Damien Leith (Sydney) talks Roy Orbison and travel 10 years on from Australian Idol

Damien Leith has had a busy decade since taking out the title of Australian Idol. He’s recorded eight studio albums, written two books, and penned a one-man cabaret. This April marks what would have been Roy Orbison‘s 80th birthday, to celebrate Damien reprises his successful Roy – A Tribute to Roy Orbison tour!

Hi Damien. You’re bringing back your show Roy – A Tribute To Roy Orbison this April. You did this show back in 2011, what was the idea behind bringing the show back?

It would have been Roy Orbison’s 80th birthday in April, so it’s really to celebrate his 80th birthday (and) to return to a collection of songs that I just love performing. We don’t do this run of shows very often at all and even this one, it’s only six shows in total, so it’s a very limited run – it’s only in the month of his birthday. Six shows and then unfortunately, we put it away for a while. But I love these songs, I love performing them, it’s just great to get an opportunity to hit the road with them again.

Is it the same show as last time or are you changing it up a little bit?

I’m changing it up a little bit. This time, my band’s a little bit bigger. I’m bringing in a sitar player, a mandolin player as well. I’m also playing a bigger selection of Roy Orbison songs as well. This time we’re adding quite a bit, as well including some of his Traveling Wilburys songs and some of the songs I never recorded, because I did a Roy Orbison album five years ago with Roy’s family over in Nashville. I went over there and I recorded there. I’ve got a big connection with Roy and everything to do with his music, so this time it will be more songs and a bigger set.

Is it correct that the opportunity to record with the Orbison family, came off of the viewer’s choice song “Crying” on Australian Idol? The whole thing sounds so serendipitous!

You’re one hundred percent right, because it was the viewer’s choice! It’s unbelievable how it all worked out. Of all the songs in the world, and it’s opened so many doors! [Laughs]  I’m now really good friends and writing partner of Joe Melson, (who) wrote “Crying”, “Only The Lonely” and “Blue Bayou” – he wrote all those albums with Roy Orbison, so now I’ve got that other connection as a result of that one song and it’s just been amazing! Sometimes, things just come out of the blue and lead you to other places. It’s brilliant. You really don’t know, especially with music, you never know what’s around the corner!

How much pressure is there to not only sing the songs well, but also respect the original, and please both your fans and the Orbison family?

They’re big songs! They’re a whopper of a song! What I do, because there’s quite a few different people who do Roy Orbison songs and music, I don’t try to copy it. I try to put my own stamp on the songs – I sing them as true and as honest in my own style. I hit all the same notes, but it’s very much my interpretation of those songs.

Is a Roy Orbison crowd a bit rowdy or a little more controlled?

They’re more controlled. They definitely are. It’s a different era of music lovers. Although, I’ve got to say, it is quite varied. Sometimes I look out at the audience and Roy, he reaches a lot of different audiences. There’s a lot of up and coming singers that look towards Roy as well, because he did have a really unique style, no one else was like him. When I look out into the audience, I’ll see people who followed Roy when Roy was touring – then on the flip side, there’s new up and coming acts that are sitting in the audience and taking in the music. He’s got those big operatic, dramatic ballads and not many people could have actually written those songs – they’re very unique.

What’s your favourite song of Roy’s to perform and/or listen to?

The one I always lean to is “Only The Lonely”. I don’t know what it is about that song, but every single time anyone even asks me to sing a Roy Orbison song, that’s actually the one I go to. I mean, he’s got a massive collection of songs but that’s the one I always seem to pick. It’s again, another crazy coincidence, or whatever, but that’s that guy Joe Melson, I was in Nashville five or six weeks ago and I sang that song with him as a duet; that’s the first song that him and Roy actually wrote together. That was a pretty special moment. Again, it’s a pinching moment! [Laughs]

As you said, you recorded the album five years ago and now you’re bringing the show back – five years is a long time, so have there been any personal moments that have changed the songs for you, the way you’re going to sing them or the way you interpret them?

No (but) the amazing thing that’s happened for me over the last couple of years, I’ve toured an awful lot in the last couple of years and I’ve done a lot of different sort of shows, so I think there’s just that added experience of the last five years that I add to it.

But from spending so much time with Joe and also just different bits of research over the years, I’ve a lot of stories to tell which I didn’t have back then. Just little things that people may or may not know about how his songs were written or the process. Things, especially for Roy Orbison fans who would like to know a little bit more, I’ve got some little stories in between songs that I can share and I think that’s a really cool thing as well.

Roy’s sound was a bit rockabilly, a bit country, which isn’t a genre a lot of people would associate with yourself. Did being on Australian Idol prepare you for singing different genres?

For me, I was always doing that anyway. What actually happened on Idol was, I went on and I think for the first two or three weeks, I was trying to second guess what I thought what people wanted. After that, because I got slammed by the judges one of the weeks, I thought, ‘I’m just gonna do what I’ve always done,’ and I just started picking songs that I had always done and they were quite varied. I think that’s what really helped me. I think I was a lot truer to myself from then on and that’s when things really changed for me. There was a lot of trial and error and experimenting with music up until that point as well.

Are you talking about the disco episode in particular?

Oh yeah, I am talking about disco round, yeah. I got annihilated. I’m still traumatised. [Laughs] It was pretty rough. Disco and I don’t seem to go hand in hand. If you think the performance of a disco song was bad, you’ve got to see me dance to disco – that’s a whole different ball game! [Laughs]

Is it true that you also never planned on auditioning for Australian Idol in the first place?

I had no intention of auditioning at all! I was thirty years of age at that stage and I figured I was just too old to be honest; these friends just convinced me and I literally went down to the auditions that day as a result of them coaching.

It was definitely meant to be, then.

Yeah, believe me, sometimes I sit back and I just pinch myself. Talk about so many different things happening at the right place, at the right time – it’s amazing!

You’re currently at your recording studio in Sydney. Does that mean we can expect a new album soon?  

I’m always doing new songs at different points. I do a lot of recording now with people who are new or upcoming acts, so I’m constantly writing and I’m constantly producing stuff, even though some of it you wouldn’t actually hear from me. I’ve had a couple of singles for different artists over the last while and it’s great. From that side, I’m still doing a lot of that. I’m just not necessarily releasing for myself. But what I’m working on at the moment, I had a lady in here and we wrote an incredible song and today I’m working on some of my own stuff and it’s just an ongoing process of just trying to build up a great body of work.

What I love about the last couple of years and especially where music is at the moment, you can do something right now, bring it out and if it’s great you tour – if it’s not, you can go straight back in the studio and get stuck in and keep working again on the next thing. With digital media, especially with music, you can get something out again in the next couple of months time and you never know what that might do, it’s great. The old days of spending a fortune on an album and then if it doesn’t work it’s a disaster, those days are gone. You can just keep on working.

In those days as well, if you had a disaster they’d never let you record again.

I know. It’s terrible. In our early days with the family band, when we were doing our early demos and all the rest, they were expensive. It was a big commitment when we were planning on going into the studio to do a four track EP. You planned it out, you had it all scheduled, you saved up the money – and now you can get recording equipment and have it in your house. It’s all changed.

Have any of your three kids shown any interest in music?

Yeah, they all are actually. They’re all really keen on singing. My son was blasting away on the piano first thing this morning – I’m sure the neighbours weren’t very happy with it. [Laughs] He was pounding that thing at 7 o’clock this morning. They’re all into playing different things, so we’ll see how it all goes. There’s no pressure on them. We’ll just see where it takes them.

Do you have any special memories of music from when you were a kid?

The main memories that I have are through my parents. My Mum has always sung and my Dad has always played the guitar, so whenever I think of music growing up I think of them. Like when we lived in Africa, we lived in Libya for a couple of years, that was when I was very young, and I can always remember them playing music. I can’t remember what they played but I just always remember it was a big part of it in our house. It was always there, them singing and playing and I suppose that rubbed off on all of us.

We travelled all over over Africa. We spent nearly eleven years in Africa roaming around in different places. It was with my dad’s work but it was great, it was an incredible experience. It was an adventure, definitely because we moved a lot. We were in Botswana and South Africa as well, and then we were in England for a while, and then in the middle east so it was a real varied childhood but it was brilliant!

Is the love of travel something you’d like to pass onto your children as well?

Yeah, absolutely! It doesn’t have to be a massive trip, you don’t even have to go overseas, you just have to get on the road and go and explore different places, I love that! I hope the kids will take that on board. You meet different people and you learn so much about the world around you. A really important thing.

Who gets to pick the music during those road trips?

Oh, (my wife and I) have no choice. The kids take their iPod and their phone, they’re DJ in the car and they play everything. Stuff I’ve never even heard of, all sorts of collections of different things and stuff that they’re all talking about at school. The kids are the boss of the music in the car. I still love listening to Jeff Buckley. I love Frank Sinatra, the big band, it’s very varied. It depends on the day, I could play anything.

This year marks ten years since you won Australian Idol. You’ve managed to prove yourself in the industry, and I think you should be really proud of that.

Well, thank you very much. It’s hard to believe ten years this year. It’s a milestone. It’s been a good ten years. Music is a crazy old business (and) you just don’t know where it’s going to lead you. Sometimes you have things that you think are gonna be perfect and they’re gonna work and then they don’t work – then, on the flip side, something totally random ends up being your trademark. It’s a funny old business.

Do you think fame has changed you in ten years?

Personally, I don’t feel any different. [Laughs]

April 15th – The Astor Theatre, Perth
April 16th –  Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide
April 22nd – The Concourse Concert Hall, Chatswood Sydney
April 23rd – Jupiters Hotel and Casino, The Gold Coast,  Queensland
April 29th –  Palms at Crown Casino, Melbourne
April 30th – Wrest Point, Hobart


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