22 May 2016
Any other song, any other artist, even any other Eurovision, the highlight of my first ever live Eurovision Song Contest might never have happened. That highlight was meeting ManuElla of Slovenia, singer and co-writer of the song Blue And Red.
To be so captivated immediately by a song like Blue And Red is incredibly rare. It’s only the second time in Eurovision history it’s ever happened for me. These things can never be explained. Music is enigmatic by its nature, and you need to be receptive to those moments of magic when they happen. I’ve always been that sort of person, never submitting to peer approval or current trends of the day, or swayed either way by image. In fact, as such a huge fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, I’m atypical of a Eurovision fan in possibly every single way. If I like a song, I like it, and I’m not afraid to express it.
I still recall the “Super Saturday” of national finals in late February when I first heard Blue And Red. Slovenia was the last country I checked that morning, after the likes of Norway, Hungary, Finland and Moldova. Even though I rated Norway my favourite of that morning, there was already a glow developing inside me and I sensed Slovenia would eventually become my favourite. Early evening I texted a friend to warn I was becoming addicted to it. By that night I was hooked. I watched it on youtube about a dozen times, alternating between the main performance and the superfinal one before going to sleep, most of those times with a digital output from the phone to my bedroom hi-fi to let the energy pulse.
Right from the first note, the first thing I noticed was the rich, warm tone of ManuElla’s vocals. Again, this is rare to feel something so quickly; with other favourite vocalists typically it’s more slowly acquired. It’s a special quality she has, and the hint of Slovenian accent adds further intrigue. Add that to this brilliant piece of country-pop, then you have this intoxicating blend that still gives goosebumps to this day.
The original performance of Blue And Red from the Slovenian national final
Blue And Red is about finding happiness and liberation after a bad relationship, and that message is conveyed beautifully by ManuElla herself with the simple yet effective choreography. ManuElla’s smile, hand gestures, and small things like flipping her back to the camera to sing a line of the second verse, it’s all such a genuine expression of the song and adds so much to the occasion. Most important of all are the “allay” sections that connect the verses with the choruses. The expression of this one word are the quintessential moments of the song, both literally and emotionally. For the first two, ManuElla closes her eyes as she subdues the blue for the red to emerge before she bursts into chorus. The final one, particularly the side-on camera shot, is my absolute favourite part of the song as ManuElla is dancing in complete happiness and liberation to represent the complete transition to red. It’s a perfect finale to one incredible 3 minute journey.
Then consider the artist herself. ManuElla and co-composer Marjan are the most humble and genuine people you could ever meet. Remember, I’m not major media. I’m a passionate fan with a small blog that happened to be spellbound by Blue And Red, and ManuElla was equally thrilled to meet me as I was to meet her. The couple also needed to have such an emotional bond with their song that they’d be receptive and interested to meet someone else that felt similarly. They needed not to have the ego to believe I’m not worthy, and be so generous to offer their time. I can’t imagine too many other artists would have agreed.
In any other Eurovision year, I almost certainly would not have been at Eurovision. If I were, there might have been other songs taking my attention, or ManuElla’s schedule may not have been accommodating. A million different things could have happened. I always swore I’d only go to Eurovision when one of my favourite artists were involved, or to a city of great interest and preferably unknown to me. Even though I’d been to Stockholm before and personal favourites like Molly Sanden in Sweden and Grete Paia in Estonia failed in their national finals, Stockholm 2016 felt right to be my first one. Everything aligned.
After winning EMA, Slovenia’s national selection
Meeting ManuElla was a mission more in hope than anything. I started by posting my Fab Five on her Facebook page in late March. From that I hoped it would make such an impression that she’d contact me to offer thanks, and in response I would suggest a quick meeting and interview. Nothing happened beyond a “like”, so I figured that was it. Leaving Australia I decided to pack a gift and a thick, black texta for an autograph anyway. You never know.
The only real opportunity to meet her would be the Red Carpet, where the plan was to introduce myself as the blogger of that post. With no accreditation, I stood at the end of the zone where the cars were waiting to take the artists to the next reception. Everything was running late so the ushers were anxious to keep the artists moving. Some would break away when they heard their names called, and thankfully ManuElla was one of them. She jogged over and signed her autograph and took a selfie with the guy that called her, while I took a few photos. Then, in the blink of an eye, she was gone. The moment had passed and I never got to say hallo. If everything was going against me already, the camera decided not to focus properly in the fading and uneven twilight light, so all the photos were blurry.
The best of my blurry photos of ManuElla at the Red Carpet
The next night, the Monday before the first semi final, I figured I travelled all this way, I love the song so much, this opportunity is once in a lifetime, and I can’t give it up so easily. I thought to try message her directly. With her in the second semi, I figured she might have some spare time. I had nothing to lose, and the worst case scenario is she says no. The request was only for 5 minutes to offer my thanks, take a few photos and do a short interview. Within 30 minutes, she agreed, because I was a huge fan. Naturally I was thrilled. I replied to say I’d wear a royal blue t-shirt, then realised the word Estonia on it might not be appropriate. So I decided to wear my red Star Wars one, which had blue and white as part of the design. Perfect! Red, white and blue are Slovenia’s colours, and blue and red obviously relate to the song. I would subsequently never remember to tell ManuElla the reason for this t-shirt.
The day of the meeting I realised I never had anything for her to sign. My sister and I decided Eurovision programs would be best, so we went to the Eurovision Village beforehand only to find the stall didn’t open until midday – the same time as the meeting. My sister waited for it to open while I went to the meeting spot to wait for ManuElla just in case she was early. At 12.03 my sister arrived, and not long after so did ManuElla. She then went to retrieve Marjan as I tried to spot my sister, who’d gone walkabout. ManuElla and I immediately had a good rapport as I explained my adventure at the Red Carpet, for which she apologised. I told her nothing was her fault because security were the ones rushing everyone through. Once all four of us were together, ManuElla suggested we sit down for coffee. Was this really happening?
Quickly it was a very comfortable conversation. The first thing I said was to reinforce my love for the song. ManuElla said it was based on a real life experience, to which Marjan immediately said was nothing to do with him. I suggested that he’s her Mr Red now, and they both looked lovingly at each other and agreed. They are such a sweet couple! About the song and country music in general, that I never felt it was true country because ManuElla doesn’t have that twang in her voice that typifies most songs. Marjan explained about the banjo that it doesn’t automatically make a song country either. Officially they regard Blue And Red as crossover country. When ManuElla asked about the Dutch song, I said it was OK, and Marjan explained that’s the Nashville sound.
We spoke about Eurovision in general, and I told her I expected Russia to win. We all agreed that while it had a great stage presentation, the song followed a familiar pattern so it wasn’t that strong by itself. I told ManuElla, from seeing her post-EMA interview, I loved the fact that she watched ESC since a little girl and dreamed to be on the stage, compared to some countries and artists that use it for other reasons (like political or personal gain). I told her I’d seen nothing of any rehearsals or anything, and all I knew she was wearing a white dress. Even then I explained my eyes would quickly glance away so not to see too much. She mentioned it’s the year of white dresses. When she asked my favourite from the first semi final, I said Croatia. She confirmed “Nina”. I said yes, then foolishly forgot to ask about her favourite. I mentioned Slovenia was my favourite last year, as was Maja Keuc in 2011, so there must be something about Slovenian music. ManuElla informed me Maja was currently living and working in Stockholm. As a footnote, Slovenia were one of my favourites in 2012 – a year that ManuElla finished fourth in Slovenia’s national selection.
My highlight of the meeting was when ManuElla softly sung two lines, “Now the colour doesn’t matter; You feel blue and I am better”. Even in this little cafe at low volume, the warmth from her voice really radiated and she sounded so sweet. It brought a huge smile to my face. Team ManuElla didn’t want the country twang and equally didn’t want the song with a formal English accent. They were striving for the right balance, which shows you the level of detail these artists go to perfect their songs. This led to a question from ManuElla about the pronunciation of “matters”, and I explained Australians drop their Rs while Americans pronounce theirs and occasionally drop their Ts, so it’s our “mattahs” and their “madderrs” compared to actual “matters”. I confirmed ManuElla pronounces it perfectly well. The Australian accent, which I stated as deplorable, when I asked how I sounded, Marjan said cool.
The second highlight was that ManuElla was a fan of Vanilla Ninja! Yes, the other time I was so immediately captivated by a Eurovision song was Cool Vibes in 2005. I was explaining how Eurovision changes lives, as I’d arrived to Stockholm from Tallinn, and VN, in particularly lead singer Lenna Kuurmaa, was the reason I’d been there four times and I would go home via Tallinn as well. The fact Estonia was so close was probably the decisive factor I came to Stockholm.
ManuElla’s favourite Vanilla Ninja song. Lenna sings the first verse.
It’s amazing how the synergy works that without Lenna in 2005, maybe there’s no ManuElla in 2016. I explained VN finished almost 10 years ago and I was fortunate to see their last tour in 2008, and now it’s only Lenna with a solo career, and with two daughters. ManuElla tried to recall the name of her favourite VN song, the one “with the flutes”, as she eventually sung “when the eagles cry”. This was, of course, When The Indians Cry, and she immediately corrected the line “when the indians cry, and the eagles die”. We all had a giggle, including Marjan. It was such a great moment. Had I known she was a fan, I’d have brought her something related to VN. Bless her heart anyway, because now I want to hear her sing a VN song!
A common questioned asked of me in Stockholm, which also came from ManuElla, was about the popularity of Eurovision in Australia, whether it was really true. I answered it was popular to a degree. Describing the multicultural and government owned nature of SBS, that it even carries foreign language news services throughout the day, I told ManuElla it was that station’s biggest event of the year. In the mainstream world, Eurovision is not that big, and its SBS’s 30 years of televising the event that’s most responsible for the reputation of it being popular here. I think the coffees arrived because I never finished my point that one million people watch the final in Australia, which is only 4% of the population. The truth is 300k watch it live and 500k watch the Sunday evening replay out of 24 million people, compared to 3.5m from 9 million people in Sweden. That led to talk about Slovenians in Australia, that my father was an immigrant from Hungary, to which ManuElla proclaimed we are neighbours. True! Unfortunately any Hungarian link ends there because my father never spoke to us in Hungarian, believing it was a useless language to know. ManuElla agree about the language, especially that it’s difficult to learn.
Then there’s the struggle to be at Eurovision. The Slovenian broadcaster RTVSLO is so broke that the artists went to EMA, the Slovenian selection, without much knowledge about the stage. They had to prepare as best as they could beforehand and then improvise on the day. There were also technical problems with feedback from the earpiece, which affected ManuElla’s singing. They weren’t happy with any of the three performances. While I said I noticed ManuElla looked occasionally distracted, I didn’t note any obvious or serious problems with the EMA performances. Obviously I didn’t!
With RTVSLO so broke, much of the ESC journey for Team ManuElla was self-funded, including basics like accommodation and even meeting with the Eurovision producers. Each staging effect also costs money, as do many of the promotional appearances, like Amsterdam’s Eurovision In Concert. For instance, this year was the first time Slovenia ever used pyrotechnics on the ESC stage. You compare that to Russia’s elaborate prop, or even the fire and rain effects seen in the likes of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Israel, it makes you wonder how the small countries have any hope to compete. About the promo concert in Israel, we asked about the country, whether it’s safe. While they were always in safe areas, ManuElla told us about the airport security and that everyone is questioned twice. If you answer inconsistently, it’s to the back of the line. Serbia’s Sanja, who apparently never stops talking, failed this once!
ManuElla asked my thoughts on the official video of Blue And Red. I had to think back because I only watched it two or three times after not being too impressed. I told her I didn’t understand it. “Yes!”, ManuElla exclaimed. She hated it because there was so much jumping around with the edits. Apparently it was really bad before. Eventually ManuElla was satisfied with the final cut. It served its purpose of introducing the updated version of the song, and seeing ManuElla in various styles.
I mentioned that when flicking through the photos on her Facebook page, the one that caught my attention was ManuElla announcing her participation in EMA. When I asked if they were confident back then they could win EMA, both unanimously were. Asking whether Slovenia was fully behind them, they were too. I was worried maybe they weren’t, because Slovenia was getting such little attention from the rest of Europe.
Finally the small interview. Despite being so comfortable chatting away, I became nervous when it came time to record something. I even forgot the second and third of the four questions. The first question was obvious, how ManuElla felt when she read my comments about her song. The next one was about the word “allay”. The third one about her speaking voice also being so beautiful, this was a set-up to question I never had formalised. ManuElla laughed at the lack of a real question, and I started again, still without making much sense. I cut that bit out eventually. I think, now, it was meant to be about the inspiration to start singing, whether she or others recognised she had a gift. ManuElla answered nicely anyway. The fourth was about Slovenia. Ironically, if Slovenia won in 2015, I’d definitely have been in Ljubljana this year. So I asked about Ljubljana. Finally was to thank her for sharing the spirit of “come together”, the motto for this year’s Eurovision.
After that I said it’s my first ever interview, and both ManuElla and Marjan said it was ok. We then took photos, exchanged hugs, and said goodbye. ManuElla had signed our programs just prior to the interview.
On listening back to the interview, I noticed two big mistakes. I promised I’d not say “yep” to every statement ManuElla said – a common mistake by amateurs, and one that I was conscious to avoid. I still let too many slip in, and hated the “excellent” at the end of the first answer. Worst of all, I forgot to say hallo at the start! I actually never thought to say that.
The next night was the semi final 2 first rehearsal, and we were sitting just behind the green room. Thankfully ManuElla was not one of the fake qualifiers so I could manage to grab her attention by waving my Slovenian scarf and applaud her performance as she left the venue. As I said earlier, I knew nothing about the presentation, and was satisfied the new staging matched the updated version of the song. The update also worked, like starting with the “allay”, and I especially loved the extra harmonies in the finale. Most of all ManuElla sounded sensational, so I was more than happy.
As we know now, ManuElla did’t reach the final, finishing 14th in her semi final with 57 points – 49 from the jury and 8 from the televote. She told Slovenian TV:
“I’m proud of my performance. Most important is that I don’t reproach myself as I gave it my best.
“I never thought politics interfered in the contest, but after Norway – which had my favourite song – failed to go through, I do have doubts. At the same time, if I’m honest, the Georgian song was the poorest. Everything happens for a reason. I’m convinced that this was my best experience so far. I’m more than happy that Slovenia supported me and gave me this opportunity – to perform on the most beautiful stage on the world.
“It was indescribable up on the stage. It’s something you wish for all your life… Those are the kind of feelings you can’t describe. You’re just happy. You’re happy. And you sing to the audience and you see them breathing with you. That’s why I want this even more.
“Don’t give up – that’s life. There are always ups and downs. The most important thing is that we’re proud of ourselves. We hold our heads high and enjoy life. That’s why we’re here. We’re not her to worry and look for problems. We’re here to have a good time (da se imamo ‘fajn’).”
The next morning I sent ManuElla a message to express my sadness (I’d already shed a few tears because Eurovision felt all over for me) and asked for another meeting. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible. I wanted to do better with the interview, say hallo this time, and ask her if there’s any lingering disappointment, if she has any regrets, to describe her experience on stage without using the word “amazing”, what she meant in her Facebook post by “know how to compete”, did SBS ask her sensible questions, what was her favourite song, any friends she made, her future plans, and could she sing those parts of the song again from the first meeting. Most of all I wanted to say she can go home proud, and can take some small comfort from the effect the song had with me. That is the true legacy, that while the results were not as expected, she left an impression and clearly has the talent for a long and wonderful career. Eurovision was only the start.
Once again, thank you ManuElla for your wonderful song
More of ManuElla’s beautiful voice. Marjan is on keyboard. Australians should recognise this tune.