WORDS Jill Fraser PHOTOGRAPHS Adele Van Es
The lovely gas lamp replicas that line Healesville’s main street are a signature feature in the pretty little Yarra Valley town and their distinctive bygone-era association adds a gentle charm to the increasingly busy thoroughfare.
They are a much-admired asset but it’s unlikely that many have fallen as deeply under their spell as jazz diva and former rock chick, Grace Knight, lead singer of the recently reunited 80s pop group, Eurogliders.
Grace reveals that the classic Collins Street lamp reproductions, (the originals of which were installed in Melbourne in the early 1920s) were the catalyst for her move to Healesville five years ago.
“Don’t laugh,” she giggled. “I fell in love with them. They really struck me as I was driving through the town centre. They made me feel quite joyous.”
Grace, once dubbed ‘the queen of dreadlocks’ and these days ‘the queen of cool’, shifted from Byron Bay to regional Victoria prompted by a momentary bout of empty nest syndrome after her son, Jacky left home to attend school in Sydney.
Having decided on a town, finding a house was next on the agenda. The romantic start to her relationship with Healesville was not repeated during the house hunting exercise.
“There was absolutely nothing about this house I liked,” she laughed referring to the house she now calls home.
“The block is fantastic, it’s in a great area and has beautiful views over the hills; there was an established orchard and it was completely secluded from the road. But the house itself I didn’t like at all.”
Five years on renovations are about to commence. Grace has just had plans drawn up for a total transformation of her dwelling, including extensions.
“I’ve held off. I’ve done a lot of work doing up houses and I absolutely love it. But I’ve learned a lot from experience and now I refuse to touch anything until I know what the whole picture is going to look like,” she said.
“I’ve had to teach myself to laugh at the current colour scheme and faux stained glass window in the front door every time I notice them.”
She plans to do much more travelling and so is designing a house to suit her lifestyle. It will be a contemporary design with, “loads and loads of cupboard space and lots of light,” (one wall will be entirely glass) and a sense of spaciousness.
Looking forward to being hands-on during the building process, Grace is researching how to construct concrete benches and marbleised inserts.
The English born singer is not afraid to get her hands dirty and a lesson in grounding is not something she needs.
At the height of her famous career in the 80s Grace was the ultimate Australian pop superstar. She segued into television, enjoying success in the ABC mini-series, ‘Come in Spinner’ before launching her solo career as a respected jazz performer.
In 2010 she published her autobiography, ‘Pink Suit for a Blue Day,’ which stunned and confronted fans with its raw and explicit account of a tormented childhood of sexual abuse and a troubled star with low self-esteem, and a history of schoolyard bullying hiding behind a confident, sparkling persona.
She told Country Life that her singing and trademark, “manic ballerina-like” dance moves were camouflaging her demons and self-doubt.
“One of the unsettling things about going from working with a pop band to jazz was that I couldn’t do backflips on stage wearing a ball gown,” she said.
“That meant I couldn’t use dance to disguise the fact that I was actually intimidated by my own voice, which of course I had done for many years with Eurogliders.
“In jazz my voice is out there on its own and initially it petrified me. I was mortified because I didn’t have a safety net. Good or bad I was out there, exposed.”
Born in Manchester, UK Grace was the youngest of three children.
Her father was a violent alcoholic, who she said abused her sexually and emotionally and beat her mother viciously.
“From the age of six, up to about the age of 13, that’s what I knew of family life and that is what determined my reactions and actions. I included it in the book in the hope that people suffering the trauma of childhood abuse might recognise part of themselves and their behaviour.
“I wanted to be brutally honest. There was little point in writing the book if I didn’t tell the truth, even when it was painful,” she said. “It was very hard to admit that I used to be a bully, even though I can now understand why. I needed to write that because I know there are many people who are in a similar situation to the one I was in, brought up on a diet of violence. I want them to realise that violence begets violence.”
Remarkably Grace was able to forgive her father before he died. She talks of forgiving both her father and herself: “It wasn’t until I could do both these things that I started to realise the language I was using was keeping me attached to my trauma.
“I loved my father very much and when he passed away I was very sad that I hadn’t had more time with him.”
Her father never asked for her forgiveness. “I don’t think he had the courage to do so. And, I didn’t need it. I would’ve liked it but I didn’t need it because I could fix myself.”
Desperately keen to help break the cycle of abuse Grace is an Ambassador for Heal For Life Foundation, an organisation that empowers people to heal from childhood trauma and abuse and a patron of the Choir Of Hope And Inspiration (formerly the Choir Of Hard Knocks).
Last year she lent her support to Healesville High School in the lead up to the staging of their production, ‘Aladdin the Musical’.
“It was just a case of me teasing a few things out of them and helping them to open up and overcome fear so they could relish the roles they were playing.
“I saw the show and as soon as one of the kids I’d been coaching started singing I lost it because I knew how hard she’d worked to overcome her shyness. She had trusted me enough to take my advice on board. I’m tearing up again now thinking back on it,” she said.
With distinguished guests such as President Bill Clinton, Princess Diana, the Thai Royal Family and successive Australian Prime Ministers sitting in her audience over the years Grace could be excused for occasionally displaying an attack of performer nerves.
“The wonderful thing about my job is that there is no hierarchy,” she said. “I’m more distracted by their security people talking into their cuffs! My concern is that if I make a fast move they might shoot me!”
Her solo jazz career is booming and with Eurogliders reuniting for gigs 2014 is set to be a big year.
One of her favourite anecdotes takes place in her local Coles supermarket. The Eurogliders’ big hit, ‘Heaven (Must Be There)’ was belting out over the public address system and a shopper in the meat section was singing it out loud. “I wanted to go up to her and join in on the chorus,” she chuckled. “I’ve never even thought about doing it before. I didn’t. Maybe next time.”
(Grace and Eurogliders gig details: www.graceknight.com.au or follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/graceknightsinger)