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australia week: a loud call from down under

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australia week: a loud call from down under

It’s 1981. Olivia Newton-John, already a household name thanks to her performance opposite John Travolta in ‘Grease’, spends 10 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with the suggestive pop anthem ‘Physical’. The album of the same name peaks at #6 on the Billboard 200 and is later certified double platinum. Six years later, in Olivia’s native Australia, a popular young soap star named Kylie Minogue is coaxed into a rendition of the Little Eve classic ‘The Loco-motion’ at a charity benefit with her fellow ‘Neighbours’ cast members. Her recording of the song becomes the highest-selling single of the ’80s in Australia and spawns a recording career which has seen her thus far sell over 60 million records, a large chunk of those sold throughout the UK and Europe.

Newton-John and Minogue are no doubt two of Australia’s biggest musical exports, but they do not even begin to scratch the surface in terms of the breadth and depth of female talent currently on offer from those distant shores. Sarah Blasko, Holly Throsby, Lenka Kripac, Sia Furler, Kasey Chambers, Missy Higgins and Lisa Mitchell are just a few of the names who have made or are beginning to make an impact both in Australia and overseas; some of them criminally overlooked by the Australian media (Furler), others earning their place among the most sought-after live acts (Blasko). Perhaps now more than ever independent Aussie females are making their mark on the international circuit, and making the Australian music industry sit up and take notice.

Within the mainstream, too, things are looking promising. The Veronicas have just earned a number one single in Ireland with their electro-pop swinger ‘Untouched’ (having already hit the top 10 in the UK and top 20 in the States), Kylie is about to embark on her first ever US tour, and then there’s young Gabriella Cilmi. In spite of criticisms that her sound was largely an imitation of Amy Winehouse, Cilmi last year hit the upper reaches of the UK charts with her irresistibly catchy debut single ‘Sweet About Me’ and subsequent album Lessons To Be Learned. She was rewarded for her efforts with six Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) awards, including nods for Best Female Artist and Single of the Year – a phenomenal achievement for a 17 year old.

Without belittling Cilmi’s success or doubting her talent, her ARIA wins follow a disturbing trend within the Australian music industry of rewarding its female musicians only once they achieve international acclaim. It is worth noting that Cilmi won the accolade for Best Female Artist over Holly Throsby and Clare Bowditch, both of whom, from a critical perspective, offered more established albums last year, and that Adelaide-born Sia, whose third album Some People Have Real Problems (deemed “[2008’s] first great pop album” by Slant Magazine), wasn’t even nominated. The industry’s indifference towards Furler is somewhat baffling, given her continuing critical and commercial success in the US in particular. But it seems even there the tide is turning; Sia’s recent Australian tour was a big success, suggesting there is hope for her to gain the hometown recognition she deserves yet. 

 

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The icons: Olivia Newton-John, Christina Amphlett, Marcia Hines, Kylie Minogue

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The soap stars: Dannii Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia, Delta Goodrem, Holly Valance

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The new visionaries: Sarah Blasko, Holly Throsby, Sia Furler, Kate Miller-Heidke

 

Indeed, female artists are becoming much more of a drawcard for Australian audiences than they have in the past; in 2007, the organisers of the prestigious Homebake festival bravely marketed the year’s festival as the ‘Ladies Domain’. Headlined by the irrepressible Christina Amphlett of the Divinyls, along with Sarah Blasko, Missy Higgins, Operator Please and others, the event was an unprecedented sell-out, proving that Australian audiences were just as interested in their female charges as they were in AC/DC, INXS and Silverchair. Amphlett is often credited with leading the way for Australian female artists who did not fit the passive, safe, pop prototype. In an era where the two most popular Australian females were Newton-John and disco diva Marcia Hines, who was voted ‘Queen Of Pop’ for three successive years in the mid-1970s, Amphlett broke the mould with her aggressive, sexually charged performances and intimidating stage persona.

Despite the controversy surrounding ‘Physical’ and its accompanying video, Newton-John’s image was ultimately wholesome and clean-cut, as was Hines’s; Amphlett’s was anything but. Her howling vocal style was hardly technically sound and her wild stage shows became notorious – she is reported to have urinated on stage several times in the band’s early tours. (No footage of this has been produced, although when asked about the claims years later, Amphlett conceded that it was possible given the intensity with which she performed). As the frontwoman of Divinyls, one of Australia’s premier rock bands, Amphlett enjoyed considerable success on the domestic front, earning four top 10 albums and several hit singles. The band would later find success internationally with their ode to female masturbation ‘I Touch Myself’, which hit the top 10 in the UK and top 5 Stateside. Their reformation for Homebake 2007 was one of the biggest musical events of the decade.

In the wake of Kylie Minogue’s success, a host of Australian television personalities tried their hand at a music career, with varying degrees of success. Few have been able to replicate Minogue’s career path, though Holly Valance managed to score a #1 hit in the UK with the ridiculous ‘Kiss Kiss’, and Minogue’s younger sister Dannii, who appeared on rival soap ‘Home & Away’, has impressively had more consecutive #1 hits on the UK dance chart than any other artist – including, surprisingly enough, her sister. It came as quite a surprise, then, when Natalie Imbruglia hit the top of the charts around the globe with her cover of little-known band Ednaswap’s song ‘Torn’. Imbruglia’s sound owed more to the confessional singer-songwriter stylings of Alanis Morissette than it did to Kylie’s dance-pop, but for a while Imbruglia was the bigger star, a favourite among critics and fans alike, and winner of the 1996 ARIA award for Album of the Year. While her subsequent releases have not had quite the same level of commercial success, they have been relatively well received by critics. A new album from Imbruglia is reportedly due later this year.

Fellow ‘Neighbours’ graduate Delta Goodrem has also enjoyed considerable success since pursuing a recording career. Signed to Sony Music at the tender age of 15, Goodrem received a lukewarm reaction from Australian audiences for her debut single ‘I Don’t Care’. A few years later, having taken control of songwriting responsibilities and built up her profile through ‘Neighbours’, Goodrem achieved phenomenal success with her debut album Innocent Eyes. The album sold a staggering one million copies in Australia and would later make its mark in the UK charts, peaking at #2. While Goodrem was plagued with negative media coverage in Britain following her romance with Brian McFadden, ex-flame of Atomic Kitten’s Kerry Katona, in Australia she quickly became a media darling. Her girl-next-door image ensured universal appeal, and when she was tragically diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma shortly after the album’s release, the public support for her was overwhelming. She has since recovered from the illness and continues to achieve multi-platinum sales. While her attempts at cracking the US market have thus far proved fruitless, this has perhaps been more a result of record label hesitation than the quality of her music.

 

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The personalities: Lenka, Clare Bowditch, Butterfly Boucher, Kasey Chambers

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The young guns: Missy Higgins, Gabriella Cilmi, Lisa Mitchell, Bertie Blackman

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The bands: Little Birdy, The Grates, The Veronicas, Spinnerette

 

In terms of the current musical landscape, the two most exciting Australian female vocalists are arguably Sarah Blasko and Holly Throsby. Blasko released her third album As Day Follows Night only 10 days ago, debuting at #5 in the ARIA album charts – her highest charting release to date. Recorded in Stockholm, Sweden with Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn & John fame, it’s her first album to be entirely recorded overseas and we can only hope that exploring her range with European producers could provide the quirky songstress with an opportunity to crack the elusive international market. Throsby also recorded her third and most recent album A Loud Call overseas – this time in Nashville with producer and engineer Mark Nevers of Lambchop. Complete with a Will Oldham duet, the album sounds more accomplished and confident than Throsby’s earlier work, with Nevers’ production adding an extra dimension to Throsby’s sweet, melodic songs. Like Blasko, Throsby’s determination to experiment with and expand her sound could pay dividends around the world.

And Blasko and Throsby are not the only promising young women flying the Aussie flag. Ex-‘Australian Idol’ contestant Lisa Mitchell has also been working with a host of songwriters in the UK and released her debut album Wonder in the UK last week. Butterfly Boucher finally overcame contract wranglings with Geffen Records to release her long-awaited second album Scary Fragile at the beginning of June. Former Decoder Ring singer turned solo artist Lenka has been making waves in the US and Europe with recent single ‘The Show’ and self-titled album, and has become a favourite and fixture on the schedule of Hollywood’s influential Hotel Café. And on the band front, Brisbane trio The Grates are about to release their second album Teeth Lost, Hearts Won in the UK in September, followed by The Veronicas’ Hook Me Up in early October. A fourth album is expected from Architecture In Helsinki by the end of the year. Howling Bells are about to release their second album Radio Wars in the US. And let’s not forget the true nationality of Spinnerette’s Brody Dalle – her music may be as American as you can get, but she’s a Melbourne girl at heart.

Waiting in the wings for their international breakthrough moment are Western Australian rock outfit Little Birdy, fronted by gifted singer-songwriter Katy Steele (sister of Luke Steele from The Sleepy Jackson and, latterly, Empire Of The Sun). The Perth-based band has been scoring rave reviews for their latest effort Confetti, an album which flirts with folk and even country, but at its heart is simply Australian rock at its best. Meanwhile, Sydney’s Bertie Blackman has scored universal critical acclaim with her recently released third album Secrets & Lies, on which she boldly traded her love of guitars for a more electronic sound. Once again, her bravery could see her earn the overseas recognition she deserves. A host of others, such as the fearsomely talented, Christina Amphlett-influenced, opera-trained Kate Miller-Heidke, are also preparing their work for international release. Judging from the huge success of Miller-Heidke’s recent UK tour, labels will be scrambling to add her latest album Curiouser to their schedules.

The Australian music industry has come a long way since the 1980s, when Kylie and Olivia helped to generate international interest in Australian culture. The ladies making their mark on the international scene today are indebted to Minogue and Newton-John, but also have their own distinct sounds which have won them legions of fans both in Australia and overseas. As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, it will be interesting to see how Blasko, Throsby and their all-female army fare in the overseas market, but only the harshest critic would doubt their potential to achieve success. After all, these women represent a new generation of Australian female artists; aware of what has become before them, but consistently looking toward the future.

Dane Hodges


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