Delta Goodrem: ‘I had to learn to speak again’

Having battled cancer as a teenager, singer Delta Goodrem is no stranger to adversity, but when a routine operation went horribly wrong, she was left unable even to form words. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith what she had to go through to recover her voice.

Delta Goodrem
Carlotta Moye

When Australian pop star Delta Goodrem put a video on Twitter last summer, most people thought they knew what to expect – a new song maybe, or news about her long-term role as a judge on The Voice Australia.

Instead, after a brief shot of Delta, 36, in a garden, the screen went black then cut to footage from late 2018 of Delta in bed with a tube up her nose, eyes filled with sadness. Captions explained that she’d woken from surgery to remove a salivary gland unable to control her speech as complications had paralysed a nerve in her tongue. Delta was then seen crying. ‘I don’t want to go out,’ she lisped, her voice altered. ‘I’m embarrassed. I’m just trying to stay positive. I’m trying to decide if this is getting better. It doesn’t feel like it.’ Shocked viewers learned it’s impossible to predict if a damaged nerve will ever recover, then saw clips of Delta having speech therapy – learning how to speak again.

For anyone, losing the power of speech is a terrifying prospect; for Delta – who’d been performing since she was seven – not knowing if she’d be able to sing again was doubly devastating. ‘It was a real challenge for people to understand me. You don’t really know when it will come back and heal. I spent time with a wonderful speech therapist. You have to stay calm or it would be overwhelming. You have to be strong, working the muscles, even though it can be extremely frustrating.’

During this time, Delta, who’s probably best known for her Innocent Eyes album, which reached number two in the UK charts in 2003, hid her troubles from the world. ‘I’ve learnt from people who have had strokes or speech paralysis that we all have had the same feelings: you become very private, you go into a sort of retreat, really wanting to stay inside.’

It took Delta a year to get her speech pretty much back to normal – ‘though I don’t think it will ever quite be the same’, she says. ‘But people go through a lot, lot worse. And that quiet time gave me a chance to reset.’

As she recovered, she cut her hair shorter and began wearing less make-up. ‘It made me want to take everything away. I didn’t want the lashes… I just kind of really got back to zero,’ she’s said. ‘It just changed everything.’

Delta in the shocking video that revealed she’d lost her ability to speak after surgery. Image: @deltagoodrem/Instagram

Today, talking to Delta, who’s in Melbourne to promote her new album Bridge Over Troubled Dreams, you’d have no clue that her life was ever anything other than perfect. Laughing often, the speech impediment unnoticeable, she stops occasionally to plonk out a few notes on the grand piano behind her.

Her speech loss isn’t the first time Delta has faced adversity. Aged just 18, and with a number-one hit in Australia to her credit (there have been six more) and a role in Neighbours as Nina Tucker, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a type of blood cancer. Radiotherapy, steroids and chemotherapy followed, which resulted in her losing her hair. ‘I bawled my eyes out for days. I felt how I imagine a cornered animal feels,’ she said of hearing the diagnosis.

Today, however, she’s philosophical – grateful, even – for the experience. ‘I see it as a gift. It gives a greater meaning to what I do.’

Delta has poured her accumulated wisdom into her new album. It’s accompanied by a book of the same name, explaining each song, from ‘Paralyzed’, about her tongue paralysis and how she had to learn to ‘stop and rewind’, to ‘Keep Climbing’, where she talks about having to constantly reinvent herself in a fickle industry. It’s far more personal than anything she’s released before.

‘In the past, my lyrics have always been metaphorical but here I wanted to be more direct,’ she says. Does that make her feel exposed? ‘No, because while there’s a lot of reflection, I feel the power in who I am now.’

Probably the hardest-hitting song is ‘Dear Elton’, an open letter to Sir Elton John, who she’s known since he called her during her cancer recovery. In the song, she apologises for not living up to the early hopes he had for her, singing: ‘Did I let you down, Rocket Man?’

‘I’ve never been so brutal to myself in a song,’ she says. She emailed Sir Elton to tell him she’d written it. ‘He couldn’t have been kinder.’

She has also decided to turn that brutal spotlight on her private life, too. After dating Australian tennis player Mark Philippoussis, she ended up getting engaged to Westlife’s Brian McFadden. The relationship was bittersweet for Delta as it meant the British press focused more on her love life than talents. ‘Those were my wilderness years,’ she laughs. ‘I was breaking into [UK] music and trying to navigate a new tabloid era. I was dealing with a lot at the time – my parents were divorcing, I’d just finished chemotherapy and, while I make no excuses because all my choices were my own, I can’t help but feel that being with a guy who wasn’t right for me at that time had an effect on my career.’

Delta Goodrem and Matthew Copley
On the road to recovery last year with boyfriend Matthew. Image: @matthewcopley/Instagram

Although Delta doesn’t say why she and Brian split, she does say, ‘When I was younger I stayed in certain situations out of a misplaced sense of indebtedness. But when something isn’t right it’s so much more courageous to make a change and not to be scared.’

After seven years in that very grown-up relationship (Brian had two daughters with his ex-wife Kerry Katona), once single again, Delta was ready to have fun. ‘I’d had a very serious start to life: I was working young and then I had my health scare and during that time I felt this gravity on my shoulders. But then I came up for air. I was 26, I’d started [judging] on The Voice, I had another number-one album and I finally had the fun my friends enjoyed when they were teenagers.’

For years she’s lived between Australia and Los Angeles. But Delta confesses to feeling a pull towards home as her parents get older and her brother’s children grow. So when Covid struck she based herself near her family in Sydney. ‘But I’ll always be a gypsy at heart – I’ll travel where the music takes me.’

Still, there are signs she might settle down. Since 2017, she’s been dating Aussie musician Matthew Copley and though she won’t say much about him – except he can cook and she can’t – they’re clearly serious. She’d like to be a mother. ‘Of course. I’d like that to be a chapter in my life.’ Another catalyst for her album was turning 35, the age when women are often told to hurry up if they want children. Did she have a wobble around that birthday? ‘Definitely, and I handled it by writing those songs.’ Today, personally and professionally, she’s learnt to ‘walk away when you’re being undervalued. I’ve been in this industry all my life and often been told, “No, you can’t do this.” I’m here today still getting to do what I love because I fight for my space,’ she says. And I have no doubt she’ll keep fighting.

Delta’s latest album Bridge Over Troubled Dreams is out now.