Guy Sebastian Talks About The Stigma Of "Australian Idol"
Eleven years after winning Australian Idol, Guy Sebastian talks about the most enjoyable musical experiences of his career to date, what he's most looking forward to, and opens up about parenthood and marriage.
Guy Sebastian has come a long way since Australian Idol. It's now 11 years later, but as I go to meet him, I find myself unusually nervous, as Sebastian played a bizarrely large role in my life throughout my final year of high school. I'm from his hometown of Adelaide, I attended a school he used to teach that also played the songs he used to perform with Christian band Planetshakers. Their song "Reflector" was our school's favourite song of the year, and at the end of the year we were all given miniature plastic disco balls to remind us to all be "reflectors" in our own lives. That year was 2003, the year Guy Sebastian was named the first Australian Idol.
Now, it's 2014, I don't know where that plastic disco ball is, and Sebastian opens the conversation by welcoming me into his studio, which has textured wallpapers and a red lounge. I compliment him on the space, and as he thanks me, he mentions how little time he gets to spend in the studio these days: "It's funny with music, I'm so mobile with it now; I've got my sound cards and all my plugins and all my samples and everything on the drive, and I just take my laptop and I can sort of just work at home. It's only when I record the drums and the things that require… all that," he says, gesturing toward the studio.
I mention to Sebastian that I'm from his hometown of Adelaide, and that I went to a school he used to teach at, Temple Christian College. Immediately, he starts naming people he knows who attended the school. "I probably know heaps of people who went there, just through church and stuff. ... I used to HATE driving out there, though, 'coz I lived in bloody Salisbury, Golden Grove at that point."
After breaking the ice with our shared history, we begin talking about his latest single, "Mama Ain't Proud," which features rapper 2 Chainz. Sebastian tells me that it was the last song he recorded for his latest album, Madness, and that the recording process for it was quite different from the other songs.
"A lot of the album, I'd mix it on piano, or just play guitar or whatever, and then write the song from scratch, whereas, this was right at the last minute. With 'Mama Ain't Proud,' my buddy in L.A. just said, 'Hey dude, I got a bunch of tracks, can I play you a few?' and I was like, 'Yeah! Of course!'"
As it turned out, it was love at first listen for Sebastian when he heard what would become "Mama Ain't Proud." "The guitar line came in, and I was like, 'Cool, I'm pretty sold already, and then the chorus started to happen and I immediately started singing what is the melody now, the first time he played it, and that pretty much became the chorus, and then at the end of it I just started going..." He starts singing the tune of the hook. "And I went, 'Dance like your mama ain't proud!' … It just sort of came out, and I was like, 'Mama ain't proud! That's cool, that's a cool title,' and then that urban beat dropped and I was like, 'Well, it has to be a rapper! It has to be someone who's just gonna get real gangsta on it!' so obviously 2 Chainz. I put my vocals down and we sent it to him, and he liked it and put his vocal down quickly, and that was that!"
When talking his experience working with 2 Chainz, Sebastian immediately says, "He's huge! He's like 6-foot-6 or something!" He laughs, saying that 2 Chainz makes him look like a "Hobbit" by comparison.
"There's one scene in the video where we're actually standing together and I'm standing on one of the rafters and he's standing on the ground and he's still as tall as me! But it was great working with him. I mean, he's 2 Chainz — you know what you're gonna get with him. He's pretty, like, urbaaaan, you know. But when you meet a person, you forget the artist, and you're just kind of hanging out with the person."
Sebastian describes 2 Chainz as a "good guy," emphasising, "He's really nice!" as he tells me about bonding with 2 Chainz over being a parent.
"We were sitting there and I was showing him pictures of my kids, and he's showing me photos of his daughter and the school project that he made with her, and then it's, like, straight back into 'DROP DOWN DO THA HOKEY POKEY!' It's just hilarious."
Talking about his favourite collaborations, he recalls his experiences recording the 2007 album The Memphis Album as "the most enjoyable experience, musically" of his life, where he got to work with some of his personal legends, Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn.
"The Memphis Album is hard to beat, I gotta say. We recorded it all on tape, which means it's not getting digitally recorded, where I can go in and fix my pitch or drop in for a word that I stuffed up. It's old school; I've gotta sing from top to bottom, in one take, and be like, 'Cool. Happy with that. That's the record.' You know? It's a lot of pressure, but I loved it; it was awesome. I love singing live, so I think that's why recording in that way was really a breath of fresh air. I didn't have to think about necessarily getting it perfect, but just getting the feel perfect."
Sebastian speaks quickly and passionately about what it meant to him to be able to work with Cropper and Dunn. "Just being in the same room, all recording at once with some of these legendary songwriters and musicians who've been so instrumental in soul music. I mean, Steve Cropper, he wrote on 'In the Midnight Hour,' 'Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.' Those guys discovered people like Otis Redding, you know. It wasn't necessarily the label guys, it was these dudes."
Immediately Sebastian tells me that Redding is his favourite singer (along with Sam Cooke) and begins recalling a story that Cropper told him about how Redding got into the music industry.
"Otis used to be a truck driver who would load the gear into the studio, and he kept pestering Steve, like, 'Steve! Steve!' And he's a big guy, I'm pretty sure he was 6'4" or 6'5", and he was HUGE, he was this huge truckie, and he'd be like, 'Steve, Steve, can you please play my music?!' And he sat down with Otis, and Otis started telling him, 'I've written this song, it's called "These Arms Are Mine",' and he just starts singing" — Sebastian also starts singing — "And Steve's like 'Duck! Duck! Come here!' They recorded it on the spot, and it became his first single."
Sebastian's tone turns nostalgic. "I mean, it's just magic how it happened back then, with no X-Factor, or The Voice. It was like, you had to hustle! You know?"
He also speaks very highly of his experience working on 2012 track "Battle Scars" with his friend, rapper Lupe Fiasco, who he describes as a "great guy" with no ego. "Sometimes everything comes together, musically and lyrically and personally. He's a great friend of mine. I've worked with a lot of hip-hop artists, and there's usually so much ego to wade through, but not with Lupe. He always raps about real stuff, and he's just… I can't speak highly enough of him."
Sebastian has always strived to keep his music and live shows family friendly, despite pressure in the beginning to be "edgier" and "more sexual." He tells me that "when the chips were down" and his album wasn't selling, he received "a lot of pressure" to keep up with his peers.
"It's not like I could really call the shots at that point," he says. "I, myself, was on edge like, Oh, what if this is it? I've just gotta keep working!" He clarifies that the source of the pressure was not from his Australian label, but rather, overseas. "I went overseas and they said, 'Look at Cee-Lo's new song "F-You" — it's blowing up! You need to be more edgy with your lyrics and swear more! And, you never sing about sex, and your film clips, they're never sexual. You need to be more cutting edge!'"
Sebastian tells me how confused he was by the pressure. "It's not who I am," he says. "For some artists it works and it matches their personality and their music. It's organic, it feels right for them, but, um, I don't necessarily see it as 'edgy.'"
Sebastian's personal definition of "edgy" is anything he regards as "thought-provoking." "Something that sort of gets me out of my body for a second," he says. "'Somebody That I Used to Know' was edgy. That video was sick! And it was thought-provoking, and it was a break-up song done in a different way, and that's hard! There's been a million break-up songs, you know? So that's edgy, to me."
Sebastiany clarifies that he doesn't "hate" musicians who are "edgy," ruminating, "Sometimes it's necessary for some people, 'coz maybe they need it? Because… like… the music isn't there? But, yeah…"
Sebastian describes his new album as "very diverse" with "a bit of hip-hop, very beat driven," and a little bit dark. He tells me that he likes to make albums where you're not sure what you're going to get from track to track, because those are his favourite albums to listen to.
"It's quite different from the singles," he says. Of the sound, he says it's "a bit of hip-hop, quite organic, [and] very beat driven," while describing the content as "a little bit dark."
"There's a lot of songs about relationships coming to an end, and even being in denial of that," he says. "Not because of anything to do with my own personal relationships!" he quickly clarifies, waving his hands as if to push the thought away. "But I've had people who are very close to me go through break-ups, and I've sort of watched it the whole way through, and it's been very close to my heart as of late. It's really occupied my headspace, and my writing space."
It's not an album full of doom and gloom, though, he stresses: "From that it goes to 'Like A Drum' or a song called 'Alive,' which is so positive; it's a diverse album."
We ask Sebastian whether he feels like there is a stigma attached to him because of his background on Australian Idol. He tells me that it happens, citing one particular incident with Triple J and his friend Lupe Fiasco, who didn't know that Sebastian had been on a talent show until their collaboration on "Battle Scars" was already done. Sebastian laughs. "Lupe said, 'Ohh, I didn't know you were on a show!" but then points out that Lupe has collaborated with him on another track for Madness, and that Sebastian features on a track on Lupe's new album also. "I don't think he cares!" he laughs.
Switching tones, Sebastian tells me about an interaction that took place between Lupe and Triple J in 2012, while Lupe was visiting Australia to perform with and promote "Battle Scars."
"Triple J said to [Lupe], 'Don't mention Guy Sebastian,' and Lupe was like, 'What?!' And he goes, 'That's why I'm here! I'm here for Guy, I'm here because we've done a song together, and it's a great song!'"
Lupe recounted this to Sebastian, asking what he has done to piss Triple J off. "I didn't do anything to them!" Sebastian exclaims, partially telling the story, partially reasserting this to me.
On Triple J, he has a lot to say. "They just... they've got their format," he begins, cautiously. "They promote a certain way of thinking when it comes to music and they do, unfortunately, tend to devalue pop music as a whole," he continues.
"Pop music is not easy to make! It's the hardest thing to make!" Sebastian exclaims. "I've trained vocally and musically in much more complex music than the music I make, but that's the difficult thing, to keep it simple, but hooky, and to keep people's attention and to keep it emotive."
Meanwhile, Sebastian insists that he does not hold this incident against Triple J, saying, "I love Triple J and the music they play so I would never devalue what they do..." he trails off.
Suddenly, he recalls a video that can help him make his point. "My friend sent me a Yoko Ono performance, she was at some art gallery in New York, it was a cover of Katy Perry's 'Firework' and I sit there and I'm baffled by it, because I just don't get it, but there were people in the room and they all applauded at the end, so just because I don't get it, doesn't mean it's terrible. You would probably think it's terrible, if I played it for you. Which I will do." Sebastian jumps up, crossing the room to his laptop, and pulls up this video:
"She does that all the time… that's art," he continues. "Just because I don't get it, doesn't mean I should devalue it. Like, those people at that gallery CLAPPED. That's the beauty of music and the beauty of art. I just don't know if you'd put it on in your car on your way to work or put it on on your boat while you're fishing and be relaxed!" He says, lightheartedly.
"I've got nothing against Triple J," he repeats. "I listen to them all the time, but yeah, I found that a little like… for them to say, 'Don't MENTION it!' Like I'm a swear word! It's very odd."
Even so, Sebastian says that while some people probably write him off because of his background on Idol, most people respect him as a musician and a songwriter. "I think most people, generally, would hear a singer or a song and judge it on that. Anyone who's musical." He speculates that the people who write him off based on his Idol roots are probably "people who are caught up in the game of music."
"There's a lot of very untalented people who are in the industry, and I'm not being negative — it's just the way it is," he says. "Some people are very caught up in their story, in how they got there, in the marketing of it all, and it doesn't mean they're sonically appealing. It could be torture to listen to but people get caught up." Although this sounds like a criticism, Sebastian says that it's "great," describing it as "the beauty of music."
"There's so many different angles," he says. "But as a muso, as someone who is, like, so critical about the sonic nature of music, yeah. I dunno."
Sebastian speculates that he is probably protected from any Idol stigma he may receive because he doesn't "hear a lot of the reasons for the rejection." But these days, he says that "there's not that much rejection" for him.
"I'll send out a song if I truly believe it's going to work for that artist. Sometimes you get knocked back, but that's just life. I've knocked back heaps of stuff just because it doesn't fit."
He stresses that what's important to him is being respected by his peers, rather than
"people who would write you off, without even listening to you or even having the ability to know whether you're good or not."
"It's not like I'm sitting here having songs pitched to me!" he declares. "I've written every song, I've produced most of it. If people knew what goes into it from my side and how hands on I am through the whole process... " He stops.
"I'm not trying to blow my own trumpet, but I don't really take notice because I'm confident in myself as far as, I know what I did, and I know what I went through to get a song from A to B, and I know I'm respected in songwriting circles and that stuff drives me," he says. "I don't care what someone else thinks. I care about what a songwriter or a publisher or a producer thinks of me when I'm in my professional circles, or if I'm programming a beat and writing a song to it, and I've got a songwriter in here with me, I want them to think, Yeah, he's legit, he's dope! and that's all that matters. When people who are in the know, know when credit is due."
"I'm not saying that everything I do and produce isn't up for criticism, but I don't think that criticism could ever fall into the category of 'I'm not legit, musically, or legit on the credibility level,'" he says. "I just know that isn't true, so I don't listen to it. It still gets said. There's a stigma, definitely."
Sebastian is more excited for the upcoming Madness Tour than "anything, probably" in his career, due to the "sheer size" of the tour.
"I'm working with Bruce Ramus, who's worked with U2 and, like, David Bowie," Sebastian tells us, excitedly. "He's put some of the biggest acts on stage and come up with all their stage creative and stuff and he's been with me on the last couple of tours and stuff, but now I've given him the wide scope to sort of go nuts with video content and lighting and stuff."
But the Madness Tour won't be all lights and videos, Sebastian promises. "It's such a musical album and there's so many strings and so many horns and, like, fat drums! And, like, real epic choruses," he says.
"It's going to be a tough album to do live because it's so high and so dynamic, but I'm just so looking forward to doing those songs in an arena," he says. "There's a piano ballad called 'One of Us,' which is, like, such an intense break-up song, but just to sing it live, it's like a massive soul song. And 'Linger,' featuring Lupe, yeah, it's definitely going to be a fun one, and I'll play some of the old ones too, but I just definitely wanna get through the new album because I think people will appreciate hearing that live."
Our conversation drifts back to Sebastian's hometown of Adelaide as he laments being time-poor, as it makes it difficult to keep up with his favourite AFL team, the Adelaide Crows. "It's hard, like, in the U.S. sometimes, even just to stream the games. I've tried to do it legally and it just doesn't work! I won't mention the service, but I had this subscription service and it just wouldn't work! Like, it NEVER WORKED!" he exclaims. "It kept getting interrupted... maybe I just had crap internet for Australian sites or something," he says, as if to defend the unnamed service provider.
"I try to follow The Crows on the road, and I get pretty passionate about it, but I'm pretty passionate about sport, in general," he says. "Like, I HATE who I am when I play sports; I'm a different person. Jules (his wife) hates it. Honestly. She used to come and watch me play indoor cricket at Modbury ICA and she was like 'I'm never coming to watch you play again. Man, you're a jerk!' and I was like I KNOW!' I'm so competitive."
Lleyton Hewitt, the Crows' No. 1 ticket holder, has nothing to worry about, though, because Sebastian's not coming for his title. "Look," Sebastian begins. "Adam Scott's a ticket holder as well; he won his first jacket, and yeah, they've got some good ambassadors! I'm just happy to get some little gifts that they send me. They send me, like, little guernseys for Hudson (his eldest son) and little scarves and little Crows teddy bears, but I just need to get to more games! I haven't been to a game for aaaaaages! I'm just never free, but yeah, I'll definitely get to one next season."
Although he may be time-poor these days, Sebastian spends what little free time he does have gaming, fishing, surfing, and hanging out with his boys Hudson and Archer. "Surfing and fishing are probably my two main recreational activities when I've got time, otherwise I just hang out with my boys, I love it," he says, smiling.
"Just hanging out, playing games, taking them to the park and kicking the ball around with Huddie, and just wrestling and being stupid. I love it, and then when they go for naps, yeah, surfing." He tells me that his favourite spot to go surfing is the South Coast. "I actually saw Sally Fitzgibbons this morning. We did the same event and she's a great friend. She's got a place next door, pretty much, to my place down south, and yeah, I just love the sport, love surfing — it's so relaxing."
Sebastian shares that having children makes touring much more difficult, because it's hard to leave them behind while he's on the road, and talks about how Hudson doesn't understand why his dad has "so many friends!" who want photos with him.
"Going away, it's tough. I used to be fine, I'd get on the plane, any day, no dramas," he says. "Now, my kid knows that when there's a suitcase at the door, daddy's going away! Like, he gets real sad, and yeah, 'coz he's a bit older we're SO close now too."
Sebastian talks about the bond that grew between him and his eldest son Hudson while he was recording Madness. "This last little while has been amazing, 'coz I've been home," he says. "Finishing the album, we've spent so much time together and he doesn't leave my side, he's like my little… he's such a little leech. Yeah, he's the best, we're so close now. So it'll be tough when I go away next because he's so used to me being around now."
He opens up about the the difficulties of fame that arise as a parent. "Even when we're just going out, he doesn't get it, why dad keeps getting stopped and asked for photos," he begins. "He doesn't get it, he just wants to go to Toys 'R' Us, or go get an ice cream, and he's like, 'Stop! Stop stopping my daddy! Why's Dad friends with SO MANY PEOPLE?!'" he says, impersonating his son's exasperated tone.
"Like, that's what he thinks, it's almost like he's sitting there thinking, Just stop talking to everyone! Why are you taking photos with everyone?! He thinks it's my decision, you know?" He asks, with a tone that is empathetic toward his son. "That's hard, because you can't be rude, and I wanna be good to my fans, but when I'm with my kids, you've gotta kind of motor and just put your head down and think about him, put him first."
Keeping a marriage strong is a challenge for any couple, but Sebastian says that it's a lot easier to do if you focus on your partner's strengths, and accept them for who they are, without expecting them to change. "I think within the music industry, it's about understanding what you're getting into," he says. "I think if you're gonna marry a muso who tours, who does stuff, you gotta be prepared for a little bit of travel, a little bit of alone time, which sucks for both parties."
He tells me that it's important to understand the other person, citing an example from his own marriage to Jules Sebastian. "The other day, Jules was like, 'Let's go out for a movie and then let's get a hotel room — we've got our nanny tonight!' and I was like ' ...All I wanna do is be in my own bed! I've been in hotel rooms all year!' and she gets it. Like, she could've taken the whole 'I'm trying to do something special here' road, but she immediately goes, 'Oh, yeah! Oh my gosh, of course.' She gets me, and she knows me."
Outside of the music industry, Sebastian stresses the importance of "focusing on the positives" and "not expecting them to change."
"When you're in a relationship," he begins, "it's scars and all and it's flaws and all. If you're going into a relationship you can't expect them to ever change." He elaborates, "The stuff that irks you, it's gonna be there, probably forever, it might even get worse. But if you concentrate on those things, they magnify. If you concentrate on the things that they're great at, that make you really happy, then that magnifies and it encourages them to do those things more. Yeah, and I just think it's about having a laugh. You gotta have a laugh together and not take life too seriously. And you know there's gonna be crap moments, and financially tough times, and you're not going to be on the same high all the time, but that's what makes the highs high, to rejoice I guess, in the troughs and appreciate the peaks."
We get onto the topic of his favourite TV shows, and Sebastian shares with me his love for all things Ricky Gervais, Game of Thrones, and True Detective.
"I love The Office, the U.K. one. I didn't mind the American one, though — Steve Carrell had his own skew on it," he says. "I like Game of Thrones! I don't watch that many TV shows. I love movies! I love True Detective, I just got into that. It's funny when you do Netflix or whatever, I have Netflix in America, and it's funny when you watch it all in one bang and then you're like, 'Oh.'"
Talking of his favourite brand of humour, Sebastian reveals that he loves anything that's "wrong."
"I love it when it's wrong, it just makes me giggle. Like, The Inbetweeners, so wrong! SO WRONG! And anything Ricky Gervais does. Extras, Dereck, like, it's weird, because Ricky Gervais has the incredible ability to make you laugh till you drop. But then like, bawl your eyes out."
Meanwhile, his favourite films are Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, Cast Away, the The Lord of the Rings trilogy ("ALL OF THEM! I'm obsessed!"), and either The Waterboy or Dumb and Dumber.
Finally, I ask Sebastian about his favourite memories of growing up in Adelaide. He immediately replies that it is Adelaide's "homely, suburban" feel that he loves, and wishes his sons could grow up with.
"My whole childhood was Adelaide!" he tells me. "I was there until I was 21, 22. My favourite thing about Adelaide is just how homely, and suburban it is. Even when you're five minutes from the city, you're in suburbs. Here, it feels like you never really escape the city unless you're quite far away. You know?" He asks, and, being from Adelaide, I really do know.
"Adelaide's like, you do pop ins, unannounced! You just knock on your mate's door like, 'Hey man, what's happening?! Let's grab a bite!' Here, and everywhere else around the world, it's like, 'What are you doing at my door? You should've penciled this in.' You know, everyone's busy. And there's no traffic in Adelaide, very minimal traffic," he continues.
"I don't know my neighbours here, you know? Mind you, we just moved in," he notes. "But the place before that, and before that, we didn't know 'em! Like, I might've had a conversation with a couple of them."
He stops for a moment, recalling a recent interaction with his new neighbours. "I parked my fishing boat… fair enough, it's ugly, but it's good for fishing!" he justifies quickly, before carrying on with the story.
"I parked it on the street, completely legally, 'coz I pay for rego and I've got all the right to, for five minutes. And I got letters!" he exclaims. "Everything ranging from 'the boat's ugly' to 'it's a safety issue, like, we're trying to see past, when we're waiting for the bus,'" he recounts, shaking his head as if to disagree with his neighbours again.
"Like, it's 70 METRES from the bus stop, on the widest road," he explains. "Not to mention it was there for five minutes."
"But the people are just a bit more entitled, and it's not their fault," he rationalises. "I mean, sometimes they're just idiots, like one lady," he says, not elaborating on who this lady might be. "But sometimes they've just got no capacity left, because it's tough to live here and it's tough to have a certain lifestyle, and you've gotta work your bum off to pay the mortgage. It's silly how much stuff costs, and rent and stuff. So I think that just reduces people's capacity to deal with stuff like that. Whereas in Adelaide, you've got less stresses, so you've got more capacity to build relationships."
While describing what he loved about growing up in Adelaide, he lists a few of his favourite spots, and Hahndorf topped the list.
"As far as places, the hills, Hahndorf, Stirling, and, you know, all the stuff that's happening at Glenelg and West Beach," he says. Like every Adelaidian, Sebastian would visit Victor Harbor on "special weekends," walk "down across that bridge where the horses would go," and go fishing at The Bluff and Second Valley. "We used to sleep in our cars and fish on the pier in the morning; it was so much fun," he recalls fondly.
"It's such a good place to grow up," he says. "I wish my kids had that here, but they get so many other great things, in Sydney. But when you grow up that way, you sort of go, 'Aw, man!'" he says nostalgically. "Like, the things we used to do on the street, like, all the neighbours kids were all friends, we all used to go to the local high school and play basketball EVERY single night. Every night! And you knew everyone, and you congregated, and you were like this little gang, in the positive sense."
As we're reminiscing about our separate childhoods growing up in Adelaide, we're informed that our interview time is up. Although we'd been booked in for 20 minutes, 45 have flown by. We've laughed, he's sung, we've reminisced, we've watched Yoko Ono screaming on YouTube. Sebastian has been exactly as welcoming and friendly as anyone who watched Australian Idol would expect him to be, as humble and down to earth as he was back in 2003, and it's been great.