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Christine Anu On Stylin Up, Passing The Baton & Revisiting Old Stomping Grounds

18 February 2023 | 10:21 am | Cyclone Wehner

To celebrate Christine Anu's performance at St Kilda Festival today, Cyclone Wehner caught up with Anu for some sensational stories.

Christine Anu

Christine Anu (Source: Supplied)

Christine Anu is a pop trailblazer. In 1995 the Torres Strait Islander presented a debut album, Stylin' Up, merging hip-hop, R&B and house with her own culture. It might be the missing link between Neneh Cherry's 1989 debut, Raw Like Sushi and The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill.

This year Anu intends to release her first major body of work since 2015's live ReStylin' Up 20 Years – and it's promising to be her most personal. Indeed, Anu calls it "Stylin' Up's older sister."

Today Anu is Zooming from her current base of Rockhampton, on Darumbal Country, in Central Queensland – where she moved in December 2021 to care for her mother. Vibrant, and candid, Anu remains busy with a multi-faceted career – which includes a longtime hosting gig on ABC Radio. And, still gigging, Anu is preparing to perform at St Kilda Festival.

Stylin' Up

Anu was an accidental pop star. Following high school, she studied dance at NAISDA (the National Aboriginal And Islander Skills Development Association), a performing arts college established by the African-American Carole Johnson in Sydney. Anu commenced in 1988 – the year of the Australian Bicentenary and a tipping point for First Nations activism. "I was 17-years-old, going on 18," she chronicles. "I'd just left home, making my own way, on my own, with my own funds, living in a city where it was really changing. The political voice of First Nations people was pounding harder and longer and louder. And, oh, what a time to be developing myself – you know, finding my identity and consolidating that for myself!"

Anu was encouraged to venture into music by Neil Murray – the former Warumpi Band guitarist her champion. Anu's first music gig was as a backing vocalist in his touring band The Rainmakers. Yet a "gracious" Murray allowed Anu to sing lead on some numbers – one Warumpi Band's '80s My Island Home. Anu remembers feeling trepidation, My Island Home a campfire fave. "Looking out at the sea of faces, there was a certain type of ownership about that song – 'That's my song, that's our song, you shouldn't be up there singing it.'" But Murray, as the writer, reassured her. "He said, 'It's a story – these are stories, every song we write are about stories that come from out there and they come through us and they gently belong back out there again.' So just make it your own while you can.'"

Performing with The Rainmakers led to Anu becoming a recording artist. "I jumped into the deep end – I said, 'Well, why not?'" She signed with Michael Gudinski's Mushroom Records – which coincidentally had enjoyed global club success with Yothu Yindi's 1991 hit, Treaty (Filthy Lucre Remix). Mind, that transition into an artist wasn't automatic. "There was a major discussion because Gudinski needed to know, 'Well, what type of artist is she? 'Cause she's come from a bloody dance background and we've signed her as a music artist – like what do we know that she can do?'"

Murray helped out. He was in the studio cutting his own LP These Hands and suggested that Anu demo My Island Home. Gudinski, she relates, "loved it". Anu found herself on Mushroom's imprint White Label, conceived for the "alternative" Hunters & Collectors. As such, she and her Melbourne producer David Bridie were granted "a lot of creative leeway." But Anu's personalised Island Home became the album's "cornerstone". Still, the lead single from Stylin' Up was Monkey & The Turtle – referencing Anu's own heritage.

In the '90s Bridie was best known as a member of the outfits Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend The Chocolate Cake, not a soundtrack composer. "He's a beautiful lyricist; poetic." Crucially, Bridie had liaised extensively with musicians in Papua New Guinea, affording Rabaul's George Telek an international platform. Anu recognised an affinity. "I thought he'd absolutely understand and get the language down pat – this is the guy that will be able to pull all of the ideas out of my head and translate them into that first album Stylin' Up."

That Anu pioneered a homegrown hip-hop soul was serendipitous. She saw Stylin' Up as part of her cultural progression as an Indigenous dancer, rather than any reinvention as a singer/rapper. "The ideas for the album were plenty," Anu starts. "I guess the thing was that there was no wrong way to do this album. The most important part of putting this album together, and curating what would appear on the album, was the producer and that person's creative sensibilities to my cultural background, but also how that would be the engine room of what the album's full fundamental meaning would be about – which was language-driven, story-driven; about family, about culture. All of those things needed to resonate. And that's off the drawing board – the non-existent drawing board because we weren't aiming for a 'hip-hop' or 'soul' or any genre-type of sound.

"It couldn't possibly be that – because we don't have hip-hop in our culture. We don't have any of those genres (laughs). Genres don't exist. Music exists. Musical expression is what exists. Telling stories has always been done through song and dance. So that needed to be reflected in the album.

"It was all gonna be culture-based – reviving culture, restoring culture, surviving culture, but bringing people together to make sure that there was a place, and a space, that will feel safe enough to produce and create but keep the culture alive and ongoing."

Besides, Anu flexed a B-girl's attitude, repping for Blak women. "Stylin' Up was such an important phrase for me to take ownership of for the album because you're big-noting – and, especially if you're a woman, it was never encouraged," she explains. "'Big-noting' is the harsher version of just being proud and confident, but not arrogant. You were always reined in if you were 'stylin' up' too much… And I thought, No, but women need to possess that attitude of 'I love me – I am stylin' up because I can.' So I wanted to take that back and say, 'I'm stylin' up.'" Nothing epitomises this spirit more than Party.

Yet Stylin' Up had sombre lyrics, too – Come On "a song about breaking the cycle of alcoholism." For Anu, it's all still poignant. "I think about, now that I'm back in Rockhampton looking after Mum and stuff, all of those stories that informed Stylin' Up, they came out of this environment that I go out into every day when I see Mum's face, you know?"

Stylin' Up would be a pop success – Anu was nominated for multiple ARIAs in 1995 (she won "Best Female Artist" with Come On the next year). The singer refers to 1993 to 1996 as "the years of the Anu explosion." Regardless, she recalls being upbraided for her use of archival recordings – which hurt. "It hasn't always been smooth sailing from the community," Anu sighs. "The community aren't always the people that fly your flag the highest – that's just a generalisation." But she was hailed for her performance of My Island Home at the 2000 Summer Olympics Closing Ceremony.

Enter The Stage

In 2000 Anu followed Stylin' Up with the pop-soul Come My Way, covering UK starlet Zoë's Sunshine On A Rainy Day (beloved by Carl Cox and Eric Powell). Three years later came the funk-rock 45 Degrees. But, instead of consolidating her music profile, Anu expanded into other creative areas, notably acting – another mode of storytelling. Anu scored a part in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (she also contributed to his eccentric pop opus Something For Everybody) and The Matrix Reloaded. Primarily, Anu has acted on stage, particularly in musicals. Anu starred in the original Australian production of Rent. "It would have been nice to have gotten chunkier roles in movies," she divulges. "Having appeared in blockbusters is great – it looks fantastic on the résumé – but they were only really small 'blink-and-you-miss-it' moments." More recently, Anu relished participating in the sketch show Black Comedy. Plus she's embraced reality TV, showing up in The Masked Singer Australia. "I look back now, I'm just smiling because, gosh, I've done quite a bit of a cross-section of things!"

Ironically, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Anu re-assessed her priorities, focussing on family. Aside from caring for Mum, she'll soon become a grandmother. "It was a no-brainer but, because of COVID, everyone's working from home and it sort of changed the way that we look at our own lives and how we're approaching the way that we work. It's been fantastic. I've never been able to have this in my life ever – the family, and work-life balance is near-perfect. I can't believe I've had to work long and hard in my life, in my career, to actually accomplish it at this time, but that's okay."

Increasingly, Anu has mixed feelings about theatre due to the rigamarole of prep required before hitting the boards. "It's hard – I mean, tiring, exhausting, all of that comes hand-in-hand with turning the same wheel over and over again," she says. The most challenging aspect is "the consistency".

It's overwhelming to be surrounded by so many others on a production. "I'm a homebody who likes to be around the people that I love. My little moment to get out on stage – it's like that's your adrenaline pill. You don't wanna wear that out. It's lovely being out on stage. That stage is home, literally. So I have two homes – where I live, my residential address, and where I am my best self on stage."

By contrast, Anu welcomes the intimacy of radio. "I love radio," she rhapsodises. "It's taken me a long time to love it. Like I can't believe I just said 'LOVE'." Here the initial challenge for Anu was to engage her audience: "You've gotta keep it conversational… People wanna turn the radio on and feel like you're talking to just them."

Full Circle

Anu has been progressing on an album for two years, reuniting with Bridie. "We've come full circle," she says. "We're working together to do Stylin' Up's older sister."

The project has a deep significance – Anu using German ethnomusicologist Wolfgang Laade's recordings of her own grandfather, Nadi Anu, himself "a prolific composer," held by the Australian Institute Of Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra. But it's about memory – as well as recovery and restitution.

"I felt really quite disheartened by the first album's attack, and suggestion, that I had exploited my culture and I was pocketing monetary value out of it and not giving back to the community," Anu reveals. "It really broke me.

"I just needed to have some distance between that album to this album, in that it's my grandfather's songs; it's my birthright. No one can have that kind of attitude to an album with original material on it.

"So I needed to be able to find the time to just mature – know the difference between taking something personally and knowing that criticism's really great for your art; it's really great for your soul. It can go either way (laughs). But I've just needed to know how I was gonna come out and do this."

Anu admits that she's experienced lingering anxiety. "I'm the Queen Of Cold Feet," Anu rues. "The album has metamorphosed about two to three times 'til it's landed on a place where I felt absolutely comfortable that this is the authentic representation of me and where I am; what place I'm in, in both my personal and creative lives. So I'm happy that I've got an area where I'm still able to find a way to express myself in music. And I've got my granddad to posthumously thank for that."

Anu is aiming to complete the album next month. "We're going to lock down March and hopefully look for a mid-year release." Anu jokes that it's a "shame" she can't plug the album on her ABC show.

The Next Gen

Anu is receiving her flowers. In November she was "honoured" to join Briggs' First & Forever, "a celebration of Blak excellence," at Hanging Rock as one of the older acts, in addition to friend Emma Donovan (and guest Paul Kelly). "I have waited my whole career for something that was all-Indigenous, where the non-Indigenous musicians were actually the minority of a line-up for a change."

Symbolically, Anu performed with her daughter, Zipporah Corser. "She's my active 'changing of the guard' or 'passing the baton'," she says. "We're demonstrating that this is how we pass on our cultural knowledge and [me] passing down my secrets and my stories and gently handing them to her – or even having her beside me and watching me in my craft and how I do it, how I hold it, backstage. Everything."

And Anu is moving to collab with other young First Nations artists. "I'm starting to get my head around the idea of being called 'Aunt'," she chuckles. "Oh my God – am I 'Aunt' now, am I? Am I that old now, am I?" In 2020 Anu duetted with Chris Tamwoy on a rendition of her Kulba Yaday. She mentions an upcoming flip of Party with Malyangapa, Barkindji MC BARKAA. Another act on her radar? "I've always wanted to work with Mo'Ju." Curiously, Anu has a notion to propose something to Australia's Queen of R&B, Jessica Mauboy, "but not in that pop context – just something different."

45 Degrees

For now, Anu is contemplating St Kilda Festival. Anu occasionally worries when there is a lag between bookings – "it's so sporadic" – though, pre-pandemic, she even played the mega-hip Meredith Festival. Only lulls enable her to consider that precious catalogue. Latterly, Anu has fancied performing 45 Degrees tracks. "I love 45 Degrees," she enthuses. "Every time I see the album, I just look at it and think, 'I'll visit you.'" Anu hints at having "a special guest" on stage, again eager to foster more cross-exchange live – something she holds distinguishes Melbourne's scene from Sydney's. "They're musicians without borders."

Even being in St Kilda will bring back recollections of humble times. "I'm excited about going there," Anu says. "When my first album was just about to be released, and when it was released, I frequented St Kilda – that's where I stayed… It was at The Cosmopolitan Inn – that's where I was always staying and eating and hanging out, right by the ocean. Love it. Yeah, I can't wait to revisit the old stomping grounds, really."

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Christine Anu is performing at St Kilda Festival today. It's a free event that runs from 10 am to 10 pm today and tomorrow. For more information, go here.