Despite its distance, Australia is a keen diplomatic player. When our delegation hosted a reception in Sweden, the South Korean, Chinese and Russian representatives were front and centre. When we put our best diplomatic foot forward in Ukraine, the Dutch, German, Belgian and Russian delegations dominated the room.
“It’s a bit surprising to just look around and kind of capture it as you are watching,” Clarke says. “There’s quite a lot of activity and diplomacy happening in the background. It’s just really interesting having watched that over the years, seeing the different people who arrive in different places, and who’s close to whom.”
2022 is an unusual year, Clarke concedes. Russia and Belarus are off the stage. Ukraine is surfing a sympathy wave that many think point to a certain win. The political shifts involving other countries, such as Poland, mean the somewhat predictable play out of events is up in the air.
“It’s not all about winning,” Clarke says. “I am sure there are numerous people thinking, is it really worth going over there this year, [because] Ukraine’s just going to win? But I think to be able to connect and to be able to see Ukraine on stage this year will be a really magical, powerful moment. And they will be supported by a cast of nations that just really want to see that moment. And they want to support.
“Whenever you hear Ukrainian music at Eurovision, like last year’s act, for example, Go Away, it’s like you can hear this kind of keen folk voice that comes from 200 or 300 years ago, but it’s put to a dance beat. And there is something so dissonant and exciting in that. It just hums with a kind cultural vigor.”
This year’s Australia’s entrant is 23-year-old Gold Coast singer Sheldon Riley, who will perform Not The Same. Riley competed in the 2016 season of The X-Factor and the 2018 and 2019 seasons of The Voice; he won his Eurovision berth by beating Seann Miley Moore, Pauline Curuenavuli and former Eurovision entering Isaiah Firebrace at the Australia Decides competition in February.
“I think that the tide’s gone out a little, and I think that it’s important for us just to bring it back.”
One or two distinct qualities make an artist a perfect candidate for Eurovision, says Clarke: hunger and validation. ‘There is some fear as well. Am I worthy? I need to express myself and I need to be who I need to be on a bigger stage than Australia can give me,” he says.
“Isaiah Firebrace has got a voice like Marvin Gaye, he’s just got the most beautiful tone and to be in a room with him and hear him sing, it’s a gift,” Clarke continues. “But he didn’t have the hunger of Kate Miller-Heidke or Dami Im or Guy Sebastian. Sheldon has that hunger. He absolutely has it.”
Riley has something inside him, Clarke says, “that just really wants to be validated by Eurovision. You think in 2014, he was sitting in a Gold Coast high school performing the Conchita Wurst song on a piano. And from there he got himself to this point. So for him, it means so much.
“In some ways, he was genetically engineered for Eurovision,” Clarke adds. “There’s a lot about Sheldon, in his focus on what he wants, his costume, just watching his attention to detail, how his hair would be and how the mask would be, it was extraordinary to watch. And just to consider what you were like when you were 22.”
In addition to the geopolitical shifts taking place on the Eurovision stage, 2022 is also a significant year for Australia’s participation in the contest. We first performed out of competition in 2014, when Jessica Mauboy sang Sea of Flags.
The following year we were invited into competition with Guy Sebastian, singing Tonight Again, and we have competed every year since. The closest we came to winning was Dami Im’s stunning performance of Sound of Silence in 2016, which came second.
“The fact that we haven’t been to Eurovision directly for two years has had an impact,” Clarke says. Due to the pandemic, some countries, including Australia, participated remotely and broadcast their entry from home, rather than travel to compete in person.
“I think that the tide’s gone out a little, and I think that it’s important for us just to bring it back in and say, this is really important for these reasons,” Clarke says. “This guy has written a great song about his personal story, his understanding of the world, what he’s been through. And he’s taken it from a studio to a stage where 200 million people are going to watch him.”
Whether we can win from the 43 assembled artists is complicated. The answer is yes, according to the ever-bullish Clarke. “I always go into this shooting my mouth off saying, of course we can win, Australia will win this,” he says. “This year, I think, who knows what will happen?
“Will Ukraine win? It’s the best Swedish song in years and a great artist. It’s a beautiful, memorable melody. Yew [they had not won last year] the Italian song would be the best from Italy in 10 years. It’s the best Spanish song and artist since the 60s. So, there’s a lot of competition.
“But I think that I’m not sure that this year is so much about winning,” Clarke says. “This year is about representing and just feeling the experience of the liberty and the fraternity of what Eurovision provides. To me, I sort of want to feel the exchange of emotion personally. That’s what I’m looking for.”
The 66th Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast live on SBS from May 11-15, with primetime broadcasts on Friday, May 13, and Saturday, May 14, at 8.30pm, and Sunday, May 15, at 7.30pm.
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