For the past 10 years, Helen Reddy refused to roar. Instead, one of the most prominent pop stars of the 1970s — 15 Top 40 hits, three No. 1s — retired from song and returned to her native Australia, a homeland that still refuses, for better or worse, to treat her like a star. She became a hypnotherapist, hunkered in the shadows, lived frugally, alone. Her Grammy? Given away.
But in an unlikely comeback, the I Am Woman auteur and feminist icon has returned to the stage, playing two shows, Thursday and Saturday, at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.
So why the change of heart — especially at the age of 71?
"I got bored," Reddy tells me during an all parts fun, fiery phone chat. "I took 10 years off, and I needed something to do. I was getting these offers, so I said, hey, let's get back to work."
Whether belting Delta Dawn or chatting on the phone from her home in Southern California, Reddy's voice retains that distinctive royal lilt, an accent not tethered to any one place necessarily, but instead some sort of Disney fairy-godmother-ness (hence, perhaps, her starring role in the Mouse House's 1977 live action-cartoon flick Pete's Dragon).
And yet for all of her vocal's magical qualities ("I think I do have some sort of distinguishing sound," Reddy allows), it can also be blunt, taciturn, scolding. As far as feminism circa 2013 is concerned, she blurts without hesitation: "Race is not the issue it once was, but gender still is."
Yep, Reddy is roaring again. Here are excerpts from our chat, in which she elaborates on her unlikely return to the boards, which was kick-started by the wife of another iconic '70s singer-songwriter.
Before we start, a quick story. When I was a pup, and my parents were divorcing, my mom, Mary Daly, huge fan, used to crank your hit You and Me Against the World. She'd sing along at the top of her lungs and squish me to her bosom. I was helpless, Helen!
(Laughs) What a visual!
Mom is very, very excited you're touring again. But how are you feeling? Nervous?
I got back on stage and felt like I was home. Every theater in the world has the same smell. I was a little nervous at first because I hadn't sung in 10 years. ... How it started, I called Ingrid Croce, Jim Croce's wife, from Sydney, and said I wanted to go back to work. I wanted something small and quiet in case I made any mistakes. She has a club in San Diego (called Croce's), so I asked, "Can I play at your place?" Of course I wanted something low-key but it was packed, every seat taken.
There must have been a catalyst besides sheer boredom.
My sister had her 80th birthday party and she asked if I would do a duet with her. I hadn't heard my voice in 10 years! And when I did, I thought: I have been wasting my talent. I should go back and do what I do best. So I did. And I'd forgotten how much I enjoy singing.
You returned to Australia to retire, and yet you returned to America to un-retire. You certainly have a curious relationship with your homeland.
Australians are not treated very well in their own country. It's true. I didn't do one single show in Australia, ever. There's something there they call the Tall Poppy Syndrome; they think you get too big for your boots. They don't really want you to do well. Why do you think so many Australians come over here? America is where I belong. This is where my family is. This is where I live — again.
Okay, let's lighten things up. I have a genius plan. Let's say Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in November 2016; her inauguration would be in January 2017 — the 45th anniversary of I Am Woman. Helen, you have to sing at Hillary's swearing-in! One beacon of girl power saluting another.
First of all, I don't know if she's going to run or not. I think she's exhausted from being secretary of state. It's a lovely fantasy but I don't really think it's happening.
Are you uncomfortable being a mouthpiece for women's rights? Did things change enough since I Am Woman was a rallying cry in 1972?
Feminism took a hit in the '80s. It was like one step forward, three steps back. Because of that, I think a lot of people hear the word feminism today and they cringe. I've had people come up to me and ask, "Have you stopped being a women's libber?" Women's libber?! What a dreadful expression. People think it was like mood rings and pet rocks. But we're coming along, we're coming along. In Australia, they now have a preponderance of women doctors and male nurses. And how about that?
I've heard that you don't sing I Am Woman in concert anymore; you deliver it in a spoken-word style instead.
I recite it now. It was originally written as a poem, and when it's spoken it has such power and special dynamics. And when women in the audience hear it now, they stand up. There's something going on there.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected]