Sixteen years on, he’s leading the party. And as the ARIAs’ host, those outsider sentiments will fuel his approach.
“I want to contribute to bringing unity into the industry,” he says. “And it’s not some kumbayah moment, but you’ve got to have that balance of taking the piss as long as we all know we’re in it together.”
The ARIAs cap a dramatic year for Sebastian, swinging from career accomplishments to personal turmoil. In June he was featured on the Queen’s Honours list; at the same time he was embroiled in a very public court case against his former agent Titus Day alleging breaches of contract, including that he’s owed more than $200,000 in performance fees.
A new single Choir, meanwhile, penned in tribute to his close friend and band member Sydney musician Luke Liang who died in August 2018, became Sebastian’s biggest hit in years, leading to four ARIA nominations: Best Male Artist, Best Pop Release, Best Video, and Song of the Year.
“I’ve really felt like an adult the past couple of years,” says Sebastian. “Because of the job, musos in general walk through life with this invincibility, like you’re cheating age almost. But I’ve felt my age lately. I’ve been having to deal with things and not just ignore them and face them head on… It all hit at once.”
In September, awkward headlines emerged from court documents alleging his label Sony Music had been set to axe the singer around the time of his second album back in 2004.
“It wasn’t true,” he says of the claim. “I’ve had all sorts of stuff being dragged into this [court case]. All I’m after is transparency and the truth, and I’ve been put through the wringer to do that. And you know what? I can’t call myself a senior figure in this industry and just bend over… This sort of stuff happens all the time, not just to me, and I want to fight it.”
He says public scrutiny around the case’s specifics has been “very painful” to himself and wife Jules.
“I’d never been to court before, it’s awful – and it’s all out there in the public and someone can say whatever they like and threaten what they like. I just want to do the right thing with this opportunity I’ve been given; if I let this slide then it’ll just keep happening to other artists and no one will stand up to them.”
He calls the court case a “distraction, but it’s made me stronger”. The ARIAs, at least, offer a chance for reflection on a career stretching beyond where even he expected.
“Look, I never wanted to be famous. I sung in church. I had to burn CDs when I was young; I wasn’t even allowed to listen to secular music. Like, I just never dreamed that big,” says Sebastian.
“So for me to still be doing what I do – I mean, I’ve done Jimmy Fallon, I’ve done David Letterman, I’ve had a song go platinum in the US, even now Choir is my most successful song ever on radio – it’s insane to me that I’m still doing it.”
The ARIAs will be broadcast on Nine, the publisher of this masthead, and live-streamed on YouTube, on Wednesday.
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age