Belgium 2023: Gustaph
Photo: Roen Lommelen

Gustaph from Belgium: "My Eurovision performance will be very different"

INTERVIEW Gustaph's victory and opportunity to represent Belgium at Eurovision 2023 was met with controversy due to his triumph over fan favorites. This didn't shake off the Belgian singer's ambitions, who's dealt with a lot throughout his long career. Determined to give his all and to inspire people to stay true to themselves, here's our interview with Gustaph

Stef Caers, previously known as Steffen and currently as Gustaph, is a 42-year-old Belgian singer whose pop career took off in the early 2000s upon the release of his first single, "Gonna Lose You," a top 30 hit in his homeland.

He's been chosen to represent Belgium at Eurovision 2023 with his song "Because Of You" more than two decades after his breakthrough, a victory that few expected, including himself:

– It is not like I wasn't ambitious to win or to go to Eurovision, I really felt like it was a good performance and a good song. It's just that I went to the competition with realistic expectations. All I thought was, "All I have to do is deliver a great performance, sing well, and deliver the message of the song. Then I can let go.” he explains.

He says his protective mechanism humbled his expectations:

– So it really surprised me but, of course, I was super happy and excited. Besides, there's something that brings through to Eurovision that is the live performance moment, when you get to expand your energy in a live setting. It's very different from watching a music video or listening to a song, and throughout Eurovision's history there have been many who exceeded expectations given the great performance and act delivered on stage.

To add to the surprise victory, Gustaph won Eurosong 2023 by only one point, which seems to have triggered the supporters of the fan favorites to the point that a contestant had to ask for respect on Twitter:

– There was a lot of commotion about people having their favorites and a sense of unity that it was going to be this or that to win so I guess I wasn't the option. It can get quite polarizing, especially with the one point situation. But there's nothing I can do, it is how it is.

In fact, winning by one point didn't bother Gustaph at all:

– I understand that people had their favorites and that not having them win by only one point can be annoying but it is a competition where there's a balance between televote and jury vote. We all agreed to a voting system.

– I guess I am old enough to understand there's nothing I can do besides that I am going to do this, and I am going to slay the competition and really go for it.

The only thing that bothers me is when it gets nasty.Gustaph

To wrap up the topic, Gustaph concludes:

– The only thing that bothers me is when it gets nasty. I am fine with you not liking the song, that's how it works with music. But some people do go a bit far to the point they criticise me for my sexuality or for the way I look, it's not necessary.

Eurovision should be seen as a safe space so everyone can be who they want to be, like what they want to like and support whoever they want to support without bringing others down. Every year the negativity around the contest is a topic, and maybe it's time to mature and focus our energy on what we truly love.

From pop career to producing

Gustaph has been in the industry for over 20 years which has matured him. He's been out as gay since he was 14, and there's a reason why he left the pop scene shortly after he started.

– When I started off as Steffen, I was very young. I am a gay man and I have been out since I was only 14. I did feel sort of a pressure from the recording industry to keep my sexuality as mysterious, like don't really tell them you're gay but don't deny it either, that was confusing for me.

– It translated as "you can make it in the industry but just don't be yourself," so that kind of messed up my head.

Steffen (Gustaph) – Gonna Lose You

But, would he have done things differently?

– If there was something I would have done differently is that I would have said F***! quicker but I was too young to be that brave.

This is his main advice for newcomers:

– I know it's a big cliché, but there's a reason why it's a cliché: really stay true to who you are. If you feel like you're compromising something that will make you angry at yourself or is going to make you not want to look in the mirror, that's a problem.

– Keep fighting for what you believe in and never stop having fun. As long as that's there, you're good.

As mentioned, all of this pressure on hiding his identity made Gustaph turn his back on his pop endeavors and focus on music production instead. But how did Stef become Gustaph?

– My original name is Stef Caers. I started my career when I was around 18-years-old, and Steffen was my artistic name when I had that pop career we spoke about. Shortly after, I turned into working as a musician, songwriter, composer, got my music degree, and I wanted to start fresh as a new artist and have a new name, he explains.

I know it's a big cliché but there's a reason why it's a cliché: really stay true to who you are.Gustaph

– I came up with Gustaph myself, I think my dad's godfather was named Gustav, a rather common name here in Belgium, and I thought it was a cool name so I mixed Stef with Gustav and voilà!

The music scene and the stardom of a popstar was something he aimed for. Where did this ambition and love for music come from?

– I think it has always been here but I do believe it started when the girl who babysat me, my neighbor, introduced me to ABBA in the early '80s. She was obsessed and took me into her obsession. That made me want to perform. As a kid, I would use any excuse in every family party to grab a microphone, sing and dance.

He was destined for Eurovision if it all began with ABBA (Sweden 1974). From that moment, he started taking music lessons, learned how to play the drums and piano, took singing lessons, and was on his way to the top. He eventually graduated in musical production.

Eurosong 2023

In 2023, VRT (Belgian's public broadcaster) announced Belgium's first national selection for Eurovision in years, and Gustaph saw the perfect opportunity to try his luck:

– A few things got me into accepting it. I had some material ready and I thought some of it could work for Eurovision. So, when I saw that VRT was looking for songs I was like why not? I am not the youngest anymore but I still got it, I can still work, I can still be on stage, and it has always kind of been a dream of mine.

The broadcaster had already reached out for him a few years ago, more specifically in 2016 when Laura Tesoro won Eurosong 2016 with "What's The Pressure."

Laura Tesoro – "What's The Pressure"

The format for Eurosong 2023 was slightly different from what national selections usually are. Seven artists were announced, each would present two songs and choose only one to compete. Gustaph chose "Because Of You" instead of "The Nail":

– The first time I performed the songs for my colleagues, I truly felt the energy of "Because Of You," even in a small room like that, but "The Nail" is still very close to my heart as it's very personal.

He goes on to share that both songs share celebration messages inspired by the queer community, even if in different perspectives. While "Because Of You" focuses on the joy of celebrating who you are, "The Nail" is more subdued and it celebrates the journey one went through.

Why is it so important for Gustaph to represent his people:

– I think mostly because of my story and what I went through, when starting out I had to hide parts of who I was. If I have a chance to do anything on a mainstream platform, I am going to use the voice that I have to represent my people who are not always represented.

To prove his point, Gustaph tells us how everything related with his entry is a form of representation:

– I am with my best friends on stage, my husband is doing the visuals, I wrote the song with a very good queer friend of mine, the music video features ballroom people, drag artists, and so on. It feels good to give them a voice.

Belgium 2023: Gustaph – "Because of You" (Music Video)

And how was the song born?

– I wrote it with Jaouad Alloul with the idea of having a song that could celebrate all different types of people, that could be played at gay pride or in a gay club, but also on the radio. A song that's just joyful and thanks the family you chose on getting you where you are at.

– Sonically, it is influenced by late '80s house music and I feel like there's a return to that era now, take Beyoncé's new album for instance. I used to listen to this type of music as a child and it's nice to have it back.

Massive changes for Eurovision

While the song will only go through small changes in terms of production and have no revamp, the staging will have massive differences from Eurosong:

– We're doing a lot of rehearsals and we've been quite busy. I don't want to give away too much, but because it's dynamically different, a lot of rehearsals will be needed.

– In Eurosong we were a little bit restricted given the stage dimension, but since it will be huge in Liverpool, there's going to be a lot more moving around and we will make the most of it, he clarifies.

– The visuals will still play a big part, so I won't say it's completely different since there's a blueprint from the first performance in it. But there is going to be way more stuff happening, and there will be action between the visuals and the performance itself.

Belgium 2023: Gustaph – "Because of You"

He also confirms that the two backing vocalists from Eurosong will be in Liverpool with him. But when asked if someone else will be joining, he prefers to keep it as a surprise.

For those who don't know, this will be Gustaph's third time at Eurovision. He joined Sennek (Belgium 2018) and Hooverphonic (Belgium 2021) as a backing vocalist.

– I think those two experiences made me fall in love with Eurovision again, it ignited a new fire in me. With Sennek, it was my first experience and I just remember it being very magical having all of those people at the arena coming together, I loved the sense of community. Everyone was singing along and dancing along, it was such a beautiful experience.

With Hooverphonic, things were a bit different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Gustaph assures he could feel the love of the Eurovision community regardless.

In fact, after his selection, Sennek approached him:

– I actually spoke with Sennek. We had a conversation and we texted each other. She told me to stay true to myself and not to get too distracted by all the noise. She also told me to be prepared to have absolutely no time for myself until after May.

That seems likely, and it's really just around the corner.

When we spoke to Gustaph there were a few songs yet to be released, and by then it was already difficult for him to predict his Eurovision fate:

– It's hard because from what I've seen so far, this year is very diverse. It goes from folklore to rock songs, and from ballads to something like Norway that presents a very Eurovision song. In that sense, maybe what I am doing, something more house or dance, is not yet there.

Belgium is currently sitting at 32nd to win Eurovision if you ask the bookmakers, and not a sure qualifier for Semi-final 2.

– It's a shame, he says.

– It's never nice, but I also feel like sometimes those are not even based on the song itself. I also think this happened with Laura Tesoro in 2016. She was very low in the odds, and once people saw her performance things started to change. I really want to get this act on track and I am very focused on getting it right: the staging, the performance, the outfit...because I do believe and I know for a fact that first rehearsals are very important in that sense, all the cards be redrawned again.

I do have a fighting mentality right now. I feel like everything I can do to get it right, I will do and I won't rest until I know I went all the way for this performance.Gustaph

Having started his career more than 20 years ago, what are Gustaph's goals with his Eurovision participation?

– Well, it would be wonderful if we could get through the semi-final and get a good result in the final. But I also want to make sure I get the message of the song across and feel good about my performance.

– But I do have a fighting mentality right now. I feel like everything I can do to get it right, I will do and I won't rest until I know I went all the way for this performance, that's for sure.

– On top of that, it's bizarre but I do feel the responsability for my country, I can't let them down and I have to get this right.

Gustaph will take the Liverpool Arena stage on 11 May during the second Semi-final of Eurovision 2023.

About the author: Pedro Santos (Portugal)

authorPedro comes from Lisbon, Portugal. He's 30 years old and graduated in journalism. He has attended Eurovision Song Contest three times live - 2018, 2019 and 2022 - and covered the show twice more (2021, 2023) but his first Eurovision memory takes him back to 2007 when Sarbel delivered his catchy "Yassou Maria" performance. Pedro's favorite Eurovision song is Albania's 2015 "I'm Alive" by Elhaida Dani which is also his favorite Eurovision edition.

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