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Australia | SBS' Paul Clarke talks Eurovision, Australia Decides and more!

February 7, 2020

We recently caught up with Paul Clarke, former Head of Delegation for Australia, who is now the Creative Director for Australia Decides 2020. Paul Clarke is not only a former Head of Delegation and creative director, he is also a former musician, who "knows his way around a recording studio reasonably well". He does quite a bit of time in the studio, and can help in recordings with some of the people that need it. 

 

Speaking of Australia Decides 2020, Paul mentions that: “We’ve opened up the door a little bit more to Australia’s very strong independent and alternative market of music, and we’ve got some very strong reality performers in there as well... There are some really big voices, but there are also some very interesting new voices like Didirri’s and Montaigne’s.” 

With such a diverse show ahead of us, as well as performances from former Eurovision acts Kate Miller Heidke, Dami Im and Måns Zelmerlöw, let's delve more into this years show, and Eurovision in general, to see what Paul Clarke has to say:

 

Throwback to Tel Aviv:

Paul started off by reflecting on Australia's Eurovision participation in Tel Aviv, which was a big success for them. There was lots of praise for Kate Miller Heidke: “To take Kate Miller Heidke to Tel Aviv was a big moment... I thought she did a performance that will really endure during Eurovision history. It’s no mean feat to come back from that and to think: ‘Alright, what are we going to do this year that’s different, and how are we going to make it next level?... I think Kate worked very well because Europe already had opera. We just needed a bit of a magic bullet to take people beyond the idea of ‘this is opera’."

 

We've got the song, now what about the staging?

With regards Australia's Eurovision songs and their stagings, Paul says that he's constantly listening for what would be a great song for Eurovision. “Once you have the song, you’re trying to find it’s sort of core to create a moment. You have to create a moment at Eurovision. It doesn’t necessarily need a big prop to do it, but you’re trying to find a moment that will endure in everything else.”

As for Australia Decides this year “...We build the visual ideas from the ground up... we’re doing some really wild stuff! I think we’ve got a little bit over-excited with the staging ideas I think. There’s quite a lot of props, and a bit of danger as well in what we’re doing... We’ve got a great art director who makes really good suggestions. And then we’ve got a really great technical team, bringing some vague ideas of ‘What if we put someone in a snow dome into life!”

But what about the audience? “I think that the audience … they really want to see something that’s different, and they really want to see the Eurovision stage as a place that you can experiment with ideas, and you can really enjoy the difference in what people are singing about and who they want to be on that stage. And I love that about it!”

 

Song and singer - how do they come together?

The Australian broadcaster received 600 song submissions for Australia Decides this year, about 20 of which Paul's immediate thought was "Well, they're strong!", with a number of others giving Paul a "Holy hell! That’s just fantastic!" kind of reaction. Matching the songs with the artist isn't always easy, but one can make it work: "I’ve had an ongoing conversation with Montaigne for four or five years, just waiting for the right moment for her. With Kate, I was talking to her for years. I remember when we first performed at Vienna in 2015, Guy Sebastian was our performer. And I remember him saying to me, ‘I’ve got a friend that would just be so fantastic for Eurovision. You should really think about Kate Miller-Heidke.’ So that conversation went right back there."

Speaking of Casey Donovan's song, "Proud", Paul Clarke details how the two came together: “We got a song called ‘Proud’ from a young writer called Justine Eltakchi, and I thought ‘Why isn’t Celine Dion singing this song? This is a beautiful moment from a musical, and it’s class. And it’s going in the competition if we can get a good singer.’

We sent it to Casey Donovan and she listened to it before she was performing in Chicago the musical. I had been sending her songs for years, and this one, she started to cry when she heard it. She just loved it, and she said ‘this has got to be heard!’"

iOTA's song for this year's Australia Decides came from a rather unlikely source: "There was a song by a young Australian songwriter from the south coast of New South Wales, and he had spent years in an Indian orphanage as a music teacher. And the song ‘Life’ had come to him… We connected him with iOTA who is really well known around here for his cabaret. That’s when staging really begins, when you think: ‘This song is a license for mischief. Now how can we best frame what iOTA can bring to the stage.'”

 

Sweden and Australia - not so different after all?

"I love being in the room for Melodifestivalen … The swedes react very similar to music to us, I believe. We share a sense of humour, we share a sense of passion for music, and we’re little countries … that want to play a little bit bigger.

Obviously the swedes have got an incredible culture around their music. It’s one of their biggest industries now. Before ABBA they were a lingonberry nation. And ABBA changed their culture entirely. And in some ways it’s the same for us. We have AC/DC, we have INXS, we have Kylie Minogue, we had The Easybeats and we had The Seekers. For us, music is a really important thing.”

 

And the next country to qualify to the final is... Australia!

Is Australia's qualification to the grand final of Eurovision important, and if so, how important? Paul Clarke says: “You have to trust your gut instincts about what Europe is going to respond to. You need to feel like you’re on the front foot, like you’re on the good foot with where you’re setting out in terms of your artist and your song. Ultimately Eurovision is different than any other event in the world because it’s driven by the blogs. So the whole word of mouth begins in moments like this and then it keeps building until it gets to the newspapers.

I think there’s a place for us, so long as we stick to what we do. I think we’re good at creating moments and we like to be irreverent, we like to be entertaining and we like to just sort of push the barriers. I think Europe would like to think that Australia is delivering them something that’s innovating and exciting and a little bit cheeky. I think that’s who we are. And quality - I think that we want to really deliver quality because we’re a very nice nation. We want to give you what you want. That’s the kind of people that we are.”

 

New year, new decade - what are Australia's biggest hopes for 2020?

“I don’t want to come across as overly ambitious, but I think it would be a great thing for Australia to win the competition because it would redefine, in some ways, our interest in it. I think Australians would just really get excited about the whole project.

I’d like to think that we will win it one day, and I think it will be really good for Australia and I think for Europe it will be an interesting kind of reset of what Eurovision means.

“We’re competing with the rest of the world. It’s very important to us cause we’re so far away. We’d love to see the project grow. I think, let’s see how we go this year because we’ve crammed as much into one night as you can possibly cram. It’s like trying to push the duvet into a scotch bottle.”

 

Check out our full interview with Paul Clarke:

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