January 19, 2006
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SJP


New INXS singer's dream realized
By -- For JAM! Music


The launch of the worldwide INXS tour behind the new album, “Switch,” in Vancouver last night, was quite literally a dream come true for Canadian singer J.D. Fortune who landed the position fronting the veteran multi-platinum Australian rockers when he won the CBS reality show, Rock Star: INXS, in September.

Just days before heading off to Los Angeles to take part in the series -- one of 15 original contestants from around the globe - he told this reporter, a friend whose couch he crashed on a couple of times in Toronto, of a dream he had many years ago that he would one day front his favorite band, INXS.

There was no swaying the guy or allaying fears of not succeeding the charismatic, some would say irreplaceable Michael Hutchence who died a mysterious death back in 1997, hung by a belt on his hotel room doorknob. Fortune, now 32, had no fears -- wouldn't even consider not winning, even when faced with 14 other talented competitors.

Reminded now of that conversation, that he knew it was his destiny, and Fortune says, "In my heart, to be honest, I did. I just needed to get my mind and my body going in the same direction."

What he means, perhaps, is that when he first appeared on the television show, his confidence bordered on arrogance, his strategies seemed devious, and even his onstage mannerisms were over-the-top -- including rock 'n' roll no-no number one, crotch-grabbing. Of course, Fortune never got to see or hear of how his antics came across. "We had no TV, no phones, no newspapers, no radio," he explains.

"I must say that in the early stages of the series, for me personally, I hated him," laughs Kirk Pengilly, INXS's guitarist/saxophonist. "There's no way that guy's gonna be our front person, but we discovered that he's not really like that."

Pengilly -- who had actually accompanied Fortune onstage at his original audition a year ago at Toronto's Mod Club, on a whim, something he never did again with any of the other guys or gals who went out for the job -- now often high-fives Fortune, or exchanges knowing looks, says Fortune, in recognition of that special Toronto day.

"The great thing about this whole process was that it gave us three months to get to know them -- obviously not the ones who left in the earlier stages -- and also to put them through all the different tests, all the clinics," explains Pengilly. "That was one of the aspects of the show that we really pushed to (producer) Mark Burnett. We needed to see if they could record in the studio or if they could song-write or how they would handle themselves in front of a media firing.

"As a result of that, we started to see who was going to be able to pull it off and who wasn't."

Fortune pulled it off.

The turning point was his bold denouncement of a song he was supposed to work on with two other contestants but did not like the direction it was heading. Instead, he left the clinic and wrote a little number called "Pretty Vegas," with guitarist/keyboardist Andrew Farriss, which was eventually selected as the first single from "Switch" and has become a hit.

The day after an emotional Fortune fell to his knees before the televised audience when told he was "right" for INXS, the singer began working on the new album, which had been scheduled for an immoveable street date of Nov. 29 on Burnett/Epic/Sony BMG.

While he had been holed up in a Hollywood mansion with the rest of the hopefuls during the series taping, the surviving members of INXS -- rounded out by guitarist Tim Farris, drummer Jon Farriss, and bassist Garry Beers -- were tracking the album with producer Guy Chambers (Robbie Williams, Andrea Bocelli) at L.A.'s Westlake Studios, the same intimate facility seen on the TV show.

Over the past eight years, since Hutchence's death, INXS had worked with a series of guest vocalists, including Terence Trent D'Arby, Jimmy Barnes of Cold Chisel, Suze DeMarchi of Baby Animals, and Jon Stevens of Noiseworks, but none put out a commercial release with INXS. Now Fortune got to put his stamp on the project.

"We're going through everything together as a band and we're picking the (songs) that we think best suit the direction we want to go," Fortune said back then from the studio. "Some don't even have a melody or lyrics on them. They're just pieces of music. And we're really in a creative mode right now. It's a great symbiosis of all of us interjecting what we do."

But when all was said and done, after sifting through about 100 pieces of music, Fortune, a songwriter himself, only had three co-writes on Switch -- "Pretty Vegas," "Devil's Party" (another co-write with Andrew) and "Never Let You Go" (with Jon). Tim had been off during much of the summer, co-writing with just about everybody from The Matrix to Gregg Alexander to Desmond Child and Chambers, just so the band would have an album's worth of stellar songs by the time the program ended.

"JD's participation in the songwriting is amazing, considering that we had very little time to record the album," says Andrew. "I think it was probably one of the fastest recording schedules we've ever had. We had four studios running simultaneously and it was incredible, but we still definitely wanted to make time to include JD in the songwriting process and he's great."

Fortune, whose real name is Jason Dean Bennison but took his mother's maiden name, was born in Mississauga, ON and raised in New Glasgow, NS. He has gone by Jason Fortune and Jason Dean as a musician in Toronto (there is another Jason Fortune working as an entertainer in the U.S., hence the contraction to JD at the onset of the TV show).

At 14, he made his first demo with Ken Greer of Red Rider fame. Some years later, he sang for producer Justin Gray (who has since written for Joss Stone), which led to representation by Beau Randall of Toronto's Venus Management (Esthero, Robin Black). "He came into my office with Justin Gray," recalls Randall. "He sang great. He looked great. I just loved the whole vibe. I signed him on the spot."

To pay the rent, Fortune also performed as an Elvis Presley tribute act, something the media likes to harp on.

Fortune, by all accounts, did come close to landing a solo recording contract, but it fell through. "In the end, the guy that was really interested in him actually got moved into international and not of A&R," says Randall.

He then briefly fronted a rock band called Juice, which had a deal with BMG Music Publishing Canada and Randall bowed out, just happy Fortune had another shot -- but nothing came of that either.

More recently, Fortune was down on his luck and, not wanting to impose on friends or family, voluntarily lived out of his car. "That's where I wrote my best stuff," he says.

He was rehearsing an eight-piece band and had written nine new "funky dance rock" songs, ready to pursuing the next round of his solo career, when he auditioned for Rock Star: INXS. Gray had been called by L.A.-based Peter Cohen, a former A&R rep from Columbia, now the casting producer for the latest Burnett Productions reality show, to see if he could recommend anyone for the closed appointment-only referral day of Toronto auditions.

"I told Peter, point blank, I knew the guy who was going to win the whole thing," recalls Gray. "I did think of Jason immediately. My brother found his info, and we got in touch right away. In fact, I still have the original email I sent him informing him of the opportunity. I also have his reply following his audition. In retrospect, I wished I had placed a bet on it.

"The first time I met him, I just felt he had the qualities that so many artists lack," says Gray, whose wife, Daphne, met Fortune by chance seven years ago when he worked at retail clothing store Le Chateau and hooked the two up. "He looked great, sounded great, and was a very talented writer. For over six years, I've been trying to expose him to the world. Every A&R person passed on him here. I am just really happy for him, and am proud to have been the one to help him get there."

The Grays instincts were right.

After making the callbacks, in the weeks before leaving for L.A. Fortune went to see his old manager, Randall, on a few occasions.

"I told him, 'Dude. It's yours for the taking," Randall relays. "I said, 'You're the guy they need to replace a Michael Hutchence.' I said, 'If you're not the guy - whoever the guy is has got to have all of those qualities, right.' Look at who he's replacing. I've always told him, just be naturally who you are because that guy is the right guy."

Randall says he too believed that Fortune would take the prize. "The only time it kind of got to me was when I could see he was becoming insecure. I started to worry then. When he was doing the mental (games). And the first show (laughs), it was like, oh my God, it was so over the top (laughs). He wasn't thinking straight (laughs)."

But that's all changed. As soon as he got the gig, he just slipped into the role in every sense.

When Fortune is asked whether he will stop grabbing his crotch onstage, he laughs, now having seen some of the show footage. "Am I going to stop grabbing my crotch? Um, I don't know. If something better comes along, probably yes."

And the gentleman and true professional emerged when INXS made a promotional stop in Toronto just prior to Switch's release in November, where the reception was nothing short of insane. Fortune had instant fans and played the part of rock star as if he had been doing it his whole life -- waving and blowing kisses to fans at an autograph session at First Canadian Place for which hundreds showed up, and at a MuchMoreMusic television performance and interview for which Queen Street had to be closed off in front of the building. Fortune was a pro, witty, sincere, confident and loving every minute of it.

"I would have to say that I only seemed calm because I was focused on performing and I'm really shy when it comes to all the accolades and recognition," says Fortune, quite humbly. " I love what I do and I just f**kin' love people (laughs) and the more the merrier that can enjoy this record. I'm not trying to give you some Hollywood answer, but, to be honest with you, I wish I could've shaken everybody's hand and invited them all back to where I was going because it was just amazing."

Andrew Farriss also admits that the frenzied reception, the likes of which he hasn't seen in years for INXS, was validation that the band -- which has sold some 30 million albums with Hutchence as frontman -- chose the right guy.

"We knew that whoever was going to front INXS would need to be somebody was not only a great singer but an entertainer, a communicator, somebody who could reach out to people and touch people, and that takes some very special skills, and often those skills are acquired and sometimes they are professional and sometimes they are natural and they come together," Andrew says.

"I think the main thing is it validates the power of television and also it validates that people have really accepted JD as the singer of INXS and that's really coming loud and clear. Reaction to Switch, the album, has been overwhelmingly positive."

Fortune's first proper live show is on home soil at Queen Elizabeth Theatre tonight (Jan. 18) and the virtually sold-out tour ends at Mizner Park Amphitheatre on Feb. 26 in Boca Raton, FL. Both Toronto dates, Feb. 6 and 7, at Massey Hall, are sold out. A return visit this summer is likely where the band will play venues from coast to coast.
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