Model. Actress. Winner of Channel 7’s ‘It Takes Two’. Papua New Guinean born beauty Erika Heynatz is what they call in the industry a ‘triple threat’. With her combination of good looks and warm on-camera presence, she decided that the timing was perfect to branch out into a long-lusted after singing career when the offer to appear on the TV singing competition presented itself. After walking off the show victorious, she disappeared to create a debut album, ‘Sweeter Side’. It’s release last Friday, however, comes almost four full years after Erika won ‘It Takes Two’ in August 2006. We sat down for a natter with Erika about the album’s release, and she defends the long wait.
“I don’t know if it’s a long time by my standards,” she says, “For someone who’s not spent a lifetime devoted to music, for me to have only had three years to start the songwriting and to do the production and then a secondary lot of production…
Three years I think is a good solid amount of time. I think if I had have spat it out any earlier it would have been a rush job. It’s really important for me to have the best experience and pour as much of myself into it rather than trying to meet deadlines set by peoples expectations.”
It’s this incredible honesty, combined with a relaxed coherency that makes our conversation so refreshing.
Erika goes on to say that she’s always been fascinated by music, but it took her a little while to get around to doing something about making a start in the industry.
“I’ve been making noise from a very early age,” she says. “This has been something I’ve been passionate about, but I’ve certainly gone about it in a long-winded way. I studied graphic design at university and it was at that time that I got into modelling and I always had the passion to get into the entertainment industry. It’s evolved quite naturally for me – from modelling into television, then acting, then finally into music.
“I think the skill set that I’ve gained from each of those careers really supported and nourished the work that I do now. All of those skills from business and performance I think have really served me in the process of making this record. There’s been a bit of unlearning to do as well. I think some of the grooming and the composure that comes with being a model – we’ve needed to kick some of that to the side so that there’s a spontaneous outpouring of performance and storytelling through songwriting.”
After watching Erika on our television screens for a number of years, firstly as host of Australia’s Next Top Model, then on Channel 10’s ill-fated The Hot House, she hit the boards on the talent show ‘It Takes Two’. But Erika can’t get past our mention of The Hot House – let alone that someone actually watched it.
“Don’t tell me you watched The Hot House!? The germ of the idea came about around the time of Big Brother, so it really was the beginning of the end, wasn’t it? The start of us polluting television with reality shows. But it was definitely an interesting experiment and it was a fantastic experience for me. That was where I cut my teeth in terms of television. I was on set, I was involved in production. I loved it. That show was crazy, but I loved it.”
It Takes Two was the first time Australia had heard Erika’s singing voice – and we liked what we heard. Teaming up with David Hobson, she powered through the field to finally win the competition against former Olympic swimmer Sarah Ryan. We ask her if it was the call from the producers to take part in the series that was the catalyst for her move into the musical arena.
“I’d been doing some stuff on the side,” Erika says. “I’d been doing some songwriting. It’s something I’d been passionate about for a while – I’d been devoting time to it, but the opportunity to get into the industry is so difficult and at times it seems like an impossible dream. But when the opportunity came (and it meant I had to take a pretty big step away from what I was doing and it was a big departure and it was certainly a step away from something that was perceived to be quite a safe job for me), there was really no hesitation for me in as far as I thought ‘this is going to be perfect, this is a really wonderful opportunity for me to explore this and really see…’.
“It’s one thing to have the passion, it’s another to see whether or not you’ve got the capacity to be able to do it, and doing it in a very public way like that certainly meant that the experience was loaded. But what I loved about it was that it was under the guidance of a mentor and with a very nurturing network. (Channel) Seven is, by nature, quite nurturing and the show had a couple of very strong female producers and I thought ‘this is perfect – I get to explore all of these different genres, depending on when I’m kicked out, but I get to do it with a mentor nudging me along or slapping me on the side of the head – whatever was required’.
“It was a real test, but it was also a great feel to a fire that had been burning for a while and I thought, ‘I don’t want to do anything else – this is absolutely where I want to be’. So I think that sometimes you really do have to wait for that special moment when the planets align and something happens where you think ‘this is where I get to grab the bull by the horns and go for it’.”
After being snapped up for a recording deal with EMI and spending time with the powers that be working on ideas for her debut album, the decision was made to connect Erika with a selection of top-notch writers. Phil Thornalley is on board, so too Chris Braid – even Australia’s own Mark Sholtez gets a co-write. The journey of writing for ‘Sweeter Side’ had begun.
“It’s one thing to noodle away when you’re on a train in the middle of Europe – it’s another when there’s additional pressure that comes with having a record company behind you. It means that there is a time line and you do have to produce,” says Erika.
“It was very challenging. I’m sure you’ve probably heard from lots of people that whole situation with virtual strangers in studios squeezing your soul for ideas, being very careful not to have the editing switch off and trying to get that creative flow going. It took a little while for me to hit my groove, but I worked with some of the most fantastic people,” she says.
Erika mentions that out of all the people she worked with on the record, her favourite would have to be Brisbane singer/songwriter Mark Sholtez, who’s also just popped out a new album.
“I love Mark Sholtez! He was probably one of my favourite songwriting sessions. A big part of it boils down to the chemistry that you have quite instantly with the people that you meet. It’s not really whether they’ve written a million hit songs and they have that hit factor or anything, it’s just that personal chemistry and he’s such an open hearted an cruisey and respectful person. I think he tries really hard to get the essence of you and together we wrote one of my favourite songs on the album which is called ‘I Didn’t’. So I must admit I am a little biased, I do love the Aussie songwriters because I think there’s a real wealth of talent here that sometimes gets overlooked.”
Erika’s debut single was ‘Kingdom’ – a track she describes as “joyous, raw and cinematic”, but she’s followed it up with a slight deflection in sound – a track she’s always wanted as single No.2 – ‘Bullet’.
“I’ve loved this song from day dot and was very passionate about having it as the second single ‘cause I wanted something that was a complete diversion from the first one. I know from my personal experience that I really want to explore a lot of different personalities within the album and make them as strong a difference as possible. So ‘Bullet’ is a lot more playful, it’s a bit sexy and it’s certainly very sarcastic which is why I think we’re allowed to have so much fun doing it – and again, this is a song that I’ve produced in Australia and I got to use live strings and that’s a once and a lifetime thing. Or hopefully not a once in a lifetime thing…. Next time it’ll be an orchestra,” she jokes.
The video for the single sees Erika taking on different personas – and different wigs – as a movie house temptress, attempting to seduce the ticket man.
“Well that’s the thing about having a background in fashion, you never really tick off that passion for fashion. It’s like, ‘can I dress up as much as possible? But the gorgeous thing is that Gemma Lee (the video’s director) was saying ‘you know what, we can have so much fun with this. We can play five really empowered, strong, villainesque type roles from the ‘50s Vargas girl pin-up to the film noir to the bad-ass ‘70s biker girl’. So we wanted something that was tongue in cheek, but I think that we were able to push things a little bit visually and it was a opportunity to really play. I think as an artist it’s really important to have that. It can’t all be serious, looking skywards and reaching for the air.”
The clip almost seems to be challenging peoples perceptions of just who Erika Heynatz is, even taking to using the motorbike used by Hugh Jackman’s character in the movie ‘Wolverine’.
“I think that was my favourite, but all the classic film lovers were really happy with the film noir – the black widow look, because it was such a huge departure from the way that I’ve been perceived in my normal roles, so that was a great amount of fun,” she says. “It’s good to have those opportunities to really slip into a different mode and on-set it was interesting listening to peoples reactions.
“I think one of the many things I’m just relishing so much about this is that I am constantly evolving – and it happens really quickly,” Erika says. “That three years seems like a long time for other people, but the amount that I’ve learned and the fact it’s felt like accelerated learning… It’s dependent on the artist, but for me to get in there and to travel and to write and to do part of the production with Andy Zulla in Texas and the other part with John Alagia – there’s a lot of production knowledge that I needed to get my head around and the language that I could have set my ideas and steer the session to get the sound that I wanted – that part of it took the best part of three years. I’m learning and changing as I go – it’s great.”
“What I’ve really enjoyed about this is that in terms of some of the themes and the sentiment in the song writing process, there’s the resilient and courageous and strong and positive, hope filled and joy-filled part of my nature, but I’m also honouring the slightly softer and more vulnerable side by looking at areas like self-doubt or loneliness or loss or betrayal and I think that probably previously in other occupations or maybe earlier in my life I haven’t been as upfront about that. A big part of my role has been to have that sense of composure and that veneer of being strong all the time. Not that that’s a bad thing – I think there’s something really nice about as woman celebrating that. I know that people relate to it – it’s not me saying there’s no tragedy or weakness in there – there’s a real strength in revealing some of that softness as a woman.”
ERIKA’S SINGLE ‘BULLET’ (ALONG WITH REMIXES) IS AVAILABLE DIGITALLY NOW.
ERIKA’S DEBUT ALBUM ‘SWEETER SIDE’ IS OUT NOW.