Cast your mind back to 2003. Finding Nemo reigned supreme at the box office; JK Rowling was only up to Harry Potter volume 5; John Howard still had four years left in office; Apple launched iTunes; and Lance Armstrong was still in the saddle, notching up his fifth Tour de France win.
It was also the year Australia first became intrigued by a 21-year-old talent-show contestant called Guy Sebastian. It’s a scary realisation that it has been 18 years since Sebastian was crowned Australia’s pop-star elect on the first season of Australian Idol. Yet as he approaches his third decade as a recording artist, with nine albums under his belt, there is perhaps no one more surprised about Sebastian’s career trajectory than the man himself.
“It’s definitely a bit of disbelief,” Sebastian tells MH, 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.”
Because it happened at a time when streaming services didn’t exist and smartphones were an emerging technology, many 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 Australian acts have been able to get near. He has sold nearly four million albums, and is the only Australian artist to boast six No. 1 singles. Add to that three No.1 albums, including last year’s T.R.U.T.H. And, of course, a 2017 MH cover.
How’s he done it? Sebastian would like to think it has something to do with the humility and selflessness he’s renowned for, combined with artistic talents befitting an Idol. The combination of the two has allowed him to establish a career longevity most singers can only dream about.
Sebastian is also a committed advocate for mental health – and no johnny-come-lately. Long before he composed the self-revelatory songs of T.R.U.T.H., long before the pandemic rattled the confidence of people the world over, greater awareness of mental illness in its many guises was a passion for Sebastian and his wife, Jules, with the pair forming the Sebastian Foundation in 2013.
“Recently it has felt like everyone around me has directly or indirectly been touched by mental health issues,” Sebastian says. “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.” Their work now centres on early-intervention programs designed to equip teenagers with the tools they need to manage their most challenging issues, including bullying, depression, addiction, racism and abuse.
“We want to get in there at a young age instead of joining the many wonderful programs that are focused on helping people who are already going through it,” Sebastian says.
“We really want to get involved in the space of early intervention, recognising all the early warning signs, while also preparing kids to tackle the issues that they’re going to face today.”
These are themes that also resonate with Sebastian musically. The onset of COVID-19 coincided with the creative process behind his latest album, resulting in a body of work that is extraordinarily poignant, as Sebastian’s songwriting talents eloquently capture the emotional gamut of a frightened world.
“I was feeling very anxious about everything that was happening – as was everybody else,” he says. “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 were already fighting their own mental health battles.”
The result, T.R.U.T.H., is Sebastian at the top of his game as a songwriter and vocalist.
“There’s definitely a sense of freedom,” he says, reflecting on the project that sprouted from adversity. “I think throughout my life I will always look back on this album cover and remember exactly what I was feeling at the time, even decades from now.”
Perhaps in much the same way that we, his fans, will look back on the moment we crowned Sebastian our Idol all those years ago.
It’s been 18 years since Idol and you’re about to re-join The Voice for a third season as a judge. What do you think when you look back on 2003 and the journey you’ve been on since you won?
I do honestly look back at that morning when I sort of made the decision to try out for Idol. It was pretty freezing and I was a bit crook. Jules 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”. I was trying to talk myself out of it. And I’m so glad that Jules talked me back into it.
I get asked a lot, what’s the secret to your longevity? Or, what do you think has fuelled you? And if I’m really going to be honest, I think it’s the way I entered the industry. It’s a way that might be kind of hard to relate to. But imagine you love something so much and you’ve quit everything because you think, I have to do this. I have to give it a crack, at least. I live once – gotta give it a go.
And then you end up being on something where people actually 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 as an act of kindness. I think that’s been one of the biggest things that has fuelled me to really not screw it up and work my bum off to make sure that their investment paid off. That, coupled with the realisation that music is a really powerful medium that can move people and heal people.
Few artists who have come from a reality-TV background have been able to mirror your success. Obviously the music plays a huge part in that, but do you think staying humble and grateful has helped secure your longevity in the industry?
I don’t think it’s hurt. 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, people can, [on the basis] of qualities that are in-built, 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 has contributed to the longevity.
Thirdly, you need the art. You need a song. I tell everyone it doesn’t matter whether you’re on Idol, The Voice, Triple J Unearthed, Battle of the Bands or whether you were 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, who 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’d like to expect. But sometimes you just want to say, “Just don’t be a dick”.
There’s a real thread of positivity and compassion throughout your work, from your recent album to your work as a mentor on The Voice, with a particular emphasis on mental health. Was that always the intention, or did it come about as the past year 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, when 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 [a] real close family [member] 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 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.
With The Voice, I think the culture feels really different so far. [Previously], it’s sort of ended up relying, a little bit too heavily, I think, on the drama, while the talent took a backseat. And that’s sort of my worst nightmare. In that position, I always want to focus on the talent and the people.
I’ve been in that position, and I remember how awkward it was when the judges or coaches were sort of having a big tiff in front of you and you’re just standing on stage. And I was guilty of that [as a judge] and it wasn’t anyone else’s fault, really, but my own. And I sort of had to just really think about whether I wanted to put myself in that position again. But Channel 7, they were adamant they wanted to get it back to grassroots discovery. You know, people that you just would never imagine have this talent, and they just don’t know how to get it out there.
There’s so much of the alternative – and I’m absolutely guilty of being a huge fan of the drama. I’m not screwing up my nose at that sort of thing. Jules and I sit down and watch certain shows and I think we all end up walking away from each episode actually feeling great about ourselves and that we’re kind of normal. But I do feel like The Voice has a certain magic to it when it is feel-good and when kids tune in and they see, you know, that we’re so anti-bullying and so anti saying nasty things.
The anti-bullying message has become a theme in your pursuits, especially in your work with the Sebastian Foundation.
You know, this world has changed so much in the last 10 or 15 years, with social media and bullying and everything else, that it’s tearing kids down. They aren’t equipped to deal with public humiliation, like having something filmed and shared across Snapchat and their whole peer group knows about something within seconds. And suddenly they feel like their whole world is caving in – we didn’t face that level of scrutiny.
It’s about restoring a foundation our kids can build on and gain strength. It’s an online learning program with kids, who can actually talk about their own mental health issues, ranging from depression and anxiety to even things like consent. And so they’re hearing me talk about it, and then in the classroom, any teacher can facilitate a question time afterwards. It’s in an open parachute, in an open setting.
[The Sebastian Foundation] has also partnered with the Real Insurance Sydney Harbour 10k and 5k, with $20 from each entry going to fund these programs. I think I’ll do the 5km. I’ve actually never run 10 kilometres.
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 to be within a month of being able to be in a shape that I’m really happy with. I’ve had to get used to the fact that life comes in waves and that in a lot of those waves I’m time-poor. I don’t live a normal life in the sense that 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’ve just learned that I’ve got to have a bit of 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 of all of these 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. 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. It continued through Christmas and I was so unhealthy. I went to Adelaide and we had a massive reunion with all the Sebastians and it was just constant eating and I was fine with it. It was like a time to just let loose and be with all my brothers and cousins and nieces and nephews and stuff.
But it got to January 5th, then I came home and I had ballooned out to almost 80 kilos. That for me is really not great. If I’m about 72, I’m in very, very good shape, I’ve got very little body fat. And I went from 80 kilos down to 73 in about six weeks. And I’m telling you, I wasn’t doing HIIT training, I wasn’t doing any of that. I was playing golf and going on the occasional run. I know golf doesn’t sound like a big fitness thing, but I love it. I’ll end up [walking] between 12 and 13 kays, and sometimes more because my ball doesn’t go straight. But I’ll never ever get a cart. I’ll always push my [buggy] and run up to my ball.
I also ordered ready-to-eat meals and kept all the meals under 20 grams of carbs. It was so good for me being in the studio, being able to have a prepared meal that was ready in a minute and 40 seconds. I could just come down, make myself a coffee, chuck this thing in the microwave. I was eating way more variety and eating low-carb. And I ended up getting into ketosis without even trying. It was really good because The Voice was on and I wanted to look like a decent version of myself.
You’re turning 40 later in the year. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned during your thirties?
I keep rubbing it in now because I’m still 39 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 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.
You can support the Sebastian Foundation by registering now for the Real Insurance Sydney Harbour 10k and 5k, happening Sunday July 25, at sydneyharbour10k.com.au. Guy Sebastian's national T.R.U.T.H. tour kicks off in November 2021. Tickets on sale now via guysebastian.com.