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Angie HartAngie Hart - About her career - Theage.com.au Interview
Monday 10 September 2007, by Webmaster
Fifteen years after Frente made her famous, Angie Hart is back in Melbourne and back on the airwaves. She talks to John Bailey about starting all over again.
The final song on Angie Hart’s new album, Grounded Bird, is also her personal mantra: "Start my day with an open hand/I accept whatever it has to offer me." Beneath it all, there’s a whispered chorus: "Get back on when I fall off. Get back on when I fall off."
Hart has been through marriage and divorce, two band break-ups, two international moves. She even gave up on music for several years. But the angel-voiced singer has no regrets. Well, almost.
"Kelly Street is a big one."
She’s referring to Frente’s 1992 hit Accidentally Kelly Street - still one of the most memorable Australian melodies of the past few decades, and the song that made her a household name and almost broke her. The song’s video, specifically, caused the trouble - a DayGlo extravaganza of big props and zany performances.
"To this day, I have trouble smiling in photographs," says Hart. "I like smiling, I smile a lot, but I’m so afraid of that part of me now!"
Perched on a couch on the porch of her Brunswick East home one bright morning last month, the smiles come easily. The black, cropped hairstyle of the Frente years is now a loose blonde shag. She sports a few tattoos - a Piscean fish on one arm, a pirate ship on the other. Unlike the forced sunniness of Kelly Street’s video, the real Hart’s smile is cast in more nuanced hues.
Grounded Bird is Hart’s first solo album - after almost two decades in the business. It’s been a long journey for the singer, now 35, but her voice is instantly recognisable - childlike, but with a worldly edge.
And there’s the accent. These days, the proud Australian accents of singers such as Missy Higgins and Sarah Blasko are common on the airwaves. But, when Frente burst onto the scene, "Aussie voice", as Hart calls it, was something new.
Hart was just 17 when she began her musical career, being often kicked out of the Punters Club by barman Simon Austin. Hart’s sister Rebecca was also working at the Punters when Austin began looking for a singer for a new band. Even though Rebecca was a musician, she nominated Angie - then with no real singing experience - for the job.
There was no audition. "We just sat down and started talking and it happened. It was a very good apprenticeship."
That’s the Hart of today talking. Back then, she was bad, and she knew it. She cried after every show for the first six months. She knew people were approaching Austin and asking when he’d find a new singer.
"I don’t think I looked at anybody when I sang, and didn’t move an inch." But Frente soon won a loyal audience, helped in no small part by Hart’s distinctive voice.
A self-financed EP scored heavy airplay for the song Labour of Love, as did follow-up hit Ordinary Angels. Accidentally Kelly Street was the first single from the group’s debut long-player, Marvin the Album, and the pressure Hart felt - still just 20 years of age - was enormous.
That was where Kelly Street proved a catastrophe. When it came to producing a video for the song, Hart says, "I really felt like I had to perform. On stage I don’t move at all, but, in front of a camera, I thought that’s not enough."
Kelly Street had been written by Frente bass player Tim O’Connor who, says Hart, had gone through rough times and emerged with the upbeat song.
"I just really misjudged what that song could have been. I think the best way we could have done that song is to perform it quite darkly. But everything about it was shiny and golden and it became saccharine."
The song was the band’s biggest success and, like many crossover hits, took them to an entirely new audience. It was played so much, she says, "that it took away from how simple and lovely it was".
Pete Luscombe, the drummer on Grounded Bird, has known Hart for 15 years. "When I first met her, she was probably the victim of that backlash you get when you have your first hit record. You’ve got half the population singing your praises and the other half wanting to bag the shit out of you. She’d just turned 21 and it was one of those situations where I thought she was getting a little crucified. We just became friends because I was older and figured she needed an ally in the industry."
Frente spent so much time touring internationally, says Luscombe, that every time Luscombe saw her "she was stressed out and on the verge of some kind of meltdown".
One of those tours was a two-week gig supporting Alanis Morissette on her Jagged Little Pill tour of Canada. It was there that Hart met Morissette’s guitarist Jesse Tobias. They married shortly after.
"It was terrible!" Hart says. "We had a great musical relationship, but not such a great relationship together. It was destined to end at some point. We had what I guess you would call a very transformational relationship. We did the hard yards."
Frente had just broken up. Hart and Tobias were 25. They’d been touring like crazy. They came off the road and settled in LA and got married a month later. They "did everything at once and fell apart together", says Hart.
"Both of us, personally, had a lot of stuff to work out in relationships so we tried that out on each other and...learnt a lot."
She formed a new band with Tobias, Splendid. The challenges the pair faced musically didn’t help things on the home front. The record company "were 100 per cent behind us and put so much money into (a record)", remembers Hart.
"And then (they) dropped it like a hot potato right before we were going to release it. The company folded. I’d put so much into that record and I guess had so much hanging on it, for myself. I waited all summer for the head of the record company to call me and give me a yea or nay, and they didn’t call for three months. And then they called and said it’s not going to happen. By that stage I was insane."
Hart walked away from music. She got a job with a jeweller - her first "real" job since she was 16 - and worked there for several years. But she realised something was missing.
"In my relationship, I think things were exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t have a community."
She found the beginnings of that community during a short-story course at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was there she met Kai Cole, her "first Melbourne kind of friend in LA".
Melbourne kind of friend?
"She’s very different to people in LA. She drinks, she’s pasty; she had green hair at the time. They kind of became my family over there."
’’They" being Cole and her more famous husband Joss Whedon - creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hart’s association with Whedon introduced her to a whole new world of fans.
Hart and Whedon co-wrote a song for the show, and she appeared on Buffy three times.
"I guess I was very privileged because he gave us great air time on the show. When I did my solo song with him, I guess that was the beginning of my solo career. I had the whole opening shot for the whole song. It was incredible."
Ironically, given its famously soulless character, LA was also the place Hart found time to develop her spiritual side.
"It’s funny because it’s such a spiritually devoid place and yet it really thrives there. So many people are doing amazing things with meditation and yoga and all sorts of things."
Defamer Australia’s blogger Jess McGuire is one of Hart’s closest friends. She moved to Melbourne from Sydney around the same time Hart arrived from the US, and a sense of dislocation was their first point in common. She agrees that Hart’s spiritual side is one of her strongest features.
"I always call her a bit of a naive hippie like that. But she’s very intuitive and spiritual. She’s doing a really good job of taking the things that are difficult in her life and turning them into something beautiful and something she can grow from."
Most obviously, music. Those difficult times are there in Grounded Bird: on Sand, Hart sings, "Nothing ever works out the way I planned/Life is a mandala made of sand/I’ve been doing the best I can/And now I’ve gotta start all over again."
Luscombe says that the intimacy of Hart’s writing is obvious in her lyrics.
"When you know the personal details, you can really tell exactly where they’re coming from. She can’t help herself: that’s the way she writes."
McGuire agrees. "I remember the first time she played me Sand, with that line, ’Now I’ve got to start all over again’, you feel exactly what that’s like. She left a marriage and moved back to her home town after nearly a decade away. And she’s trying to fit back into life here."
Returning to Melbourne two years ago was tough. During the nine years she lived in LA, visits to Melbourne were holiday time: "I’d just drink and eat pies and chocolate and go crazy. So when I moved back here, I just indulged in everything."
That’s where the song comes from, she says. It was all too easy to come home and over-indulge. But, from the song’s opening lines, you know it’s not a celebration of high spirits: "My year of drinking started with you/My year of drinking ended without you."
"I’m just working out how to be in Melbourne now," she says.
"Coming back here, she’d just come out of a nine-year relationship," says Luscombe. "And she was a little bit shell-shocked.
’’At first, there was an enormous sense of relief, and then she realised she had to rediscover herself."
McGuire says that her friend’s sense of humour has helped them both through hard times. "She’s got a really wrong sense of humour. No matter how dark it’s ever been in both of our lives, if we’re sitting there exchanging sob stories, we’d still be doing it while laughing. Tears in the eyes, we’d still be making the world’s worst joke about it and finding it completely hysterical."
"In the time that I’ve known her," says Luscombe, "she’s probably happier now than I’ve ever seen her."
"I kind of forget that she does music," says McGuire, "because all the other reasons to love her are so amazing. One day we were walking down the street and she started singing, and I turned to her and said, ’You’ve got a really nice voice! You should think about maybe doing something with that’."
And she has. Again.
"Get back on when I fall off. Get back on when I fall off."
A guide to the Aussie singing voice
It was there from the beginning of Angie Hart’s career: when the chorus of Frente’s first single lamented the "labour of love", it was nothing like the "luuuurve" that gets so much airplay. It was a distinctly Aussie "love" - a "lahv", even.
That’s Aussie voice, and though Hart denies that she paved the way for songstresses with noticeably Australian accents, she’ll admit that she’d "be glad if that was the case".
Not that there’s one accent we can call Australian. Nobody has had a hit featuring an ocker Steve Irwin-style accent - at least not since the days of Mark "Jacko" Jackson’s Strine-fest I’m an Individual. Equally, the increasingly rare "educated Australian" accent - think Judy Davis or Geoffrey Rush - has long been AWOL from the airwaves.
But what the experts call "general Australian" can be heard in the songs of female artists such as Kate Miller-Heidke, Sarah Blasko and Missy Higgins. On the male front, Paul Kelly has always stuck to his guns.
Technically, Australian accents are non-rhotic - you only pronounce an "r" if a vowel follows, so Higgins’ hit Scar becomes "scah". Diphthongs are usually flattened, which is nothing to do with Aussie footwear, instead referring to the way complicated vowel combinations are made simple. What the Queen knows, she "kneeuuws". Blasko, on the other hand, "knooows".
For listeners raised on the transatlantic accent most mainstream US music employs - and which doesn’t really accord to any spoken American accent - Aussie voice can be an unexpected surprise, even harsh on the ear. For some artists - especially Aussie hip-hop acts - this shock value has a political edge. Why, they ask, should an Australian accent seem out of place to an Australian ear? But, for most singers, it’s less an act of defiance and more one of honesty. As Hart says, "I just wanted to sing like I speak."