Geoff Sewell is a New Zealand-born chartered accountant-turned- singer who moved to London and founded the best-selling 'popera' group Amici Forever, which sold more than 3.5 million albums. He left the group in 2006 to focus on his autistic daughter and is touring New Zealand with Dame Malvina Major.
1. You were criticised for Amici Forever by opera and classical music purists. Did that hurt?
I knew we weren't appealing to those people - I was targeting people like my mum and dad, people who love music and melodies. When you're the first to do something it's easier (for people) to just knock it. Of course it does hurt. If you don't get hurt at stuff like that you're not human, really. It was hard to get it going - it took about 25 phone calls and meetings with people before anyone understood what Amici was all about. I took (the idea) to Simon Cowell who was an A and R manager at (record label) BMG and he told me he didn't think it would work. He said "is it pop or is it opera?" They closed the door so many times. I thought maybe I wasn't cut out for it.
2. What made you keep going?
My wife Simone said to me, "We're only in London for your career. We're not here for the scenery. Get off your butt and make it happen. The only person who is going to give you your big break is you."
3. Did Amici Forever make you rich?
It made the record label rich beyond my wildest dreams! Yeah, I'm lucky that I've made some money out of it as well. I've invested it, though I do love cars. I bought my Porsche as soon as I could because I always wanted one. We love travelling now and do a lot of that because basically for the first 10 years we worked relentlessly without taking a break.
4. But you're staying at the Alpine Lakes Motorlodge in Taupo. That doesn't sound like the Ritz?
You don't want to waste money either! I am an accountant, remember. If someone offers to pay for you you don't say no. And rich for me is rich in terms of lifestyle.
5. How did you know your daughter had autism?
We were travelling the world with Amici so Simone wasn't tapped into mothers' groups and we weren't aware of the usual milestones. When we look back we can see the red flags, and her deterioration, but it was a shock. She didn't speak at 2 and was referred to a speech and language therapist and from there it was a hideous six-month process to get a diagnosis. They told us she may never speak, that the screaming would continue. Doctors told us we might want to consider putting her away when she gets older.
6. You believe you can treat autism - is that a controversial view?
Apparently. For us it's a daily reality. We treat Sienna's medical issues through diet and she talks more, chats away, can travel anywhere with great excitement, she's happy, succeeds at school, on the playground and in extra curricular activities. How controversial is that? If we hadn't treated her she would have continued to bang her head against a wall until it bled, scream for seven hours a night and not speak. We went to conferences in the US where they talked about using diet to treat the underlying conditions. We found out she was screaming in pain, that she couldn't digest her food properly. We set up the Sewell Foundation to help other families.
7. And she sings on stage with you now?
She used to scream if I sang in the same room as her. We thought maybe she didn't like opera but it was a sensory thing. She also hated swings because she didn't know where her body was in relation to the rest of the world. Now she's singing on stage with us in concerts with 2500 people. People don't understand why I'm so emotional about it.
8. Did you grow up wanting to be an accountant?
Yes, initially I wanted to be like my dad as he was a chartered accountant so I followed and became one and had a promising career in the National Bank. The death of my sister Julie forced me to realise that life is short and if she can be ripped away so young (22) then I had better love what I do every single day and working in the bank wasn't lighting me up! The light went on and I wanted to be a performer and my mission is now to touch, move and inspire people so they are present to the magic of being alive.
9. How did your sister die?
She had an epileptic seizure in Auckland. She'd been having them since she was 4. When a person has a seizure you need to put them on their side in the recovery position and clear their airways but an ambulance officer thought she was dying and tried to resuscitate her. She choked on her vomit. When we found out about Sienna's autism I bawled like a baby. The first thing I thought of was the teasing Julie went through from kids at school for her epilepsy.
10. Where does your ambition come from?
My dad Peter is a tour de force and highly motivated and that rubs off on you.
11. You're singing with opera royalty - Dame Malvina Major. How does that feel?
She's incredible. At 71 she's had 60 years at the top of her game and I've had like five minutes. She's so humble and giving.
12. What's been your best moment on stage with her?
Last night in Taupo she said "I'm going to cut Danny Boy". And this was like five minutes before we were back on. She said "I want us to sing How Great Thou Art and we'll just look at each other while we do it and just have fun. You do this bit and I'll do this." And it was magic.
* Geoff Sewell and Dame Malvina Major play in Martinborough on March 1 and at the Ellerslie Racecourse on March 15. Geoff's new solo album, Live Love Sing, is on sale from April. www.geoffsewell.co.uk