Guy Sebastian is sharing his music experience on The X Factor (returning tonight) as a judge and mentor for the third year in a row. Guy’s entry into the Australian music industry through Australian Idol in 2003 means he knows exactly what contestants are going through, and last year he mentored two boys, Reece Mastin and Johnny Ruffo, to the top three, with Reece taking out the title. We recently caught up with Guy at Sony Music’s headquarters, where he had some interesting things to say about what he looks for in an artist, other talent shows like The Voice, and One Direction’s involvement.
In the promos we keep hearing that The X Factor is ‘different.’ Can you give any clues?
You know what they always say — “This year is the biggest and the best” — and obviously I’m the kind of person that would not say anything, as opposed to going, “Yeah, this year is the best talent we’ve ever seen!” But in all seriousness I do think we’re going to have the best top 12 we’ve ever had, because I look at my category and it was so hard to chop it down. Usually you’re like, “They’re obviously not going to make it,” and it’s pretty clear cut who the stand outs are, but this year it’s like there were people that were standing out but there were others that we were like, “How can we let them go? They could’ve won it the year before.” It’s been a really good experience for me because I’m all about the talent. Who cares what the judges, like me or Mel or Ronan or Nat says? We’re not there to make clever comments and entertain people, the contestants are there. And the only thing that really makes people tune in is when they believe in people and they believe that somebody deserves to have a career and make something of themselves — and that’s the X factor. And we’ve just seen The Voice do so incredibly well, with so much great talent . . .
More from Guy when you keep reading.
Like your brother, Chris.
Yes, Chris was on there. So you think how the heck and where do these people come from? We’re in such a small country. And I think I was thinking the same thing. Going through this process of X Factor auditions, I was like, “We’ve just seen The Voice and there were so many talented people on there, where are all these people coming from?” It just shocks me. I am stoked with our top 12. I just think we’re going to have a good show, regardless of trying to put on entertainment; we’re just going to have really good talent. And so I’m looking forward to that and mixed in with that I’ve obviously got to try and do all of the album stuff.
You have a lot on your plate. [Guy's new album Armageddon is coming out soon, and he and wife Jules welcomed son Hudson in March.]
Well that’s my thing. Music and family — that’s my focus. I love The X Factor, but even though The X Factor is incredibly important to me, I can’t let my music suffer as well. It’s a tough juggling act but I’ve done it the last couple of years.
Last year you had two boys in the top three, and then Reece Mastin went on to win . . .
And Johnny’s [Ruffo] killing it. And Declan, my third boy, he’s releasing music to iTunes as well and getting a little fan base. Reece just had another number one and Johnny’s smashing it — his song that he wrote is doing really well. Reece is a great song writer and that’s really what I looked for. As a judge I look for work ethic and a great attitude, and when I say a great attitude I mean doing it for the right reasons, not doing it so that you can get your name on a list at all of the clubs and get free drinks, or become famous and sleep with whoever you want or whatever. It’s so much deeper than that and if you lose focus, for me that’s when I switch off from a contestant and don’t feel like I want to mentor them. Because they’ve got to have that attitude that I’m doing this for the music, I’m doing this for me. Music is an incredibly powerful entity — songs are powerful and speak to people. So [I look for] work ethic, great attitude and the ability to either write great songs or really portray a song and tell a story, not just run through the motions and sing and get every note right.
You can’t argue with a great songwriter here in this country. Unfortunately we don’t have people writing songs for us, because it’s not like you’re Céline Dion or Rihanna or Jason Derülo. For these big American acts there are literary people all around the world, the biggest and best songwriters and producers, compiling the best of their best and putting it in these folders: ‘Pitch for Rihanna,’ ‘Pitch for Bruno’ and all these big artists. We don’t have that here because they don’t care about Australian artists. They’re like it’s a small country, how much are they going to sell? And so as an Aussie artist you’ve got to fight to get songs and unfortunately the main way you can do that is to write them yourself or have a massive worth ethic where you learn how to write and you’re doing heaps of co-writes with good writers here. And they’re the three things I look for mainly.
Do you think it’s easier to be a respected artist coming out of a show these days, then when you were on Australian Idol?
Yes, I think there’s less walls to beat down. I think people have really started to embrace the fact that it’s all just about talent, it’s not so much about the coolness of how you got there. At the end of the day there’s people who are that ignorant that they would actually listen to someone that’s got no talent, or someone that can’t sing in tune and can’t write a song to save their life, and they would be into them because they’re like this undiscovered thing that’s cool and is really hippie or whatever, and has been working in pubs for 20 years and hasn’t got a break . . . People get more caught up in the story of how these guys have made it, rather than the actual talent and ability, and for me I just want to listen to good songs and good music — that’s what music’s about! I want it to come from an honest place but people who seek out alternative music, a lot of the time they’re seeking out honesty because they feel like a lot of pop music is mass produced or manufactured or whatever.
Which isn’t really the case in this country, because it’s not like for me I’m going with a bunch of different producers and having songs pitched to me and having a record label all saying, “Wear this!” I buy all of my own clothes, I write my own songs, I produce my songs, I’ve got my own studio — if I don’t do it myself it doesn’t get done. Whereas there are so many artists that I know personally that are really articulate and dress really preppy, and then suddenly went you know what? They want to be an alternative artist, and they’ve started wearing ripped clothes and no shoes and let their hair grow, don’t wash and started to be like, “I can’t really talk properly anymore,” and suddenly they’re cool. So that’s not an honest place for me, because they’re trying to be hippie and trying to be that credible artist. And I think if you’re trying to be credible, you’re losing the whole point because you’re just trying to be cool. You just want people to accept ‘you’ as the image, opposed to ‘you’ as the musician, so it’s a bit of a warped thing.
I’m guessing you can’t reveal which group you’re mentoring yet?
I can’t yet, no.
I feel like groups and under-25 males were the best fit for you, I can’t really imagine you doing any others. But I guess over 25s doesn’t necessarily mean old — they could be 26.
That’s the thing. With over-25s you can get 80-year-olds come through. I can’t give it away but there are two trains of thoughts: I have had under-25 boys and I’ve had groups already, so people are trying to say he must have one of the other ones, but I could have doubled up.
That’s true. Can you talk about One Direction’s involvement?
I can. They’re guest judges and guest mentors. They definitely know what it’s like to be grouped together very quickly. What they’ve gone through, most people will never go through, that sort of hysteria. They’ve had the biggest boot camp into the industry because that kind of hysteria, they can’t go anywhere! So that sort of advice is quite priceless.
The X Factor returns tonight at 7:30 p.m. on Channel Seven, and continues on Tuesday and Wednesday.