Go on, impress him… | Howard Keith Debono

In between controversies, surprises and record-breaking participation levels, The X Factor has certainly caught Malta’s attention. Record producer (and X Factor judge) Howard Keith Debono speaks on what it’s like to be the maker (or breaker) of musical dreams…

What do you make of the public response to the X Factor auditions so far? What does it tell you about the people who want to go public with their talent for singing (even though many might not actually have that talent...)?

The response has been astonishing. It’s record-breaking, from what we’ve been told… and we’re still in Episode 3. Over 400 people applied for this first season, which tells me there’s a lot out there we are not aware of. My guess is that these people were waiting for such a TV format to give them such a chance.

Clearly, there’s also an adjustment to the mind-set being exposed to this format possibly for the first time in Malta. The same way this is new for us judges and the contestants, it’s also new for the viewers, even though X Factor has been around for 15 years. I dare say a substantial percentage of viewers were not familiar with the format. Seeing a fellow Maltese person have a bad audition and being told ‘NO’ is a tough one to adjust to for some viewers at times; but I genuinely believe this will help us grow musically.

There were also the ‘diamonds in the rough’, as well as, of course, the ones you are referring to. As expected, we had a few deluded contestants. Others living in their ego-bubble, clearly showing us they would not have been open to mentorship. But for the most part, the majority were good sports… seeing this as a great opportunity to be exposed on the airwaves for the first time in their life.

Apart from musical talent, many contestants also come with their own human story. Are you genuinely interested in their stories, or is the singing the only thing that matters?

Most successful artists in the industry have a story to tell. I don’t see any problem in sharing one’s story, but I do have a problem when a contestant might try to use a story for personal gain. Normally we can pick up on that, but the truth is that we [the judges] don’t get to hear what the TV viewers see in the programme.

In other words, the contestant’s story is only shared with the producers. We won’t have a clue what the contestant might have said before or even after the ‘room audition’. We’re all focused on what we’re looking for, and if I sense it’s overplayed you’ll see my eyes rolling. Some people find it uncomfortable to say it as it is when the contestant is standing there in front of them, and that’s totally understandable. But when I gather my thoughts, thinking solely in professional terms, I’m constantly asking myself: can this person progress, is there something we can work with here, is there potential in music industry terms to develop/mentor this act?

Do you think X Factor (both generally, and Maltese version) overdoes it with the ‘sob-story’ aspect?

Watching it as a viewer, I have to admit I get engaged in wanting to know more about a contestant, as long as it feels real.

Whilst filming everyday for 10 hours at the room auditions, it’s close to impossible to keep a straight face all the time or hide emotions, no matter how hard one tries. It’s bound to happen. It’s as real as it gets, and that room amplifies emotions. It does something to you.

The fact that the viewers are on a journey with the contestants for a number of episodes is definitely a plus and probably one of the reasons the show has been so successful in producing such stars. We don’t appreciate contestants who would use X Factor to convey personal beliefs, which have nothing to do with their musical journey. After all, it should be about the music.

Does it also say something about people who do not usually get access to performance opportunities in more traditional ways? Would you, as a producer, have located these people were it not for X Factor?

Not everyone is going to manage to fulfil his or her music dream. Some will get a wake-up call, others will get lost in the saturated market, and only a few will take it to the next level: either by taking our advice, or anything else that inspires them to do so. What personally intrigued me was that there was so much new talent we had never heard of. Out of 200 + contestants we auditioned as judges, I only knew two of them; another eight I knew of, and I had no clue who the other 190 were. That alone convinces me that as a music producer and artist manager, I couldn’t ask for a better platform.

X Factor is surely not just about the voice: how important are looks when judging contestants? And what would you say gives singers the X Factor?

Before I heard of ‘X Factor’ a couple of years ago, I had a buzzword for artists: USP, or ‘unique selling point’ – the reason why people will follow you passionately, and what inspires other artists to be like you. That is the X factor.

Personally, I’m very interested in the sound of the voice I will remember; the tone of the voice which I will recognise on the airwaves immediately. The rest can be mentored. Of course, parallel with all this there is personality, likeability, stage presence, song writing, musical background, image, attitude… these are all boxes I’m trying to tick when I’m looking for the X factor in someone.

I try not to over-think it. In some cases, five seconds into an audition, my gut feeling kicks in and I rarely change it. A few notes might be pitchy, image might need work and the song choice might have been wrong – as in most cases at the first phase, which we call ‘room auditions’ – but it might be enough to inspire a vision. In other cases, a contestant might seem good and all, but I would have still given them a ‘No’ because I felt I would have forgotten them the following day. This happened to me whilst watching the uploaded daily’s on YouTube, where I couldn’t remember an audition.

That isn’t a good sign, and in that case my ‘no’ would have been justified – but possibly not easily understood by the viewer.

Before, Maltese audiences voted for a successful song to take to the Eurovision Song Contest. This time, it will be X Factor to pick the voice... and one imagines a song will be especially created for that voice. But surely Eurovision is about the song, not just the singer? Is X Factor the ideal venue to choose Malta’s Eurovision entry?

This is a typical case where the sensational narrative that sticks makes the headlines.

The right way to look at it isn’t that the winner will represent Malta in Eurovision, but that it is an additional experience and exposure to what the winner will have: i.e. a record contract with Sony Music, and massive exposure to start a music career.

Being crowned the winner of a worldwide brand such as X Factor isn’t a small thing and some contestants are still not aware what that means or how it’s perceived globally. Even those who don’t win have a lot to gain.

There are also unexpected indirect benefits, such as having one’s performance go viral. Recently, one of our contestants from ‘room auditions’ got picked up by X Factor Global X, and got 2.5 million views – shared 14,000 times – in less than a week. It will ultimately depend on the artist’s determination and music choices.

I see songs as vehicles where the singer is the driver in control of that vehicle. There are a few contestants who have their own original songs, and that’s part of what we’re looking for. But there are many vehicles to choose from. There are international and local writers already contacting us, pitching their songs. This is the creative industry, so it would be quite short-sighted to limit the artist’s options.

When X Factor first aired, the production was taken to task over the excessive code-switching between Maltese and English. Some argue that the show should be in Maltese (with exceptions only for non-Maltese speakers), while others, who don’t have a language preference, still argue that the programme switches between Maltese and English too much. How do you respond to those views?

I would of course bow my head, as I definitely do not see myself as any language expert. I personally welcome such dialogue. Simply looking around us one will notice code-switching happening constantly, even in our highest institutions: media interviews with members of parliament, political debates, in our hospitals, among doctors, lawyers and several other industries, TV and Radio programmes, media portals… not to mention, of course, several households, Facebook posts and even comments prompting the language discussion.

In other words, this happens constantly in our society, whether we want to accept it or not. Having said that, two of the judges – Ray and Alexandra – are more comfortable speaking in English. The same thing happens with some of the contestants who switch from English to Maltese and vice versa at their own choice.

I think it’s fair to say that when someone speaks in English we normally and naturally answer in English, and same for Maltese. For example, both Ira and myself speak in Maltese between us, however the minute anyone else speaks to us in English it automatically triggers us to switch to English.

People may have been expecting you to be the Simon Cowell of the X Factor judging panel... but you haven’t been too hard during the auditions. Are we to expect some broken hearts in the programmes to come?

That’s funny, because I’ve heard more comments telling me I’m actually a bit harsh!

But the minute I accepted to be part of this, I accepted the fact that I have to be honest and be myself, regardless how it’s perceived. Many people who know me, know me exactly as they see me on TV.

I will never be the type who rips someone apart for the sake of making good television – apart from the fact that I have absolutely no idea how to act – nor would I pass someone through because it’s expected to do so. It’s not something I would do in real life, and I am being 100% honest here: I will always say it as it is.

I guess the fact that I’m sitting in the chair that is normally occupied by Simon Cowell, tends to give people a pre-conceived idea of what to expect. This happens in other countries as well. But the way I see it, X Factor is an extension of what I do every day in my professional life with the difference that it’s done on a public platform. We’re there to do a job and that is to filter out the best possible acts, share our experience with them, and mentor them. Ultimately it will be the TV viewers who will get to vote, and that’s why this format is so great.

I assure you, viewers will have a hard time when the judgement will be passed onto them in the live shows. We are going to give them great acts to choose from. There is so much more to come…

More in Interview