ROTTERDAM: Anthony Touma is unashamedly anxious about the release of his upcoming second album, “Ups and Downs,” set for release on July 9 after three years of writing and recording. The title seems apt: Asked to rate his present state of nervousness on a scale of one-to-ten, the Lebanese pop singer didn’t hesitate: “Eleven.”
“Some days I wake up and think, ‘Is this worth it? Are people going to relate to it?’ And then I remember, that’s not even the point.” the 25-year-old, who rose to fame on France’s version of TV talent show “The Voice,” said. “It’s like worrying that your plane’s going to crash: We can’t do anything about it. Just do what you have to do, what you need to do, what you love… I have to remind myself of that every now and then.”
Touma spoke to Arab News in mid-April from a studio in Beirut, where he was recording the album’s final song (a “very groovy” track influenced by his childhood idol Michael Jackson), which the singer blamed for holding up a planned April release. But that may not be the whole story: It was also Touma’s first day back in his home city, fresh from a two-week break in Cuba that he explained was intended to give him much-needed respite from the creative process.
It’s understandable. To say there is a lot riding on “Ups and Downs” would be a profound understatement.
“It’s a big deal,” Touma admitted. “For an artist, every step counts, and every misstep — I’ve had some experience with that, too. Every album you put out which is not heard or is not successful is hard to come back from.”
The “misstep” Touma referred to is likely his debut album “Maintenant C’est L’heure” (Now’s the Time), released in 2015 after his career-making stint on season two of “The Voice: La Plus Belle Voix” in 2013.
Despite controversially crashing out in the semi-final, Touma picked up a deal from Polydor France, with one condition: that he work with French songwriters and sing in French, a third language which to this day Touma — born in Paris but raised in Lebanon from the age of three — seems less than comfortable with. He is most proud of the fact that every note and lyric on the new record was written by him alone.
“It’s not their fault — it’s my fault because I said yes, but thinking back, I don’t think it was a good idea,” said Touma. “I never like to say misstep and mistakes, because it led me to here. But in the same way, if I was the person that I am today back then, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. But that sentence also doesn’t mean anything.”
The major-label backing was not without its advantages. When Enrique Iglesias’s team decided to release a version of the single “Let Me Be Your Lover” aimed at the Francophone market – originally recorded alongside Pitbull — Touma was called in to sing half the verses in French. The resulting blind date studio session in Miami Beach was captured with a cute behind-the-scenes documentary broadcast on French TV.
“I asked [Iglesias] if he’s ever tired — too tired to take a picture or be nice to people,” remembered Touma, “and he answered with something I will remember for the rest of my life: ‘For those fans who come to meet you, these 30 seconds mean the world to them, and no matter how tired you are, you can always give them 30 seconds — it’s going to make someone very happy for a very long time.’ That stuck in my head whenever I’m meeting a fan.”
However, the bilingual collaboration failed to make a household name out of Touma, and after three years trying to break out of Paris, he returned home to Lebanon, promising his mother to finish the business degree he’d previously ditched at the American University of Beirut.
He graduated in the end, but Touma refused to relinquish his dreams, and simultaneously used his homecoming to successfully audition for, participate in, and win the third season of Lebanon’s “Dancing with the Stars” in 2015.
“Training six hours a day, for, like, three months is a lot to handle physically,” said Touma. “And then having to dance, something you’re not used to doing, in front of I don’t how many millions of people watching the show… it was not an easy experience, but it was a beautiful one. And I ended up much more comfortable with my body.”
With that toned physique and those boyish good looks suddenly recognizable — and bankable — Touma was cast as the male lead in last year’s Lebanese romcom “And Action.” And then, he got on the radio. Signed to Universal Music MENA and rebranded as an English-language act in a region not normally hospitable to anything but Arabic pop, Touma used the exposure to breakthrough with last summer’s “Walk Away,” a samba-infused singalong which served as a pointed rebuttal to his critics.
“It’s asking people who didn’t believe in me to just ‘Walk Away’ and let me do my thing,” explained Touma. “That just summed up how things have been since I was 18, trying to sing in English in an Arabic country, and people saying ‘It’s not going to happen for you.’ It happened. And they all came back [saying] ‘You’re so good now, we want you here, we want you there…’ and I’m, like, ‘Just stay away from me.’ It’s negative energy.”
Next came “Break Your Heart,” an up-tempo electro banger coupled with “very intense” lyrics which Touma hinted may be aimed at an ex-lover, admitting “80 percent” of his songs are autobiographical. His most recent single, the Ed Sheeran-flavored acoustic ballad “Don’t Go,” was released the same day that Touma performed at Dubai’s teen-focused weekender RedFest DXB, a carefully orchestrated bid to launch the singer to a GCC market. The next stage of that campaign is clearly the album — which brings us back to those nerves.
But however far Touma’s name spreads in the region and beyond, at home he may already have made a lasting difference, proudly carving a path for others to follow.
“I feel a big responsibility,” he said. “I do know that a lot of young artists look up to me because I had a deal with Enrique Iglesias, because I’ve been successful outside the country, because almost every song I release is on the radio on heavy rotation in Lebanon.
“They look up to me in that sense that they want that for themselves, maybe as artists, or as young kids who dream of things that aren’t very accessible here, and aren’t very Lebanese per se,” he continued. “So yeah, I think it’s a big responsibility, and I think they want me to succeed so I can open doors for other artists to do the same. It’s a hope.”