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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Cyrus Villanueva on his father’s inspiration, The X Factor journey, and what’s next

With a growing fan base and praise from the stars, a teenager who has never had any music lessons is the man to beat in X Factor Australia.
Cyrus Villanueva credits his father for encouraging his talents.  Courtesy Seven West Media
Cyrus Villanueva credits his father for encouraging his talents. Courtesy Seven West Media

“It feels so within reach now,” says Cyrus Villanueva, speaking exclusively to The National while hard at work rehearsing for this week’s semi-final of The X Factor Australia, where he has emerged as the front-runner.

Born to a Filipino father and Australian mother, the 19-year-old was fresh out of high school when he decided to audition for the reality-TV singing competition.

He credits his father, a full-time musician known as Jo Vill, for encouraging and nurturing his talent.

“I never took any singing or guitar lessons – everything I know and have learnt from music before The X Factor was all thanks to him,” he says.

Villanueva grew up in Wollongong, New South Wales, surrounded by music, particularly his father’s records by legends such as Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Stevie Wonder. One of his earliest musical memories was of singing during Christmas at age six.

“We were in America visiting family for the holidays and I sang Oh Holy Night while my dad accompanied me on the piano,” he says. “It was one of the first times I sang in front of other people properly, and despite singing the wrong lyrics – ‘Oh night device’ instead of ‘Oh night divine’ – it was the first time my family and I knew that music was in my blood.”

His passion for performing grew as the years went by, working as his father’s roadie during gigs before he started busking solo on the street and singing at cafes and weddings.

“What made me fall in love with music is its ability to bring joy and emotion to other people,” he says. “That was something evident when I watched dad perform – the room was always full of happy people.”

The X Factor journey

On The X Factor stage, Villanueva has captivated fans not only with his vocal and performing prowess, but also his attitude. Two weeks ago, his usually tough mentor, 59-year-old rocker Chris Isaak, was brought to tears after one of Villanueva’s performances.

“You work so hard,” said Isaak. “They don’t know how hard you work – they don’t know.”

“Chris is amazing,” Villanueva says. “His career is anchored in the era of music which I grew up listening to, so my influences are very similar to his style.”

“My favourite thing about him is how much respect he has for us, how much he trusts us. I don’t feel like a student to him that gets bossed around each week. Instead we work together on the same level, which pushes me to make him proud as each week goes by.”

Indeed, Villanueva has made his mentor and followers proud with his consistently strong showings. Last month, his performance of Isaak’s song, Wicked Game, peaked at No.1 on the iTunes charts – a feat considering none of the other contestants have made the charts at all. The rest of the show’s panel have also heaped praise on him. Guy Sebastian has called him “a superstar”, while James Blunt has dubbed him “the man that everyone has to try to beat”.

Dannii Minogue told him last week: “Sometimes this show just catches people in their prime and all the stars align.”

Love from home

Villanueva’s growing fan base extends to his father’s home country. Although Filipinos can’t participate in the programme’s weekly vote, they interact with Villanueva on social media.

“I can’t believe the response from the Filipino community,” he says. “I know how popular music culture is in the Philippines, and to know I’m making them proud is a huge confidence boost and makes me want to go on to achieve better things.”

His biggest fans, however, are back home in Wollongong, where his own childhood friends are going around town encouraging people to vote for Villanueva.

Asked what he plans to do after The X Factor, he quips: “To see my friends.”

“My friends and family are extremely important to me. I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”

He adds: “I love just relaxing with my mates – they know I don’t have to talk about The X Factor 24/7, so it’s a great stress relief.”

Staying focussed

For now, Villanueva’s goal is to survive tomorrow’s semi-final, where he will compete against folk-duo Jess & Matt, blues singer Louise Adams, and pop crooner Big T, who has become Villanueva’s closest friend on the show. Only three acts will make it to next week’s final.

Villanueva says about his fellow contestants: “There isn’t a sense of competitiveness between us, which I think is great. To me it’s really important to be going through such a challenging journey alongside people who share the same passion as you.”

As he prepared to return to rehearsals, Villanueva reflected on a pivotal moment that may just happen in a week’s time.

“If I win The X Factor, I think I would prove to myself that anything can be achieved if you put all of your effort into it,” he says.

“It would be the beginning of a totally different life.”

artslife@thenational.ae