Cast your mind back to 2003. Finding Nemo reigned supreme at the box office, JK Rowling’s fifth Harry Potter novel was unleashed, John Howard was still PM with four more years left in tank, Apple launched iTunes and Lance Armstrong was still in the saddle, for the time being, notching up his fifth Tour de France win.
It was also the year Australia first fell in love with 21-year-old singing sensation Guy Sebastian. Yep, it’s a scary realisation that it has been a whopping 17 years, literal decades, since Sebastian was crowned Australia’s pop-star elect on the first season of TV juggernaut Australian Idol. Yet on the eve of his ninth album release, T.R.U.T.H, it’s probably none more daunting than for Sebastian himself.
“It’s definitely a bit of disbelief,” Sebastian told us when we caught, reflecting on his accomplishments since Idol. “It’s pretty hard to process because I just never knew what was to come. I never thought I’d be sitting where I am right now.”
At a time when streaming services weren’t yet conceivable, and a lack of smart phones meant that TV still held our attention, most of us can remember where we were when Sebastian edged out Shannon Noll for the title of OG Aussie Idol. And what has followed has been nothing short of astonishing, with Sebastian achieving levels of success few have been able to mirror. Since that crowning moment, Guy has sold almost four million albums, and is the only Australian artist to boast six number 1 singles, the most by any Australian male artist in ARIA history, with two number 1 albums to add to the tally.
Sebastian astutely identifies that it’s most likely this trademark humility and self-awareness that has struck a chord with Aussies, combined with the talents befitting an Idol, that has allowed him well-deserved career longevity.
And after experiencing said humility first hand, it’s unsurprisingly that Sebastian’s star continues to rise, with 2019 mental health-inspired single Choir, penned for lost friend Luke, resonating with fans even before the pandemic hit, going on to become the biggest hit of his career.
Advocacy for mental health has come to characterise the work of our Idol of recent years. Prior to the inception of T.R.U.T.H. and the pandemic, mental health has been a passion for Sebastian and his wife, Jules, with the two starting charity The Sebastian Foundation in 2013. “Recently it has felt like everyone around me has directly or indirectly been touched by mental health issues,” Guy explains, balancing the delicate nature of the issue with the precision of a true pro. “We have shifted what we do with The Sebastian Foundation [as a result of the pandemic] to try and help young people who are going through mental health issues,”
Musically, the onset of COVID-19 coinciding with the album’s completion has resulted in an even more poignant collection of works, with Guy’s talents in song writing perfectly capturing the mood and emotions felt by so many in 2020.
“I was feeling very anxious about everything that was happening – as was everybody else. However, on the way to my session I read a post by my cousin detailing his battle with depression and it reminded me that beyond this pandemic, people are already fighting their own mental health battles.”
The result, T.R.U.T.H., is Sebastian at the absolute top of his game, truly comfortable as a vocalist and as a songwriter.
“There’s definitely a sense of freedom,” he says when describing the project that has blossomed from adversity. “I think throughout my life I will always look back on this album cover and remember exactly what I was feeling, even decades from now.”
Perhaps in much the same way we, his fans, will look back at the moment we crowned our Idol back decades ago.
It’s been 17 years since Idol and you’re on the eve of your ninth album release, what do you think now when you look back on 2003 and the whole journey since?
I do honestly look back out at that morning when I sort of made that decision to try it out for Idol; it was pretty freezing and I was a bit crook. Jules actually was with me when I tried out and she tried out as well. And I said to her on a number of occasions, “What am I doing here? This is not for me. There’s no way I’ll do well in this. Look at them, look how well they can dance, look how good looking that person is, this isn’t me. I shouldn’t do this.” And I was trying to talk myself out of it and I’m so glad that she talked me back into it.
I get asked a lot of the time, like what’s the secret to longevity or what do you think has fuelled you, or whatever? And I if I’m really going to be honest, I think it’s the way I entered the industry. It’s one that might be hard to kind of relate to. But if you imagine you love something so much and you’ve quit uni, you’ve quit everything because you think ‘I have to do this. I have to give it a crack at least. I live once, got to give it a go.’
And then you end up being on something where people physically pay money, like 55 cents or something each text to vote for you so that you can do what you love. It’s a pretty strange headspace. You just feel like you owe everybody for the rest of your life and that you’ve been given this amazing, beautiful gift and act of kindness. I think that’s been one of the biggest things that have fuelled me to really not screw it up and work my bum off to make sure that their investment paid off. And that coupled with the realisation that music is a really powerful medium that that can really move people and heal people.
Few artists that have come from a reality TV background have been able to mirror your success. Obviously the music plays a huge part of it, but do you think staying humble and grateful has secured your longevity in the industry?
I don’t think it’s hurt it. I think the opposite hurts you. So many of us can have success and we can get in positions of authority. But I think the minute you start to actually believe the hype and believe that you’re better than somebody just because you can do something it’s a bit rich. Just because I can sing songs, just because I’ve got a voice, that doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone in my life or people that I meet.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve just realised that for whatever reason, whether it be upbringing or just nature, I think that qualities in-built when people can get a superiority complex and feel like they’re worth more than another human being or something.
You definitely also have to have the work ethic. I’ve worked really hard. And I won’t be arrogant about a lot of things, but I’ll definitely admit that I’ve been pretty diligent and pretty hard working, especially for the first 10 years. I mean, it’s been 17 years now and I’ve got a little bit more of a healthy balance now. I sort of balance my health both physically and mentally but that persistence is attributed to the longevity.
Thirdly, you need the art. You need a song. I tell everyone it doesn’t matter whether you’re Idol, X Factor Triple J Unearthed, Battle of the Bands, whether he was signed in a bar… none of that matters. The only currency that you have as an artist is your art. That’s literally all that matters. That’s what gives you a legacy. We’ve seen heaps of assholes have incredible careers, people who are absolutely socially impaired, that don’t know how to speak to people. If their art is incredible, they get respect. And it’s just, I think it’s an added bonus when people are nice and it’s something that you want to expect. But sometime you just want to say “just don’t be a dick”.
There’s a real thread of positivity and message of support throughout the album, with a particular emphasis on mental health. With the lead singles released last year, was the intention always heading into this album to have that focus, or was that shaped more as 2020 unfolded?
I think it was shaped by a few different things because most of the album was written before COVID. And so some of it was shaped through loss, going through that at the time, but also we’ve experienced loss in our family and friends. We’ve had suicides and Jules’ brother unfortunately lost his battle with mental health about five days after we got married. And we were on our honeymoon and had to rush back. And I know for Jules, it’s been something that she’s really struggled talking about up until recently where she’s been a little bit more open with it and ready to kind of concentrate on that with regards to our foundation and youth mental health. But yeah, I think that subject matter kind of grew on top of Choir [the lead single from T.R.U.T.H.].
I had some real close family going through depression and that inspired Standing With You. And it was him and the pandemic and isolation that kind of really inspired me to write something that would help people through that time. The most important message was that just that people aren’t alone. Even if they feel it, they’re not alone in their battle. There’s people standing with them, and just a reminder for us all to look out for each other.
[But the album also] moves from those things through to things about love and my relationship with Jules. And then also to some up-tempo, fun, feel-good songs. If I had to sum up the album, it really is an extreme of triumph and tragedy. There’s not that much in between. It’s mainly about quite emotional, it gets quite emo, and then it’s really fun and happy, and that soulful pop that I think that people have always sort of got from me.
Lyrically your real-life experiences were an inspiration for the album, but stylistically and musically, did you draw on different inspirations for this album?
I think I just wanted to get back to who I was. On my last album, I got a little bit indulgent with production and sort of blurred the lines with my affection towards production and electronica and other genres of music that I personally loved and listened to. But I think the lines got a bit blurred with who I was as an artist. You love to produce and you love to seek out other music and you get inspired by other musicians, but then you end up kind of losing yourself in it a little bit with your own project. And it’s not something I regret, but I think on this project, I was determined to get back to a sound that I wasn’t thinking about.
I actually speak about [2016 single, Candle] every now and then, because when people talk about failures they bring that song up. There’s certain things that you do as an artist that you might think is deemed a failure but it depends where you align your purpose. I’ve had heaps of people jump in that they love that song. I personally love that song. That’s Jules’ favourite song I’ve written for her. I dig it.
The latest outing, T.R.U.T.H.… what does it stand for?
It’s not an acronym, but I do regret the dots. I’m going to go through all the album artwork and just liquid paper it all out. [Laughs]
It doesn’t stand for anything. I’ve been trying to think of something really clever and something really smart sounding, but I haven’t been able to. And I was put on the spot the other day and I was like, ah… and then it just made one up on the spot. I think I said, “The real ugly truth hurts” or something.
You famously transformed your body in 2017 and landed on the cover of Men’s Health. Have you kept up the workouts and the strict eating regime?
Definitely not to that level, but I’m in good shape I reckon. My whole thing is just be within a month of being able to be in a real shape that I’m really happy with. I’ve had to get used to the fact that life comes in waves and I’m time poor in a lot of those waves. I don’t live a normal life as far as I don’t know what’s [happening] next week, for example. And so I can’t say to myself, all right, I’m going to do five sessions next week. I just learned that I’ve got to have a bit of a balance. That time was awesome because I was at home, I was recording and I had this real stability, so I was able to work out six, seven times a week and I was so disciplined, like ridiculously disciplined.
It was so valuable to me because it taught me how my body reacts to food, how my body reacts to training, and it literally healed my body as far as all of my injuries. I played a lot of cricket and a lot of AFL and I’ve got a bit of a hip condition called FAI [Femoroacetabular impingement] and it got really bad. And I was told by like three different osteos and physios that I needed surgery. And then I did the Men’s Health thing and it literally cured me, like just completely cured me. Now when I stop doing certain workouts, all of those conditions start niggling away at me again. And then I start, I get strong and get my core strong and all of that stuff goes away.
It’s been a really useful thing for me just to keep me in a zone that I’m comfortable in. I hit this one point [during lockdown] where I was like, ‘dude, you’re drinking way too much. You are not healthy and you’re making seriously bad choices’. And now I’ve been able to combine my recreational, fun escapes with my fitness too.
And golf! I know golf doesn’t sound like a big fitness thing, but when I play golf, I power through. And I’m never on cars. I walk. I’ll do 12ks every time I do 18 holes and it’s weirdly kept me in shape.
Turning 40 next year, what are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned during your thirties?
I keep rubbing it in now because I’m still 38 and Jules is two years and 19 days older than me. So for 19 days, she seems quite a lot older than me, especially when she was 40 and I was the 37 for those 19 days. It’s a whole other decade!
But I haven’t actually sat down to think about that until you said it just now. I don’t think I’ll feel different. Maybe it would be different if I was in an unhappy place, but I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life. I’m in the sweet spot. My kids are so much fun, they’re eight and six. Even last night after work, I took them to the cricket nets and we just threw balls at each other for hours. And I ran around with the dog. And then I came home and recorded. That’s my life at the moment. It’s just so fun mixed with really fun family moments. And my career, I’ve never been more inspired and I’ve never loved music as much as I do now. So I don’t think I’ll feel different.
I am loving life.
Guy Sebastian’s new album T.R.U.T.H. is available for sale and on all streaming platforms NOW. [We’ve heard it, it’s incredible]
Tickets for the Nov/Dec T.R.U.T.H. Tour are also on sale NOW. For dates and locations, CLICK HERE.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, chat to a medical professional and reach out to a support hotline:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
SANE on 1800 187 263
Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636