John Foreman (OAM) : St Kilda, Melbourne : Victoria, Australia
“I think people often get caught up in how big a particular project is…or how many people are watching it…or how successful it is…but I suppose I’m at a point where if it’s going to be fun to get up in the morning and go to work, then that’s a project worth doing”
Chopsticks is the go-to piece for any kid within reach of a piano, and it was no different for well-known Australian musician and TV personality, John Foreman. And there’s no doubt that while his father sat and patiently taught this staple to a young and curious John at their Newcastle family home, neither of them could have imagined what shape that humble introduction to making music would take.
Growing up in the coastal area offered a community feel alongside opportunities like a Children’s Choir and Youth Orchestra, and in combination with music being an important component of his family-life, it was clear that a true-north had been established for John as he started formal lessons at only six years old. By the age of ten he’d won a scholarship to study at the Newcastle Conservatorium and, after his family relocated to Sydney, John completed his schooling at the Conservatorium High School before enrolling in the Jazz Studies course at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he began living the life of a typical musician; working with bands playing clubs and pubs, and accompanying singers in various venues throughout Sydney. In his final year of study he would be offered a small gig with a big name accompanying Australian TV icon, Bert Newton. This, of course, would mean taking time away from the course, but the appeal of working alongside the Australian entertainment legend was an opportunity too exciting not to explore.
“I asked the course coordinator if he thought I could take the time off to go and work with Bert, because I was a big fan and I’d always enjoyed watching him on television…I thought it would be great to meet him and to work with him, even though he wasn’t doing any television at the time I thought it would be a lot of fun. But my course coordinator said he didn’t think it was a good idea, that I really needed to concentrate on my studies, and that I’d taken far too much time off already for other projects and other shows and he advised me not to do it”
So, with the weight of expectation from his course coordinator and commitment to completing his jazz studies, he turned down the opportunity. But as the years would go on to prove, his instincts simply wouldn’t allow the decision to settle comfortably and, after some soul-searching, John made a decision to try and open a door to what would quickly transform him from his student-life to a well known and respected name in the Australian entertainment industry.
“I thought about it over the weekend and I thought, well Bert’s somebody I’ve always wanted to meet and if my jazz course results aren’t as good as I hope them to be as a result of me taking extra time off, then so be it; I still get to meet Bert Newton! So I rang back on the Monday and the tour manager said, “yep, we’ve asked every other piano player in Sydney and no-one’s available so the gig’s still yours if you want it”. This little show with Bert up in Tweed Heads – which was a lot of fun…he dressed up as Conway Twitty, and Patti (Newton) was Shirley Temple, to give you an indication of the tone and flavour of the show – with a 6 piece band and some other young singers. And Bert and I got on well and a short time after that I got a call from him saying “I’ve got a TV gig for you, are you interested?”. So it was very much: right place, right time”
The TV gig was Good Morning Australia, and in addition to being a great vehicle to household familiarity it would see John play with some of the biggest local and international music acts. It would also be the perfect environment in which to hone the necessary skills to manage the varied personalities, political realities and high pressure that goes hand in hand with working in live television. John would continue to accompany countless guests, deliver daily gags and develop his onscreen personality with the show for over a decade, but in 2003 he was presented the irresistible new opportunity to take the music-helm of an Australian production of the worldwide TV sensation, Idol. The time had come to say farewell to Bert and the morning-show family, one year before GMA cancelled.
“Idol was a fantastic opportunity to work with a large band. Because (with GMA) it’s very difficult to get much happening by way of extra musicians on that program because it was a very small studio, and at that time of the day there’s not really a call for a 30 piece orchestra. In fact, if you had a 30 piece orchestra in the at studio, Bert would probably do the joke that there were more people in the studio than watching. But Idol was great because all of a sudden there was a big orchestra to play with and lots of terrific musicians and great singers coming through; yeah, that was good fun”
In addition to the incredible opportunity and prime-time exposure the show provided him, there were the obvious realities of leading such a huge project, and after five seasons the sheer workload combined with the commute from Melbourne to Sydney for John was starting to take its toll. As such, the feelings for his ongoing involvement with Idol were strangely familiar, and with a somewhat precognitive ability he left Idol in 2008; one season before the show was cancelled.
“I felt that the show had peaked (and) it may be best to leave on a high; I guess that was my thinking at the time. It was very similar to my thought processes a year before GMA finished. I guess it’s like any of these things, you have to try and work out when’s the right time to walk away, and it’s not always easy, but I did feel like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I loved doing the show, it was a lot of fun, but it was also a hell of a lot of work. Those shows tend to consume the lives of the people that work on them, so they eat, sleep and breathe the show and that’s absolutely fantastic for the first year or two. And after about three or four years you start to realise that it’s important to keep life in perspective”
Since that time, it’s been a constant flow of projects adding to his already extensive CV from: Music Director and Conductor for a number of professional theatre projects (including The Boy From Oz, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels & Anything Goes); studio production roles resulting in Gold and Platinum sales for names like Marcia Hines, Guy Sebastian & Anthony Callea; providing music for television including Chris Lilley’s popular comedies, Ja’Mie: Private School Girl and Jonah from Tonga; and also continued work as the ambassador and mentor for the Count Us In program that supports the delivery of music education in the classroom. And in the continued spirit of giving back, one annual project that remains a very important commitment for John and continues to be a regular in his calendar is the Schools Spectacular. His original role was that of a performer as a fifteen year old Novacastrian, and now he dedicates his time every year to give back to the project, recognising the importance of its existence for creatively-driven students. Having run for over three decades – with 2015 seeing John’s 15th year of hosting the show – it also provided him a serendipitous opportunity that launched his professional career all those years ago, which he both recognises and appreciates.
“Coming to Sydney was a big deal for me when I was in Newcastle, but to come to Sydney and perform at the Sydney Entertainment Centre was very exciting and quite an awe-inspiring experience. To stand on stage with 10,000 people was something I hadn’t experienced up to that point and, of course, in the audience are people like Mary Lopez (AM) – who’s the director – and other music industry people, and so that opened all kinds of doors for me and continues to be a show that provides opportunities every year to students. There’s no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have had the musical career that I’ve had if it hadn’t been for the Schools Spectacular for two reasons; one, the fact that it gave me a huge boost to my confidence as a 15 year old…that experience boosted my confidence at a very deep level that was very powerful…and secondly; I was exposed to Sydney audiences, which included – for example – the people that booked Bert for his tour up at Twin Town Services Club some years later”
His ongoing commitment to Australian music has recently seen John awarded a well-earned Medal of the Order Of Australia (OAM) for service to the performing arts, and his contribution specifically to music continues to provide varied and interesting challenges, but he has recently pivoted slightly to involve himself in the production side of television and live major events. It began when John was set the massive task as creative director for the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony in his home town of Newcastle in 2013, and it opened up some new and exciting opportunities both creatively and professionally for him that has led to his new role as Creative Director for one of the biggest events in the Australian calendar.
“I kind of made a quiet little decision a couple of years ago that I thought it was important to diversify my skill-set, and to learn a few more things. So I worked on Carols By Candlelight under the executive producer by the name of Adrian Dellevergin (who) brought me in as the producer for one year of Logies and two years of Carols. And that was a great opportunity for me to learn a bit more about the production side of putting together a television program and putting together a live event. The latest of which is Australia Day in Sydney(2016), where my job extends beyond the musical component to really overseeing the whole creative direction, which is a mammoth day as there’s so much happening around Sydney Harbour and at the Opera House and right across Sydney. That has taken up a lot of my focus, a lot of my time, and that’s been really good”
When you get down to it, John’s personal ambition is a simple one: to explore and enjoy all fulfilling and challenging opportunities and, as he jokes, “Remain as employable as possible”, which in the end comes down to a choice. A choice to love what you do, respect the projects offered to you and embrace the idea of embracing what’s yet to be discovered and created. And whether it’s managing the high pressure of a live TV environment or engaging in a simple conversation, John exudes a latent evenness and assuaging levity, and it’s apparent – given a track record that is as enviable as it is remarkable – that there are few limits to what can be achieved when that kind of conscious mindset is supported by ability, tenacity, and passion.
“I’ve always tried to live life with a positive perspective, and I think that’s a very helpful thing especially when things don’t go your way, which is often the case. When people are talking publicly they usually talk about all of their successes, and the songs that I’ve submitted that have been rejected or the projects that I’ve come up with that have gone nowhere are the projects that we tend not to talk about. Because there’s no story to tell and there’s no product to flog and no dates to promote and no tickets or album to sell; so there’s no reason to talk about it. It creates the impression that everything that everybody does in the public sphere is a success; it’s far from the case. And what’s happened for me, I suppose, is that when I look back on the things that haven’t worked they have usually pointed me in the direction of something that has worked or I’ve been able to look back and say, “The reason why A, B & C didn’t happen is because D was just waiting around the corner” and that’s a useful perspective”
The 2015 Schools Spectacular is on Friday 27 and Saturday 28 November and tickets are now available
Thank you to The St. Hotel in St Kilda (Melbourne) for the allowing the use of their awesome space.