The Australian pop music scene was arguably at its peak in the early noughties. Back in an era before talent competitions like ‘Australian Idol’ really hit, it was up to the likes of ‘rage’ and ‘Smash Hits’ magazine to tell the public who the next star was. And for a period, that was our latest #TBT interviewee, Emmanuel ‘Manni’ Carella.
Manni was discovered by Molly Meldrum at the tender age of 19 and snapped up by Liberation Records to release three top 40 singles, including the top five hit ‘Don’t Say A Word’ and radio favourite ‘2Beautiful’.
Unfortunately, a lack of momentum saw his debut album ‘Emmanuel’ sink without a trace and Manni subsequently became a recognised dance teacher and choreographer.
Our #TBT interviewer Brad caught up with Manni for a coffee to discuss why his album kept getting delayed, his plans for the future and, most importantly, whether or not he’s ever sung ‘2Beautiful’ to confess undying love.
Like many of us pop aficionados, Manni’s love for music developed from an obsession with watching ‘Video Hits’ each weekend. He trained as a dancer and was soon generating buzz in the music scene.
“I was dancing on a TV show called ‘Starstruck’ back in 2000 and I became really good friends with the producer Craig,” he reveals. “He found out I liked singing and hooked me up with the vocal coach of the show and that led into me writing with her. Craig took that to Molly Meldrum to see if what we had was good enough. Molly really liked it and took it to Liberation.”
Manni was signed in 2001 but wouldn’t release his first single ‘2Beautiful’ until 2003. He tells us that those two years in between were hectic, mostly spent writing and refining his sound.
“I went on writing trips to get my name out there and to get experience with collaborating,” he explains. “I basically did it 24/7. Wake up, go to the studio at eight or nine in the morning then leave at 10 or 11 at night. A social life wasn’t really an option back then!”
Songwriting is ordinarily a form of artistic expression, but Manni tells us that in his case, it was usually a bit more forced.
“You get given an address, a phone number, and then you call them and go ‘Hi, how’s it going, let’s write a song’,” he reveals.
“Having to instantly find the connection with a stranger to write a song was really difficult. The majority of the time I’d write the whole song and they’d say ‘This word would sound better’, so they’d kind of help me out that way.”
Soon it was time to release that all-important first single, which Manni tells us he instigated.
“I think it was me tapping my foot going, ‘Come on, we need to get this moving’,” he laughs. “We released it to see how it would resonate with the public. I personally didn’t want to release singles until I had an album, which wasn’t the case. But I think it did really well!”
Despite its title, Manni confirms that he’s never once used ‘2Beautiful’ as a tool of seduction.
“Sometimes if I’m joking around with a mate I might text them something like, ‘You’re just 2Beautiful’, but they’d respond with, ‘Oh whatever!’”
The single spent 11 weeks in the top 40, peaking at No.22. Manni also started getting featured frequently in the pop magazines.
“We became like family with guys like ‘Smash Hits’ and ‘TV Hits’,” he tells us. “You get to know the writers and it’s more about catching up at the end of it. Every issue it was like ‘Manni, we want to write something about you, is there something coming up or do you want to be out there and do stuff’ and we would!
“I did the ‘Smash Hits Challenge’ where you had to go out and busk. I was in Pitt Street Mall in Sydney, disguised with a beanie, jacket, crappy jeans and my guitarist. We had the guitar case open and we only made $7.50 in an hour and a half,” he laughs.
“On top of all the publicity, recording and writing come gigs as well. I had a regular gig at the Mercury Lounge (in Melbourne) every Thursday night. Then you’d go interstate and promote and do other shows, then fly out late at night or early the next morning. I basically never slept!”
As exciting as doing these publicity interviews seemed, they would get repetitive at times.
“It’s all that basic stuff, what’s your favourite food/ice cream flavour, over and over again,” Manni elaborates. “I think I mentioned my mum’s chicken schnitzel like 50,000 times in one year. It’s still that good, I’ll be having that tomorrow.”
Second single ‘Don’t Say A Word’ followed on the momentum that ‘2Beautiful’ created and, thanks to a slew of promotional in-store appearances, went top 10. Ms. ‘Dirrty’ herself, Christina Aguilera, then invited him to support her ‘Stripped’ tour at the end of 2003.
“It was amazing,” Manni recalls. “She is the person that actually picks the support, which made it even more incredible. She is dynamite on stage; there was nothing to fault. She thanked me personally on the opening and closing nights and that to me was like ‘Holy crap, she knows my name!’ I was gobsmacked by that.”
Manni’s career took a 180 degree turn when the Mercury Lounge was picked to be the after-show party for the Xtina tour. “Out of all the places in Melbourne, that’s where she wanted to go!” Manni exclaims cheekily. “I think I stood there for half an hour just watching her and her dancers literally dancing on the floor. She’s just… nuts. I’ll never forget that!”
2003 may have ended on a massive high but Manni then disappeared for a whole ten months; a lifetime in the pop world. He reveals, however, that despite not being in the public eye at the time, he was still working away furiously behind the scenes.
“Basically there were more writing trips,” he explains. “I went overseas for a good three to five months; Sweden, LA and the UK by myself. We just needed more songs. Ideally I would’ve loved to have released an album by the Christina tour but unfortunately that’s not the way it happened.”
Third single ‘Run To Me’ came with a new haircut (that he got in trouble for) and an experimental writing method courtesy of Samantha Mumba’s ‘Gotta Tell You’ co-writer Arnthor Birgisson.
“He locked me up in his room, gave me the backing track and told me to write,” Manni recalls. “He gave me two hours and I came out with it in half an hour. He literally changed two or three words.”
But the song failed to make the top 30 and its follow up ‘Follow Your Dream’ wouldn’t see a release for another six months. Understandably, Manni wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the multiple delays.
“I felt like the loss of momentum really didn’t give me the chance to show what I had and what I could give,” he tells us. “I felt bad for the fans as well because they kept writing asking when the album was coming out and I felt like I was betraying them. I honestly can’t tell you why there were so many delays because I don’t know. The label never really explained that to me as far as I can remember. I doubt they would have done.
“I think it came down to releasing at the right time. There are seasons when things peak and you’re battling with other artists as well, so if they’re going to release on the same day and they’re more popular, then they’ll get more media.”
Nevertheless, Manni and Liberation pushed on. Michael Gudinski even managed to secure a three-month gig for him as the support act for Kylie’s ill-fated Australian ‘Showgirl’ tour, which was cancelled two nights before opening due to the singer’s shock breast cancer diagnosis.
“I’m so grateful she came out of it,” Manni says, wanting to be clear that his concern at the time was on Kylie’s welfare rather than what the cancelled tour meant for his career.
What happened next is a cruel reminder of the harsh realities of the music industry.
“After that got cancelled, everything fizzled,” Manni concedes. “Liberation are a great team, and I really enjoyed working with them but I just didn’t get any answers for a very long time as to why. For a couple of months I was still trying to get in there, but nothing was happening so I just thought, ‘Obviously this is it for now’.”
That being said, Manni is still grateful to Liberation for taking a chance on him in the first place.
“They invested so much money in me and there’s a lot more to it than what people know. I’m not dissing them out or badmouthing them because I respect them a lot and forever will. I guess it was just disappointing that communication was cut off and then there was… nothing.”
Manni is refreshingly honest about the emotional aftermath of his music career coming to such an abrupt end.
“I cried for several months,” he laughs. “Going from such a high to absolutely nothing, it shattered me. It just led into a lot of crap for me in my head. I was gutted.”
But he eventually bounced back, working on cruise ships for four years before returning to a career teaching dance, conceding, “It was a good way to get my frustrations out.” He also later appeared as a choreographer on the rebooted ‘Young Talent Time’.
Instead of being embarrassed by his pop star past, Manni embraces it.
“My mate Russell Robinson and I do gigs quite a bit,” he reveals. “We do a lot of covers, but I’ll bring out my tracks as well because they still love it. I think the band love it more than I do! My former lead guitarist Marcus would always say, ‘We’ve got to do ‘2Beautiful’’.”
Long-time fans will be thrilled to discover that after ten years away from the recording studio, Manni has started taking tentative steps towards a new release.
“I basically emailed Dragan (co-writer of ‘Follow Your Dream’) at the end of last year and said ‘I want to get back in the studio, just for fun and to see if I can still do stuff’,” he reveals.
“We’ve come up with some really good stuff. It’s still pop, but just more mature than I’ve done. I’ve played it to a couple of people already and we’ve got some interest, which is great. I can’t say too much just yet but it’s looking positive and I’m excited because I’m back doing what I love.”
Manni explains that the break from the business has been so long because he needed to recover from the emotional rollercoaster that occurred the first time around.
“The fact that it all ended so suddenly without an explanation really got to me,” he tells us. “I needed a break from it to experience life, grow up, clear my head and meet more people. I’ve got the urge back now and I’m itching to do it again really badly.”
Just don’t expect him to ‘do a Samantha Jade’ and pop up on ‘The X Factor’…
“I wouldn’t,” he states confidently. “I respect the people that do because it takes a lot of guts to get on that stage, but I wouldn’t because I love what I do and the whole critique aspect of it gets to me.
“At first, I hated those shows because I thought, ‘What is it doing to this industry?’, but when you stop and think about it, these are everyday people who need their break as well and there’s nothing wrong with that. I was so addicted to ‘X Factor’ this year. I loved Reigan.”
Manni is older, wiser, more experienced and more than ready to apply the lessons he learnt from his past to the next exciting chapter of his career.
“I’ve learnt to be true to myself, to what I want and where I want to go,” he says. “It’s made me stronger. This time ’round, it’s going to be the real thing. I’m going to have my singles ready, I’m going to have my album ready and I’m going to have a game plan. I do have a game plan and I want it to happen. I don’t want it to take four years to release an album.”