This January Aussie stage star Paul Capsis will perform songs by some of music’s most prolific artists, including Patti Smith, Tom Waits and Lou Reed, in a show that will bring to the fore the extraordinary singer’s lived experience and his biggest fantasies.
“When I’m singing all these great wild songs and I’m channelling and screaming and I’m stomping and whipping people up into crazy frenzy I’m living that dream,” says the Greek-Maltese Australian performer.
Capsis honed his skills as a drag and cabaret performer in the late 1980s and mid 1990s, but growing up in Sydney in the 1970s, the cabaret star says rock music was his first love.
“It did change my life and it gave me hope,” he says. “I got so crazy into it. I would be with my eyes closed lying on the floor listening, listening, listening really hard to the songs. What are they singing about? They were like a secret code, I knew they are telling me something but I didn’t understand what they were telling me. It became a lifelong mission.”
Still as Capsis got older, the up-and-coming performer was not entirely welcomed by the Sydney music scene.
“In my late teens and early 20s I was trying to join bands,” he says. “I was trying to be like performers Freddie Mercury, Reg Livermore, David Bowie and Michael Jackson — all the wild boys and wild girls. Like Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Tina Turner, like Aretha [Franklin].
“But I encountered walls. People found me very unusual, my voice was strange. I looked strange. I wasn’t fitting into the Australian idea of a rock singer. I also had no training, I just had a dream.”
Capsis admits that beyond his look and inexperience, the biggest barrier he faced when starting out in the music scene was that he was openly gay. “I knew that I wouldn’t be let into music because of the homophobia,” he says.
“Unless I went to some boot camp and learnt how to be a man, lower my voice and not move my hands around too much. But I was already persecuted in high school and I already went through that shit. One thing I was never going to do was change myself or compromise as much as I loved music.”
With Capsis not welcomed by the rock crowd, he looked for other avenues to perform on stage, with many of his peers suggesting he leave the country.
“When I started out everyone said to me, ‘Why are you here? You shouldn’t be here, you should piss off and got to New York, Berlin or London. You’re too wild, too crazy, too weird.’
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, you are telling me that when this is the country that gave birth to Reg Livermore, Skyhooks and Robyn Archer and all these great Australian artists?’
“I could have packed my bags, but I tried to make it here first and I still found a way through music via the theatre. I sort of went around in a circle.”
Capsis’ big break came when he appeared in 1995 cult film Head On. The Australian feature — directed by Ana Kokkinos and based on the Christos Tsiolkas novel Loaded — saw Capsis play Tula, the drag queen friend of young gay teenager Ari and it catapulted his career.
“Everything I did before meant very little,” he says. “Not to me. I did love everything I did before that film but when I made the film my entire life changed. When I read Tsiolkas’ book and I couldn’t believe what this book was. I could relate to everything in it. I thought, ‘Oh my god I want to be in this film.’”
The film’s success led to opportunities to act with leading Australian theatre companies and on stages in London, Edinburgh and New York, and along the way Capsis won five Helpmann Awards.
Now, almost poetically, Capsis says his Sydney Festival show, featuring Jethro Woodward and The Fitzroy Youth Orchestra, is allowing him to live out those childhood rockstar fantasies.
“I have performed in most Spiegeltent tents around the world at the Edinburgh Festival, New York and most cities in Australia. Being on stage I get to be myself and live my fantasy. I always want to do more and in this show Jethro plays the kind of way I like to sing and perform. We also have a brilliant drummer, guitarist and a multitude of instruments. It’s going to be a huge massive rock show.”
Whether it’s theatre, music or film, Capsis brings an energy to his performance like no other, and despite not being a household name, the versatile singer is grateful for his longevity.
“What you don’t realise about me is that despite all the shit, I have lived my life how I want and I’m still a performer,” he says.
“I am a survivor. If you barely make it past the first point it’s very difficult to survive. I may not be on Channel Seven, Ten or Nine or in the Rupert Murdoch newspapers. Big fame may elude me. But there are a bunch of us who keep working. We keep being present, we keep reminding Australian audiences that we are multicultural, we are multi-diverse and we aren’t going anywhere.”
Paul Capsis will perform two shows with Jethro Woodward & The Fitzroy Youth Orchestra in January, as part of Sydney Festival 2019.