A MAN walks into a doctor’s office. He confesses to the doctor that he is lost, in despair and out of control of his own life. The doctor says, “I know what will cheer you up. Pagliacci, the famous clown, is performing in town tonight – he is a very funny man. You should go and see him and you’ll feel better.”

The man breaks into tears. “But Doctor,” he wails. “I am Pagliacci.”

What do we learn from a fable such as this? There are several answers – all of them right in their own way – but one key takeaway is the element of expectation, and the weight it can bear. 2016 may have seen former Australian Idol contestant Shannon Noll turned into a wildfire internet meme within Australia, but this attention came at a cost.

A drunken show at the Bridge Hotel in the Sydney suburb of Rozelle resulted in Noll embarking on a rambling rant about political correctness; a visit to the Adelaide strip club Crazy Horse this January went awry and ended in assault charges being laid against Noll. It’s now the middle of the year, and the country’s most famous runner-up is prepared to put that sort of behaviour behind him. He’s all about getting back on the road and taking his music – both old and new – to the people who have stuck with him through thick and thin.

G’day, mate! How ya goin’? Ya good? Yeah, that’s the way! Good onya, mate. No worries!

It’s hard not to be initially taken aback by Noll’s size when he appears in a stairwell off to the side of Hermann’s Bar, the Sydney University pub and makeshift venue where the man and his band are about to begin a national headlining tour. He’s around six feet tall, inherently imposing, with muscles that bustle out of his denim cut-off vest. His handshake is firm as he fires off what’s essentially an entire arsenal of small talk in quick succession: “G’day, mate! How ya goin’? Ya good? Yeah, that’s the way! Good onya, mate. No worries!”

From even these initial moments, it’s abundantly clear that you’re either Noll’s best mate or his worst enemy. You’re either getting a round in with him at the bar or finding yourself on the wrong side of him as the lights come on to remind the late-night punters that they don’t have to go home, but they can’t stay here.

Thankfully, tonight Noll is surrounded by people who are either his actual mates or those he treats as such. He’s in a clearer mindset, focused on what lies ahead.

“I’ve been going every weekend this year so far,” Noll begins. We’re seated at a bench out the front of the venue as the opening act Dean Ray warms the stage and Noll explains his touring regiment for 2017. “I did the Red Hot Summer tour, which started on the 7th of January and finished last weekend. Now we’ve got this tour, which is another 30-40 dates around the country.

“The festival was easy in comparison – you’d get a few days off. This tour has me and the boys working about three or four nights a week. This is the hard yards, mate.” He sighs for a moment, taking it all in, before conceding in the most Nollsie way possible: “It’s all good, but.”

SHANNON Noll was born in Orange, in the Central West of New South Wales, in 1975. From there, his family relocated some 200 kilometres further west to the township of Condobolin, a place now synonymous with Noll’s name. Although the young Noll took a keen interest in music, performing in high school and later in a pub band with his brothers, it was never something he perceived to be a viable career path.

That, fatefully, would change in a big way when Noll – encouraged by his two brothers – decided to audition for the first season of Australian Idol in 2003. Soon, the entire country was to discover his talents – and the rest, as they say, is history.

“It was pretty crazy, man,” Noll says on his Idol baptism by fire. “When you live in a small town, everybody knows who you are. The whole Idol thing just felt like that, albeit on a much, much bigger scale. Every single day would be all these different people wanting your signature or wanting a photo with you. We did the tour with all of the finalists, and then I did my own tour later on, and at some of the shows there were people who had been lining up for something like five hours before you’d even gotten there. They were crazy times, but you just learned how to roll with it. Really, there wasn’t a great deal else that you could do.”

While many artists spend years on the independent circuit before they quote-unquote ‘make it big’, Noll was immediately thrown in the deep end without so much as a swimming certificate. Within a year of Idol, he’d released his debut LP That’s What I’m Talking About. The album went five times platinum and spawned three top five singles, pushing Noll onto some of the biggest stages the country had to offer. Naturally, it was a massive adjustment from his everyday life.

This tour has me and the boys working about three or four nights a week. This is the hard yards, mate.

“Being a farmhand, I was completely naive to this whole industry,” he recalls. “Thankfully, I had some really great mentors through that time in my life – Ross Fraser is one that immediately comes to mind. He’s an absolute legend of the industry, and he guided me a lot through the cycles of the first few albums. I’m really grateful for that, and I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish under his guidance.

“For me, listening to and performing those older songs just takes me back to a really important time in my life, when everything was new and really exciting. It’s a total trip down memory lane for me. I look back at it with a warm heart and a smile. I still love the songs.”

It’s been around six years since Noll last released a studio album – 2011’s A Million Suns, his fourth. Although the record promisingly debuted in the top ten and led off with one of Noll’s career-best singles – the critically underrated ‘Switch Me On’ – the album quickly disappeared from the charts and sunk without trace.

This was partly to do with a lack of proper label support – at the time, Noll was with Universal – and a lack of focus in terms of the direction Noll and his co-writers wanted to take from a creative standpoint. In the ensuing years, he concentrated on touring.

“I average about 180 shows a year,” he says. “A lot of people think I’ve been completely away, but when you’re not playing the big cities every year it’s basically out of sight, out of mind.”

This period would also see Noll occasionally releasing standalone singles such as 2012’s ‘Man I Can Trust’ and 2014’s ‘We Only Live Once’, complete with its own hashtag (#WOLO). Now, Noll is hard at work on his fifth studio album – one that he feels will truly be as close to the real-deal Shannon Noll as any of his albums have come.

“This isn’t a label-driven thing,” he says emphatically. “This is about who I am as an artist and a performer. I feel like this new album is the first chance that I’ve really had to do that. With my previous albums, a lot of what’s on them was at the dictation of the label – and that’s not really something that you’re able to have control over when they’ve got you signed and there’s a whole team behind it. A lot of times, you just feel like trying to have your own input isn’t going to do anything apart from rock the boat.

“There’s always been a lot of give and take with my albums – it might be my name on the front, but I’m only one of the five or six people crafting the whole thing. I’m not saying that I’ve hated making those albums, but I definitely feel like I didn’t have enough of a chance to really talk about myself and my own life’s stories. That’s why this album is different.”

OF COURSE, the so-called ‘lost years’ of Noll’s career also brought some key changes within the immediate personnel who were looking after him and his music.

“What happened was that I had some different stuff going on at the same time – I had new management, and I swapped record labels,” Noll explains. “It takes a while to adjust to those sort of changes, but it’s all in a really good place now. I’m really happy being a part of Warner, and I have a great team of people that I work with. It all just seemed to fall into place. Once I had those things sorted, this whole thing online started happening and we just got straight into it. I feel like it’s all happened for a reason, and now that it’s done we can focus on putting out something that I’m really proud of. I’d rather take my time and make something great than rush into something that I’m going to regret later.”

If Noll’s time away from the spotlight was good for anything, it was a chance to spend more time with his three children. A dedicated family man, Noll lights up when discussion turns to his clan.

“My eldest [Cody] is 16, my other boy [Blake] is 14 and my daughter [Sienna] is ten,” he says. “It can be hard being away from them, but I think they’re very used to it by now. Cody was 18 months old when I first started touring – it’s kind of the only life that they’ve ever really known. I’m in a better place to manage all of it now, and I know they’re proud of me.

“I was only home for a few hours today before I came down for the show, but the boys were telling me that they’d seen me on Sunrise that morning and that I’d done a good job. Even just little things like that are enough to pull me through until I see them next.”

As to whether his kids are fans of his music, Noll says: “Being teenagers, they’re obviously not too keen to talk about what their mates chat about with their old man – but I reckon they’d still get a plug in for me.”

David Woodward – Noll’s manager over the last two years of his career – is acutely aware of how Noll’s family will always be one of his key priorities. “A couple of weeks ago, I gave Shannon a call and I was trying to book him in for something,” he says. “He checked the date and said to me that he couldn’t do it – ‘I’m taking Cody and we’re going camping down on the river in Condo for four days.’ I pushed for it – ‘It’s a TV appearance!’ – and he was just like, ‘Sorry, mate – I’ve already booked it in with the kids.’ I couldn’t fault him – he’s a country boy at heart. He’s real, he’s honest and he’s a dedicated father.”

I think it all started with the fish taco photo. I didn’t even think about it at the time – I just started reading the comments and it was like, ‘…Oh, no.’

TO HIS family and friends, Shannon Noll is the same man he’s always been: a committed father, a modest country boy, a dedicated musician whose Idol exposure didn’t change his values. But to the rest of Australia, everything has changed. And it all happened when a certain phrase entered the cultural lexicon: “Shannon Noll was robbed of the 2003 Australian Idol title.”

Within months of this meme spreading around the internet, Noll had become a prized commodity. His signature song, ‘What About Me’, was mashed up with another memetically revived hit in Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’. A petition to get Noll onto the annual Groovin The Moo festival tour accumulated thousands of signatures, although it sadly didn’t end up happening. Facebook event pages were overtaken by hundreds of commenters adopting the ocker mannerisms of the archetypal Aussie bloke. For a period there, you couldn’t do a single scroll of your Facebook or Twitter timeline without seeing a passing reference to the man lovingly nicknamed ‘Nollsie’.

“I think it all started with the fish taco photo,” says Noll of a January 2016 post that showed off his culinary skills. “I didn’t even think about it at the time – I just started reading the comments and it was like, ‘…Oh, no.’ The whole thing just sort of snowballed from there – there were the petitions to get me onto Groovin The Moo and all the Facebook pages that started popping up.

“I love that it’s been something that’s brought people together – I’ve definitely noticed the pockets of young people that have been rocking up to shows, and that seems to have amalgamated more and more. Being in this business, it’s an amazing thing to have happen to you.”

With the fish tacos also came a now-time-honoured tradition of Facebook users replying to every single post of Noll’s with the same basic format. Each comment begins with the words, “Bet it’s not the first time that you’ve…” and then crudely alludes to something else within the post. A recent photo of Noll putting merchandise in a box, for instance, was met with: “Bet that’s not the first time you’ve filled a box.” The comment will then ease off with words to the effect of ‘just kidding’ – “Only pullin’ ya chain,” for instance – before asking after a tool or piece of equipment that Noll has supposedly borrowed from the user in question.

The comment almost always alludes to a wife – “the missus” – being particularly agitated at not having the item in question. With a “hooroo” or “ta ta”, or sometimes even both, the post ends.

“I saw some of the things online,” says Woodward, “and I rang up Shannon to try and figure out what was happening. I was asking, ‘Where does this thing come from of you borrowing all of these things? Do you have a reputation of borrowing or something?’ He just said to me, ‘I’ve got absolutely no idea – I swear to God.’ We love it now. It’s just silly – it’s not something you can read all that much into.”

It’s an odd thing to think of Noll being so at ease with all the humour surrounding his online presence – this is, after all, the same man who challenged comedian Wil Anderson to a boxing match (for charity) after Anderson made some jokes at Noll’s expense during his stand-up. Still, Noll appears to have a sense of clarity about the whole thing. To him, it’s all about the Australian sense of humour – about digging the elbow into the ribs and not having too big of an ego about yourself.

“You can’t laugh at anything unless you can laugh at yourself,” Noll says. “I like to have a read through the comments, and they’re always pretty funny. I’ve had troubles in the past, but I don’t think anyone is being advantageous of that, or going out of their way to make fun of me. It’s just about having a laugh and having a good time, and everyone’s buying into it. I know a fair few older artists who tell me that whenever they’ve got time to kill with a layover in an airport, they’ll just log onto my Facebook page and just have a good laugh at all of it. The fact that it can put a smile on an old rocker’s face… I mean, that’s pretty incredible to me.”

Now with a community of more than 180,000 users, Noll’s Facebook fan page is a hotbed of activity on any given day of the week. As a result, Noll tries to not go overboard on the posting.

“In this day and age, there’s just so much stuff online to get through,” he reasons. “There’s so many celebrities that will just post a picture of themselves with a caption like ‘I love Thursdays!’ or something stupid like that. I’m always pretty conscious to not do that sort of stuff. If I see something that I find interesting or funny, then I’ll post that. I’m not prolific or anything like that. I’ll only post a couple of things a week, where a lot of accounts will be posting three or four times a day. I think that’s kind of why a lot of the interest is there in my online presence – they never really know what I’m going to post about next.”

I like to have a read through the comments, and they’re always pretty funny.

IT’S NEARING showtime at Sydney Uni, and there are around 80 people in the venue. The turnout is perhaps lower than expected – even after the gig was moved from the university’s flagship Manning Bar to the more intimate Hermann’s – but one thing is clear: nobody’s here as a joke, or to enjoy the music ironically. Those who have come out to see the gig genuinely seem as though they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

According to Woodward, the idea behind booking these university shows was less to chase a demographic and more to tip the proverbial Akubra to the younger generation that has raised Noll’s profile again after a period of obscurity.

“It’s definitely different – and there’s a risk factor attached to it, too,” the manager says. “It’s not something that we’re doing for some huge financial gain, because that’s just not what this is. There’s pretty good money in the country clubs and RSLs that we frequent. These are just shows that we’re doing as a sort of ‘thank you’ to the 18-to-30-year-olds that have made such a big impact on Shannon’s online presence.

“It’s all in jest, and Shannon’s obviously aware of that, but the truth is that Shannon probably wouldn’t have been able to bounce back in the way that he has if it wasn’t for what they did.”

As for Noll himself, he’s generally nonplussed about where the tour may take him. “I guess there’s been a bit more of an audience, if you want to call it that, that has been coming from these sorts of areas,” he says of the university bookings. “That’s fantastic, of course, but we’ll play anywhere. I dunno, mate – a gig’s a gig to us. We just wanna get out there and punch it out.”

Indeed, Noll will continue to punch it out for the next few months, from Adelaide to Airlie Beach and everywhere in between. Noll remains faithfully dedicated to playing shows off the beaten track, and as a country-raised performer, it remains incredibly important to him.

“It’s really different for country people,” he says. “It’s more than just buying a ticket to the show and getting the bus there and back – you’re looking at a few tanks of petrol, accommodation for the weekend, a few hundred dollars each way. To be able to take the show to them and to their community as opposed to just expecting them to come to you is very important to me.

“The audiences are really appreciative of the effort and the thought, as well – you get there and they’re all really up for it. Who knows when the next one will be, y’know? They get right into it and have a great night. A lot of smaller towns and more remote areas are struggling just to survive, so if we’re able to bring a bit of entertainment and lift the spirits of the community at all, it’s always welcome.”

As the Sydney Uni show goes ahead, it’s pound-for-pound one of the more entertaining pub rock shows on the circuit. The band members are airtight in their execution of both Noll’s biggest hits and the multiple covers that work their way into the set – ‘Run To Paradise’, ‘The Horses’ and even ‘April Sun In Cuba’ all make an appearance. Vocally, Noll is in fine form – he’s performing with perhaps more clarity and conviction than ever before.

Take, for instance, a song like ‘Lift’, the title track from his 2005 album that served for years as the soundtrack to the reality TV show The Biggest Loser. To many, that song has been completely lost to the irony and memetic nature of Noll’s public perception – a song to only be sung along with jokingly in a typically OTT fashion. When introducing it, however, Noll mentions that he’s had a lot of correspondence with fans over the years telling him how much ‘Lift’ has come to mean to them. “If that’s all I ever get out of making music – being able to touch someone else’s life – then I feel like I’ve done a good job,” he says.

Before the encore, a stagehand runs onstage to promote Noll’s new single, ‘Southern Sky’. “We’ve got CD singles at the merch booth!” he yells out – a sentence that feels like it hasn’t been said onstage by anyone in at least half a decade. “Let’s get this song in the charts!”

AS OUR interview draws to a close, Noll grabs a quick smoke with Woodward and another managerial assistant. He’s approached by about a half-dozen fans who have spied him from out the front. “I love you!” bellows one girl as she scrambles to pass her friend a camera phone. “I can’t wait to see you, hey!”

Noll takes it all in his stride – once again, treating everyone like his mate. Shannon Noll as a meme commodity might not be fresh any more – really, it’s a miracle in the fast-paced nature of modern-day internet culture that it lasted as long as it did. As for Shannon Noll the musician? He’s still in with a fighting chance. He’s not giving up.

“It’s just like anything, mate – it ebbs and flows, doesn’t it? You have your higher times and your lower times. Obviously, there was a stage in my career a few years back where things tapered off to a certain degree. I decided to take that time and spend it doing worthwhile stuff – spending more time with my kids, taking them to their footy games and stuff like that. When you work weekends, like I tend to do, that’s not something that you get to do all that much. We’re right back into it now – we’re working on a lot of new stuff, and we just put the new single out. It’s nice to take moments to wind down, but we’re back in business.”

Woodward agrees – “It really feels like a whole new Shannon,” he says.

Whatever happens next, the story of Shannon Noll is an intriguing one – it’s got rises and falls, redemption and rebuilding, the Crazy Horse and ‘The Horses’. Now, the clown is done crying – it’s time to get back to entertaining the masses.

“Why else do you think we’re doing such a big tour?” teases Woodward. “We’re going around and returning all of the things that Shannon has supposedly borrowed from all of these people – spin cycles, lawnmowers, secateurs, blenders…”

Shannon Noll plays Rooty Hill RSL on Friday July 14. Full tour dates and tickets via shannonnoll.com.au.