Eurovision fans may recognise Johnny Manuel as a member of the group Equinox, who represented Bulgaria in 2018 with their entry ‘Bones’. Since then, he has moved to Australia and is now competing on The Voice Australia. Joshua Mayne had a chat with Johnny to discuss talent shows, his Eurovision experience, and aspirations for the future.
Johnny Manuel has had music in his life from a young age. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, his musical journey begun by singing in church, and eventuated into signing a record deal with Warner Brothers at the age of 14. Music was always his driving force, but it was at this point he began to understand the commercial aspect of the industry.
“I learnt the business side of things. It shaped me in ways that I was not expecting… but in a good way”, he said. Despite a promising start at such a young age, Manuel struggled in the years following to get a foothold on his career in the music industry.
“While I made moderate successes, I would make a few steps forward, and then five steps back”, he explained. “I just felt like, at the end of the day, one thing I’ll always have is my voice. So, if I can show off and present that, and people connect with it, hopefully, it’ll help change my trajectory.”
This inspired Manuel to audition for America’s Got Talent (AGT) in 2017. He reached the semi-finals of the competition, and gained popularity not only in the United States but globally. This was partly due to the popularity of online videos of his performances, with the viral success of his initial audition leading to an unexpected opportunity at Eurovision.
Reflecting on Eurovision
It took an email from a determined Boris Milanov to bring Johnny Manuel to the Eurovision Song Contest. The Bulgarian songwriter discovered Manuel through watching his AGT performances and reached out via email to see if he wanted to work together. Manuel was immediately interested and was sent some potential tracks. ‘Bones’ was one of these songs, which he recorded and sent back.
What he did not know, however, was that it was the song submitted as the entry for Bulgaria at Eurovision 2018. Milanov planned to form a group of Bulgarian and international artists to represent the country in Lisbon, much to the surprise of Manuel.
“He came and said ‘hey this sounds great, just want you to know that it’s been approved as the Eurovision song for this year’, and he started walking me through how he was forming a group, and how he wanted it to represent the different elements”.
Two weeks later, he was in Bulgaria to start preparations. The group Equinox was then formed, consisting of three Bulgarian artists, and two artists from the United States. Johnny Manuel went to Eurovision without any set expectations. As an American, he knew little about the contest, and only learnt about it as he became more involved. But it did not take long for him to fall in love with the contest.
“It was literally one of the best experiences of my life, and I made some lifelong friends. He elaborated that he will not forget “that stage, and the audience, and the fans”, describing the dedicated Eurovision fandom as “the best fans I’ve ever experienced in my life”. Even to this day, they are still messaging him, giving praise, and even sharing their recreations of ‘Bones’.
Not only was Manuel in a foreign environment, but he was also singing professionally in a group for the first time. Performing as a solo act for the majority of his career prior, being put into a musical group with artists he had never met before was completely new to him.
“I didn’t know how it was going to feel, but it felt very natural because we all got along, and it felt like we were all working towards something together,” he said.
“That sort of environment enhanced my performance because I felt supported. But naturally, because I’ve performed for so long by myself, I’m extremely comfortable with that as well.”
Equinox ended up finishing in 14th place in the 2018 Grand Final, and is still a fan favourite entry. As for the status of the group, it appears as if they are no longer collaborating.
“If they are [making music], I am not involved,” Manuel said.
Life in Australia
Whilst pursuing his music career back in the United States, Manuel met Australian actor and musician Hugh Sheridan in Los Angeles. He ended up visiting Australia for the first time on tour with Sheridan’s group the California Crooners Club and continued to visit for a few more years after that.
“I’ve always enjoyed Australia,” Manuel said. “I knew at some point I’d love to live here and didn’t think it’d actually happen!”
It was whilst performing in Perth that he considered auditioning for The Voice. He met Prinnie Stevens – who has competed on The Voice Australia twice, and is now a backing vocalist on the show – and she asked whether he would consider auditioning.
“I didn’t even know if that was an option for me because at that moment I was still working out my visa situation. But I thought if the timing and everything work out I’ll consider it,” he recalled.
Manuel now lives in Terrigal on the New South Wales Central Coast with his Australian partner, and already feels at home. As an American competing on an Australian show, he was understandably apprehensive about taking part but is now comfortable in his new surroundings.
“I felt extremely welcomed, from the very start. I was very nervous about it coming into it, not knowing how people would perceive me. But I’m actually not the only foreigner, and not the only American, which is really cool.”
For his blind audition, he sang ‘Home’ by Diana Ross, and made all four judges turn their chairs. The performance video has already amassed over 600,000 views on YouTube and 500,000 views on Facebook.
Working with Guy Sebastian
Johnny Manuel ended up selecting Guy Sebastian to be his coach on The Voice, and says that the opportunity to work with an artist like Guy is “a dream come true”. In fact, he only learnt about him in his recent travels to Australia. Upon hearing his single ‘Before I Go’ on the radio, he began to research Sebastian’s musical past.
“I went online and found his Australian Idol videos and was in awe of his talent. He uses his voice like an instrument,” he said.
Manuel and his coach also have a connection in a Eurovision sense, having both competed at Eurovision. Sebastian sang for Australia in 2015 with his entry ‘Tonight Again’, and finished in 5th place.
What the future holds
Manuel has already had an eventful career to date, with strong links around the world in countries such as his native United States, Bulgaria and now Australia. He speaks of his international experiences as something that has helped him grow musically, but more so as a person.
“The more people you meet, the more experiences you have, the more you evolve as a person. And as you evolve as a person your music evolves.”
Despite his past, he still has large musical aspirations for the future. He wants to use The Voice as a way to grow his career and build a following in his new home.
“I hope that off the back of this, I’ll just be able to go into the studio, record music that I really love … write original songs, find producers and songwriters who I connect with, and release that music and tour around Australia. That’s what I really want.”
As for a potential return to Eurovision, Manuel would jump at the chance.
“I would absolutely love it. I don’t know how that would happen, but I would one hundred percent be thrilled to be part of Eurovision again.”
The Voice Australia Battle Rounds air from Sunday 7 pm and Monday 7:30 pm (AEST) on Channel Nine.