Paul Capsis needs little introduction. His voice has been described as ‘an act of God’. When he presents his show Addicted to the Nightlife at Lismore City Hall, be prepared to be seduced by this strong yet deceivingly fragile powerhouse.
I note a lot of the songs you sing are from singers such as Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse… People with a shitload of talent and a shitload of pain. Why do you think their stories and their music continues to touch us so deeply?
I think they brought themselves into what they do. With someone like Judy Garland, the power of her voice, there’s a vibration in the singing that connects with people and goes much further than pleasant listening.
With Janis Joplin there was a toughness to hide the stuff she went through – being a woman, and not fitting a stereotype. I don’t know if you could have a Janis Joplin today. I can’t imagine the music industry getting behind someone like her today. They’d be saying all the things about her physicality that she railed against. Rather than hiding it, she embraced it. She was acutely aware of how people viewed her; she just shoved it in everyone’s face. She went harder.
The media has carried some heartbreaking stories of late of young boys being bullied at school for being gay or transgender. How did you develop such a strong sense of who you were?
I think I was very lucky to be raised by my Maltese grandmother, who was an extraordinary woman with incredible inner strength. She survived great difficulties and I grew up listening to her stories, observing how she was in the world and how she was with people – I think that helped me.
But it wasn’t easy for me. There were dreadful times at school. It wasn’t until I went to school that I discovered that there was something ‘wrong’ with me. When I had to mix with other children and they made it clear to me I was strange. I didn’t have any understanding of these words they were throwing at me – poofter and things like that. I didn’t know what those things were. I was a child.
They made me think I was different. But it wasn’t just me – it was someone who brought salami to lunch, someone who was fat, someone who had a runny nose. There were all sorts of reasons kids would pick on you.
My family didn’t know how to stop it or fix it. No matter how many visits to the school, they couldn’t stop it. I had to work out how to survive it and I almost didn’t survive, but I did.
When that young man committed suicide, it brings it all back to me. I sometimes wonder if it’s more difficult now than when I was at school because you would be told in your face that someone was waiting to bash you after school. There was none of the online aspect.
For me, part of my survival was discovering music. The people I was listening to, the people I started to observe, the people I was drawn to – they were tough people and they were no-nonsense people who were absolutely determined to be themselves regardless.
That experience at school has made me very wary. I’ve never thought ‘Oh we’re fine,’ we have all these freedoms; I’ve always thought it all could turn on a dime. It only takes one powerful person, someone like Abbott or Trump to say, ‘No, I don’t want you to have any freedom, let alone marriage, because my god tells me you’re not worthy’. Career politicians play games with these issues just for votes.
How did your Maltese heritage impact on your journey; was it part of the bigger picture of being an ‘outsider’? Do you think this is what makes you such a powerful and unique performer?
Actually the Maltese tend to blend whenever they go to different countries. They’re not like the Greeks. My father and his family were adamant they would always be Greek regardless of where they were. My dad and his mother were born in Egypt but they didn’t identify as Egyptian, they identified as Greek. I was brought up to believe that I wasn’t Australian, that I was Greek and only Greek. But I always felt I was Maltese because my Maltese grandmother raised me. I didn’t understand Australia as a child. Up until I went to school, I was a Maltese Greek child; there was nothing about Australia.
From both sides the importance of work was drilled into me, maybe to a ridiculous degree. My grandmother would say, ‘Never expect anyone to give you anything, because they won’t. You have to work hard and you have to be good at what you do.’ My grandmother was loved by her bosses because she gave her entire being to work no matter if she was sick or not in the mood. There was a sense of sacrifice to having a job, to paying your bills, to sending your kids to school; it was pretty overwhelming as a child. It made me think I never wanted to be an adult.
I still have that work ethic. It’s been 34 years now. In my profession I go through periods when I’m not working and I have learnt not to panic. I’m not very good at relaxing, winding down, letting go. I am really looking forward to going up to Lismore and after the shows having a day or two of breathing and just enjoying the surrounds.
You are so incredibly unique. What gave you the self-belief to really step into your voice?
I think the people who inspired me. Those people create the space. You can wonder about how unusual they are, or how bizarre they are; yet somehow they’ve managed to make it.
Someone like Reg Livermore, who was an Australian household name. Or when I was 10 years old there was Skyhooks on Countdown vamping it up with lots of makeup, singing about masturbation. I didn’t even understand the lyrics – that wasn’t until I was much older and I was thought, ‘Oh my god – I was blasting out this album on my mum’s stereo!’
There was this energy; something about they way they looked, the way they performed. They made a little bit of theatre with their pop. They were all playing characters.
And that voice of yours? Could you always sing? Where did this extraordinary talent of yours actually come from?
I never considered being a singer when I was young. The only person I would ever have the gumption to sing in front of was my grandmother and that was because she was completely non-judgmental and had total unconditional love. She never made any comment, she just let me be. Not like my Greek grandmother, who was the walking rulebook.
Whenever I sang it used to be mimicry and it used to be funny. I was involved with Shopfront community theatre and one day a director came up to me and said, ‘You can really sing’. I said, ‘No I cant, I’m not a singer’. Then she said that dreaded thing, ‘Well, you’re going to sing in the next play’. I was terrified because I just didn’t know how; I didn’t have the mechanisms or the technique. When I did it and I wasn’t booed off stage I realised I liked the way I felt. It was a powerful and emotional thing.
What should we expect for your show Addicted to the Nightlife being presented by NORPA and Tropical Fruits?
A big mixture of songs from across my career that I love to perform. It’s my first time at NORPA and Tropical Fruits. I’ve heard that Tropical Fruits feels like the early days of Mardi Gras and I want to experience that again. I want to celebrate in a way where I’ve come from and what I’ve done. I think I might do a number from Cabaret, which is what I’m rehearsing right now, so the show will cover the whole gamut of my singing career.
Paul Capsis in Addicted to the Nightlife NORPA at Lismore City Hall. Thursday 29 December and Friday 30 December, 8pm $50.