When Paul Clarke first heard Zero Gravity he knew it was Eurovision worthy.
Thankfully the Australian public, and our local jury agreed, voting it the winner at Eurovision: Australia Decides in February.
But the strategy to take on Europe was only just beginning for the Head of the Australian Delegation. Changes were made to the performance by Kate Miller-Heidke that were revealed last week in Tel Aviv that have elevated, pun-intended, our chances at glory.
“As soon as I heard the song I thought ‘This could win Eurovision.’ It’s polarising, and meant to be polarising,” he tells TV Tonight.
“The lyrics lead you to elevation. Australia Decides was about the dark end of her consciousness, and finding the light in her performance, but she felt like she was a bit stuck. I don’t think the bottom end of the dress was successful enough.
“Up until now I was a little bit concerned that Europe hasn’t really responded to Kate’s song. I think it had something to do with our staging for Australia Decides. It looked a little bit too much like Estonia last year for them.
“There was a lot of feedback of ‘We’ve got that in Europe. That’s not what we expected from Australia.’ So we felt like we had to take it to another level.”
“Rehearsal 1 is very important.”
It was Miller-Heidke’s own idea to attempt to mount a sway pole by rehearsing with Strange Fruit in Williamstown. In Tel Aviv she was soaring high, literally, joined by two Strange Fruit performers Emma & Emily before a dramatic video backdrop of Earth in space.
It was just the ticket to excite the fanbase 10 days out from Semi Final One.
“Rehearsal 1 is very important. People want to see something they can give their hearts to and believe in something the whole way through the festival,” Clarke continues.
“They are looking for a ‘moment’ and the bloggers drive the press. It’s an unusual event where all these bloggers sit in a room with a huge screen, and they’ve already heard all the songs.
“There were lots of people in tears watching it, and enormous support -not just Australian support but broad blogger support, which is exactly where you want to be right now.”
At the time of writing, Australia is now siting in 7th place with the bookies. Clarke is in awe of Miller-Heidke’s talents and commitment to performing, which he hopes Europe will connect with.
“There’s a mischief about her I love but also a beauty. If you listen to Muriel’s Wedding those songs are so extraordinary and moving. But on the other side she’s willing to go to enormous lengths to make this work for Australia.”
“It has an enchanting, mesmerising feeling.”
Three backing vocalists join Miller-Heidke on stage, 2 of whom were pop singers hired in Israel.
“Their backing vocals have given it a much more pop register. We’ve tried to accentuate the ‘pop-iness’ of the song. I don’t think Kate wants to be known as an opera singer. She’s not a classical person.
With cameras you can’t move the lead singer around too much. They have to be there for a medium close-up. But when she releases her big note our visual is to see the three performers circling in alignment. That’s really something beautiful to watch. It has an enchanting, mesmerising feeling.”
Assembling the act on stage in the allocated time frame entails a small army. There are just 45 seconds for changeover while the video Postcards screen. Miller-Heidke and the Strange Fruit performers are already atop the sway poles off stage, then wheeled up a ramp into position ready to perform.
“We tend to do very well in Western Europe and Scandinavia.”
But performance is only part of what it takes to win Eurovision. Australia has to qualify from the first Semi Final, and there are a number of countries voting in the Semi who have not been generous to Australia in previous years.
“Iceland, Israel, Spain, Finland, Greece are the ones we will be relying on and our team are busily making sure that those media connections are all happening,” Clarke concedes.
“We tend to do very well in Western Europe and Scandinavia.
“This is the point where it’s like détente of making deals behind the scenes for votes.
“We won the press poll for rehearsals and that’s a good sign. That means we’ll do well with the jury votes.
“The last 2 years we haven’t done well with televoting. If I’m honest I was really angry about the treatment of Jess last year. I wanted to storm out of there like one of the Gallagher brothers but she held me back.”
“We’ve got an idea that people can fall in love with.”
Clarke names Italy, Greece and Sweden amongst his personal favourites, despite the bookies favouring The Netherlands and Russia.
“The Netherlands have been the favourite but it was just a guy behind a piano, and it was like ‘Really? Is that what you’ve got?’” he asks.
“We’ve got an idea that people can fall in love with. But you never know where the spotlight of Europe is going to fall.
“I wouldn’t want to be the British performer… the guy who has to front up in the face of Brexit. We’ll likely come in front of them if we get as far as the Grand Final!”
And if televoting has hinted at any anti-Australian sentiment questioning our right to participate, Clarke has a message.
“They are just going to have to get used to it. We’re going to be in it for a very long time!”
64th Eurovision Song Contest on SBS
Semi Final One Live 5am AEST Wednesday 15 May (AEST)* / (Rpt 8.30pm Thursday 16 May)
Semi Final Two Live 5am AEST Friday 17 May / (Rpt 8:30pm Friday 17 May)
Grand Final Live 5am AEST Sunday 19 May* / (Rpt 8:30pm Sunday 19 May)
* Live voting in Australia
NB: TV Tonight will be publishing Live results following early morning broadcasts.