Performing his new song, a moving tribute to a close friend, wasn’t easy for Guy Sebastian. But the response from those touched by mental illness has been overwhelming.
Guy Sebastian first performed his emotional new song Choir at the unlikeliest of venues. He debuted the track, which was inspired by the late musician Luke Liang, at a high-profile horseracing event.
“Everyone just wanted to get pissed and have a good time,” Sebastian says with laid back Aussie charm over the phone from Melbourne. “And here’s me literally balling my eyes out and trying to get through it. Everyone in the band was balling their eyes out too.”
At another big gig, a glitzy televised awards ceremony called the Logies, Sebastian almost choked on his tears while singing the song – and realised something had to give. Choir was written to raise awareness about mental health; Liang had depression and took his own life. If Sebastian couldn’t get through it, he couldn’t get his message across.
So before going on stage to sing Choir on The Voice Australia [Sebastian is a judge on the show] he had a stern word with himself.
“I said ‘This song was written to help people and touch people, so pull it together, otherwise what was the point of writing it?’.”
The pep talk worked and Sebastian is now able to channel the emotion of the song without being overcome by it. This is fitting as Choir is a celebratory piece and Liang, a talented multi-instrumentalist, was often “the life of the party”.
The response has been hugely positive. “It has been a real eye opener,” Sebastian says. “So many people have been touched by suicide and have written to me to share their experiences.”
That word – suicide – comes up frequently during our conversation. At first, I’m slightly taken aback by this but I can’t figure out why. I think it’s because in the UK we talk about people “taking their own life” (as I’ve done earlier in this piece) or “battling depression”. But Sebastian doesn’t talk around the subject matter. After losing Liang and his brother-in-law to suicide, he’s not mincing his words.
“Quite a few musicians here have committed suicide in the past few years,” Sebastian says matter-of-factly. “It’s brought about quite a lot of awareness of the struggles that musicians face.”
There’s something particularly brutal about the Australian music scene, he says. “So many people find it difficult to fit into the industry here. They are trying so hard to please people.
“In Australia there can be an elitist culture. There are a few boxes and you have to fit into one of them. You have to either be a pop artist or an indie artist. If you don’t have the sound that indie radio is looking for, and you aren’t really pop, you can get lost in the middle. It’s hard to get going and get airtime.
“The industry in the UK is much more open as far as sound goes. People are free to create.”
This is one reason why Sebastian, who has been in the limelight since winning the first series of Australian Idol back in 2003, has his sights set on the UK. He already has a loyal following in the Netherlands where his 2018 track Before I Go was a big hit. His profile in the rest of Europe was boosted by his performance in Eurovision in 2015. (Sebastian finished fifth).
“The UK is a big priority for me,” says the singer, who learnt his craft by listening to Sam Cooke, Boys II Men and Whitney Houston and then copying them. “For a long time, I’ve wanted to have my music played in the UK. It’s a massive dream of mine. Having Choir added to radio was something I’m still trying to get my head around. I can’t wait to perform there later this year.”
When he does hit the road, he vows to put all his energy into his stage performance.
“My songs are dynamic. They’re hard to sing. My vocal cords basically get smacked around for more than two hours a night,” he says.
“I deal with it by getting lots of rest. When I’m on tour I’m so boring but it’s the only way I can get back up there the next night.”
If you would like to talk to someone about any of the issues raised in this article, or discuss personal difficulties, call the Samaritans free any time, from any phone, on 116 123.
Musicians can also contact Help Musicians UK for support.