Anthony Touma’s wild ride

Anthony Touma is unashamedly anxious about the release of his upcoming second album, “Ups and Downs.” (Supplied)
Updated 06 May 2018

Anthony Touma’s wild ride

  • The Lebanese singer, dancer and actor talks reality TV, role models, and the weight of expectation surrounding his upcoming sophomore album

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.”

Screen Savers: The best TV shows of 2018

The best TV shows of 2018. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 December 2018

Screen Savers: The best TV shows of 2018

  • Lineup of some of the best shows of 2018
  • From psycho killers to stellar spin-offs

DUBAI: From psycho killers to stellar spin-offs via dark comedy and romantic drama, here are the programs that we wasted the most work hours discussing this year. Warning: There will be spoilers.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Season Two)
After a first season that stayed fairly true to Margaret Atwood’s source novel, the dystopian drama took the theocratic Republic of Gilead into uncharted — and even bleaker, harder-to-watch — territory in its second season. Not everyone was on board (“The attempts to add more color and detail … ultimately register as brief pauses from the main event rather than necessary, interconnected sidebars,” wrote Vulture’s Jen Chaney), but, for us, season two more than justified its existence with its knuckle-whitening tension and of-the-moment examination of social issues.

Killing Eve
An unexpected, and hard-to-categorize, hit, “Killing Eve” mixed smart storytelling, thrilling action set-pieces and comedy (both dark and silly) to great effect, further boosting the reputation of showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Jodie Comer was a revelation as the paradoxically deadly-but-vulnerable assassin Villanelle, and Sandra Oh portrayed MI5 officer Eve Polanski’s confused love-hate obsession with her brilliantly.

Al Hayba (Season Two)
Director Samer Al-Barkawi’s drama about the arms-smuggling Sheikh El Jabal clan in a village on the Lebanon-Syria border was one of the big hits of Ramadan 2017, so expectations were high for this year’s follow-up (a prequel to the first season). The complex plot kept audiences gripped; Syrian actor Taim Hassan drew plaudits for his reprisal as the head of the clan; and Nicole Saba proved a solid replacement for season one star Nadine Njeim. A bit of social-media controversy (in which — shocker! — people online seemed to confuse fiction and fact) only made this more of a must-see.

Better Call Saul (Season Four)
Remarkably, this spinoff from what is widely regarded as one of the peaks of “peak TV” — “Breaking Bad” — looks like it may actually come close to eclipsing the dizzy heights reached by its parent show. Bob Odenkirk’s portrayal of Jimmy McGill’s transformation into the morally bankrupt Saul Goodman continues to dazzle, and the emotional back-and-forth between Jimmy and his girlfriend Kim (the excellent Rhea Seehorn) is the show’s dark heart. This season, too, had a payoff as brutal as anything “Breaking Bad” produced.

Atlanta (Season Two)
With his alter-ego Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and the sophomore season of this hip-hop comedy, Donald Glover proved himself one of 2018’s most powerful social commentators. Funny, frightening and thought-provoking, “Atlanta” built on its surprising, weird debut season to tackle heavy topics with surreal and subtle humor.

Show creator Jed Mercurio had already proven with “Line of Duty” that he has a knack for gripping, jeopardy-heavy thrillers with jaw-dropping cliffhangers (and a penchant for killing off lead characters), so the success of “Bodyguard” — described by The Guardian as “a modern take on a hero’s fable” — wasn’t a huge surprise. Keeley Hawes was superb as ambitious home secretary Julia Montague and Richard Madden played her police protection officer David Budd with a compelling blend of hard-edged heroism and morally compromised frustration.

Nadine Njeim switched from “Al Hayba” to another Ramadan hit, this romantic drama also starring Syrian actor Abed Fahd as lovers Ameera and Jaber respectively. The moving story saw Jaber struggling to come to terms with the loss of his family in a car crash and unexpectedly falling for Ameera, a poor young law student. More than just a simple love story, “Tareeq” tackled themes of loss, class prejudice, and sacrifice.

The Americans (Season Six)
It’s pretty rare for a well-loved TV show to wrap up with a satisfactory climax (remember “Lost”?), but “The Americans” — a downbeat, tense tale of Russian deep-cover agents in Reagan-era America — did it brilliantly, continuing the hugely engaging spy-thriller plot while equally successfully presenting an intense examination of a couple caught between loyalties to their homeland, their kids, their new home, and each other. All topped off with a powerful, slow-burn of a tragedy as parents and kids are separated, not always by choice.

Another show based around the life of an assassin that, like “Killing Eve,” covers comedy and drama by keeping the best bits of both genres to the fore. Bill Hader once again proved his acting chops (often by pretending to be unable to act) as the titular hitman trying to escape his violent life and begin anew. Henry Winkler was typically superb as his acting coach, and each episode had belly laughs and gut-wrenching violence aplenty.

Sacred Games
This tense, dense Indian thriller won critical acclaim for its thoughtful storyline and stellar performances from the whole cast. Saif Ali Khan was superb as cynical police officer Sartaj Singh, promised (via an anonymous tip-off) the opportunity to finally capture the powerful underworld boss Ganesh Gaitonde (the outstanding Nawazuddin Siddiqui), only to find himself caught up in a wide-ranging conspiracy that goes way beyond Mumbai’s gangland.

Julia Roberts made her small-screen debut in this compelling psychological thriller, adapted from the popular podcast about social worker Heidi Bergman helping a soldier adapt to life after deployment, and directed by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail. The time-hopping story was shot unusually (but successfully) by Esmail, with Bergman’s future life as a waitress presented in vertical frame. This apparent gimmick paid off beautifully in a scene where she suddenly regains her memory of her time as a social worker, and the screen expands to full-width.

The talented quartet of Levantine actors Bassel Khayyat, Bassem Moughnieh, Daniella Rahme and Dana Mardini, directed by Rami Hanna, made this one of 2018’s must-see Arabic dramas. Married couples Sami and Farah and Omar and Lina are long-term friends, sharing a passion for tango dancing. When Farah is killed in a car accident that leaves Omar in a coma, it becomes clear the two were having an affair. What follows is an emotionally fraught depiction of how their spouses deal with the fallout.

Babylon Berlin
Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, this German crime drama, set in 1929 Berlin, was hugely ambitious, but successfully so. Volker Bruch excelled as Inspector Gereon Rath — the emotionally and mentally damaged self-medicating war veteran sent to Berlin to investigate an extortion racket and stumbling on a bigger conspiracy — but was regularly overshadowed by scene-stealing Peter Kurth as the morally ambiguous, often revolting Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter.