The Joy of X: Behind the Scenes at X Factor NZby Greg Bruce
X Factor is the place where hopes and dreams go to be crushed. We take a look backstage.
This story was first published in the March 2013 issue of Metro. Photos by Jae Frew.
At The X Factor NZ auditions at SkyCity Theatre in March, the floor manager having just told him he was up next, Sasha Broad-Kolff, 18, pushed his guitar behind his back and leaned down unselfconsciously to allow his grandmother to kiss him on the cheek. She handed him a water bottle and he drank from it dutifully.
“Your grandmother? Really?” Dominic Bowden asked shortly afterwards, just before Sasha walked out on stage. Sasha had recently moved to Wellington to advance his music career and wash dishes in a cafe. His family and many of his friends still live in Nelson, where he grew up, but his grandmother lives on Waiheke and her Sunday was free, so she had come as support.
His acoustic guitar was adorned with a rainbow and peace sign, and the word “Candy” was prominent on its face and, when asked, his grandmother said he had assured her that it referred to a girl, not drugs.
“Hey guys, hello,” Sasha said to the judges, having walked to the designated pre-performance mark on stage.
“How are you doing?” Ruby Frost asked.
“I’m,” his voice caught briefly, “I’m super.”
“Really? Not a tiny bit nervous?”
“A lot,” he said, without hesitation, endearingly.
His song was Mumford and Son’s “White Blank Page” and he was only a few words into the opening verse when many in the near-capacity crowd burst into whoops and applause, because that is what X Factor crowds do but also maybe because his big voice caught them a little bit by surprise, having also a gravel and a break to it which may have been helped slightly by the cold he had picked up three days earlier, and which set him apart from the mostly sweet, smooth singers who had excelled over the previous six days of televised auditions.
His guitar work was strong and decisive and the disconnect between all that and his quiet good looks made him a compelling package. “Oh, he’s cute!” the publicity guy had remarked on seeing him in the holding room earlier in the day.
If you come to X Factor, you’d better be prepared to fail, because you probably will.
Backstage, watching him perform on the bank of four large screens, alongside Dominic Bowden, smiling proudly, his grandmother danced along in her denim jacket.
Being there, you could feel the narrative that producers might build around it on television several weeks hence. Likeable shy guy with guitar and grandmother steps on stage and sort of unexpectedly smashes it.
It was a bit of a surprise then when Daniel Bedingfield stopped him halfway through and asked him to start again.
Six thousand people auditioned for The X Factor NZ at non-televised pre-auditions held around the country late last year. 300 acts were selected for the televised auditions at SkyCity in February and March, 120 would make it through to boot camp, 24 to the judges’ retreats round, 12 to the live shows and, in a few months’ time, one will be declared the winner and given a recording contract.
In other words, X Factor is basically a colossal agglomeration of rejection, of shattered hopes and dreams. If you come to X Factor, you’d better be prepared to fail, because you probably will. At some stage, somebody, maybe even somebody less talented than you, is going to say you are not good enough and that it is time for you to find something else to do with your time. That will hurt.
Maybe you will cry or smash your guitar or call somebody a fuckwit and that will all be filmed because it is good television, and a few weeks later you will probably be embarrassed while watching it with your family or friends. This is an appalling, negative view of the whole thing, no doubt. Now it is out of the way, let’s get on with looking for some positives.
After leaving school at the end of 2011, Sasha spent most of last year in Europe, hanging out with European exchange students he had met at high school. He wanted to get away because he didn’t know what to do with his life. He returned in November and spent the summer working at Liquor King in Nelson. “I got a discount,” he said. “It was pretty good.”
He moved to Wellington to pursue his music, which he describes as “acoustic folk pop”, because the Nelson scene is pretty small and only a few musicians can make a living and they’ve already got the pubs and clubs locked down. Now, he sometimes busks on Cuba St, where he said he can make about $40 an hour, but it’s a crowded market and he doesn’t want to oversaturate, so it’s not a big earner for him.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do after this,” he said at his audition, gesturing at the X-Factor-ness all around him, “because I’ve just got a crappy job at a cafe washing dishes. And I don’t know what to study because all my friends are just studying. I thought of studying music but I am so terrible with music theory, I wouldn’t even get in at all. I can’t even read music. That would probably take like another year to learn. I guess I could if I really wanted. I don’t know. I am so confused.”
What Daniel Bedingfield asked him to do second time around with “White Blank Page” was to play another 30 seconds and really give it everything.
It was not possible in that moment to see the confusion and terror in Sasha’s eyes, which was a feat of control, because it was clear to all bar Bedingfield that he had already tried to do that. But he did what he could, thrashing at his guitar and howling out the words, and it was difficult to tell if it was enough or if it mattered or what anybody thought. Grandma, in the wings, looked worried.
They stopped him again, and he stood, engulfed by the moment between the end of the song and the start of the judges’ comments, a terrible gash of time in which possibility and plans and futures are lived and lost.
Finally, after a split second or so, Bedingfield spoke. He said he loved the break in Sasha’s voice, which sounded positive, but it was hard to tell whether he really loved the performance.
Ruby Frost went next, asking if he wrote his own songs. “A few,” he said. “I struggle with the lyrics.” She told him that something about his vibe reminded her of Glen Hansard and he said, “I love Glen Hansard!” She told him he was different from the others.
“You did look like a bit of an idiot,” she said, “but that’s what made me fall in love with you.”
Then Stan Walker said: “I never thought I would like your type of voice, but actually I love it.” Then Mel Blatt went: “I really, really love you, and more so because when Dan told you to give more, it’s actually not a song you can really give much more on, but you went for it anyway. You were just like, ‘Yes okay!’”
“I looked like an idiot,” he said. “I know.”
“You did look like a bit of an idiot,” she said, “but that’s what made me fall in love with you, so good job. I do think you’ve got a great voice.”
Then they voted. Bedingfield said yes and Ruby Frost said: “It’s a massive yes from me,” and Stan and Mel said yes, and he was through to the boot camp round, the top 120 performers in the competition.
“Are you just like massively stoked right now?” an interviewer asked him in a curtained-off area backstage after the performance.
“Yep, it’s crazy. I’m speechless. I just can’t find the right words.”
At the top of the whirligig of escalators inside the main entrance to SkyCity is an atmosphere-less café. X Factor contestants sometimes milled here during auditions, buying nutrition-free snacks, loudly practising their songs, smoking in the double-sealed glass courtyard and creating the sort of anxiety-inducing hubbub that invariably results at a gathering of extroverts.
Across the adjacent walkway over Federal St was the holding room, where the bulk of contestants and their supporters sat on scattered chairs and waited for their names to be called, and in which the furniture included a fridge full of free Coke and a makeup mirror.
In the holding room, an efficient and surprisingly calm young woman herded streams of contestants in and out for various commitments: filmed interviews, “actuality” footage of them actually doing things, media requests and, finally, auditions.
Once she called a contestant for an audition, another crew member would say: “I’ll travel him,” and would then lead him across the walkway, through the cafe, along a mezzanine walkway looking out over the bleakness of daytime gambling, towards The Nation’s Clubrooms sports bar, past wall-mounted action photographs of Colin Meads and Robbie Deans and Joe Rokocoko, and through an inauspicious doorway that opened surprisingly into the backstage area of SkyCity Theatre.
There, the contestants would become increasingly aware of the fact they were now on the cusp of performing for intimidatingly large television cameras, a crowd of hundreds, and four judges who were possibly about to humiliate them on national television.
Every contestant who made the televised auditions was travelled on that route, and almost without fail, upon arriving in the tiny green room with a guitar tech working tirelessly in one corner and a TV showing a silent live feed of the on-stage action in the other, they would ask for the toilet. “Next year, I’m just going to get a sign made up,” the guitar tech said.
His was a high-pressure job, dealing with the fragile nerves of semi-continent performers, keeping track of things called “packs”, and just ensuring that no one went out there with a guitar that was going to fuck up mid-performance, because this whole thing was on a tight schedule and a large number of people, including many important television executives and celebrity judges, needed it not to fall apart.
Few people know what happened to Ben Lummis and fewer care, and that is the ultimate disaster when you’re supposed to be a star.
From the green room, performers were taken through a baffling collection of curtains and technical equipment and briefings. Then they were in the wings, just metres from the stage and the spot marked “X Factor” where they would stand and banter briefly with the judges before performing the song that would decide whether their rejection would come now or later.
Oh sure, they might never be rejected, might win the whole shebang, and yes, their chances had improved by making it this far, but the odds were still a highly improbable one in 300, and apart from a few “novelty” acts, there for ritual humiliation, the other 299 were genuinely talented. The chance of rejection was high.
No discussion of The X Factor NZ would be complete without a brief discussion of Ben Lummis and, don’t worry, it will be brief. Lummis won the first of the three series of New Zealand Idol in 2004 and the reason he is the example being discussed here is that nobody can remember the names of the other two.
What happened to Lummis after Idol, and his number one hit that followed, is a cautionary tale. Few people know what happened and fewer care, and that is the ultimate disaster when you’re supposed to be a star.
Don’t worry, he’s still alive, nothing actually disastrous has happened to him, and he’s got a killer six pack, but as for the charts, celebrity, all that, nah: he’s just an ordinary guy who went through a really weird experience.
Andrew Szusterman, known universally to X Factor staff as Szusty or, more tautly, Szust, is the co-executive producer of The X Factor NZ, and also a bigwig at MediaWorks Radio. He is clear that he doesn’t want a Lummis out of all this; he wants a successful recording artist.
And he is confident he will get it, although the producers of the three seasons of New Zealand Idol never did. X Factor judges are mentors and they are there not just to judge, like the Idol judges, but to help and guide and nurture and whatnot, according to Szust, and therein lies a big part of the difference.
Some winners of X Factor overseas, like One Direction, have made successful careers as recording artists. Some, like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, have also made careers from Idol.
Some non-winners in both shows have also had successful careers. But if you want to launch a successful musical career, you’re still way, way, way more likely to do it somewhere other than on a televised talent show. It sounds so mundane and obvious to say it out loud, but X Factor’s success depends on contestants and viewers suspending disbelief in that reality. So if the show is just one more opportunity, not even a particularly hopeful one, rather than “the opportunity I’ve been waiting my whole life for”, well, who cares?
Three Kingz, a three-man hip hop group from Canterbury, were sent home after their televised audition at SkyCity. “We thought it would be either yes or no and maybe they would give you some feedback, a bit of criticism,” said Kyle Abernethy, aka KZ, “but not like they did, calling us Christian rappers and shit. Like, what the fuck is the point of that? That’s what Daniel Bedingfield said, eh. He said, ‘I felt like it was the opening of a Methodist church.’ I was like, ‘Okay, sweet as man, come and say that to my face.’”
The Kingz wanted the exposure of X Factor to “get the word out” about New Zealand hip hop, which they are passionate about, and to get a bit of a fan base, but no worries: a couple of weeks after getting four noes on X Factor, Kyle said, they had played some gigs with an up-and-coming local band, had some more gigs coming up, and everything was looking good. “It is just going to be an awesome road ahead, I think.”
Mel and Pip Maynard are 34-year-old identical twins from Martinborough who tell people to remember their names by thinking of a watermelon pip, and they say it with a joy unaffected by the number of times in their lives they must have said it.
“We were singing rock and stuff and we would go, ‘It’s like a rockmelon pip,’” said Mel or Pip, and they laughed in unison. They got four yeses at the televised auditions and made it through to boot camp.
“I’m invested in this as much as anyone else,” said Pip or Mel. “This is my dream.” But she said they had also been in enough singing competitions to know that one of the judges just might hate their performance at boot camp and that will be the end of that.
“The thing is, in our audition, they told us that we were good. If we don’t make it, then that is how it is on the day. I don’t think that detracts from what they said to us last time.”
They are so carefree and full of generalised joy that although you can’t help but want them to go through, you feel like others might need it more.
At boot camp, held at Vector Arena in late March, competitors were separated into one of four groups: boys, girls, groups and “overs”, a devastating term that meant anyone older than 25.
When you’re 18 and all you know is that you’ve got this talent and you don’t know what else to do with your life, it’s easy to see how this could feel like everything.
Sasha, along with all the other boys, had to sing the song “Come on Home” by Titanium, a boy band created by The Edge radio station, which is owned by MediaWorks, which owns TV3, which is screening X Factor, this being the brash, brash world of commercial cross-promotion. His performance would decide whether he would make the top 60. He was frankly worried about one of the notes, which was too high for him, and which he would have to bring down, and he wasn’t much of a fan of the song either.
“The lyrics are real cheesy,” he said, sitting against a wall in an upstairs annex at Vector, reciting them quietly, the same words that 30-odd boys had been practising over and over for the past week: “I remember times / when we used to laugh / about nothing at all / and the hours would pass.”
He stopped. “It’s not my thing,” he said, “but it’s okay.”
He would go through or he would get cut. Either way, unless he won the whole thing, and possibly even then, the lasting impact of it all would most likely be an interesting story to tell at parties in the years ahead.
But in the moment, when you’re 18 and all you know is that you’ve got this talent and you don’t know what else to do with your life, it’s easy to see how this could feel like everything, especially when dozens of people are swarming around with headsets and clipboards and big cameras and you keep seeing Dominic Bowden in skinny jeans that end slightly above the ankle.
Sitting next to Sasha on the Vector floor just before he went on stage to sing “Come On Home”, I felt nervous for him: “If it doesn’t work out here,” I asked, “what will you do?”
“I’ll go back and wash dishes because I have to pay the rent, and then I’ll try to find some places and gigs to play. I want to write more music as well. I guess if it doesn’t work out then I have to try to do it all myself. There are not that many opportunities like this that come around.”
“I feel like it’s going to be hard,” I said, “because everybody here is good, and half of them are going to be cut, and then at the next stage it’s going to be even harder.” Because this sounded harsh, I also said: “Sorry to be bringing the party down.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “I’ve thought about all this a lot. If I made it to the live shows I wouldn’t be sad. Obviously it’d be good to win, but that’d be a happy goal for me. Maybe I’ll feel differently, but that’s how I feel at the moment. I’d feel really confident in myself then that I’d made it that far and even if I get knocked out, all those other people there with me would be amazing and I’d know I was one of them, so…”
“So it’s like somebody saying you are good enough?”
“Yeah, exactly. I need that reassurance.”
A different time, I had asked Sasha about his parents, whether they were supportive.
“Super-supportive,” he said. “They always have been, and almost too supportive, I think. Unrealistic kind of thing, like you can do whatever you want and all that. But you’ve got to be realistic.”
Sasha was in the last of the four or five groups of boys to sing “Come on Home”. Each group stood on stage in a line and took turns to step forward and sing those cheesy, cheesy lyrics a capella into the terrifying emptiness of Vector Arena, just a few crew and four judges looking back at them.
Out of the 30 or so boys, maybe one or two was pretty obviously not good enough and one or two obviously outstanding but mostly they were all just really good.
The judges didn’t comment after each performance, didn’t even call the contestants’ names. It was just: silence / Come on, come on home, woh oh oh oh oh oh… / silence / repeat.
After the last performer, the judges conferred, then called each group back to the stage, asked some of the contestants to step forward and told them whether they were going through or going home.
Again, Sasha’s group was last to be called. He stepped up onto the stage alongside the others, trying not to look too nervous, and waited to hear whether he was good enough.
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