Eurovision contest hopeful Kurt Calleja talks to Kristina Chetcuti as he sets off for Azerbaijan tomorrow.
Kurt Calleja is scratching his belly. Or not. He could just be pinching some extra tummy-flab. But then again one should never judge a singer by his photo on the CD sleeve, it is always best to meet face-to-face.
If all the people of Malta will channel positive energy, we’ll do well in the contest
As we chat on the terrace of his parents’ flat, overlooking the Ħamrun football ground, it turns out that Malta’s representative in the Eurovision Song Contest has not put on any weight but rather is attending fitness classes three times a week to make sure his abs are in top shape.
For the past three months Mr Calleja, 23, has been living on a diet of organic food, “for energy” and even sips chamomile tea throughout the interview to help him “chill and relax”.
He leaves for Baku in Azerbaijan tomorrow, to take part in the Eurovision semi-final on May 24. And he has only one aim: “Normally singers try to be diplomatic when asked this question. But everyone wants to win, really. I want to win. I believe in knowing what you want.”
He is, however, aware that even the chances of going through the semi-final are small. “It’s the maths. We need to be a bit realistic. Only 10 countries can make it.”
The odds are stacked against the song This is the Night and most bookmakers including William Hill and Paddy Power are placing Malta in bottom position. But this does not worry Mr Calleja: “What counts is the performance on the night.”
His promo tour has so far taken him to Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Georgia, Turkey, the Netherlands and Italy; performing in the countries’ national contests and featuring on television shows. He says he’s been receiving a lot of feedback on Facebook from the countries he’s visited: “Internet and social media are one of the most effective strategies.”
It is also the platform where several Maltese Eurovision fans are expressing their discontent. More than 2,000 have signed a Facebook page urging people to boycott Eurovision in protest to the animal cruelty in Baku – where stray dogs are being shot as a “clean up act” in the run up to the show.
“The dogs are defenceless and it’s atrocious. But I would like to ask those 2,000 signees if they themselves eat meat. If they are all vegetarian it’s one thing, but if they eat meat, then it jars,” Mr Calleja says.
More worrying are the human rights issues in Azerbaijan. According to Amnesty International, the ‘beautification campaign’ has resulted in forced evictions and illegal demolitions. Restriction on freedom of speech is rife in the country: following anti-government protests last spring, several prisoners of conscience, among them journalists, are being held. Stories of torture and ill-treatment in custody are common.
Mr Calleja is torn: “I feel guilty. This is happening for the benefit of artists like me. I did consider the option of pulling out of the contest. But what difference is it going to make? Maybe when we’re there we can do something about it, I’m already in touch with other artists about this matter.”
It is an awkward situation, and he keeps reiterating that if anyone has “a solution which would work” he would be more than happy to take it up.
Would he consider talking about the political situation during one of the Eurovision press conferences?
“If it helps, I will,” he says. “One of the reasons I want to be popular is to help transmit a positive message.”
In Baku, the Maltese team will be without backing vocalist Ylenia Vella who was removed by the organising committee.
Mr Calleja says: “It was sad as she was part of the band.” It is not unusual for the backing vocalist to be changed and more experienced ones roped in.
Ms Vella was replaced by singer Amber, who placed third in the Malta Eurovision contest. “It felt weird. It took a while for us to actually warm up to Amber because of that.”
The band dynamics are now back on track and all five members are working on “having fun” and “transmitting positive energy”.
He lets out that Mangana the Italian fashion wear store will be styling them, and that the backdrop will be a “starry” one.
Is he concerned that at the end of the day the Eurovision contest is merely a lobbying game? “Lobbying helps, everything helps.”
He is aware he is up against a lot of good songs, but he is ambitious and focused. “I’m not looking at it as a competition. I’m just using the stage to push my career. Eurovision is a big platform.”
The fact that Eurovision draws mainly a gay audience does not bother him in the least.
“This is the Night was chosen as a theme song for a gay festival in Italy attended by some 300,000 people – all potential votes.”
He knows that every song has a lifetime and so is not overly concerned that some people find the refrain (a lengthy repetition of eh-eh-eh) a tad tedious.
He talks a lot about energy. How it can be “channelled” to turn a situation for the better: “I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in lucky charms but I believe in energy. If all the people of Malta will channel positive energy, we’ll do well in the contest.”
He says he wanted to be involved in all the pre-Baku process. “PBS wanted to treat me like a star but I haven’t reached a level where I need people to do things for me,” he says.
So, he says, although it hasn’t been a fairytale, he was very happy to be consulted along the way: “I want to get involved in almost everything – I have trust issues unfortunately,” he says.
He does look slightly tired and somewhat spark-less. But that could be the chamomile tea effect. Or the fitness classes. But he says it is just the stress of rushing from one thing to another, and he is looking forward to the Baku stage.
His parents, Brian, a driving instructor, and Rita, a secretary in a hardware store, will be going up for the show, as will his brother ‘the architect’ Kyle.
Kevin, his other sibling, is in the band with him. Despite it being far away and expensive – round trips cost between €500 to €900 and it’s a five-hour trip from Frankfurt to Baku – some fans and friends are determined to make it.
His friends, he says, have seen a remarkable change in him in these three months: “I am told that I am now more of a listener, more sensitive and more humble,” he says, explaining that now that he has reached his goal of winning the Malta contest he wants to live up to the respect singers gain from it.
He would like eventually to set up a proper studio. His makeshift studio is at the moment his bedroom or the sitting room But music is his career from now on.
This hasn’t always been the case: “I wanted to be a chef. I studied at ITS and for a while worked as a private chef at home parties and cooking custom-made menus.”
Any singing for desserts?
“That was quite often the case,” he laughs, adding it was a good way of building a fan base. His jobs always revolved around social networking, from a Ryanair steward to a solar panel representative: “A nine-to-five desk job is simply not for me.”
His first taste of music came in 2003, when still at St Elias secondary College, he was given a solo in the choir singing during the Pope’s visit to Malta. “I still remember those auditions and my beating heart.”
That his heart will be beating again during the Eurovision semi-final is a given. But his performance on the night will also carry an element of surprise. What’s it to be? Chiara’s wink? Ira’s kiss? He would not give any clues except that “the audience will be having a good time”.
Perhaps it will be some sort of sexy tummy-flab pinch.
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