The Age (2007)
Toni Collette has hopes of a big Finish
March 2007 | Written by Patrick Donovan
Toni Collette may be famous for movies, but as a child singing into a hairbrush in the bedroom, it was pop stardom that she longed for. "I was the girl trying out for the talent quests at the shopping centres and RSL clubs all across New South Wales because my parents - God bless 'em - would drive me around following my dream. "That's how performance began for me, and that led to musical theatre, which led to straight acting, which took over my life, really," she says on the phone from her Sydney home.

Collette's childhood reads like the script to her latest film, the Academy Award-winning Little Miss Sunshine, in which Collette's character and her family drive across the US to get her daughter to a beauty pageant. But Collette, who is touring Victoria next week with her band the Finish to promote her debut album, Beautiful Awkward Pictures, will not be traversing the state in a crowded van - she can afford to fly. There are other luxuries not usually available to nascent singers, such as being able to record the album in her own studio (which she built with her musician husband Dave Galafassi in Berry, NSW), and releasing it on her own label, Hoola Hoop. Then there is her ready-made profile - although that could work against her. Russell Crowe and Keanu Reeves have proved that a thriving acting career does not necessarily equate with musical prowess. And the public's most vivid image of Collette singing is hamming up an Abba song in Muriel's Wedding.

"I can understand why there might have been trepidation," she says of the dubious history of actor-singer transitions. "But I just kept saying to myself, 'The music will speak for itself'." Collette's own songs have more in common with her moving rendition of Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over in the film Cosi. The lyrics are personal, unaffected, elegant and, at times, trite and pretentious. The band, featuring her husband on drums and Augie March singer-guitarist Glenn Richards, plays graceful, evocative and understated country-pop augmented by mandolin, banjo and lush string arrangements.

Most of the songs are relationship-based, and if there is any higher meaning, it is contained in the environmentally sympathetic title track: "Watch out, watch out, the fools are fighting, There's love that's dying, An earth that's crying, for the life it once knew." Collette started writing poetry in primary school, which is where her voice received its first back-handed praise. "I was in first grade, at a new school, so I was nervous," she says. "We had a choir class and I sang a note and the teacher asked, 'Who was that?' really abruptly and I thought I would get in trouble so I didn't own up to it. To try and find out, she went around pointing at kids making them sing. I got out of it, but the girl she thought it was got to sing at the school concert. So I missed out, but I thought, 'Maybe I'm actually good'."

Collette, 34, is not your average celebrity. She dials the interview phone call herself, and interrupts the conversation to quell her barking dog. Then there was the time she was carrying on like a wasted rock chick during the shooting of the glam rock film Velvet Goldmine, only to revert to her humble star-struck self when she discovered that her hero Jarvis Cocker was watching. So do we get a glimpse of the real Toni Collette in her songs? "I think it's more me than playing a role - or part of me at least. I think I do enough of that."

Toni Collette and the Finish perform at Moorooduc's Peninsula Lounge on Wednesday and St Kilda's Prince of Wales Hotel on Thursday.