In the resurrected glory of St Kilda’s historic George Ballroom, Kate Ceberano beams that brilliant signature smile for the camera, revelling in the nostalgia of the moment. She’s back where it all began.
These days, with its ornate ceilings and gilded mirror, the Victorian ballroom plays host to sumptuous wedding receptions and the odd photo shoot, but in the ’80s it was a seedy, decrepit live-music venue for the likes of INXS and Midnight Oil – the place where Kate used to “fang it” on stage as the teenage front woman of I’m Talking.
A few years later, just before the Fitzroy Street building was forced to close, she filmed the music video for her smash 1989 hit Bedroom Eyes upstairs in an abandoned apartment.
“Everything about this is a full-circle moment,” says the 56-year-old jazz, pop and soul singer, as the stylist and makeup artist buzz about her at The Weekly shoot. “I’m feeling very grounded in the fact that I’m a survivor … I’ve gained and lost confidence a thousand times but I just keep coming back.”
Kate is swimming in memories as she celebrates 40 years in the music business and releases her 30th album. A dream collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, My Life is a Symphony reimagines the songs most meaningful to her, including her hits “Pash” and “Brave“.
With its surging orchestral strings, the “Pash” of 2023 is less youthful pop-rock and more midlife longing, with a hint of melancholy. “In a way, you’re singing for the girl you were and the girl you’ve become,” she says, “and the woman you’re about to be. Those transitions are really deep.”
When we meet, Kate is making a music video the next day for “Brave” mark II, with her only child, Gypsy Rogers, on backing vocals. Gypsy will sing onstage with her mother for the rest of the year, too, as Kate tours the latest album around the country. It feels to Kate like a passing of the baton, even if she doesn’t recognise the music industry her 19-year-old daughter hopes to break into.
While Kate’s career was built gig by sweaty gig, success in the digital age can be anyone’s. “You can do it in your bedroom, get a galaxy of streams and then you’re there,” says Kate. “It’s the luck of the draw. For me, the analogue [world] was more predictable. She’ll probably become a lot tougher than I ever was.”
Gypsy, who works in a sneaker store, has been writing songs since she was 12 and is currently sending demos to record labels and publishers. According to her dad, Lee Rogers, Gypsy is “super-chatty and extraverted” with a gift for melody and lyrics like her mum, but is into “gothic pop” – think Billie Eilish and Melanie Martinez.
“She’s gone through phases of it being the last thing she’d want to do because it’s pretty scary putting yourself out in the public eye,” he says. “Also, people are going to compare her to Kate – not an easy road when your mum’s one of the greatest singers ever.”
Kate doesn’t relish the thought of Gypsy going into the family business – “It keeps me up at night” – but takes heart in success stories such as Miley Cyrus. “She’s someone’s daughter, a little nepo [baby], and she’s said, ‘F–k that, I’m just driving off into the sunset. I’ll play it my way.'”
Having witnessed the vagaries of her mother’s career, Gypsy will be going into the industry with her eyes open, says Kate. It’s a more female-friendly environment too. “When I was going through, a lot could be said about there being an imbalance of men versus women, but at the same time I saw some really powerful images of women,” she says, counting Chrissie Amphlett, Renee Geyer and Deborah Conway among them.
If Kate and her contemporaries encountered unwanted sexual advances, “we just punched them in the face,” she says. “You just worked within the parameters and survived regardless. Nowadays they have ways of outing people who are damaging and dangerous … That’s a great thing.”
There’s a reason why Kasey Chambers calls Kate “one of the most loveable personalities in the industry”. At The Weekly‘s photo shoot, she’s all warmth and energy as she delights over the shoe collection and makes self-deprecating cracks. “We’re good from the knees down,” she says, laughing. “Above is a disaster zone.”
The youngest child of Tino Ceberano, a Hawaiian-born karate master of Filipino descent, and Cherie, his business manager, Kate started singing in smoky bars at the age of 14. She’d catch a tram and bus to St Kilda on a Friday night from Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs and wouldn’t return home until Sunday night, in time for school the next morning: “I’d spend every weekend with a pack of punks, other mods and all sorts of desirables and undesirables.”
Kate was doing three gigs a week and earning good money, but says she wasn’t cool like her friends. “I was too enthusiastic,” she says. “I was the one that entertained and laughed at all the jokes and tried to cheer up all my misery guts [friends] who were enigmatic and poetic and fabulous. I was the happy one.”
By 15 she’d dropped out of school, and two years later she hit the charts with funk-pop rock band I’m Talking. She went on to score ten Top 10 albums (including her 1989 triple-platinum solo release Brave) and four ARIAs, racking up at least 8000 performances and influencing countless musicians along the way. “I was obsessed with her as a kid,” says Sia, “and attended as many of her concerts as I was allowed.”
Delta Goodrem, who describes Kate as “an undeniable icon” of Australian music, had the 1992 Jesus Christ Superstar album on high rotation: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to her version of ‘Everything’s Alright‘ throughout the years.”
Kate savoured every second of those heady early days. “There’s nothing like being discovered for the first time because it never happens again,” says Kate, who sang for Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1985. “I was just so excessive – I had a convertible Spider. I paid cash for that f**king thing! I took two bands around the world – a jazz band and a pop band … I don’t have it in me to save for a rainy day.”
Eventually, though, her star descended from those dizzy heights. In the mid-’90s, a yearned-for US recording contract fell through. “I was signed to a label in New York and I just happened to be there at the wrong time making the wrong record,” she recalls. “Hip-hop had just hit New York, the label was bought by a big hop-hop artist, and I’d just made this beautiful jazz-fusion record.”
In the late ’90s, she stepped away from music altogether and moved to Los Angeles to take acting and dance classes. “I think I’m the problem,” she says. “I studied flamenco dancing for years. See? I’m a f–king fruitcake! It was a distraction and really wasn’t forwarding my international career.”
Refreshingly honest, Kate admits she looks at singers like Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue with a certain longing. “I seem to find myself in a different space,” she says. “I’ve yet to work out why, but I know there’s a reason. I don’t get envious or jealous – I’m in awe and I’m proud of them – but I feel like I have my own space to walk. You can’t wish you were someone else.”
A master of reinvention, Kate attributes her show-business longevity to her willingness to do everything. Over the years, she has added dance contestant, actor and underwear model to her CV; record-breaking artistic director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival sits alongside TV host of Excess Baggage, the 2012 weight-loss show that tanked.
Not that she originally aimed for variety: “Not at all – one would love to be a purist,” she says, “Anyone given a chance would want to stay cool and enigmatic … but you can earn the right to be who you are. At the same time, I still wake up at night with regrets of having chosen to do certain things I would rather I’d not done. I won’t name those things because everything was an experience and worth having, but it took me a little bit too far away from music.”
Ironically, though, Kate’s 2007 win on Dancing with the Stars prompted a comeback. Three years after Gypsy’s birth, as she dispensed with her vanity and flipped “upside down in nana knickers”, viewers embraced her unbridled joy on the dancefloor. Her album that year, Nine Lime Avenue, went Top 10. “I was back in the game,” she says. “Dancing with the Stars was so absurd, I sometimes feel like I’m a character in an Almodovar movie. There’s something beautiful about the story of an artist who just never seems to quite make it fire, and then suddenly, by this quirky, weird turnaround, comes back into favour again.”
Her husband of 27 years and manager, Lee, has been beside her through it all. Their love story began in 1991, backstage at Penrith Panthers after he’d agreed to direct her upcoming concert video. “I know it sounds corny but it was electricity – instant sparks,” says Lee, who was also a model at the time. “It was outrageous – the stuff rom-coms are built on. We’ve been together ever since.” Their relationship works possibly because it’s an attraction of opposites; he’s pragmatic and she’s dramatic. And she won’t let them go to bed angry: “If there’s an upset, she just wants to handle it straight away, so things get sorted out,” says Lee.
“Having both been fairly wild prior to hooking up, we know the grass isn’t greener, so when tough times come up, we just stick it out and push through it.”
Before any man, though, there was music – and when Kate couldn’t perform during the pandemic, she felt it keenly. “If I were a tree trunk and we opened me up, that would have been a black ring, that year,” she says. “I’m not afraid to command a band, I’m not afraid to perform in front of tens of thousands of people. In fact, it’s almost the air I breathe. I long for it, and when I didn’t have it, I nearly died for the loss of it. I was so sad. Performing is my first love. It’s my everything.”
Unable to do what she does best – and watching her teenager struggle to find her tribe – made the lockdowns even worse. Pre-pandemic, Kate had imagined winding down in her mid-50s, perhaps doing small jazz clubs in foreign countries. “But it’s like my career had to start all over again after COVID,” she says. “I did 100 dates last year, travelling on the road. At this age, I’m a lot more active than I thought I was going to be.”
Post-COVID, Kate has emerged with a renewed sense of purpose and a reluctance to compromise. It turns out she’s not so different from the teenager 40 years ago who partied at that St Kilda ballroom – someone she likens to 1920s Paris entertainer Josephine Baker: “That was me, on every bar, on top of every piano, donning the banana dress,” says Kate.
“And then COVID, for a brief minute, made all of that seem a bit vacuous and superficial … [It made us think], ‘What actually is my purpose?’ It still is to make people happy.”
Kate’s album, My Life Is A Symphony, is available now.
Kate wears Montique dress. Kerrie Brown fabrics used throughout.