Bridging the musical gap between Australia and America can be a difficult task, but Guy Sebastian is making the transition look seamless thanks to his distinct influences and undeniable voice. Born in Malaysia, he moved to Australia with his family at a young age and spent the majority of his early years honing his skills in church. During this same time period, Guy Sebastian’s father introduced him to legendary soul singers like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, a style that he would incorporate into his music at different stages of his career.
By the age of 22, Guy Sebastian went from talented vocalist to a household name when he won the very first Australian Idol in 2003. The achievement earned Sebastian a record deal, where his first single “Angels Brought Me Here” doubled as his winning song from the competition. He immediately got to work on his first album Just as I Am, which debuted at number one on the Australian Albums chart. The project displayed Sebastian’s impressive voice, not to mention his songwriting abilities. He co-wrote the second single, “All I Need Is You,” a light pop record that reached the top of the Australian Singles chart.
His next few albums built upon his growth as an artist. Sebastian became more involved in the songwriting, which in turn allowed him to connect with his fans on a deeper level. Then in 2007, Sebastian took a slight musical detour with his fourth studio release, The Memphis Album. True to the title, the project consisted of covers of American soul records from the ‘60s and ‘70s. While this style initially seemed out of place for Sebastian to pursue considering his stature as a pop vocalist, The Memphis Album delivered another layer of creativity from the singer. Not only did Sebastian win over an older crowd with his wonderful Memphis soul covers, but he also shared a rich history of music with his younger fan base, the same way his dad did when he was a kid.
More recently, Guy Sebastian linked up with Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco on “Battle Scars,” which was included on his 2012 album Armageddon. The record climbed onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart in America where it stayed for 20 weeks, and eventually earned them a platinum plaque. The success of “Battle Scars” was once again proof that Guy Sebastian could work outside of the usual parameters of pop music as the song deals with slightly darker themes. Sebastian balances this out nicely on Armageddon with records like “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and “Big Bad World,” the latter being a tribute to his son, Hudson. He and his wife Jules are expecting another child in May.
In Sebastian’s never-ending quest to expand on his sound, his latest record “Like a Drum” finds the singer experimenting with dance-oriented production. “Like a Drum” serves as Sebastian’s first single from his upcoming as-yet-titled album, which will be his first full-length project released in America. Watch the inspiring music video for it above!
We recently spoke with the Australian singer/songwriter, who talked about his new single “Like a Drum,” his upcoming album, and how the birth of his son has influenced his music. He also described the challenges of crossing over in America after having so much success in Australia. Knowing Guy Sebastian, he’s more than up for the challenge.
“Like a Drum,” is a dance record, but you usually stick to R&B. Why the switch?
Dance music has sort of taken over for a little while now. As a lover of pop music, I couldn’t help but be influenced by a lot of the dance production that is happening. People are doing it so well, like your [David] Guetta’s and your Avicii’s. And people who are really writing some incredible songs, like your Max Martin’s. It’s awesome that it’s evolving, as music does.
It’s also the first single from your new album. Should we take this song as a hint to what the rest of the album sounds like?
Yes, but the album is fairly organic. For me, you can’t compare anything to the emotion in an instrument. The core of a lot of the songs are still driven by live acoustic instruments, whether it be a guitar or a piano. But then that sort of meets the world of electronic, like what I’ve done with “Like a Drum.”
There’s a lot of light and shade on the album. There’s some super dark moments. There’s a song called “Lightning,” which is basically about having something great but then losing it, and hoping lightning will strike twice. There’s another song that I’ve written called “Madness.” It’s basically saying, if this is madness, then put my hands in chains; it’s all I know how to do. And then it splits from there to some singer-songwriter type of things that are personal.
Ever since your debut album Just as I Am, you’ve made it a point to be involved in the songwriting process. How important is that aspect for you when working on new music?
It’s very important. I’ve always liked singing songs where I remember the state I was in when I wrote it. If I’ve written a song because it’s something that’s affected me at a certain point in my life, when I play it live I can then relay that emotion. I think sometimes when you sing someone else’s song, it’s hard to connect with it.
You became a dad right before your album Armageddon was released. You dedicated the record “Big Bad World” to your son Hudson. How has that major life change influenced your music?
Once I knew I was having a child, that was when I really started to think about the world that he was going to inherit. And my songwriting kind of broadened, it got a little bit more depth to it. I definitely am very influenced by having a child. It’s changed my life, and obviously changed my art.
I was in Los Angeles when I wrote “Big Bad World.” I was making it up on the guitar and I started singing that lyric (“You don’t have to worry, I won’t let the big bad world get you”), and I literally started to ball my eyes out. I’m not always emotional in that way. But I just remember saying to my wife, “Jules, I started writing this song. Now I think it’s Hudson’s song.” We obviously hadn’t met Hudson yet. I started singing it to her and we both just started balling our eyes out. But that’s probably another thing that parents can relate to. It just makes you so emo!
Switching gears, you’ve been very selective when it comes to collaborating with other artists, and that shortlist includes the likes of Jordin Sparks, Eve, and Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco. What’s your process behind choosing who you’d like to work with?
I think beyond myself, the selection process is determined by the DNA of the song. With a song like “Battle Scars,” for example, if I went for a different rapper that usually talks about shaking your booty in the club, or sings about brands, it would have had a completely different sway to it. I needed something that was from the heart, that was deep, that was going to reflect what I wanted when I wrote “Battle Scars.” I wanted the rap to reflect the fact that, hey, we all have battle scars. For some of us it’s relationships, for some of us it’s words that were said to us. When Lupe came into my studio in Sydney and he started rapping, I was like ah, this is the perfect marriage.
What would you say is the major difference between performing in Australia and performing in America?
Well, I guess over here I’m starting from scratch. I’m a new artist. Whereas in Australia, I’ve built my career up to where I’m playing to thousands of people. It’s just a completely different headspace. It’s super humbling, and it’s also exciting and challenging all at the same time. It’s a great challenge, and I’m absolutely loving it.
With two number one albums, several chart-topping singles, and a collection of ARIA awards on your shelf, it’s fair to say that you’ve done quite well for yourself since winning Australian Idol in 2003. With that said, how do you measure your own success?
I’ve swam in a safe pond for a while now. And now I’m kind of in a school of sharks is how I feel. Even though I’ve had that success, I still feel like I’m having to really fight for my art at the moment, and be a new artist and deal with labels and people that I’ve never met.
You’ve certainly gained a lot of knowledge in your 10-plus year music career. If you could go back in time, what advice would give a young Guy Sebastian who was just starting out?
I used to have a huge afro that was just ridiculous. I would probably just say, dude, get a haircut.