Guy Sebastian on parenthood and personal tragedy
The Sebastian family knows how to make the most of an unfortunate situation - just look at the events of the past few months.
During the last school holidays, Guy and Jules were set to take their young sons Archer and Hudson into the bush for a camping trip. Then lockdown happened. Yet they still went camping… in the backyard. Archer's superhero-themed sixth birthday party - his first since starting school - was set to feature a guest list of his new mates. In the end, he only celebrated with his tight-knit family of four. Of course, everyone wore costumes.
Back in early March, Guy was in Los Angeles working on his upcoming album when things took a serious turn, meaning he boarded a plane home to his family with just one song to show for the time abroad. "I was only there for a few days, so it was an expensive writing trip," he laughs. "But the pandemic has reminded me that we can get so caught up in chasing something else in life, when everything we need can be found at home."
A fair bit of the family's free time has been spent learning dance moves to share on social media platform TikTok, where they've uploaded their own choreographed attempts. "Which are annoying," eight-year-old Hudson tells Stellar. "Because they take all day to learn… but they're fun when you know them." His father agrees. "Once it gets back to normal, I think we're going to look back and really miss some of the stuff that was forced upon us," says Guy. "So I've made a point to enjoy it. But I didn't enjoy homeschooling!"
Life in quarantine forced the couple - who met as teenagers and have been married since 2008 - to have some hard conversations with their sons. Like all parents, they had to explain why they couldn't play in the park with friends or see their grandparents. "The schools actually did a great job of that," Guy tells Stellar as Hudson and Archer listen in. "The serious conversations we had with the kids about coronavirus were to really dial down any hint of prejudice. Kids absorb so much; all it takes is a few comments like the 'Chinese disease'. Imagine being a young Chinese kid at school and hearing that in the playground."
Guy experienced first-hand how prejudice can manifest when a photo he posted on Facebook from a November trip to Wuhan went viral. It was captioned "Ate some seriously interesting things (more to come about that) and met some beautiful people." The comments came thick and fast, with accusations Guy was Australia's patient zero. "Before that trip, I'd never even heard of Wuhan," he says. "It's such a great place and the people were so kind, but I didn't want the food. We'd just been in Malaysia, where I was born, so I was taking all of my crew to my favourite satay places. Food was a big focus of that trip and the post was about the interesting things I'd eaten. It was just one of those posts that didn't age well."
For now, Hudson and Archer's playmates are probably more likely to want to talk about The Voice Australia, the reality TV singing competition where Guy is in his second year as a coach. The boys tell Stellar they love watching their dad on the show, which "Uncle Chris" (Guy's brother) has joined this season as a contestant.
Questions remain as to how The Voice will proceed once the episodes filmed before lockdown run their course. With international borders closed, coaches Kelly Rowland and Boy George are unable to fly back, and crowd restrictions mean the live shows won't have the usual studio audience. Guy tells Stellar he's in the dark as to how it's all going to come together and says even watching the pre-filmed episodes is now bittersweet. "Isn't it weird to see us all hugging and touching? It was the first thing I noticed. We could actually embrace each other and not feel afraid."
Now he's settled into the chair, he feels like part of the family - and with family comes squabbles. "We're less afraid to offend each other because you get to know each other's limits," he says of the more pointed on-air disagreements. "We do get quite passionate. Almost everything that is said remains on the floor, but one instance lingered. We all walked away from the set wishing we handled it differently, but that's live TV."
When things get heated, he reminds himself he's there to mentor artists. And when asked to comment on his ongoing court case with his former manager Titus Day over claims Day withheld royalties (the three-day trial was set for June, but was postponed) he does the same. "This has been a long and difficult process that has affected all of us," he says. "If my case can be an example to younger artists about the challenges associated with this business, then I'm pleased others can learn from it."
Late last year, Guy won two ARIA Awards for 'Choir', the song he wrote to honour close friend and bandmate Luke Liang, who died following a struggle with mental health. And the one song that did come from his trip to LA - his next single 'Standing With You' - covers the same territory. "I wanted to write a song that dispels the myth you have to be qualified to be there for somebody who is in a dark place. People don't always need advice. Sometimes they just need an ear, or someone in the background reminding them they are there."
It is an ethos in keeping with the mission of The Sebastian Foundation, a charity Guy and Jules founded in 2013 with a focus on tackling domestic violence in Australia. Now, the couple is expanding their focus into the area of mental health, as they have both been personally touched by the issue.
"I lost my brother 12 years ago," Jules says. "He took his own life a couple of days after we got married; we were on our honeymoon when we found out it happened. I've dealt with it my own way with my family, but with Guy losing Luke and writing 'Choir', and the outpouring of people reaching out to him saying, 'That's happened to me or my son or daughter and thank you so much for writing that song…' we realised this has touched us personally. And we can speak to that."
As the couple considered how they could help, they kept coming back to one thing: having difficult discussions with young people. "We realised that you need to start with kids and teenagers," Jules explains. "If my brother had learnt the tools earlier on, it could have made all the difference." Guy says, "We want to make it compulsory, the way we do with sex education. I haven't used trigonometry once since I left school, but these are the lessons I could have drawn upon in life."
In their research, the couple came across Dr Hayley Watson and Open Parachute, a program designed for primary and secondary students to cover mental health through peer-to-peer learning. "She's found kids and teenagers with stories they are willing to share about bullying, anxiety, depression and stuff they're going through - and in a very relatable way," says Jules. "Teenagers sitting there will be thinking, 'This is someone my age telling me this story - and I've felt like that before.'"
As they established a partnership with Open Parachute, Guy and Jules reflected on their own experiences. Jules, who works as a TV presenter, podcaster and stylist, admits that she has found it hard to overcome comparisons with other people. "The only thing that matters as a teenager is being popular. When I was at school, we didn't have social media, so we didn't have a love heart or a number on our popularity. Now there is data for everyone to see how many people 'like' you."
Guy's most vivid memories of being bullied came in the aftermath of his Australian Idol victory in 2003. "I was not in a good place," he says of that time. "I thought everyone was out to get me. I had people say derogatory gay slurs to me, I had people flick cigarettes into my afro. I couldn't believe the ugliness. I wish I'd had the tools to deal with it back then."
And that's the reason the couple aren't afraid to start up frank conversations with Hudson and Archer. "We just hit it straight on. We're open and honest and tell the boys they can tell us anything," says Jules. Guy adds, "I tell them every night before they go to bed, 'You could never do anything that would make me think less of you. Nothing will make me love you less, and I will always be so proud of you.'"
'Standing With You' by Guy Sebastian is out Friday. Supported by The Sebastian Foundation, Open Parachute is currently being introduced into schools across the nation. Visit openparachute.com.au and thesebastianfoundation.org for more info. If you or someone you know needs assistance, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Originally published as Guy Sebastian on parenthood and personal tragedy