Serbia's Željko Joksimović has some unfinished business with the Eurovision Song Contest and he is coming back to sort it out once and for all. That bold message was clear when Željko spoke with W!LD RooSTeR this week. Despite penning some of the Balkan region's more memorable entries of recent years and coming in a close second place to the wild woman of the Ukraine, Željko has not yet managed to get his hands on the elusive winner's trophy. He intends to put this right on stage in Baku.
"There is definitely something magical about Eurovision,' Željko said, when he took time out of rehearsals in his studio. "It is a big and very important international TV show. Maybe I am coming back again as I feel deeply inside that I did not finish what I truly want. The Eurovision Song Contest gave me a lot and I believe that I will give something back to it as well."
If experience counts then Željko, as one of the Balkans' most popular singer songwriters and somewhat of a Eurovision expert, should be quids in to win. But anything can happen on the night and, despite his best efforts, triumph has continued to evade Željko. "I do not want to be a hypocrite and say that I do not want to win this time,' he said. "I do hope for that, but we shall see what will happens in Baku. Did I find the right magic this time? You never know."
The song, another composition from Željko, will be unveiled live in The European Song, a one-hour TV and online special on Saturday 10 March (21:00 CET). As well as premiering his Eurovision entry, Željko will perform songs from his career as a songwriter and movie score composer, but with completely new arrangements courtesy of forty musicians from the RTS Symphonic Orchestra. Special guests joining Željko in the TV special include Jelena Tomašević, Bora Dugić, Ivan Bosiljčić, Hari Varešanović (Hari Mata Hari) and Halid Bešlić.
Until the song is premiered, the title remains under wraps and even the language in which it will be performed is uncertain. Despite best efforts, Željko would not be drawn on the nature of his composition. "You will hear the song on Saturday night, so be just a little bit more patient,' Željko said. "The song will be definitely powerful, in a Eurovision sense of that word, but it is hard for me to describe as I am still enjoying in it. Till this moment most of my time is spent in the studio working on the song, preparing it, and now the focus is on the TV show on March 10 and the official presentation of the song. So the fans do not have too long to wait now. All will be revealed in a few days.
"After that, I will have some promotional obligations. We have plan how to do a tour and it will be a very focused but strong campaign. The point is to reach to right group of people, not to just travel around and sing the song. There will definitely be some surprises in that package but you will have to wait and see. It will not be a surprise if I tell you now."
While the tour is being put together, one possible destination would hold a special attraction. "I do love London,' said Željko. "Whenever I have time I come there together with my wife to spend some time with our friends." His ties to the city made it unavoidable that Željko would take up an opportunity to watch Serbian tennis hero Novak Djoković in last summer's Wimbledon final, as he explained: "Wow, that was some experience, a unique one! Djoković is really an amazing athlete and person. He is giving a great image to our country."
RTS told W!LD RooSTeR that it a decision has not been made on whether Željko will perform in English or Serbian when he takes to the stage in Azerbaijan on Saturday 26 May. That decision should become clear in time for the TV special on 10 March. Both language versions of the song have been prepared and will be available for download and for promotional purposes in the run up to the final. First up, Željko must secure sufficient support to get through from the second semi-final on Thursday 24 May to reach the 57th Eurovision Song Contest 2012 Final.
Željko, who cites Nocturno from Secret Garden (Norway 1995) as a favourite Eurovision winner, is no stranger to the Eurovision Song Contest. He has written, performed and presented at the event, always to relative success. In 2004 he came second to Ruslana with his beautiful song Lane Moje, and he has written other accomplished entries, including Lejla for Hari Mata Hari (Bosnia), which won him the coveted top composer award in 2006, and Oro for Jelena Tomasević in 2008. That same year, he co-hosted the final from Belgrade, after Marija Serifović brought home the trophy with Molitva. "That song was really something special,' Željko said, clearly dreaming of achieving that success with a song of his own.
Although not a winner, Lane Moje is recognised as an incredible song that has taken on its own life beyond success in the Eurovision Song Contest. I asked Željko about the effect his barefoot performance of the haunting ballad Lane Moje had on his success in Serbia and beyond? "You are definitely right,' he said. "That song and its popularity was a crucial moment in my career. Nothing was the same after that, and I am very happy, as the song is still very popular in the region particularly.
Many great performers with years of stadium performances under their belt have crumbled as the pressure of performing for their country at the live final has taken its toll on them. That strain can be even greater when the expectations of you are so high. Is the pressure building up, as Serbia will be expecting a fine performance, I asked Željko. "Not as much as it might seem, not in this moment,' he said. "I think that I expect most from myself and, for me, this is the biggest pressure.
"It is a great honour to be representing my country and, of course, it comes with some responsibility. My big advantage is I know what to expect. There is always some tension and it is not easy for anyone. But it is good when you have that experience so you know what to focus on and what is the most important moment of the whole Eurovision story. I am trying to handle everything at the right time and not to put energy on things that are not important. Talking with people who are positive. I think that this is a good solution for me. Of course trying to rest, if there is time. I will try my best in Baku. I strongly hope that people in Serbia will love this song and enjoy my performance."
While every year critics of the Eurovision Song Contest speak out about what they see as bloc voting or politically motivated (dis)favour of certain countries, others believe that support for neighbouring entrants is only natural and is due, in large part at least, to the relative familiarity of a particular song style or even awareness of the performers themselves. As an acclaimed Eurovision veteran, Željko should be allowed his own opinion on this matter. He falls into the second school of thought, as he explained. "There are criticisms of the contest, of course, like as you said bloc voting etc. It is more likely that some votes from Serbia will go to Macedonia or Croatia or Montenegro and not to some other far away country in Europe. But I think that this is more because we are better understanding those emotions that you can feel in the songs in South Eastern Europe. Europe is changing, but not as fast as we often think."
Already this year, much criticism has been levelled at the UK's entrant Engelbert Humperdinck, with media and ESC fans claiming that he is too old to be relevant to the contest. Željko told W!LD RooSTeR that he does not feel this criticism is entirely fair, as the quality of the song and the voice should matter more than the age of the performer. "I am always saying that to have a good song is the most important thing,' he said. "So it does not matter how old are you, as long as you have that special unique vibe. That is what counts."
This love of the craft of music has been with Željko from an early age. His first taste of international success came when, aged 12, he won the title of First Accordion of Europe at a prestigious music festival in Paris. After receiving that accolade, Željko's future path was mapped out for him. "Of course, that festival and award definitely meant a lot to me,' he said. "When you have that kind of support so early, it determines your future. I always look to that period with great sympathy and, particularly, to winning that award."
Željko went on to achieve further success during his early career, showing a special aptitude as a multi-instrumentalist. Mastering so many instruments has stood him in fine stead when creating material with other performers, he said. "I had the fantastic opportunity to work with great musicians from whole over the Europe. This talent has been very helpful to me and I believe that people can lean on me still."
As well as being a prolific and successful singer and songwriter, Željko writes and produces hits for many other artists, many of which are recorded in his own Minacord studio. "My production company Minacord was founded as a sort of need to fulfill all the requirements that I had then and that will be in front of me, from the music that I am making for film and theatre, and then making music for videos and for my albums,' said Željko.
"For years I have had a group of people that I co-operate with. These are people who can follow my creative energy and the atmosphere is always positive, whether we are making things in a hurry or when we are relaxed. That is something that I am very proud of actually. When I have inspiration, I am all day and night long in the studio."
Being surrounded by technology in his ultra-modern studio is not Željko's only joy, he also likes to stay abreast of developments in consumer tech and has embraced social media. "New technologies are a very good way of staying in touch, not just with your friends but also with fans, which is something that I think is very important for me,' he said. "I respect each and every supporter of my work. I am always on Twitter, sharing updates, and I reply to many emails."
Of course, as big as it is, the Eurovision Song Contest is only one milestone in the year for Željko. Next up will be a much anticipated new album, about which Željko is also keeping details close to his chest. "Of course it will be something special that will be heard soon after Eurovison. In this moment I am focusing on Baku but I do have several new songs in mind." Many will be glad to hear that, Željko.
Belgrade born Željko grew up at the heart of a region that has had its problems but he has also seen how music can play an important role in engaging people from all walks of life and religion. He spoke about how strongly he believes that by sharing a musical culture people can encourage greater understanding, acceptance and appreciation of all people living as neighbours throughout the Balkan region. "Definitely it helps a lot,' said Željko. "Music is universal and it can touch people all over the world. We are witnessing that many of us, as musicians, we are coming and going in all countries of the ex-Yugoslavia and we share our music with supporters over the borders. When I am away from home I miss the people. I think that we are generally good people."
So what does Željko have to say about his neighbouring Eurovision hopefuls? "We all know each other very well and some of us are good friends,' he said. "As I may say, all of our elected presenters are fantastic musicians and very popular in the region. In this moment I had opportunity to hear only the songs Nebo (Croatia), Crno i belo (FYR Macedonia) and Verjamem (Slovenia)."
Leaving the last word to Željko, does he have any message for his home audience or for Serbs living abroad who might help him get through the semi final and into the main event? "Let's go for the best possible result. We can do it. Your vote can make a difference. And let's enjoy this year's Eurovision Song Contest."
· The European Song: A live RTS HD broadcast from the Košutnjak studio will air on Channel 1, RTS Satellite, on the official RTS website (rts.rs), and the official ESC website (eurovision.tv) starting at 21:00 CET. · Photography courtesy of Željko Joksimović, RTS and ESC.