Interview

Victor Steele, from the ER to the Indie-Rock Scene in Australia

Q: How would you describe the music scene in Australia?

A: The scene here is dominated by U.S. and U.K. artists in terms of commercial success and airplay. The best known Australian acts are the ones who've made a name for themselves overseas.

Australia is a massive country, comparable to the U.S. in physical size, but the population is only about 24 million, so the scene here is quite small. The major international labels buy up all of the radio airtime, so it's very difficult for music actually made in Australia to get any decent airplay. Australian music itself is almost a subculture. There's a thriving music scene in Melbourne, but that's relatively self-contained and very competitive. There are a lot of talented musicians here, though. Country and punk are massive here, and emo bands have quite a strong presence as well.

Q: Do you perform live often? Is it tough finding opportunities to sing in front of an audience, especially a paying one?

A: I generally do one show about every 2-3 weeks. I had a residency at two bars near my old hospital, where I'd do acoustic duets. Since I've recorded the two EPs, I've mostly been doing shows with a full band (three guitars, bass, drums, keys), which are really popular with audiences, but I'd be lying if I said it was easy to find gigs, even if you're playing for free. It's getting a little easier now that a few people know who I am. Most venues insist that artists do mostly covers, which I'm definitely not in favour of, as I love my music so much; that really shines through. Crowds actually prefer it when I do my own songs, but venue owners don't tend to see it that way. I recently had the Sydney launch of my new EP at the Oxford Art Factory (where Lady Gaga played just before she got her big break), and included the cost of the EP in the cover charge so people could know the music they were about to hear. That seemed to work pretty well. I think I'll be doing that again. 

A couple of friends have had me play at their weddings, and I've been asked to play at medical functions as well so it's starting to look good.

Q: How long have you been singing professionally?

A: I sang in a band as a teenager before the guitarist and I left to go to medical school. The other guys turned professional and did well doing covers. The guitarist and I would do acoustic duets at the student bar and student functions. It was great fun, and a great way to be known on campus. After a while, though, studying got too intense, and we were rotated away to different regional and international attachments, so we would only jam infrequently.

I went off to work in New Zealand, and I decided to kickstart my singing again and actually have some lessons. I looked up some teachers in the phone book and called one of them up:

"Hello, I'm looking for some singing lessons…?"

"I'm a classically trained opera singer - what style are you?"

"Well…I do mostly indie and rock…."

"OK, well, why don't you come over, bring a CD to sing to, and we'll see if we can work together?"

I turned up at her house, and the door opened to reveal a well-dressed, upper-class kiwi lady in her late 50s. There was I with my Red Hot Chili Peppers CD. She was very friendly, and we got on well. I put the CD in the player and was about to sing "Give It Away" when I remembered that the lyrics to the second verse are "What I've got, you've got to get and put it in you!" I had an image of me marching through her living room and shouting that at the top of my voice, and watching the blood just draining from her face. I decided not to sing that, and sang "Zephyr Song" instead, which she actually really enjoyed, to my relief.

It's only been in the last three years that I've had the confidence to perform again. I had my first guitar lesson two years ago with the aim of writing songs. I had my first song "Be This Way" after three lessons, and that was on the radio here earlier this year, which I was thrilled with. I've been doing paid shows now for two years.

Q: Why did you name your new EP  V-Factor? 

For the same reason that my first EP is called Factor This. I'd actually prefer not to talk about this unless you're willing to print the truth behind the way X-Factor is run. If you are, you can ask me again. If not, the matter is closed.

Q: In terms of genre, where do you fit in Australia?

Rock is where my heart is. That's evident in most of my songs, but there's a mellow influence as well, making it adult contemporary. You can probably thank Jack Johnson for that. Some people can hear a country influence, which surprises me, as I never listen to country music. Ever. Ever. Not that I think there's anything wrong with it - it's just not my thing. The closest thing to country that I've ever bought was Rednex' "Cotton Eye Joe" when I was 14. I'd imagine country fans would revolt at my even mentioning that song in the same sentence as their music.

Q: Any plans for a full-length album?

A: I have ideas for lots of songs, but I think that at the moment, for myself, no. Partly because people these days tend not to buy whole albums anymore. I think most people buy - or steal - singles. I think that an EP is a happy medium, so I'll continue to do at least one every year. However, my colleague and paediatrician is also a film director, and he has just secured a $2 million budget for a full length feature film. It's a medical drama called Inflame, and he has heard me perform at one of his functions, so he's asked me to write and record the soundtrack to it. That's in the pipeline at the moment, and that will be a full-length album to be released later this year. 

Q: What songs on V-Factor are particularly close to your heart and why?

A: Every song is a story from my diary. I love them all. Even the ones about betrayal and disappointment. If you go to audio on my website, there is a link to the story behind each song, so you can see for yourself how my life events have translated into music. However, "Gonna Be There" is about my most recent heartbreak. It's one of the strongest songs on the EP. A lot of literal tears went into writing it. After recording it with Sean Carey, I couldn't listen to it without breaking down, so I stayed away from it for a month or so until I could. In that time, I listened to "Beautiful Thing" a lot. I find that song nothing short of intoxicating. It's at least as strong as "Gonna Be There," but it fills me with unbridled joy, as this girl was just so perfect, and beautiful in every way. I asked her if I could use a photo of the two of us as the single cover, as I wanted the world to see just how beautiful she is.

Q: You're a doctor as well. How do you balance the two careers?

A: I was in the local paper recently, as they did a story about me and my music. Of course, quite a few people in the hospital were talking about it, and one of my bosses in emergency said to me, "You know, Victor, you're quite refreshing."

"Oh, what do you mean?"

"Well, it's nice to see a doctor in the news for doing something legal. It doesn't happen that often, these days."

I thanked him and explained that hookers and cocaine weren't quite my thing. There's a brain surgeon in Sydney currently coming to the end of his jail term after inadvertently killing a prostitute with a drug overdose by snorting cocaine out of her rectum. I like to think I'm a bit more balanced than that. It takes a lot of planning. The second you stop planning and taking action is the second that one (or both) start to fall apart. I'm actually a qualified actor, but I got frustrated with acting, as casting agents would usually give such short call times for auditions that it made it very difficult to get to them or to swap my shifts in ER to make it. That's what made me switch my desire to perform to singing. You can book performances around your schedule, rather than chasing someone else's. I generally do about two hours singing practise a week, five if I'm performing, or ten if I'm recording. After a late shift, I'm normally too wired to go to sleep, so I'll do most of my guitar practise then. My music is quite popular at work - people can tell when I'm on shift because there'll usually be my humming or singing going on in the background. In fact, a lot of my record sales are from work colleagues. Sometimes one of my EPs will be playing in the background in the emergency room. Colleagues and even patients come to support me at shows, which is awesome.

Website: http://www.victorsteele.com