoe to incorporate some West Side Story influences; that ‘girl from the wrong side of the tracks’ vibe. After all, that’s basically what I am!

“So this version of Pash turned out perfect to me. It resonates, capturing that ‘pinch yourself’ feeling which I still experience.”

Intrigued by Ceberano’s comments, it seemed the time to ask about her upbringing, and how that led to where she is now.

“I had an interesting upbringing,” Ceberano starts. “My father is a Filipino who was born and raised in Hawaii; I guess probably more Polynesian centric, actually. We were dirt poor, and as a child I couldn’t think of anything more remote than a career in music.

“I was raised by a superstar in martial arts. My Dad has the highest rank for his style. Martial arts is similar to orchestras in that it takes discipline, constant practice, and endurance. I was raised in, and surrounded by, a very noble community. We travelled together, and regarded each other as family.

Louise Song, which we have on this album, is about raising a baby in that community.”

I venture to Ceberano that a true artist is never truly satisfied; that music, like martial arts, as an expression is like an endeavour that never ends.

“That’s a beautiful way to put it. I love that,” Ceberano says. “40 years on and I’m still honing my craft. There isn’t a time or place in your career where you’re meant to relax and say, ‘I made it!’

“In the beginning, the destination doesn’t even matter,” Ceberano continues. “You set sail, you discover some great places and great people, and that’s a life worth living. I started out in a band called I’M TALKING which was basically a jazz and dance pop band. We had five Top 10 singles in one year.”

This reflection leads Ceberano to a sudden realisation.

“In fact, I think we’re a little neglected in retrospect, as far as the history of Australian music goes!” she muses. “There’s a lot of focus on the one identity of Australian pub rock, whereas I’M TALKING was academic, New York style jazz and dance music.”

It’s amazing to consider that Ceberano was still a teenager in the late ‘80s when she wrote her triple platinum album Brave, an LP that features the sultry Bedroom Eyes.

“During the ‘80s, we thought we were free. In a way we were,” Ceberano recalls. “But you only need to look at George Michael’s recent documentary and see what he had to deal with; how closeted and ashamed people were made to feel.

“Some of my songs from that album, like Brave and Bedroom Eyes, spoke for a very large community for different reasons. 40 years ago, a lot of young people had not come out, and there were a lot of challenges. The world was different.

“I still love playing Bedroom Eyes,” Ceberano continues. “It’s a very sexy song written by Raymond Jones, the musical director for Spike Lee in New York. He works on Spike Lee’s theatre productions, as well as other projects.”

Now in 2023, Ceberano is chomping at the bit to get playing at much as possible. It’s been a long and arduous road to get here.

“I’d come out of two-and-a-half years of COVID feeling empty,” she reveals. “So much time was lost. It got so bad, I wondered if I’d ever get to do this again, as did a lot of artists.

“I fell ill with bronchitis and also contracted COVID. We had recorded the album before lockdown; it was all in the can the week of Victoria’s lockdown. I was optimistic at the start. But when it came time to do the vocals, because I had been sick, I couldn’t make the notes sound the way I wanted to.

“I was distraught!” Ceberano recalls. “We had to drop it for months while I recovered. We eventually got back into a different studio and had to start all over again.”

Turbulent times indeed, but as Ceberano tours the country with one of her most audacious, ambitious, and joyous pieces of music to date, she couldn’t be happier.

“This tour it’s the greatest thing I’ve done in all my life,” Ceberano enthuses. “It is really one of the most beautiful things that I have done in music. I love this album; it’s got everything for me. The cinema, the magic, the force of the orchestra.

“Melbourne sold out, we announced a second show, and that sold out. I have my daughter on stage with me, I got to recover some songs that had been lost in the past or at the time were outshined by the single releases… This album is authentic Kate Ceberano.”

In closing, she has some touching, fond words for us Canberrans.

“After COVID, the people of Canberra saved my life,” Ceberano reveals. “When we started getting back out on the road, we were doing some smaller shows, just to get back on track. Everyone in Canberra came out after COVID to support me. They are the best audiences; I had so much fun.

“So I cannot wait to get back to Canberra and bring this performance to you.”

And with the fresh arrangement of her songs brought to life by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Vanessa Scammell (Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet), we can’t wait either.

Kate Ceberano’s My Life Is a Symphony tour will touch down at Canberra Theatre on Friday, 15 September at 7:30pm. Tickets are $99–$119 + bf via Canberra Ticketing

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