Music was always a part of Barry Conrad’s life when he was growing up and his home was filled with a wide genre of music styles. His dad played the guitar and his mum sang gospel music in a church choir. It all helped Conrad broaden his appreciation of music, but, as a child, he never considered it was something you could do as an actual job. It all changed around the age of 15 when Conrad began to record his own music.
“I had one of those double decker cassette things and I’d record from one tape deck to the other. Without knowing, I was multi tracking vocals and doing studio stuff without really being taught that. So that was something I taught myself,” explained Conrad.
By the time he was in his late teens Barry Conrad began to realise music might be something he could do as a career, but lacked the confidence to believe in his abilities.
“I didn’t have the confidence to believe in myself. I definitely knew I wanted to do it, but didn’t know how to get out of my situation and make that happen,” said Conrad.
Conrad joined a singing and break dancing group and had a few gigs. After living in New Zealand, he made the move to Australia, thinking that would be the next big step, but the group broke up.
Although he lacked self-confidence, Barry Conrad had the talent and gained work doing back up vocals for artists such as Stan Walker, Jessica Mauboy, Guy Sebastian and Delta Goodrem.
“I really came up through the industry behind the scenes.”
Then came an audition for the television reality show X Factor.
“It forced me to really step out to the front and really own my life and own my dream and own what I really wanted to do,” said Conrad of his X Factor experience.
Conrad made it to the finals but it was a difficult time personally, having to deal with the loss of his second mum to cancer during that time.
“She encouraged me to just do it, you know, you only have one life.”
Already known to so many people within the industry, Conrad felt an enormous amount of pressure during his time on X Factor.
“I felt I had to prove a lot more and it forced me to work super hard and dig deeper than ever,” said Conrad.
It was all worth it. Conrad described his X Factor experience as being “liberating”.
“I felt like I was where I was meant to be and stepping into myself.”
While he knew other performers who were ready to give up after their time on reality tv shows, Barry Conrad was determined to succeed.
“You need tenacity and resilience in this industry, ’cause it’s so cut-throat and if you don’t love what you’re doing you’re not going to make it.”
Conrad knew the television exposure was the break he needed but to keep learning and upskilling and developing his craft. He said it’s important to “never think you’ve arrived”.
“A lot of people bag these shows but at the end of the day it really helped me and I’m really grateful for that.”
The television exposure opened up countless opportunities for Conrad through music gigs, ambassadorial work for Cancer Council Australia and R U OK? Then came the musicals. Barry Conrad’s professional debut into musical theatre was in the highly acclaimed production of Violet which played at the Hayes Theatre and Chapel Off Chapel: both very intimate venues.
Conrad initially didn’t want to do musical theatre, concerned about the long term commitment being involved in a large commercial show, but when Violet came along he knew it was something very special and something he wanted to be a part of.
“I needed to do this show for me personally – just to let go and be open to show emotion. I think this was the perfect first show for me. I really had nothing to hide behind. I had to really do the work and allow myself to be naked emotionally in front of people,” Conrad said of his time in Violet (Blue Saint Productions).
After gaining the attention of the theatre world through his role as Flick in Violet, Barry Conrad has now continued in musical theatre, taking on the role of Seaweed in Hairspray The Musical (Harvest Rain).
“It’s polar opposites! Violet is small and intimate, while Hairspray is big and shiny with big sets and massive logistics” said Conrad.
Although the musicals are very different in their style, they both carry an important message about racial prejudice. It’s something Barry Conrad has experienced personally.
Conrad’s father is of English and African backgrounds, while his mother is of German and Indonesian backgrounds. Four very different cultural backgrounds. I asked Conrad if there was a race or culture he particularly identified with the most.
“That’s a really good question and no-one’s ever asked me that before, so thank you for not being cliché,” Conrad immediately responded.
He continued, “I guess people just call me black and I’m fine with that, but they don’t recognise that I’m mixed. When I’m in a gathering and I hear people bagging out any race I’m really offended by that, because I don’t really see colour like that and it shouldn’t matter. Honestly, I don’t see colour. I literally don’t understand why people see it as a deal breaker for a job or a role or a part or anything. I just feel like it should be about the person.”
Barry Conrad loves the strong messages in both Hairspray and Violet to accept anyone for who they are and that these musicals are most than just entertainment. He explained that if his performance has helped just one person in the audience who has struggled with being bullied or feeling inferior then it was worth it. In fact, it’s something Conrad wants from everything he does in his career.
“I absolutely love that feeling that it’s helped someone. It’s very satisfying.”
Conrad’s parents went through apartheid in South Africa and Barry himself also experienced racism as a child, being asked what colour he was and being bullied for being neither black nor white. To a lesser extent he still experiences some racism in Australia.
“I’m not going to play the victim card, because I think it happens everywhere, but I still get it and a lot of people do. Even the whole sexuality thing and what happened in Orlando. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. It shouldn’t’ matter who you love or what you look like or what your background is. Everyone’s a person,” said Conrad, themes echoed in both Violet and Hairspray.
As for future musicals, Barry Conrad would love to be in Hamilton. He first heard the cast recording being played in the dressing room during the season of Violet. Since then he’s looked more into the musical and would love to appear in an Australian production of this smash hit musical.
For now though, he’s just happy to be making a difference through the message in Hairspray .
Harvest Rain’s production of Hairspray opens in Newcastle in July before an Adelaide season in October.