Anthony Callea burst onto the Australian music scene as the runner-up of Australian Idol in 2004, and since then he’s been working steadily in different parts of the industry, whether it’s supporting touring artists (including Diana Ross, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston), performing in musical theatre stage productions, or recording new music. His latest album, Thirty, is a compilation of covers, 12 songs that have had deep meaning in his life, and he’s about to embark on a national tour. On top of that, he recently landed the role of Johnny Casino in the upcoming production of Grease. We caught up with Anthony for the scoop on recording Thirty and why certain songs have stood out for him.
You’re 30 now — how have your thirties been treating you so far?
You know what, so far so good. I remember leading up to turning 30 I was a little bit . . . Like anyone, it freaks you out a little bit, you’re leaving your twenties, but I’ve got so many friends in their thirties and they were like, ‘What are you worrying about? It’s actually really good to be in your thirties.’ So I was like, ‘OK, I guess I have to trust you on that, and I can’t really do anything about it.’ The first few months have been really good, so I can’t complain.
How easy or hard was it to choose 10 songs that have defined your life, or made a huge impact?
To be honest, it was probably easier than any other album I’ve put together. When you have grown up with a lot of these songs and they’ve been part of your life, and I’ve performed a lot of these songs on a regular basis with my band at events and corporates and all that stuff, I didn’t have to think twice about a lot of these songs because I love them. I thought, ‘If I have to think twice about any of these songs, then they’re not the right song to put on this album.’ There are songs like “When You Believe” and “Go the Distance” that I’ve been singing for years. I’ve sung them with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and I’ve never recorded them, so I thought this is the perfect opportunity to record these songs, and songs that I love and have made an impact on me.
More from Anthony when you keep reading.
Those two tracks, for me, are familiar because they’re from animations — how much do movies influence you in that way?
Not a lot! [Laughs] I know, a lot of people have said that. To be honest, and this sound really bad, but I’m not really a full-on movie buff. I’m not one of those people who goes to the movies all the time, or has to check out a movie, especially when it comes to animation! I’m just not the biggest fan. However, these two songs are just brilliant and stand out on their own; they don’t need the movie, I think. “When You Believe” was fitting for me to have on the album because I opened up for Mariah [Carey] and Whitney [Houston], and they obviously originally recorded that song. When I went to New York I went to [composer] Stephen Schwartz’s house, and I actually held his Grammy and Oscar for this song. They were in his alarmed cabinet in his apartment and I got him to open it, and I just went, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ So there’s a great story behind that track, and behind a lot of these songs there’s a reason why they’re on the album.
You have stayed faithful with most of the covers in terms of arrangements — was that always your intention or did you want to try different things, too?
Totally. I never wanted to recreate these songs — that was never the intention. Why would I? They’re beautifully-written songs and I’m a big believer in if they’re not broken, why try to fix them? I didn’t want to change them, I wanted to record them with live musicians and live strings. I basically said to James Kempster, who I asked to produce this album, “I want you to stay true to these songs, I just want to put my own stamp on them. Even when I record my vocal, I don’t want too many bells and whistles. I just want it to be as real as possible,” and hopefully that comes through when you hear it, because I didn’t want it to be a ridiculously-overproduced album. I just wanted to record a beautiful live album, and hopefully we’ve achieved that. It came together quite nicely, and it was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had putting an album together.
When I wanted to record this album I walked into a couple of record companies, and when I walked into ABC Music I just knew that it felt right. I said, “This is what I want to do: I want to call it Thirty; I want James Kempster to produce it because I’ve known him for nine years and he knows my voice back to front; these are the songs; I want Susie Ahern to do a duet with me because I’ve known her for 15 years; I want live strings and musicians . . .” I was waiting for them to turn around and say, “What are you on? You can’t have all this,” and it was actually quite the opposite. They were so open and basically let me do what I wanted to do.
Do you keep up with all the singing shows on these days?
To be honest, if I’m home I’ll most likely put it on and watch it, but lately I haven’t really gotten into it [The Voice], and with the first series I was actually in LA, so I was only seeing snippets online. I did Australian Idol nine years ago, and I think the whole dynamic and structure of these shows have changed dramatically, especially with social media that’s come into play. It’s changed the whole game a little bit, and that goes for a lot of industries, not just the music and entertainment industries.
You just hope these people going onto these shows can take something good from it and use it to their advantage. And that they realise that it’s actually not about the contestants on these shows anymore, it’s about the TV show. It’s about the hype of the TV show, so don’t fall into the trap of believing in your own hype, because it’s actually not about you. [Laughs] The hard work starts as soon as you’re off that show. It gives you an amazing platform, and for me I wouldn’t change it for the world because Idol gave me a massive launch pad. With any nine-year period there’s always going to be ups and downs. I’ve turned 30 and nine years down the track I still get to wake up every day and call myself a singer, and say that’s my job, so I’m pretty lucky, but it goes with a lot of hard work.
How did you get cast in Grease and how influential was it for you growing up?
I think Grease is one of those movies that everyone loves — I don’t think you can come across one person who doesn’t like the musical, or the movie. To be part of a show like that is going to be lots of fun — for me it’s not your traditional musical like Les Mis, it’s more of a jukebox, feel-good musical that you can bring the family to, and that everyone’s going to enjoy. So when they came to me and asked, “Can you be part of it?” I went, “Yeah, you know what, that sounds like a lot of fun.” And I get to work with my old pal Bert Newton again, so I’m very excited about that.
ANTHONY'S TOUR DATES
Saturday 13 July — The Palms, Crown Casino Melbourne, VIC
Friday 26 July — Bankstown Sports Club, NSW
Saturday 27 July — Dee Why RSL, NSW
Friday 2 August — South Sydney Juniors, NSW
Saturday 3 August — Belmont 16 Foot Sailing Club (Newcastle), NSW
Friday 9 August — Broncos Leagues Club, QLD
Saturday 10 August — Twin Towns Resort, QLD