Your kids know her from Play School and the infectious tunes on her children’s albums, including the best selling I Like to Sing, but Justine Clarke is also a celebrated Aussie jazz singer and actress on both the small and silver screens. She’s also Mum to Josef (11), Nina (9) and Max (3).
Words MELANIE HEARSE
Justine Clarke has that look that manages to slide between jaw-dropping gorgeous and the pretty gal next door you could see yourself catching up with for coffee. The chameleon looks have lent themselves to many different characters, a plus for a lady that divides her time between apple-cheeked Play School presenter and children’s entertainer, television shows including Love My Way, Home and Away, and A Country Practice and grittier roles in films like Blackrock and In Her Skin.
Justine started out in her first stage role as an 11-year-old Brigitta in The Sound of Music, and landed her first film role aged 12 as Anna Goanna, in the blockbuster action feature Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome with Mel Gibson. Her role call is impressive, she’s been in The Water Diary, Look Both Ways, Japanese Story, Danny Deckchair, Bootmen, Tangle, All Saints, Come in Spinner and Princess Kate, among many others. She continues to regularly book major roles in Australian theatre productions and film and television.
Justine has a long standing musical career, both in the Australian jazz scene and with a much younger audience. She spent plenty of time in the school choir at Woollahra Public School, danced across countless shopping mall stages and in 1991 (at the age of 18) was encouraged to continue performing jazz by Aussie jazz icon Vince Jones. “(Vince) happened to having dinner at my boyfriend’s restaurant one evening while I was singing, he was very complimentary and encouraging,” says Justine. Since then, she’s been a jazz vocalist at the Starfish Club, the Wine Banc and other well known Sydney venues, and has sung with Tom Burlinson in a Frank Sinatra big band tribute.
Justine has also moved into children’s publishing with her picture book,’Gobbledygook is Eating a Book’, released through Penguin Books late last year. Landing a role on Play School was a long held dream for Justine, who told her agent at the tender age of 18 to please put her name forward if auditions came up (which she says she now realises she would have been far too young to be considered for back then).
“At the age of 28, when I’d recently got married, there was a casting call and I got in. It was a real career highlight for me, something I’d always wanted to do and it was every bit as rewarding and fun as I’d hoped.”
Collaboration with a fellow Play School presenter, Peter, brought about the next stage in her career as a children’s entertainer.
“We were working on some songs together which he had written, and decided it would be fun to record them,” she recalls. “The ABC picked them up and released them, and they were massively successful (in fact, the first album, I Like to Sing, was an official gold seller, rare in children’s music). “This led to more albums, and it also led to performing live for kids, including Christmas concerts and a gig at the Sydney Opera House, which was an amazing experience. To see kids become part of the music – singing and dancing along, clapping, and telling me their favorite songs, it is just so personally rewarding,” says Justine.
"Music is what separates us from other animals - singing is magical, it's accessible to everyone; we all have a voice."
If you’ve ever been to one of Justine Clarke’s concerts and thought she seemed to be enjoying it as much as the children, you’d be correct – Justine says getting up close and personal with little people enjoying music, and helping be part of that joy, remains one of her favourite parts of her career.
Music is clearly a core part of Justine’s being – as we talk about her music career, the passion she feels for it is palpable. “Music is what separates us from other animals – singing is magical, it’s accessible to everyone; we all have a voice. We can create a wonderful, joyous sound that tells a story and makes us feel energised, sad, reflective, or happy; music can express all these feelings.”
When I offhandedly remark she’s obviously never heard me sing, Justine’s response is surprisingly earnest – she quickly jumps in saying she firmly believes we all have the ability to sing and those of us who believe otherwise were probably put off by someone telling us early on in life that we are no good at it (for the record, this is correct for me).
Justine says music should be encouraged for all kids. “If you have kids who have an interest in music, you can encourage them by getting involved yourselves – have music on in the background, sing, let them see you enjoying the feeling and they will feel encouraged to do the same. If they do lessons or have an instrument encourage them to play for you.”
Justine’s childhood home was one that celebrated creativity and expression, her mother being a dancer, choreographer and actress. “There was always music in our house and I was encouraged to pursue my interests – I had music, dance and singing lessons.”
When asked if she would encourage her children to pursue a career in music, she says she would if it was their passion and if they were prepared to study, but as her offspring are more into sport than music, it’s probably not going to be an issue. “They do take music lessons and enjoy music, but they are very sports focused, so I don’t think they’ll be pursuing music or acting as a career.”
Justine is grateful for a husband who is interested in sports. “Luckily for me, he encourages physical activity in the kids and they are actually more into their team sports than they are the creative arts. I say lucky for me because it’s just not something I enjoy doing – at school I had to join in at netball and it was just scary, balls flying at you, girls running at you on a mission, just scary!
"We can create a wonderful, joyous sound that tells a story and makes us feel energised, sad, reflective, or happy; music can express all these feelings."
“But it’s more important nowadays – back then, we didn’t have television, phones or computers like we do now, so we’d naturally get more exercise just from playing. It used to be an hour or two in the morning and maybe some in the afternoon. Now you have to make a point to drag yourself away from technology, so I am glad they are into sport.”
As we chat, Justine is in the process of packing up one house in preparation to move States. “We move a lot, always have. We both have to go where the work is and for the kids it means moving back and forth between Sydney and Melbourne. They stay in the same school in each State and they have their sports, but it is hard work and it is an adjustment for them and for us.”
Justine is matter of fact when she talks about the day-to-day life of her family. She and her husband, Jack Finsterer, also an actor, maintain two homes, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, in order to follow the work. “Our industry means having to go where the work is, and this does unfortunately mean two homes, two sets of schools and sports teams for the kids,” she explains. “It’s not easy, not on the kids, but it’s part of how our family runs, and we do our best to make it as easy as possible for them – they go to the same schools and are in the same teams depending on which State we are in, but at the end of the day, in order for us to have the careers we have, and for us to make a living to raise our kids, this is the reality of it.”
On the plus side, Justine says she loves that her kids get to see her doing so many different things that she enjoys. “They see me move from movies to TV, to kids entertainment, to jazz music – they see that a career can be multidimensional, and it can be something you love if you work hard and are fortunate. They also see that it doesn’t come without some sacrifices.”
In terms of help, they rely on immediate family members and nannies. “In Sydney, it is me and my hubby doing the juggle, with our parents, aunties and uncles jumping in to help out. Because we have no family in Melbourne, we have a couple of nannies that the kids adore, they have become like family members, and that is very helpful.”
Asked if her kids find it weird that she is so popular with their peers, she says not really. “When they were younger, it was just a thing that happened, it seemed normal to them. It wasn’t until they got older that they noticed the people who would come and talk to their mum were actually strangers – they knew me, but I didn’t know them. My youngest recently came and saw one of my shows and after I came off stage, he said ‘I just saw the other Justine’ – not entirely sure what that’s about!”
Journalist and mother of two boys, has worked on a range of local and national publications, focusing on parenting, health and lifestyle articles. She worked for 10 years in the public health sector before deciding to follow her passion to be a writer when her first son Max was born.