Sheppard, the six-person group from Brisbane, has had a great run in their native Australia with a host of successful singles filled with irresistible pop hooks — but does the country love the band enough to send them to the Song Contest in Tel Aviv in May?
The sextet will compete against nine other entries in Eurovision – Australia Decides, to be broadcast on the SBS network on Saturday (Feb. 9). It is the first time that Australia is asking the public to choose the nation’s entry for Eurovision. Initially invited in 2015, Australia’s first four entries were all chosen internally through the broadcaster. The winner of the 2019 televised national final will be determined by combining a public televote with the votes of a jury of experts.
Lead singer George Sheppard talked to Billboard about why the group decided to enter the contest, how they picked their entry and how they feel about winning — or losing — on Saturday night.
Billboard: Are you a fan of Eurovision? And when did you first think about representing Australia?
George Sheppard: We actually grew up in Papua New Guinea so we didn’t know much about Eurovision until we moved to Australia in our teens. Once we realized what it was, we became fascinated by it. When Australia became a part of the competition, it was hard not to get excited by the prospect of one day being one of the representatives. I grew up watching the Olympics and always loved the idea of being able to represent my country in something. Unfortunately for me I’m a horrible runner — but luckily there’s a possibility I can do it with song!
ABBA entered (and won) in 1974 with the goal of breaking out beyond the borders of Sweden. What is Sheppard’s motivation for participating in Eurovision?
We just want to make Australia proud. We’re quite patriotic in that sense. Plus, we love the whole idea of being a part of something so iconic — something that has a history of breaking down the walls of politics and bringing countries together, celebrating equality, love and acceptance using the oldest, most powerful method of universal communication — music.
Your entry is your new single, “On My Way.” Why this song? When did you first think this would be the right entry for Eurovision?
It was a “planets aligning” moment for us. We didn’t write this song specifically for Eurovision, it was just going to be our next single but then the opportunity came up to submit a song and we decided it was the perfect entry for us. It was anthemic, euphoric and energetic — all the hallmarks of a great Eurovision song. At the same time, it is quintessentially Sheppard with the huge group vocals and the tribal drums and chants, so we thought it was a great contender.
Do you have any favorite Eurovision songs from past years, including favorite Australian entries?
We did some research and discovered Australia has been sneakily entering Eurovision disguised as other countries for some time. Olivia Newton-John represented the U.K. in 1974 with “Long Live Love,” and then Gina G, who is also from Brisbane, represented the U.K. [in 1996] with “Ooh, Aah…Just A Little Bit,” which — let’s be honest — has to be up there on our list of favorites. In terms of Australia’s “official” entries, it’s hard to go past Dami Im’s second place performance in 2016 with “Sound of Silence.” I also really enjoyed Sweden’s winning entry in 2015, “Heroes” [by Måns Zelmerlöw]. The way he interacted with that animated character was a really cool way to use technology to tell a story.
Altough this will be Australia’s fifth time in Eurovision, when your country was first invited to participate, it was a one-off for the 60th anniversary of the competition. What did you think about that first time?
A few of us were a bit confused for sure, but then the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Australia is a country where “pop” seems to be something of a dirty word, and the simple answer to why it makes sense is that it essentially gives us a rare outlet to celebrate pop music, in a country where it’s not widely accepted or celebrated. In any regard, we are very glad that Eurovision has invited Australia to join the party.
How important is it for you to represent your country in this global event?
It would be a true honor. We’re definitely not going to be disappointed if it’s not us. There are some other truly talented, highly motivated and equally deserving acts in this competition with us and we’d be thrilled to see any of them represent Australia as well. Win or lose, we’ll be cheering.
How would you assess your chances? Which other entry is your heaviest competitor?
To be honest, it’s too hard to tell. It’s just such an eclectic, diverse group of artists and Australia could go any number of ways. It’s counter intuitive to be competitive with music, and we’re trying not to think about the competition aspect of this too much, and we know the other artists feel the same. We’re all big fans of one other and actually help each other out where we can. The two favorites seem to be Electric Fields and Kate Miller-Heidke, and honestly, they’re both super strong entries. We’ll just have to see how Australia reacts to the live performances.
By tradition, the winning country becomes the host country the following year. Thanks to Netta’s win for Israel in 2018 with “Toy,” the 2019 contest will be held in Tel Aviv. Have you ever been to Israel?
No. This would be a first for us. I’m sure we’d love the experience.