NZ icon Simon Barnett has interviewed his fair share of people during his lengthy career as both a radio host and presenter, but he considers his chat with Justin Bieber back in 2015 as one of his favourites. With over 60,000 views on YouTube, it’s no secret that the enlightening interview has become pretty iconic, and we wanted to talk to Simon all about it. Detailing his thoughts on Bieber then and also now, Simon remembers just what it was that made that interview so great and provides us with all the behind-the-scenes info we’ve been dying to know.
First of all, I just wanna say the interview is really beautiful and insightful. Did you expect it to turn out like that?
That’s actually a really good question. I wasn’t altogether sure what to expect because I had interviewed through my job a number of, for lack of a better term, big names. You know, I’ve talked with Chris Martin and Oprah Winfrey and B.B. King and various other people and my experience has been pretty good. But Justin Bieber was one of those guys where you had read so much about him and he had an extraordinary amount of money and fame, so I kind of wasn’t sure what to expect. Except, I will say this; my daughter Isabella was completely besotted with Justin Bieber, so I had asked if she could come along to the interview with me and they said yes. And so, when I walked into the interview room with Justin, he said “who’s this?” and I said “oh, this is my daughter” and he said “that’s entirely unprofessional, bringing your own daughter to an interview” … and then he burst out laughing. And that kind of made me feel really relaxed and think okay, this guy’s good fun.
And I’ll be really candid with you. There’d been a number of interviews prior to my one and everybody was doing their own thing with Justin, I think he was on a hoverboard or something. He was kind of, you know, just clowning around. And I started asking a couple of questions because I was genuinely intrigued in the man. I wasn’t starstruck, I wasn’t in awe of him at all, I was just really intrigued that a guy at that age would have such profound success. Like, what does that do to a person? So, I really took it seriously. And within 2 questions, I think I recall this correctly, he said “oh, you’re taking this seriously,” and he got off his hoverboard or skateboard thing and sat down and he looked me really in the eyes, and I really engaged him. Because I thought okay, well I’m here. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to interview an icon. And I don’t say that in a sycophantic way, he was genuinely an icon of music and the music industry. And so, we just started chatting and I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. Initially I think I was told I only had 10 minutes, and I think it was the best part of half an hour that we chatted because he seemed to be enjoying it. I was just loving chatting. He could’ve been my brother!
And I think what was so great about it was that we got to see a side of him that hadn’t really been shown in the media. He was sort of at the point where he was getting into a bit of trouble and what not, so it was nice to see who Justin Bieber was behind the megastar.
Yeah, exactly. It’s very interesting, because I felt like he was almost used to people being disparaging or a bit facetious or a bit mocking. Even though he had achieved this incredible level of success, I felt like he’d also received an incredible amount of criticism and it had caused him a lot of angst. And you’ve gotta remember, and I did remember, he was about the age of my daughter. And throughout the whole interview I was really esteeming him and honouring him, because I was genuinely impressed. And look, it’s very easy for people my age to sit there and go “the guy’s a d**che, he urinated in a pot plant at the hotel, he’s used drugs …” and bag this guy; but, I mean, have you been to Otago university to the flats down there on any given weekend and seen what they’re doing? That’s kind of common every Friday and Saturday night. This is a kid, who when I asked the question “how do you handle the fame?” replied, “look I’ve gotta be honest, it’s the most unusual situation when you’re 16 years old and your mother tells you what to do, and you’ve got 100 million dollars in the bank.” People can be exceptionally judgemental. I look at this guy and I go wow. I think he’s exceptionally normal for someone who’s had the most extraordinarily normal life. I was just really, really impressed with him. And out of all the people I’ve interviewed in my career, I would genuinely say he’s been a highlight and somebody I’ve been incredibly impressed with.
Talk me through how you felt when you landed the interview, right up to when it happened. Were you nervous?
I thought I was gonna do it on the phone or through a FaceTime or Skype or whatever, but then they said we’d fly up [to The Edge studio in Auckland] and do the interview. And again, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I suddenly realised when I got there that I was 1 among probably 10-15 radio and TV people doing an interview with him. And my thought process when I realised was oh my goodness, he’ll have been asked the same questions by the time I get to him. He’ll be bored witless! So, that’s why I thought I had to perhaps change the tactic a little bit. But I’m sort of a bit anal when it comes to preparation, so the night before I’d written out perhaps 4-5 A4 pages of questions; just stuff I was genuinely intrigued by and interested in. And I’d obviously done my homework online and seen what’d been going on and listened to a few interviews. But what I tend to do is have the questions there as backstop, because early on I was taught that when you interview somebody, don’t just go to your questions, make sure you listen. So, within 5 minutes I didn’t really go to my questions because I was just enjoying the conversation. But yeah, I was nervous to a point. But to be honest with you, all the people around somebody like that make me more nervous because they can be a bit stressed out and a bit twitchy.
And certainly, on the way up I realised and was aware; there are very few people in the world where you just give their name and everybody of every demographic knows who you’re talking about. So, the week prior to the interview I had said to my mother who’s 80, “oh, I’m going to interview Justin Bieber this week.” And I wouldn’t normally do that because she probably wouldn’t care that much, but she was like “oh, he seems like a nice boy, but he’s been a bit crazy.” That sort of thing. Then I’d tell the people at work and they’d be like “ask him this, tell him that.” So that was quite a good thing in preparation for the interview; everybody had a question for me, everybody had an opinion of Justin Bieber. And to this day; everybody, when you talk about the interview, is genuinely interested because he was, and still is, such a significant figure on the international music scene.
It’s interesting to see someone such as yourself; you know, not really in his targeted demographic, be a fan. What do you admire about Justin the most?
I think I admire his authenticity. He actually seems to be who he reports to be. He’s very honest about his shortcomings and he’s been very honest about some of his indiscretions. And I really respect that because we’ve all made mistakes, and so that impresses me enormously. I was also staggered, in a good way, that he was very kind to my daughter. He seemed, again, very genuine. He took the time, he wasn’t flippant; all of which I defy anybody who’s achieved that level of success to be. Because, you know, he doesn’t need me, and he certainly didn’t need most of the people interviewing him that day. He can do whatever he wants. But he seemed to take the time and that impressed me, because time is in very short supply when you’re at that level. And, I don’t know if he was like this with everybody but certainly with me, another thing I was enormously impressed by was how he seemed to be engaged in the interview. He wasn’t kind of half listening or half interested, he seemed genuinely engaged in the questions and the chat. And at the end of the interview, I forget exactly what he said to me, but it was something along the lines of “I really enjoyed that. Thanks for taking the time, thanks for being so considerate.” And that meant a lot. He had a music show that night for a handful of people, and he asked me if I’d go to that and I did. He didn’t need to do that, so that was really cool.
Since that interview in 2015, Justin’s changed a lot. I mean, he’s married, he took a hiatus, his new album is pretty tame. How has it been for you to watch him mature and evolve?
My respect for him has actually just grown enormously, because I do think he’s tried to evolve. And you know, his faith is exceptionally important to him and he hasn’t shied away from that. We live in a world that’s pretty cynical when it comes to faith, and I don’t think he’s been a Bible basher, but he also hasn’t shied away from how important faith is in his life and how important God is. And I respect him enormously for that; because as a person of faith myself, that’s really quite challenging. We live in an age where most people are accepting of the way folks wanna live their lives, except when it comes to religion. I also love the way that he loves his wife. For me, [it’s been] 30 years of marriage and my wife is my everything, so I love the way he seems completely committed to her. And again, I just think he’s authentic. He’s tried to do something with his music that’s important to him, he’s tried to collaborate on a number of things with people he’s interested in and I love the collaborations he’s done. He just seems like a genuinely interested guy in life’s events. He’s done some things where you just go oh, Justin, but then who hasn’t? I mean, he’s 26 and he’s still discovering who he is in the most surreal kind of environment I can imagine. I think he does very well to cope and he does seem to be coping.
And I’ll tell you one thing; I recall watching the news one night several years ago (2014) and he was at a basketball game. And they always put the camera on the famous person, so they put the camera on him, and his face was beamed onto this enormous big screen … and the whole crowd just started booing. This 20-year-old boy and you’ve got an arena booing. Honestly, what sort of impact would that have on any of us? I’d be a shattered, snivelling wreck. He has had his fair share of criticism and I’m just genuinely impressed [with the way he’s coped].
The other thing I’ll tell you, he’s the real deal. You know, in terms of talent, his ability as a musician I think is right up there. A lot of people that are cynical of Justin Bieber and bag him, they’ve actually got no idea. I was kind of turned on to that when I watched his first documentary (Never Say Never, 2011) and they showed footage of him as a 4-year-old boy on the drum kit, and they’re calling him a prodigy. He could play drums, the guitar, and he had this angelic voice that everybody thought would leave him when he hit puberty. He really does have a lot of ability and a lot of talent. And when I watched that documentary, I thought okay, this guy isn’t just an act. He’s gonna be here for the long haul. And for all those kinds of naysayers, I think he’s proved a lot of them wrong. 8-9 years later, he’s still churning out good stuff. And I respect him for that.
It’s interesting because basically, the only reason why he got so much flack was because he was a young, cute boy with this massive teenage girl fanbase. And he was always just overlooked and overshadowed for that very reason.
Exactly right. I was 48 when I interviewed him; and I think this is the extraordinary thing that people don’t realise until you’re in the situation, but I feel very fortunate to have interviewed him. For some people it’s just part of the job, but for me it was a privilege to interview him. He was on the Graham Norton show once (2010) and Graham said to him “you’re the most Googled person on the planet right now, even more than God.” And you think about that again as a 16-year-old guy, on the whole internet you’re more searched for than God. That’s gonna give you a bit of a messiah complex in itself. So, when somebody has that level of fame and you meet them, it’s kind of hard not to be a little bit awestruck. Because you’ve seen so many photographs of him and so many videos and compilations, and when you’re in a room with him, I can see why people get a bit gaga. You go oh my goodness, he’s actually real! I know that makes me sound like a 15-year-old schoolgirl myself, but there is a bit of that with him. And it sounds bizarre for a guy my age to say, but he was then, and I presume he still is, impossibly good looking. He had this magnificent porcelain complexion which didn’t appear to be made up. He was just an impossibly good- looking guy and I was like wow, okay! I can see why the girls think he’s pretty cute.
Have you spoken to him since?
No, I haven’t really because he is so big time. I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to him again, but I certainly would. There’s been a couple of people I’ve interviewed where it seems to have struck a chord and gone well, and I suppose Justin is the only other person I’ve interviewed (besides B.B. King) where I thought I could happily say “hey, do you wanna come out for a beer?” I felt like we could’ve easily gone for a chat and had a catch up. It would’ve been really nice to have had that opportunity. Clearly that didn’t happen, but one day maybe!
Lastly, if you could say anything to him now, what would it be?
If I could say anything to him now … I’d say he’s a very impressive young guy. And to always be true to himself and his faith; and have confidence that he can make the right decisions and get through anything.