It’s hard to believe that it was only six years ago when a 16 year old “disgruntled little gothic teenager” (her words, not ours) first auditioned for Australian Idol with a song from one of her own idols. As luck would have it, she went on to win the competition that year, releasing her double platinum winner’s single ‘Listen To Your Heart’ and triple platinum debut album ‘For You’ shortly thereafter. She then all but disappeared. But after touring Australia with both ‘Women Of Soul’ and as part of the play ‘The Sapphires’ in the last couple of years, Casey Donovan is brimming with confidence and champing at the bit to declare herself ‘Big, Beautiful & Sexy’ with her brand new single.
We sat down for a chat with the singer and discover that six years on, she’s still finding it hard to shake off the Idol tag.
“They still think of me as a 16 year old teenager who has no idea what she’s doing,” she says. “When I did interviews three years after Idol, they’d be asking ‘Does she need us to send her the questions so she can answer them in a full sentence?’ Because on Idol, it’s live, you’re having a camera in your face and being asked a question when you’re on a natural high and you’re on the stage and there are people in the audience and you’re kinda shitting yourself all at the same time.”
“I don’t even actually remember what happened on the night – one of my castmates from The Sapphires, Hollie Andrew, actually made me watch me singing the winning single. I wanted to get up and walk away, but she held me down and made me watch it. To me looking back on stuff like Idol is really tough, because it was such a great time and such a great learning experience. The negatives come into it, but you try to remember it as a great time and move on from that.”
‘Listen To Your Heart’ was Casey’s debut single – it went on to sell more than 140,000 copies throughout the country, but it now elicits a mixture of two very different emotions from the singer – disdain and pride.
“I think when you’re pumped for singing it for the next six months of your life, you start to get over it. But that song has moved and touched people’s lives like I could not imagine. I had one fan who was literally on the verge of leaving this world. He watched Idol, got to hear ‘Listen To Your Heart’ and it turned him. He wanted to stay on. To hear that and then to meet him was humbling. I didn’t know how to react,” she says, adding that music is a most powerful medium.
“Music makes the world go ‘round,” she enthuses. “That’s the one thing I love about music – growing up and listening to country as a kid. Kenny Rogers. Yeah. And George Strait and all these country people. Growing up listening to country and then being brought up in a musical family – the Donovans in the country world are – go to any black fella community and they all know The Donovans.”
It all began at an early age for the singer – when she was just ten years old, her family took her to Tamworth where she busked on the street and earned enough money “to get a bottle of Sprite or something silly.” After forgetting about music for a little while, it was the late 1990s when Casey turned on the radio and was introduced to a whole new world of music. We discover she’s a long way from being a “gothic teenager” in her tastes.
“I’m a closet Britney fan,” she says, “Back then it was Britney, Christina, Five, Westlife. Who else was there? Timberlake’s group (prompted) Nsync and Backstreet Boys. I’d be in my room and being 12 or 13 or whatever I was, I didn’t have a lock on my door, so it was very embarrassing when my mum would walk in and see me singing into my Impulse can.”
It also seems that some old habits die hard.
“I still to this day have my studio set up with my microphone that’s not plugged in and this mirror that sits across the wall. Mum hates it ‘cause I have the music up so loud and I’m manifesting where I’m singing next – I was singing at the Grammys yesterday, picturing who’s in the audience. Even prior to Idol, I’d go down into my room and pretend that I was singing for the judges. I’ve never told that to anyone else. So I was manifesting then, but I never in my wildest dreams thought that anything would ever come of that. Nor when I was in the show did I think that I would ever win it.”
Casey’s life has been somewhat chaotic over the past few years with a number of changes including new management. She released the totally self-produced independent disc ‘Eye 2 Eye’ back in 2008. But we’re shocked to hear that no-one wanted to touch the EP with a barge pole. Not radio, not retail – no-one.
“At that point by being an independent artist, I thought Triple J would have done something with it, but I was still Idol. And still to this day, it’s a hassle getting ‘Big Beautiful & Sexy’ on radio ‘cause it’s still what they class as ‘Idol’. That was six years ago! It’s a bastard. As much as it was a great experience and I’d never take it back… To get stuff independently out there is really difficult ‘cause I’ve still got that Idol tag.
“I’d had this backlog of songs and though I’d originally chosen six, I ended up just doing the four track EP and I was writing through that stage – with Brooke McClymont, the DNA boys. I had all these songs and didn’t know what to do with them. I’d never made a CD in my life. I got this group of people around me to help me out and hopefully send me up the right path.”
She pauses for dramatic purposes here, indicating that the people around her at the time quite possibly didn’t do her any favours.
“I put a lot of work into that. I did the photography, I did the cover, I mis-spelled someone’s name. Lying in the sand, my best friend actually took the photo. It really opened my eyes as to how hard it was to do it,” she says. “Then I had the product and didn’t really know what to do with it. Didn’t really think ahead of that at that point. I was grateful that it did get onto iTunes. None of the shops would take it. I think there’s a couple up in Townsville at this little CD shop that my step-dad walked into. But after that I got back into my lull. I didn’t have any more money to make another CD.”
Thankfully, the disappointment surrounding the release of her independent EP was replaced by a joy – a couple of tours that allowed her to indulge her love of live performance. This time without the Impulse can.
“I was doing Women Of Soul there for a little while – just going around to the RSLs throughout New South Wales. That was a bit of fun – busting out some Aretha and knocking on some wood.” she laughs.
“The Sapphires definitely opened my eyes and has brought me out of my shell even more. I think getting up on that stage night in and night out was eye opening and not to be Casey Donovan – to be Cynthia Macrae throughout that whole thing. It still amazes me that you can be on stage, still have your voice and be someone else. But to work alongside Christine Anu and Hollie Andrew was absolutely fantastic. Christine taught me so much. They all nurtured me because I’d had no acting lessons – nothing. Just like when I did Idol I’d had two singing lessons prior to that.”
Which brings us to Casey’s brand new single ‘Big, Beautiful & Sexy’ – a song about empowering oneself when one doesn’t quite fit the ‘Valley Girl’ mould. That said, Casey does a blindingly good impression. “Oh my god, I wanna do this for the rest of my life and I love the camera…”
‘Big Beautiful & Sexy’ is Casey’s ‘I Will Survive’ moment – a deeply personal song with deeply personal lyrics that the singer hopes will connect with other ‘big, beautiful and sexy’ people around the country.
“I think by putting this single out, it’s not beating around the bush – ‘I’m big, beautiful and sexy’ – why not just say it and be out with it,” she says. “I think having this song is going to help a lot of the other big, beautiful and sexy women AND men out there to get out there and do it. Don’t be afraid. Just to give that little bit of confidence to go outside and say, ‘stuff it – I’m happy’. And you know what? I said in an interview yesterday – before you leave the house, think ‘you know what? I’m big, beautiful and sexy and I love my life’. Just start with that. Then every day it’s going to get easier. You’ll feel like a brand new person.
“The chorus is ‘I am what I am, I do what I do, I’m proud of my life’. If you start with that, I think you can move forward. And by writing this song – after I’d finished it, I was proud.”
Casey is already working on follow-up material and with any luck (and a little bit of cash in the bank), she may have an album out early in the new year. But for the moment?
“I’m just going to focus on the ‘Big Beautiful & Sexy’ tour, get that out and about. Start getting my big beautiful and sexy women and men out there in a positive frame of mind.”
Casey’s new single ‘Big, Beautiful & Sexy’ hits digital retail tomorrow.
Catch casey at one of the following ‘Big, Beautiful & Sexy’ tour dates, kicking off in Rooty Hill on Saturday night;
August 07 : Rooty Hill (RSL)
August 20 : Darlinghurst (Slide)
August 21 : Wentworthville (Leagues Club)
August 28 : Kincumber (Lizotte’s)
August 29 : Newcastle (Lizotte’s)