Published: 18/11/2015 09:15 - Updated: 18/11/2015 09:22

Rietta gets back to songwriting hero

Rietta Austin
Rietta Austin

RIETTA Austin probably never required much careers advice at school.

"My mum was a jazz singer and my dad was a ballroom dancer and trumpet player and my auntie is an opera teacher — she actually taught Kiri Te Kanawa for a while — so music does run in the family," she admitted

A dancer as well as a singer, a career in music and musical theatre was a natural progression for Auckland raised Austin, even if she eventually had to leave New Zealand to further her career.

Her lead role in tribute show Back To Bacharach is also a natural fit. Her favourite song, ever since she was a little girl, is Close To You, written by Bacharach, but popularised by The Carpenters.

"I get to sing that in the show, so I’m really happy," she added.

However, the show has also taught her about many songs she never realised had been penned by one of America’s most successful songwriters.

Like most music fans, she knew of the six times Grammy Award winner’s biggest hits such as Anyone Who Had a Heart, a hit for both Dionne Warwick and Cilla Black, I Say A Little Prayer, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head or The Look of Love, but was less familiar with songs like Arthur’s Theme from the Dudley Moore comedy or songs written for artists such as Patti Labelle and Michael McDonald and Ray Parker Jr.

"It’s been an eye-opener. I love the material anyway and it’s been a real surprise to me. I though I knew all his songs — but I don’t," she said.

"During the era of Dionne Warwick and Cilla, everyone knew they would get a hit if they sang one of his songs. And here we are still singing them years later. Some of this stuff was written before I was born, but I still listen to it."

A songwriter herself, Austin acknowledges she has learnt from the master.

"It’s challenging as a singer because some of the songs have quite an extreme range and also from a writer’s perspective, it’s amazing to see how he put it all together and how talented the man is," she said.

In fact, working on the show already seems to have had an impact on Austin’s writing.

"I’ve been writing a new album and after we started rehearsing for the Bacharach show, I ended up slightly changing the style I was going to use on the album," she said.

"Now I’m tending to write more towards the ballads, which is great because a lot of the writing I’ve done previously has been more up tempo and this is something I’ve not really done before."

If the Bacharach show has taught her about writing, she has also learned some lessons from some of the big names in music she has performed alongside, having shared the bill with Bryan Adams and opened for the late Joe Cocker in Russia.

However, her greatest live memory is supporting Shirley Bassey at Glastonbury.

"She had her jewelled wellies on, which were fantastic, and we had a helicopter, which was even more amazing," Austin recalled.

"But nobody told me that Glastonbury was all muddy. I thought it sounded quite posh so I didn’t take any wellies with me and I had to find some rubbish bags to wrap over my shoes.

"It was quite possibly the most incredible experience of my life. I loved opening the O2 Arena with my own album, but appearing with such an iconic singer in front of 170,000 people — all you could see as far as the horizon was people — was breathtaking.

"It was raining at the time and when Shirley walked out, the skies opened and the sun came out. It was almost like she commanded the sunshine, she’s that much of a star."

At the other end of the experience scale, Austin has also worked as a vocal coach with contestants on The X-Factor and New Zealand talent show Get Your Act Together.

"I try and tell them not to take it too seriously," she said.

"It’s one person’s opinion and of course it’s a very important person and it could shoot you up into fame and fortunate in the blink of an eye, but at the same time if that person said you weren’t good enough, they should try not to take it to heart. I’m just not into competitions and I don’t think one person has the right to say that to you and make anyone give up their dream."

Back To Bacharach is at the Empire Theatre, Eden Court, at 7.30pm on Wednesday.

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