IT’S been 14 years since Guy Sebastian defeated Shannon Noll to claim the Australian Idol crown.
And it has taken him that long to feel at peace with his success and be able to manage the expectations of others.
Sebastian represented Australia at Eurovision in 2015 and worked with some of the biggest names in music but it is only now, with the release of his 10th studio album Conscious, that he feels in control of his life and his career.
After spending more than a decade on the road, trying to please anyone and everyone, Sebastian realised it was time to put himself – and his family – first. The father of two pushed himself to the limit, physically, and had a spiritual awakening of sorts that gave him some much-needed perspective.
“I feel like I’ve had so many ‘ah-ha’ moments this last year,” he tells Weekender.
“One of the biggest is that every now and again everybody just needs a reason to let go, smile and dance. High On Me came about while I was in Bali on a writing trip, surrounded by mountains and yoga enthusiasts. I really wanted to create a soulful earworm that would make young and old want to get up out of their chair and enjoy the moment.”
Fundamentally, he had to find himself as an artist again.
“When you come through a process like Idol, you don’t feel like you’ve done it all by yourself and that you’ve had time to think about the kind of artist you want to be,” he explains.
“I would bump into people who voted for me on Idol who would say things like ‘You owe me money, my phone bill was astronomical voting for you’. They were jokingly saying how much they supported me and the truth of the matter is that they’re right. People did actually pay money to give me the opportunity to do what I do.
“I couldn’t be more grateful, but as a result I put this anxious pressure on myself – don’t waste this opportunity, keep going, keep powering, keep releasing albums, keep writing. At some point I became a little burnt out.
“It’s only now that I am starting to understand why I have done things a certain way and why I never took a break. I’ve been powering on for so long now – 14 years and I’m 10 albums in.
“Now, finally, I feel at peace with the fact that people know I’m grateful. I’m also at peace with making the music I’m proud of. I’m proud of my other stuff, but I feel that now there are no agendas, there are no boxes to tick. I’m just making music that I really enjoy making and that I like to listen to.”
Sebastian, musing over reality television, says it is an “interesting thing to navigate”.
“It’s amazing to get that launching pad, to get what you do as an artist in front of people. But what it also does is it sets you up for failure. There’s a lot of walls to bash down and there are a lot of preconceptions – the general notion is that if you are a reality TV star you’re not a real musician.
"I saved up all my money and recorded an EP 15 years ago and I got the same response from every single label – ‘Oh we love your voice but you don’t have the look. You’re chubby, you have an afro’. It was pretty brutal."Guy Sebastian
“But before Idol I recorded demos. I saved up all my money and recorded an EP 15 years ago and I got the same response from every single label – ‘Oh we love your voice but you don’t have the look. You’re chubby, you have an afro’.
“It was pretty brutal.
“At the time popstars were polished, blue-eyed and ripped, like in the boy bands. For all the reality TV knockers out there, though, the one thing it did do was it brought people back to what music in the commercial sense is about. It’s about the voice, the talent.
“We had people like Susan Boyle winning, you know? People who were completely non-conventional popstars. I think that was probably the best thing it did.”
Reality television a decade or more ago also gave people unprecedented exposure. Social media as we know it today didn’t exist.
“I remember when they introduced internet chat forums for us on Idol. I never went on it, I was fearful of it. It was also a time when we were generally more fearful of putting ourselves out there,” he says.
“But these days people are into promoting themselves. They are fine with having a YouTube channel and talking about themselves and posting selfies.”
Sebastian describes his touring band as “killer” and has adopted the role of musical director at each show. He is loving the additional responsibility.
“I don’t want to just plug into the house system at each venue and use the lights. I’ve been doing this for a while now and I want to invest in each show,” he says.
“For me, touring never has been and never will be about the money side of things. Of course it’s nice to make money while touring, but I can make money to live elsewhere and get by in other ways.”