The Famous Spiegeltent seems a perfect venue for Paul Capsis, unorthodox in shape and style, unexpected, a little flamboyant and utterly fabulous. When we speak with Capsis in the Arts Centre forecourt, he's just back from a trip to India - one of few trips he's taken in his lifetime as a holiday rather than a working trip.
Capsis is known as a film and stage actor as well as singer. It was theatre where he first started performing. "Early on when I was involved in youth theatre for a long, long time. I never in any way could see myself being a performer and artist, just to me it was way out of reach, way out of my realm. I didn't know how anyone would become that or could become that. I had no idea what I wanted to be so I just went, 'You know what? I like the idea of travelling, so I'll become a travel agent'.
"I just decided to start doing this [performing] every spare minute I had. I did it on the weekends, I got involved in performing in community stuff and I did it for fun. I fell in love with the people, the generosity of performers when they get together. It was very, very slow and gradual and then I started to get serious about it and auditioning for stuff and that's when the walls started coming up. It seemed just impossible and I got so much negative ideas from people.
"Of course I had no idea that they were feeding me rubbish, 'You can't do it, you're this, you're that, you're too short' and you know, lists of reasons why I couldn't. The more they'd say no, the more I'd try harder. I was trying to get my voice lower, to sing as a male and so I'd go to these auditions and they'd be like, 'No, your voice is too strange' and then I'd try out for bands and they'd be like, 'No your voice is too weird, it's strange.' So much for the music industry, I mean I was just so disappointed. I just thought how closed-minded it all was."
Capsis thinks that the Molly Meldrum-era of musical critique has a lot to answer for in terms of the range of homogenous artists we have in Australia today. "Closed-minded and blokey and bullshit, I just thank god for the theatre," he says. "That's what happened, I went, 'I can't go that way… maybe I'll go this way'."
Capsis took it upon himself to perform his unique style. "It really didn't happen until I started going out and doing my own stuff in Darlinghurst and just went to clubs and sang two songs at 2 o'clock in the morning, to a backing tape, a bad backing tape. That's how it started really: doing my own stuff, just taking a punt and thinking, 'What have I got to lose?' I had a full time job so I had this double life which was weird."
For a time Capsis worked in travel but left because, as he says, "I was miserable, it was a nine-to-five, five-days-a-week job and I got to travel but only a little bit. I started doing temporary work and so I did every kind of job and I loved it. I was a courier for one place and I was stuffing envelopes and I was a theatre usher and I was constantly meeting people which suited me. I always found myself being the joker in the office, wherever I worked, I made people laugh so that was good."
Capsis' particular form of entertainment isn't easy to pigeonhole. Although he does cover songs from the 20th Century and admire quite a few of the artists, it's in his own way. "I'd seen great impersonators and I'd thought, 'No, I'm not interested in that. Essence is what I want.' A painter who sees that," he says, motioning at the arts centre spire, "and then paints it - it might be a dot, a black line so it's kind of like a performer's interpretation of other performers. I kind of got past that thing of doing a bunch of people; it became about certain people and songs, then it was about them and songs, and now it's about a little bit of them and lots of songs, so it's just a progression."
Looking forward, Capsis says, "I think for me the next thing is songwriting. I've got to get into that. I just did a play [Angela's Kitchen, a tribute to Capsis' maternal grandmother]; I did it last year and it was a very personal piece. Usually when it comes to writing, I have to be pushed and encouraged a lot because it's not something that I wake up and go, 'I'm going to write'. I've written a few songs and it's an incredible constant discovery. It's the same when I sing covers too: whatever mood I'm in, things are going on in my life, I find something different in that song. If I'm going through a bad time, a bunch of songs can help me come out of it and it might be someone who comes up to me after a show and says, 'I've never really heard the lyrics of that song, I heard it in a whole other way'. That gives me a real buzz and it's a real compliment."
Capsis brings two shows to The Famous Spiegeltent including Make Me A King. The show is named after a song he discovered on Rockwiz with Julia Zemiro back in 2009. The lyric Make Me a King is from a song which he performed in the style of reggae. "I went wow, I really like those lyrics, 'make me a king'.
The lyric ended up being the title of Capsis' album of songs from the 20th Century performed in his own style. "That album ended up being the album where I did songs I wanted to do from various shows. It's a real mish-mash, but all my albums are. There's no running theme or cohesiveness. You could say you could take five of these songs and make a jazz album, you could take three of them and make a pop album or you could take two of them and make a rock album, but they're all thrown together."
In addition to the Make Me A King shows, Capsis has selected fabulous singers to perform with for his Diva's Choice show. He'll MC the night as well as do a few special duets with opera singer Anna O'Byrne, Christine Johnston as Madame Lark, Jane Badler, Christa Hughes and Alistair Spence on piano.
With any luck (and perhaps a little wishful thinking on our part), 2011 will be the year the talented Mr Capsis takes a little time out to write his first album of original songs, so see him while you can.
Check out Paul Capsis at The Famous Spiegeltent at The Arts Centre Forecourt. He'll be performing Make Me A King between March 8 and 13 and tickets are $44-$49 and you can book at theartscentre.com.au or 1300 182 183. Diva's Choice happens on March 17 at 10.30pm, and tickets are $30/$25.