This article is part of our series 'Nice Song, What's It About?,' where we revisit old greats and go deep to get the stories behind them. To see the column's archive, click here.
The year was 1994. Tina Arena had released her third studio album, Don't Ask, and its first single "Chains"—an emancipating pop rock ballad about an agonising relationship—had been making waves, reaching number four on the ARIA chart. The record's second single came in the form of "Sorrento Moon," which by the of Summer in 1995 was playing from cars and apartments and radios around the country.
Its distinct Flamenco guitar and its geographic specificity—summers spent in a small coastal town an hour and a half out of Melbourne—made it an unlikely hit. And now, more than twenty years later, the song still resonates. Just last year I heard it play in a superclub, the closing track, at 3am. The crowd stood on tables and chairs, and sung it as if it were a national anthem.
Earlier this month Tina released Greatest Hits and Interpretations, a mark of her 40 years in music. To help her celebrate, we spoke to the national treasure about "Sorrento Moon (I Remember)."
Wikipedia says "Sorrento Moon (I Remember)" is about your family's holidaying in a beach town South East of Melbourne. But it sounds like a love song. Once and for all, was it written about love or youth? Or did you have a young summer romance down at the beach?
It really was written about my youth. Not a lover, nor a romance. Sorry to be so boring. However I will not deny to you that one of the best things about Sorrento back then was perving on the surfies. My my…
So there's no secret hidden meaning that we're missing?
There's no hidden meaning, it was written with Chris Ward a Canadian musician. He'd never been there but we were talking about my youth at the time and how I loved being around Sorrento—I'd dream about living there. It was for the rich, and we were not rich, so we only holidayed there and I dreamed of staying.
The song has a very mediterranean vibe, I imagine that's a nod to your Sicilian heritage? Have you ever been to Sorrento, Italy?
Yes in passing but I haven't spent any time there. It was only last year that I visited Sorrento in Italy for the first time, after all these years… It was an amazing road trip around the Almalfi Coast.
Do you remember where you were when you wrote the song?
It was in LA with Chris, in the Hollywood Hills at Dave Tyson's (another co-writer on Don't Ask) house overlooking the Valley. I was living in West Hollywood and driving around in my used Mercedes. I felt a real sense of freedom at that time, I'd moved away from Australia where I was still Tina Tina from Young Talent Time.
What was the most surprising thing about its reception?
The label didn't want to release it as a single as it didn't quite fit anywhere, which of course was what became the appeal of it. I love Flamenco Guitar with nylons strings. Brad Robinson from Australian Crawl was the first person to hear the demo other than the label, and he loved it and said it made him feel happy. He's passed away now sadly. James Reyne heard the early demo too. Actually, my A&R manager came over to LA from Australia to hear some of the new songs I'd written. And obviously the 90s was the cassette era. He took the demo with him and listened in the car on the way to the airport. He wasn't sure what to think. He returned the hire car and went to check in, forgetting to get the demo out of the car cassette player. So one day someone in the USA got into a hire car and I'm guessing played that cassette. I wonder if they liked it…
Have you figured out why it resonated so much with people?
I think it just makes people happy and the latin tinges were quite unusual at the time. There's a romantic and reminiscing sentiment too that people seem to like.
Mid-90s. Melbourne. With Don't Ask, you solidified yourself as defining voice in Australian pop. That record was the highest selling record of its year. You won ARIAs, played Australia Day in Sydney Harbour. What was that time like?
I remember that was an incredible time. Surreal, intense, time moved so quickly. The album was everywhere! I remember it being a lot of work! And a real buzz. The Australia Day performance wasn't great behind the scenes, I slipped over in the shower at the hotel and had to perform with a nasty injury. The show must go on! Can you tell me what the conversations about the record were like in the studio? What were you trying to do with it?
Honestly I went to LA where I wasn't famous and just said: "Let's make good music." I was open to all styles and genres and I didn't want to use any other music as references. I wasn't trying to recreate any sounds… just make something good, unique and from the heart.
If you had to approximate, how many times do you think you've played "Sorrento Moon (I remember)"?
Fuck… a lot. A few thousand times probably.
What's the craziest place you've played it?
All over the world—Beirut, Istanbul. But the craziest time I recall was at Innesvale (North Queensland) Italian Festival. There was torrential rain, cables under water, they had to keen draining the marquee. OH&S obviously wasn't on peoples radars then. Luckily we weren't all electrocuted.
How about the craziest place you've heard it?
I hear it in random places all the time. My sister Nancy arrived Italy 15 years ago and heard it in Sorrento there as soon as she landed!
Have you ever played a stripped back version with, like, a flamenco guitarist, under a canopy of vines in some European village to a crowd of very rich people drinking red wine? Like this?
No, but can you hook a girl up? I'd love to. I've just reworked the song, though not like this. Dannii Minogue has done a version for the new album with some incredible young Sydney writer/ producers call Moza Beats. You should check them out. It's really special to me and has given the song a whole new vibe, a soft electro feel. I do some vocals on it too. It's the first time Dannii and I have been in the studio together in 30 years… We remained friends after YTT but never collaborated. We crossed paths in a work sense, doing the same West End musical Notre Dame in London, but never collaborated. I'm so glad she's doing music again.
Did you ever witness any weird covers of the song? I can imagine it getting done at weddings a lot.
I'm sure it does. I've recorded it in other languages so I'm sure it's played around the world at weddings, the Spanish version is interesting.
My worst nightmare is having to hear someone trying to belt "You were neeever faaaar awaaaay…" and not nailing it. Have you ever seen it happen?
No. Thankfully. I've seen some interesting versions on talent show auditions but nothing terrible. As long as people are having a go!
You have the voice of an angel so I doubt it, but has it ever happened to you?
No, touch-wood. Maybe in 10 years it will be a different story…
I spent a lot of time in Sorrento as a kid, too. You released "Sorrento Moon (I Remember)" around the time we started going there and the song was a bit of an anthem for us. Do you think the people of Sorrento, Western Australia or perhaps the people of Sorrento, Italy, think it's about them?
Yes they probably do… Let's keep it just between us. It's about anything you want it to be about!
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, I once saw you in a Brumby's and told you that we have the same birthday. I'm going to approximate that the year was 1998. Do you remember this?
Yes, I do. My god… No, of course I don't. Did you make that up? If I was in Brumby's I was probably focused on getting a good sausage roll and tomato sauce.
Tina Arena's Greatest Hits and Interpretationsis out now through EMI. Catch her touring the country this September and October. More on that here.