CLARE Bowen was backstage at the Sydney Theatre Company when her life changed. It was 2010, and things were already going swimmingly enough for the Australian actor and singer.
Fresh from the requisite “five minutes” on Home And Away, she had won the lead role in a production of Spring Awakening. Then-STC artistic director Cate Blanchett sought Bowen out — she wanted to pass on some advice.
“Cate said to me, ‘Have you ever thought of moving to LA?’” Bowen, 33, tells Stellar.
“That thought was terrifying. She said, ‘I think you’d do really well there.’ She kicked me into gear to be brave enough to make the jump. I sold everything I owned to buy a plane ticket. Everything happened from there.”
“Everything” was the whirlwind that Bowen’s life became after she scored a plum role on TV’s country music drama Nashville in 2012. A few years into that gig, she attended a G’Day USA tourism showcase in Los Angeles, where she no longer lived. (She had relocated to the titular US city to film the show.) Blanchett was there, too.
“She remembered that conversation,” Bowen says, who calls the actor “a beautiful person who offered up this gem of advice … which I’m now relaying while sitting on the back verandah at my home in Nashville, Tennessee”.
There was another famous Aussie from Bowen’s past at that same function: Tina Arena. “My dad is a flight attendant for Qantas,” Bowen says. “He got Tina to sign a menu for me a long time ago, and I treasured that thing so much it almost fell apart.”
Emboldened by her chat with Blanchett, Bowen decided to say hello to her childhood hero: “I was shaking in my boots, but I told her I learnt to sing by singing her songs.”
Arena now admits that she didn’t know who her eager fan was. “I’d never watched Nashville,” she tells Stellar. “But she was beautiful and so engaging, I started watching. I got sucked in.” She remains a fan. “I’m up-to-date now!”
Arena was so taken with Bowen that when it came time to put together the guest list for her new compilation Greatest Hits & Interpretations, she asked Bowen to cover her song ‘Still Running’. “There is such an incredible vulnerability and rawness and an angelic beauty there,” Arena says, “an innocence that you just don’t see very often. It resonates in her voice and in her storytelling — she just grabs you and pulls you in from the very first breath. She’s equally as breathtaking on camera as an actress. She’s stunning.”
Recording the song left Bowen equally overwhelmed. “It’s hard to describe when one of your heroes decides they want to contact you, let alone give you one of their songs to sing,” she says. “I almost passed out.”
Bowen’s tendency to pour emotion into her songs is perhaps at a personal peak in ‘Love Steps In’, her first solo single which she released this year. The track is about her brother Timothy James Bowen, a 27-year-old Sydney musician, and the health battle he began waging in 2015. That year, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma; at the time, doctors gave him just two weeks to live.
When Bowen swung through Australia on a brief tour last year, he joined her onstage, playing the guitar. “He was on chemo at the time,” Bowen says. “The poor thing was such a trouper.”
The singer knew exactly what her brother was going through. When she was just four years old, Bowen was herself diagnosed with cancer of the kidneys, and given the same two-week prognosis. She would ultimately spend the next three years in and out of Sydney hospitals.
‘Love Steps In’ is a family affair in more ways than one, since it was co-written by Bowen’s fiancé Brandon Robert Young (along with their friend Justin Halpin), who knew his beloved was struggling to put her brother’s experience into words.
“I knew I had to sing it,” Bowen tells Stellar. “It was so special. We sang it all over the world — from Glasgow to Alabama — and brought it to Australia, where it took on a life of its own. I love that the song is not just for my family anymore. It’s for everybody.”
Timothy’s cancer went into remission in March 2016. “He’s beaten the odds,” Bowen says. “He got through chemo with flying colours and knows exactly how lucky he is.”
That song has now taken on a new meaning. “Now,” she says, “I get to sing it smiling. It was pretty rough last time with what my brother was dealing with. It’s [now] a joy that I have to share.”
Australians sometimes scoff at the idea of music as “healing”, but Bowen is a believer. She says it’s “the reason I’m still here. I was given two weeks to live. My parents pushed and pushed and pushed for things to happen that usually didn’t throughout my treatment. Getting people to talk about difficult things is a big part of my show. Singing that song is like being able to put your arms around everyone in the world at the same time”. A refusal to give up seems to be a recurring theme in Bowen’s life.
When US network ABC cancelled Nashville last year after ratings dropped, the show’s fans — known as “Nashies” — exercised people power. A petition secured close to 200,000 signatures and a bidding war erupted between networks keen to give the show a second chance. It ultimately moved to a new channel, and was recently renewed for a sixth season.
“The Nashies went crazy,” Bowen says. “They did more than I expected. When you hug someone who comes to the Nashville concerts” — the show’s principals regularly head out on tour together — “you’re hugging someone who brought the show back.”
Bowen returns to Australia for another solo tour next month; it will give her a reprieve from filming duties on Nashville and allow her to plan her wedding to Young later this year. As with most of what’s transpired in her life, she sounds excited — if surprised — to be in this place.
“I never wanted to get married before I met Brandon,” Bowen admits. “It was not one of my life goals, but he ruined everything in that department. I get to choose a song to dance with my dad to, design my dress with my mum, all that stuff I never thought about until I met him. I can’t wait.”