Euro­vi­sion: from ABBA to Guy Se­bas­tian — our ob­ses­sion with the con­test

He’s un­likely to don a dress and beard, but Guy Se­bas­tian is go­ing to give the world’s favourite singing com­pe­ti­tion his best shot, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - INSIDE - The Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test will be broad­cast on SBS from May 20. Guy Se­bas­tian will com­pete in the grand fi­nal, to be screened live on May 24, from 5am on SBS One and re­peated at 7.30pm.

The tiny stu­dio in a back lane of Syd­ney’s Surry Hills is as far away from pop star ex­cess as one can get. Up a few steps from the re­in­forced back door, the stair­well gives way to a dimly lit room lit­tered with in­stru­ments, cof­fee cups and mi­cro­phones. Amid it all sits Guy Se­bas­tian, a man pon­der­ing a ca­reer move that a year ago would have seemed ridicu­lous.

Se­bas­tian is not prone to ex­trav­a­gance. For all his pop cre­den­tials, the good-na­tured, 33year-old fa­ther of two isn’t what you’d call party cen­tral. He is out­go­ing, but you won’t be see­ing him in a beard and a dress any­time soon. By the stan­dards of show busi­ness stage ex­cess, he’s small fry. No la­tex mon­ster masks for him; no rolling around in a gi­ant mar­tini glass; no pole danc­ing.

Two weeks from now, how­ever, Se­bas­tian, one of Australia’s most suc­cess­ful pop singers, en­ters a new galaxy in his en­ter­tain­ment uni­verse, one in which all of the above ex­tremes of per­form­ing have been ex­hib­ited in re­cent years. In this rar­efied en­vi­ron­ment Se­bas­tian will sing a song — and 200 mil­lion peo­ple will watch it on tele­vi­sion.

“That’s a lot of pres­sure,” the singer says in in­cred­u­lous tones. “I mean, it’s not like I put my hand up and said, ‘Can I do this please?’ ”

Pres­sured or not, on May 23 (early May 24 in Australia) Se­bas­tian will be in Vi­enna’s grand Wiener Stadthalle, where the stage awaits his and Australia’s de­but as a com­peti­tor at the world’s most en­dur­ing and, some would say, fab­u­lous tele­vi­sion tal­ent quest, the Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test.

Se­bas­tian en­ters the Euro­vi­sion arena by in­vi­ta­tion on its 60th an­niver­sary, a nod by the event’s hi­er­ar­chy to the pop­u­lar­ity of the show in Australia since it was picked up for broad­cast by SBS in 1983. The show’s rat­ings per capita in Australia are among the high­est in the world, with 2.4 mil­lion tun­ing in to the semi-fi­nals and fi­nal last year. Since 2009 a lo­cal pro­duc­tion team fea­tur­ing hosts Ju­lia Zemiro and Sam Pang has pre­sented the SBS cov­er­age. Singer Jes­sica Mauboy per­formed as a guest at the con­test last year in Copen­hagen and more than a mil­lion Aus­tralians tuned in to watch her. Now we’re in it prop­erly and Guy’s our man, although or­gan­is­ers have stressed our par­tic­i­pa­tion is for this year only, sub­ject to con­di­tions.

With his wife Jules in the wings, Se­bas­tian will per­form Tonight Again, the song he wrote with col­leagues Daniel Ryan Har­ris and Louis Schoorl specif­i­cally for the fi­nal. If he wins we’ll get to host Euro­vi­sion next year, al­beit in a Euro­pean coun­try yet to be determined. If he loses, we’re done. “I didn’t think win­ning was a pri­or­ity un­til only a lit­tle while ago,” says Se­bas­tian. “Then I found out that it re­lies on me for Australia to con­tinue be­ing in­volved.”

Our on­go­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion could yet be up for ne­go­ti­a­tion, but in the mean­time, if he is to win it for Australia at the first time of ask­ing, his will be an in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment. As wild-card en­trants, we have been ush­ered into the fi­nal, which gives Se­bas­tian a bet­ter chance, but while Tonight Again has fea­tured high in Euro­vi­sion bet­ting odds, Swe­den’s He­roes, by Mans Zelmer­low, and Italy’s Grande Amore by Il Volo are the fron­trun­ners. “The fact that I’m en­ter­ing as a wild card is what makes me ner­vous,” Se­bas­tian says. “It’ll be pretty tough. It would be a mir­a­cle if Australia wins, but Australia is used to be­ing the un­der­dog. More than any­thing I want Euro­peans to look at our in­volve­ment fondly and for me to rep­re­sent us in a way that at­tracts peo­ple to Australia.”

Just how Se­bas­tian got to this point is a mix­ture of cir­cum­stance and tal­ent, as is of­ten the case in show busi­ness. Paul Clarke, whose pro­duc­tion com­pany Blink TV is re­spon­si­ble for SBS’s cov­er­age, had sev­eral artists in mind when the of­fer was pre­sented to them by Euro­vi­sion back in Fe­bru­ary. Kylie Minogue was on the list; so were Sia, Kate Miller-Hei­dke and Iggy Aza­lea. Cabaret star Paul Cap­sis was un­der con­sid­er­a­tion.

“I wanted some­one who is a re­ally nat­u­ral per­former,” says Clarke. “In Euro­vi­sion not all of them are. With some of them it’s a pre­sen­ta­tion. It’s of­ten a daggy, naive throw-to­gether by some coun­tries. That’s sweet. It is what it is.”

In­deed, as Se­bas­tian points out, Euro­vi­sion is very much a mix of the flam­boy­ant and sen­sa­tional, not al­ways along­side se­ri­ous and ac­com­plished song­writ­ing and per­for­mance. The Aussie singer is full of praise for last year’s win­ner, Aus­trian Con­chita Wurst, who com­bined her drag queen per­sona (his real name is Tom Neuwirth) as a frocked and hir­sute chanteuse with a song, Rise Like a Phoenix, and a per­for­mance that blew ev­ery­one away.

“Rise Like a Phoenix is a great song,” Se­bas­tian says. “What worked well for Con­chita was that at the start of that per­for­mance it was very dimly shot and you didn’t pay any at­ten­tion to the fact that it was a guy dressed up, but you sat there think­ing the song is so moody and ‘Gee, this could be the next James Bond theme.’ Sud­denly the lights come up and you’re say­ing, ‘That’s a bearded dude.’ Or ‘That’s a bearded girl.’ But Con­chita’s voice was great, the song was great. It only en­hanced the per­for­mance for me. The fact that it was a guy dressed up as a girl just made it all the more cool.”

Se­bas­tian, who got his first taste of tele­vised mu­sic shows when he be­came the in­au­gu­ral win­ner of Aus­tralian Idol in 2003, was keen but hes­i­tant to take up the Euro­vi­sion chal­lenge when his record­ing com­pany Sony called him into its Syd­ney of­fice to re­veal it had been of­fered to him.

“I im­me­di­ately said yes,” he says, “but then they hit me with the facts. It has to be a new song. I didn’t re­alise the mag­ni­tude of it. It’s hard as a song­writer to dive into some­thing that is very con­cep­tual as an event. It’s also some­thing that peo­ple feel quite pas­sion­ately about, as I dis­cov­ered very quickly when it was an­nounced I was do­ing it.”

This refers to the ini­tial back­lash and de­bate on so­cial me­dia about his se­lec­tion, which he ac­cepted with good hu­mour.

“When you put your­self in a com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment, it breeds great sup­port,” he says. “But also, when you go to any com­pe­ti­tion, whether it be in foot­ball or mu­sic, you have sup­port­ers for one side who gen­er­ally hate the other side. It opens up this en­vi­ron­ment that mu­sic shouldn’t be about, which is com­pe­ti­tion. Even though I came through a com­pet­i­tive show, I don’t feel it was a case of ‘you’re rub­bish, you’re bet­ter’. The beauty of mu­sic is that one thing isn’t al­ways bet­ter than some­thing else, it’s just dif­fer­ent. That’s why gen­res ex­ist. When you’re in a com­pe­ti­tion, that kind of neu­tral stand­ing doesn’t ex­ist. It’s just ‘you suck, you’re ter­ri­ble’.”

De­spite the crit­i­cism, few could ar­gue Se­bas­tian is not well-qual­i­fied to fly the flag for Australia in Vi­enna. Since that Idol suc­cess 12 years ago he has re­leased eight top 10 al­bums and recorded a string of hit sin­gles, in­clud­ing All I Need is You, Just as I Am and Battle Scars, the last of which he recorded with Amer­i­can rap­per Lupe Fi­asco and which was also a hit in­ter­na­tion­ally. He has won mul­ti­ple ARIA and other awards and is an ac­com­plished pro­ducer

I DIDN’T THINK WIN­NING WAS A PRI­OR­ITY UN­TIL ONLY A LIT­TLE WHILE AGO

GUY SE­BAS­TIAN

and song­writer as well as a re­spected per­former. Writ­ing a song for Euro­vi­sion was a chal­leng­ing propo­si­tion, how­ever.

“It’s not like it was in my sphere, or some­thing that was even pos­si­ble for me to be a part of, con­sid­er­ing that we’re not in Europe,” he says. “I had to roll with it. Ini­tially there were all th­ese things go­ing through my mind, like it be­ing a plat­form, there are 200 mil­lion peo­ple watch­ing, I want to rep­re­sent Australia the best I can. I just wanted to write some­thing that was fun and catered to the event, but I ap­proached it ini­tially with the wrong mind­set, wrong agenda. Then I thought I should do some­thing dif­fer­ent and sing about some­thing that has deeper mean­ing about unit­ing to­gether. It’s such a huge plat­form and such a tu­mul­tuous world right now. I should use it for good.”

And so af­ter a few days of false starts in his Surry Hills bunker, the punchy, cel­e­bra­tory soul song Tonight Again was born. It’s a vi­brant few min­utes of pop that seems to fit his com­pas­sion­ate world view as well as the Euro­vi­sion spirit. Get­ting it right was im­por­tant to him.

“It’s that feel­ing we all have when we’re in a mo­ment that’s fun,” Se­bas­tian says. “To me the song en­cap­su­lates the feel­ing I get when I watch Euro­vi­sion. It’s fun and it’s light-hearted.”

Se­bas­tian has had to do some cram­ming to get his head around the cul­ture of Euro­vi­sion. He’s not a tragic fol­lower, as many Aus­tralians are.

“It’s not like I’ve seen it ev­ery year,” he says. “I wasn’t a Euro groupie, but I had seen it. As a per­former it’s al­ways great to watch pro­duc­tions like that. I had to ed­u­cate my­self a lit­tle bit be­cause, like most peo­ple, I’m a fan, but on the out­skirts. I don’t have a Euro­vi­sion T-shirt. The more I looked at it the more I re­alised that there are a lot of good song­writ­ers and good artists in­volved. A lot of the win­ners are not nec­es­sar­ily the crazy ones. The crazy ones are sprin­kled in there for en­ter­tain­ment, but then it boils down to be quite a se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion.”

Euro­vi­sion is a com­plex and di­vi­sive phe­nom­e­non. Since the first com­pe­ti­tion in Lu­garno, Switzer­land, in 1956 the event has evolved, first through the ex­plo­sion of pop mu­sic in the 1960s, which in Bri­tain saw es­tab­lished artists such as Cliff Richard, Lulu and Sandie Shaw take part. Since then the con­test has helped launch the ca­reers of ABBA, Julio Igle­sias and Ce­line Dion, to name only a few, while oth­ers who have won the com­pe­ti­tion, par­tic­u­larly in the past 30 years, have gone the way of the fon­due set and the cas­sette player.

Be­ing an out­sider in a long-es­tab­lished Euro­pean con­test is not go­ing to make things easy for Australia. In the cur­rent com­pe­ti­tion, votes among the 40 coun­tries are split evenly be­tween a jury and a public vote. In the past there have been cer­tain al­le­giances or “clus­ters” among na­tions, that vote the same way to af­fect the over­all re­sult. There are some coun­tries out­side of Europe that would like to take part but haven’t been asked and that are unim­pressed that Australia, given its geog­ra­phy, is be­ing al­lowed in.

Aus­tralian pro­ducer and en­tre­pre­neur Amanda Pel­man, who last week was an­nounced as chair­woman of the Aus­tralian judg­ing panel, says “the most amaz­ing thing about Australia be­ing an en­trant is that it goes against the phrase­ol­ogy of Euro­vi­sion, but then we have one of the big­gest view­ing au­di­ences”.

Pel­man, who helped launch the mu­sic ca­reer of Minogue, co-pro­duced the trav­el­ling It’s a

Long Way to the Top mu­sic tour and was a judge on the Seven Net­work’s It Takes Two, is joined on the judges panel by TV jour­nal­ist Richard Wilkins, singers Danielle Spencer and Jake Stone and mu­sic pre­sen­ter Ash Lon­don. Although Australia is in the fi­nal, the panel will also judge the semi-fi­nals.

Pel­man be­lieves that be­cause of our on­go­ing com­mit­ment to broad­cast­ing Euro­vi­sion and its pop­u­lar­ity here, there could be an op­por­tu­nity for our acts to com­pete in the fu­ture, whether or not we win this year. “Even though we are meant to be a wild card I have to think this is the start of the in­duc­tion,” she says.

Se­bas­tian, mean­while, is con­fi­dent about do­ing him­self and his coun­try proud.

“I never talk my­self up,” he says. “It’s not Aus­tralian to talk your­self up, but I know what I’m good at. My thing isn’t be­ing on stage with a beard and a dress. It’s not ex­treme, but I do have con­fi­dence in my voice and what I can do on stage.”

He can take en­cour­age­ment from Wurst, who was in Australia this week and was full of praise for her po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor.

“He’s a su­per­star, so he needs no ad­vice,” she says. “He knows how to work a big stage. Euro­vi­sion is dif­fer­ent to other events, but for those three min­utes it’s your stage, what­ever you want to do with it. I’m sure he’s go­ing to set up some­thing he feels com­fort­able with and will be rep­re­sent­ing him­self in the best way he can. The Euro­peans are very ex­cited about him be­ing part of it.”

From above, Australia’s wild-card Euro­vi­sion en­try Guy Se­bas­tian; Ju­lia Zemiro and Sam Pang, who host SBS’s cov­er­age of the event; Jes­sica Mauboy per­forms as a guest at last year’s com­pe­ti­tion in Copen­hagen

From left, ABBA cel­e­brates its win in 1974; Ir­ish pop duo Jed­ward in 2012; last year’s win­ner, Con­chita Wurst, pic­tured at the Lo­gies in Mel­bourne this week; Finnish death metal band Lordi per­forms in 2006

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