By Cameron Adams
Nathan Cavaleri was first introduced to Australia aged just seven, when the Today show covered his meeting with one of his guitar heroes, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. This came about after Nathan was diagnosed with leukaemia aged six, a year later (while still undergoing treatment) he was granted his wish to meet Knopfler through the Starlight Foundation.
By age eight Nathan was playing guitar on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, in front of millions. While it may have been a novelty to see a kid playing guitar, before long it was clear this was no gimmick.
Nathan started playing guitar at three, playing along with his favorite blues records – Stevie Ray Vaughn and Albert Collins, before his dad Frank started to teach him the basics. He was playing electric guitar by five and had his first gig aged six – busking outside his mother’s coffee shop and pocketing $270 in just ninety minutes.
Daryl Somers’ had an open door policy for Nathan on Hey Hey, and he would regularly appear on the program to plug albums or showcase his work in the US. Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes swiftly took note. Before long, Nathan signed his first record deal and went on an epic five week tour supporting Barnes and Diesel.
“What an educational tour for myself and my parents,” Nathan says now. “My band was two bricklayers (one being my father) and a drum tech! I had just turned 10 at the time. Throughout that time, mum and dad were trying to shield me from seeing drunken blood baths whilst trying to preserve my belief in the Easter Bunny. Literally!”
By age 12 Nathan was basically a veteran. He’d toured around the world and befriended another hero, blues legend B.B King. In 1995 King asked Nathan to perform for him with Bonnie Raitt, Dr John, Etta James and Joe Lewis Walker at his Presidential Award ceremony in 1995. That also meant Nathan got to meet Bill and Hillary Clinton at the White House.
Given the all clear health-wise at age 13, Jimmy Barnes, Emmanuel and Diesel guested on his 1993 debut album Jammin’ With the Cats. A year later, Nathan was in the US being wooed by George Michael, Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson to sign to their record labels.
“I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of amazing people but being a kid prevented me from understanding the musical mark they made on the world. But maybe it’s because I walked into these meetings without starry eyes, that I received such great responses from them.”
In the end, he signed with Jackson’s MJJ Records, who released his first US album. Nathan almost performed with Jackson in public – however at a final dress rehearsal during the song Black or White Jackson collapsed and face planted on the stage.
“With how theatrical his set was, I thought it was part of the act until the bodyguards came running. He was rushed to hospital and the gig was cancelled.”
After TV appearances in the US to promote his album (Conan O’Brien, Arsenio Hall) came a Disney movie (Camp Nowhere) and more records. By the time he was 15, Nathan had one last tour with BB King and decided to step away from the limelight.
“I was in year 10, things had changed,” Nathan said. “My parents wanted to give me the opportunity to re-calibrate and work out what I wanted to do. I had other interests at that age. It’s a weird age, it’s going into adulthood through puberty. People have to adjust as well, they’re not looking at a kid playing guitar anymore. I didn’t like being in front of the cameras at that age.”
He took a few ‘real jobs’, working as a labourer before re-appearing in 2000 playing at the opening of the Paralympics in Sydney.
Nathan transitioned into adulthood with some musical experimentation that morphed into blues/rock outfit Nat Col and the Kings in 2010 with his mate Col Hatcham from The Screaming Jets. They released three albums and toured extensively. After developing Adrenal fatigue and anxiety – first noticed when he passed out mid-set one night and struggled to regain his usual energy – Nathan took an indefinite hiatus from the band.
Two years ago, Daryl Somers called Nathan out of the blue to ask him to help out with a charity request. It turned out to be a bit of a lightbulb moment for the guitarist as he began to embrace his past.
“He ended up sending me a DVD of all my appearances on Hey Hey,” Nathan says of Daryl. “That was a real moment. I started thinking ‘Why am I not reflecting on this stuff? This is cool’. I guess it’s a bit of an Australian thing, without generalising. When you go to America you can boast about your experiences and it’s received well. Here you’re branded as cocky.”
“After watching the DVD I had the awakening that my past is definitely something to be proud of. I can look at them and learn things I didn’t see at the time because I was so young. I can talk about conversations I had with BB King and absorb it, and I understand it better than I did when I was a kid. I was more excited about meeting Pamela Anderson back then.”
Now 34, Nathan is also a father to 20 month old Byron.
“That in itself has taught me so much,” Nathan says of fatherhood. “I can understand why parents don’t want to tell their kids how much they learn with them because it messes with the hierarchy, but it’s true.”
Nathan still has his feet firmly planted in the industry, but with a world of life-experience behind him, now has a focus on mental health and life-balance. He is currently working as a composer at Sydney’s SongZu while exploring new ways of making and sharing his music and experiences.
“Traditionally you write your songs, workshop them in the studio, you get PR involved and you release them and you tour it. I don’t want to do any of that. I like the idea of just mini documenting the process along the way. If I come up with a riff I’ll put it on Instagram, people can follow the progress of a song – if they like it they’ll buy it, if they don’t it’s cool. I also have an incredible itch to write about the experiences I’ve had over the years. From my perspective. Music and everything about it. It’s a blog format but more a workspace I’m opening up to people who might be interested in looking at it.”