Stan Walker: Man on a mission

By Alan Perrott

When his faith handed Stan Walker a vision of things to come, he single-mindedly went about making it a reality, writes Alan Perrott

Stan Walker shares his long journey to the top. Photo / Sony Music
Stan Walker shares his long journey to the top. Photo / Sony Music

Stan Walker's fame has gone to his phone.

It's been binned since he got an earful of hyperventilated giggling. His private number had leaked out, again, so he's unreachable until he sorts out a new number and, despite the smiles, I suspect he's highly annoyed about it.

"It's the one thing I get tired of, that I can't be on my own, that I can't have any privacy."

Don't fret though, he's got two other phones, and three email addresses for that matter, but he keeps those under the tightest of wraps. No offence is intended but it's just in case, you know?

Of course, he still professes love for his fans, but he would dearly love a few boundaries.

Until now Walker's had few to none, what with his entire career being due to a pop star election conducted by an Australian television show. Having "Idolised" him, his supporters - including, somehow, those in this country who couldn't vote for him - believe that his time is theirs.

He hastens to add that he doesn't resent his situation or expect any sympathy. He understands his job and the need to work every available hour to keep it, it's just that "people don't understand that sometimes I don't have the time, or that it's my only day off in eight months. Then it's all 'Oh my God, he's such a dick, he's forgotten where he came from'. Well, I'll never forget where I came from or who I am, but they don't really care about any of that, they just want their photo and they think it's my duty to give it to them."

Since squeezing a catnap in between winning Australian Idol in 2009 and his first subsequent radio interview, Walker has barely paused for breath. There's been near-constant touring, albums to record and promote (his fourth is out early next year), videos to shoot, a movie to star in, another short film in the works and, most recently, judging on TV3's The X Factor. Even now, he's had to take time out from rehearsals and gym work as he builds up to a two-month, 23-show national tour kicking off next month. "Yeah, it's trippy, eh?" he says.

'X Factor NZ' judges Daniel Bedingfield, Melanie Blatt, Ruby Frost and Stan Walker.
'X Factor NZ' judges Daniel Bedingfield, Melanie Blatt, Ruby Frost and Stan Walker.

It's also completely ridiculous considering his life only four years ago: "Back when I was nothing, a no one going nowhere."

He was estranged from his parents, sleeping on his brother's couch and working part-time in a menswear store while his singing career amounted to church services and a handful of gigs with his cousin Jade, aka Jade Louise from television show The GC.

Yet he continued to dream - and if anyone needed dreams, it was Stan Walker.

As a young boy growing up on the Tamapahore Marae, he'd regularly climb the nearby Mt Maunganui and, when no one was around, pretend he was singing to millions of people.

Yes, like almost every kid, he wanted to be a star, but his daydreaming also helped him escape from the pain of the latest round of bruises inflicted by his thuggish, drug-dealing, alcoholic father (often dealt out for the dire offence of calling him "Dad" ).

His childhood was a travesty. He was born in Melbourne, a city considered far enough away to spare his mother the usual abuse while she concentrated on delivering her third child. Aside from the odd respite when her husband was in jail, for Mrs Walker these transtasman jumps became her standard response whenever homelife exceeded her and her children's pain thresholds.

If that wasn't enough, Walker was also sexually abused by a relative at the age of 9. By the time he had reached Hamilton Boys' High he was a thieving hoodlum whose life options had been reduced to his choice of gangs.

Yet, to meet him now, the only marker of his past is his mangled English.

What changed? The short version is that he has a determined mother who found the strength and support to rescue her family through religion.

She became a born-again Christian during another timeout in Australia when Walker was 5. With a new faith that life could only get better, she returned home and worked on her husband until he followed suit. "He just gave his heart to the Lord," says Walker, "and he was out cold for five hours. It was like God was doing something to him.

"And there was an instant change, he went from Jake the Muss to finally realising he had a family, that he was a father. But it took a long time for that to sink in. He never touched my mum again and sorted himself out - he'd been a full-on dealer - but we still got big hidings, the same as he'd always given us, but now he said 'sorry'.

"I hated my dad my whole life ... but that was the only way he knew how to be and when you're locked into that life, you can't just switch it off."

The next step came when Walker turned 16 and the whole family moved to Australia. "I just thought that was the worst move. I was living in Hamilton, I had my crew, I was smoking, drinking, getting wasted, everything. So I was depressed for two years. I felt like a refugee in a foreign land. I mean everything, the place, the people, the culture, everything, was different."

For his first mufti day at Byron Bay High School, he turned up in jandals, rugby gear and a singlet. "I thought I was so cool but everyone just looked at me."

Then he found an unlikely ally, his fifth-form maths teacher, Ian Watts. The breakthrough came when the teacher grabbed him to get his attention and Walker swung round and punched him. Once his suspension ended ("I was suspended from every school I went to") Watts made Walker his special project.

"All my life, kids like me ... people would look at us like there was something wrong, and there was, but they never took the time to figure out what was happening. We were just written off. Mr Watts, he was strict, but he always had time for me and he taught me so much. Maths became my favourite subject."

When Walker returned the next year and found he wasn't in Watts' class, he promptly dropped out. His parents weren't pleased and gave him two weeks to find a job or else.

"Stan had had it pretty rough," says his mother, April Walker, "but he was survivor and he was full-on, always. If he wants something he goes hard for it, it's how he's got to where he is now. So he went to interview after interview until he got a job in a supermarket. It wasn't the job I wanted for him, but it was something."

Another parental demand was attending Tweed Valley Community Church every Sunday.

"Us kids didn't have a choice and I hated it," says Walker. "It felt pointless. I had a lot of grudges, I couldn't forgive or forget and I was still stuck in the same old life."

Pastor William Dumas says despite his laughter, the boy clearly had issues.

"We were worried about him to a degree, but with our programmes we deal a lot with people who've gone through different rejections and face internal areas of struggle. Our whole focus was to give him a good focus on life - success comes from character, not gifts - and to see himself in a positive way and gain some confidence and self-esteem.
But it was being able to forgive his dad, that was always his greatest challenge."

Then his homelife collapsed again. He'd turned 18, but along with a new casual job at Man to Man menswear he'd also got a new girlfriend, and they were expecting a child.

He'd expected his parents to object, but when his church fell in behind his parents, Walker fled to his older brother's house in fury. To his mind, it was rank hypocrisy. Weren't Christians supposed to forgive?

He turned to a church youth camp for support. "I was like stuff youse, stuff the church. So, okay God, if you're real, this is your last chance."

During one prayer session he was told to imagine an altar, then to pile everything that had ever happened to him, good, bad and indifferent on to it and jump on top. "It was like total surrender and I blacked out."

He began to dream various scenes of performing on a stage with a band; of his family, back on the marae; and then of other family members in tears of joy. And all the time a voice was saying he was being called to "woo God's people back with his voice".

"I was like, did that just happen? I'd never heard that word 'woo' in my life, I had to go look it up on Google."

Then during the camp's final service, the pastor called him on stage to sing, but when he got there he broke down: "I was just weeping on to the mic, then when I opened my eyes everyone was on the ground, crying, and the band had stopped playing, they were in tears too. From that moment my whole life changed."

Most importantly, he allowed himself to forgive his father and dump the anger he'd always carried.

He now felt like a man on a mission, even if he had no idea where it lay - until he was watching television and saw an advertisement for the upcoming Australian Idol auditions.

So, on May 9, 2009, he joined thousands of other wannabes in the Suncorp Piazza in Brisbane hoping to be granted an audition.

It didn't start well. "You Polynesians, you come in here and you can sing, but you're all lazy," said the first producer he met.

"I just kept smiling and laughing back at him," says Walker, "but I was thinking: 'You don't know me, I'm the most competitive person to walk in here all day, I'll show you'."

What would he sing in Australian Idol's rock episode, the producer asked him.

He launched into Metallica's Nothing Else Matters.

Okay. How about the country episode? Cue Ring of Fire.

He was in. "I was prepared, you know? But I didn't want anyone to know what I was doing.

If anyone asked if I was auditioning, I was like 'nah nah, I'm with a mate'. I knew deep down what I wanted to do. My whole life had prepared me for this."

If that sounds like he had nerves of steel and maturity to burn, you should watch his audition on YouTube.

He's a boy, and a nervous, self-doubting one at that - "Am I going in?" Yes. "Like actually? Oh my gosh ..."

It only gets worse when he meets the judges. He's a giggling, unfocused mess, until, mercifully, he's cajoled into singing. Immediately his voice deepens and you can tell there is far more to him than he lets on.

As Kyle Sandilands, the nasty judge, says when he's done: "I thought you were going to be a crazy."

And just like that, the entire Walker family got caught up in an exhilarating and exhausting six-month ride with the budding singer, struggling all the way to the final at the Sydney Opera House. Then his pregnant girlfriend miscarried (he has a tattoo of their baby's name).

It wasn't until the last minute that he realised he had any chance of winning the show.

"I'm not saying this to be a humble guy, just straight-up, I never went into that competition thinking I was going to win or even to win, I always thought I was there for a purpose. Right before the final, that was the first time I prayed to win: 'God, is this your plan? Am I supposed to win? Because I've never won anything ever and I think I really can, and that'd be really cool ..."'

Of course, his mum was there. April Walker had spent a fortune flying to Sydney every week, missing only three episodes. But there was also family from New Zealand and throughout Australia.

Walker's final song, Amazing Grace - "I once was lost, but now am found" - turned into a celebration of how far he'd come.

When he was declared the winner he "went berserk. It wasn't just the fact I'd won, it was the whole experience, everything that'd led up to it, having my family there and having that moment in front of the world ... but then it was straight to work. That reality turned out to be a whole other thing to the show."

Which is why he has no time for reality show critics.

"It's hard, it really is, and you need to be the director of your own future because it doesn't matter if you have the greatest voice in the world, in the end it's how much you're prepared to work for it, and you can never stop. Winning something like Idol or X Factor puts you straight at the top, sure, but the fall is just as fast and it goes all the way to the bottom. Can you imagine that? One minute people say you're a star; the next, you're nobody. That'd create the biggest depression in your life."

At the same time, he's had to learn on the job, everything from stage craft to media work and everything else involved in leaping from singer to artist. It took him two years to go from a boy with a man's voice to a man with what he calls "a raw, ruthless, beast of a voice".

It's understandable that some of his closest friends are past Idol alumni including Guy Sebastian (2003 winner) and Jessica Mauboy (2006 runner-up). They know the challenges of immediate fame and it was the latter's acting experience in the 2012 movie The Sapphires that inspired Walker to take the lead role in New Zealand film, Mt Zion.

Stan Walker in 'Mt Zion' directed by Tearepa Kahi. Photo / Keir Toto
Stan Walker in 'Mt Zion' directed by Tearepa Kahi. Photo / Keir Toto

Yet, despite all that has changed, he's still bouncing back and forth over the Tasman. He even has dual citizenship.

Which is why Walker's notion of home is a little hazy. Sure, he was raised as a New Zealander, but home is wherever he's living at the time. Right now that's Sydney and he's looking to buy a home there after having set up his parents on the Gold Coast.

His message to his fans here, ahead of next month's nationwide tour, is that yes, he's a New Zealander first, but he's also an Australian artist first and "it's on my mind every day" that he needs to get back there. And if anyone has an issue with that, well, don't say it to his face ... he's still on his mission.

"I can't afford to sit around with chickens anymore, I'm an eagle, and that has nothing to do with being humble, because that's like saying I can't be proud of my talent. Of course I'm proud, and I'm boasting of what God's given me and made of my life.

"I just don't have time anymore for people who are stuck in ruts, I have to cut them out. I mean people say I've changed. Well, yes, of course I have, I've grown up and sometimes it can get scary. I know where I've come from and as much as I love what I do, I also know how much I've got to lose.

"So I don't have the luxury of time to think about what I've done, I have to keep looking forward, keep evolving and keep working."

And get that phone sorted.

Stan Walker's World Tour of New Zealand begins in Rotorua on September 4.

- NZ Herald

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