Luke Kennedy and Joel Turner aren’t an obvious combination — but a shared love of Michael Jackson is bringing this odd couple together.
Both Kennedy and Turner are Brisbane boys, but on the surface, that’s about all they’ve got in common.
Kennedy — of The Voice and Ten Tenors fame — is known for having the voice of an angel, while Turner — who shot to fame on the first season of Australian Idol before winning the World Beatboxing Championships — has a very different skill set.
But Luke says they’ve figured out how to work together for Smooth Criminals, their live tribute to Michael Jackson.
“We met through a mutual friend, and we realised pretty quickly that we both had this love of Michael Jackson,” Luke says.
“Joel does an amazing version of Remember the Time, which we’ve now included in our show, and I’ve always loved Michael and I try to incorporate his songs into my shows whenever I can.
“There’s just a curiosity about seeing what happens when you get the two of us in a room, two people with totally conflicting musical styles, and then you throw in the music of Michael Jackson. That’s what really intrigued me about the show.”
Joel says the unlikely duo’s collaboration on Smooth Criminals has gone, well, smoother than you might expect.
“When we first jammed together, I realised how musical he was, and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s good’,” he says. “Basically, we just went from there. From the first song, we just got each other, musically. And we both corrected each other on a few bum notes here and there, so it’s all good.”
Both Luke and Joel grew up listening to Jackson, and never really grew out of it.
“My first memory of him goes back to when I was five years old, and Black or White was on Video Hits,” Joel remembers. “I saw this guy walking through the fire, just going nuts with smoke everywhere and stuff, and I said to my mum, ‘Who is this guy?’ And she said, ‘Oh, that’s Michael Jackson from the Jackson 5’.
“Then I went back and had a listen to his earlier stuff. He had a true musical talent that you can’t fake and you can’t learn. I mean, you can have the best teachers in the world, but Michael really had something special.”
For his part, Luke insists that Jackson was “the greatest entertainer that’s ever lived”.
“He was so unique — with his dance moves and his vocal affectations and his crotch grabs and all that — but what really separated him from everybody else was that his showmanship was actually backed up by incredible musicianship.
“He was a great songwriter, and he’s the best vocalist I’ve ever heard, hands down. So when you put all of those elements together, you have this once-in-a-millennium performer. He’s the best performer there ever was and probably ever will be.”
For these two huge Jackson fans, re-working the King of Pop’s catalogue feels a little bit like sacrilege.
“I totally feel like that,” Luke says. “I’ve always been cautious, whenever I’ve performed a Michael Jackson song, because I do feel like some of his stuff just shouldn’t be covered. It’s so iconic that if you choose to do your own version of it, it really has to be special.
“So I guess I feel like we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to deliver something that’s faithful to Michael Jackson’s songs and what they meant. That’s the attitude we’re taking into this. We don’t have to sound like Michael — in fact, nobody can sound like Michael – but we have to be true to what he was trying to say in each of those songs.”
“We would never try to jump on stage and disrespect Michael,” Joel adds. “This is just two musos coming together to do our own cool renditions of his tracks. It’s just about getting to the core of the songs and what they were about and delivering a dope performance.”
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Michael Jackson now without his off-stage scandals colouring our perception of his legacy.
“It’s a shame that stuff does come into the conversation,” Luke says. “He’s a polarising figure and some people love him and some people just completely hate him. But my personal view is… I don’t think he was guilty of any of the stuff he was accused of.
“I just think it’s so sad that this has now become synonymous with Michael Jackson, that this is what we think about. Personally, I don’t think it detracts from his legacy, but maybe that’s just because I’m a real lover of his body of work. I’m sure other people would have a different point of view.”
“I’m with Luke on this one,” Joel adds. “I’ve had papers say stuff about me that wasn’t even true, and that’s just with my low level of fame. That’s nowhere near what Michael must have gone through, being the most famous person in the world. I know what the tabloids do, I know they portray people, so I can’t imagine the amount of rumours and stories that someone at his level of fame would have to deal with. But I think the message of his music was about love.”
Although Luke and Joel don’t have much in common, musically, they did both find success on reality talent shows. There’s a certain stigma attached to that, but neither of them regret that career choice.
“When I went on the show [Australian Idol], I didn’t go on there and have people tell me what to wear and what to sing,” Joel says. “I just went on and did my thing, and I was in the right place at the right time. Australia embraced it and I got some exposure. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think you can say, ‘Oh, you’ve been on a TV show, so therefore your talent isn’t real’. I think that’s just bollocks.”
“I agree with that,” Luke says. “Look, these reality TV shows, whether it’s X-Factor or Idol or The Voice, they’re just great advertising. If you’ve got a great product – if you’re a great singer – then you’re advertising that to the whole nation. You get the chance to do it week in, week out, and it’s all free of charge. So if you’re looking at it from a business standpoint, it’s one of the best investments you can possibly make.
“If you’ve got the talent, and most of these guys do — they’re on these shows because they’re talented – then I think it’s just an opportunity to get up in front of Australia and see whether or not they embrace what you do.
“It’s very much a fast track. You take the good with the bad. If you get a record deal at the end, it’s probably not as good as the record deal you’d get if you got signed by, you know, playing a pub somewhere and sending off your demos and doing it the ‘traditional way’, but what you get is exposure.
“It’s just the evolution of our music industry, and it’s a very valid pathway if you work it.”
Luke Kennedy and Joel Turner will perform Smooth Criminals: The Songs of Michael Jackson at Brisbane Powerhouse on Sunday 4 December. For more information and tickets, visit brisbanepowerhouse.org.