It’s a big week for Brisbane’s Conrad Sewell.
It kicked off with his latest single ‘Who You Lovin’ climbing nine places on the ARIA singles chart over the weekend, he wrapped up his local touring commitments in Sydney last night and is up for three awards at tonight’s ARIAs, including Best Pop Release and the coveted Song Of The Year.
Somehow, the affable singer found time in his schedule to sit down for a face to face pop chat with us so we could find out how he rates his chances tonight, who he’s working with for his forthcoming debut album and to muse the power of the TV sync.
You’ve had a pretty amazing year!
It’s been amazing. It’s starting to feel like there’s some real momentum there.
It almost seems you’ve come out of nowhere, really. But obviously you’ve been working hard at this game for a number of years…
I’ve been doing music my whole life, but I guess this year the stars have started to align a little. With ‘Firestone’, the success down here with ‘Start Again’ and things like that. But it still feels like this is a building year for me. I feel like next year is going to be ‘my’ year.
Well not bad to score three ARIA nominations in your “building year”, it has to be said.
(laughs) It’s been an amazing year. Life is good.
Your latest incarnation is markedly different to your Sons Of Midnight stuff. What prompted the change in direction?
The thing is, I grew up listening to soul music and big voices. I always had a big voice and I think when you have a big voice and you can sing all sorts of styles of music, I was sort of the chameleon for a while. I loved Coldplay and The Killers and bands like that… Kings Of Leon. And loved rock and roll at the time, so I wanted to put together a rock band. I got immersed in that. And because I loved my mates and the camaraderie of being in a band, that’s what I put all my time and effort into.
But really my voice has and only was ever meant to sing soul music. I mean, I have that soulful pop kind of voice. So the minute I wrote a couple of songs that that was clear in, I immediately moved myself to LA and just completely switched sides.
How did your bandmates react to that decision?
I put a lot of time into the band and I’d given it my fair shot, but there was something that wasn’t working. And it was because my voice was being saturated by heavy rock guitars really. And the minute you take every other instrument away from my voice is the minute it shines. They knew that as much as I did.
Of course it sucked a little bit… we didn’t get to live our Kings Of Leon dream. But I took the guitarist with me, one of them’s going to be my merch man now. They’re all mates and they’re all very supportive.
A guy called Lyor Cohen signed me, who started Def Jam and signed Kanye West, Jay-Z. He’s a big hip hop mogul. He called me one day. I had ‘Start Again’ and he’d heard it through my now manager and he said that he thought I had a world class voice and he had some world class songs, he wanted to sign me and could I come to New York.
And you were thinking… Is this Hamish & Andy? A radio prank?
(laughs) Exactly! And I met him and he’s a powerhouse in the industry. He’s been my pitbull and Warner Brothers have been incredible, so it’s nice. It’s nice to finally have the music right, have an EP out that I’m proud of and to have the ARIA nominations… it’s starting to come together.
Do you find it bizarre that a boy from Brisbane’s had to be signed to a label deal outside of Australia?
C : It is fully how things work. For me, I always felt like I had to go to America. One, I was always obsessed with America as a kid. I would always watch the Grammys and things like that and pictured myself on those stages. I just always pictured myself on an international stage. And it’s funny that now, having the ARIA nominations is just the biggest thing for me and it’s so amazing.
Once you go outside your home country… it’s like the grass is always greener on the other side. To me, success in my own country is so important now. You know what I mean? Whereas before I had it, it was one of those things where I’d think I had to get it from somewhere else. So by seeking that approval from the rest of the world, I’ve started to acknowledge how important it is to have it from where I’m from.
We’ve spoken to a number of Australian pop artists who almost feel disappointed that they have to achieve some level of success overseas to be taken seriously as an artist in their own country.
I think, especially living in the world we’re in now, with the internet and music being so accessible, I think if it’s not of an international standard, then it’s not going to last. With Spotify and things like that, people can get so much music, so why would you listen to something that doesn’t sound like it’s amazing?
Whereas before, everything we listened to was controlled by the record labels and stuff like that. I definitely personally always felt that. I felt like I needed to get that tick next to my name and be one of the big guns.
‘Hold Me Up’ was a brilliant debut solo effort… incredibly pop. But it seemed to get swallowed up by ‘Firestone’, which was starting to make its presence felt around the same time.
C : It’s funny how that happened. We’d only just gone to radio with ‘Hold Me Up’ in America. And it’s top 40, it’s Ryan Seacrest’s favourite song… It all comes back to timing. Timing is everything in this industry. And ‘Hold Me Up’, as much as it didn’t impact down here as much as we expected it to, it set up the rest of what’s happened this year.
Then ‘Firestone’ came in and that was my song down here. It was my song – I wrote it, but it felt like ‘Firestone’ was me here, not Kygo. People didn’t put two and two together. And then it opened the door to ‘Start Again’, so it was a bridging record here, as I call it. But like I say, in America, it’s really doing well, so you just never know. You don’t know what people are going to react to and what the right timing’s going to be.
We were going to ask… Did you and Kygo not chat about overlapping releases? It almost felt as though when ‘Hold Me Up’ was starting to impact, ‘Firestone’ came in and virtually sabotaged it.
Yeah, Kygo was blowing up with that song. That song has been a monster of its own. And it’s still in the top 50 on Spotify and it’s a year old. It’s crazy. It’s a beast of its own and it came in and pushed ‘Hold Me Up’ to the side. But you know, how it’s panned out has actually been good. So me and Kygo didn’t have to have words.
She did. Once again, timing right there.
No saying, ‘you biiiitch!!’?
I’d never say that. I would never curse at my little sister. I probably would actually. It was more about, ‘is she going to blow before I do’? We’re competitive in general, so anything… we’d always make a funny little jab at each other. It was also actually quite incredible to have them both happen in such a small window. Just a few weeks later, I got my record up there and we made history this year.
We interviewed her in late June and she said, “We’ve always been each others’ biggest fans and we’re both very supportive when it comes to the music, because it’s a rare situation. It’s nice to have someone who you’re so close to go through the journey with you.” So no sibling rivalry from your perspective either, I’m gathering…?
She’s my baby sister. I remember taking her to her first recording studio, helping her write her first song. So any success that comes her way is… I hope that we both end up winning Grammys. Because it’d be a bit unfair if one of us did and not the other.
So then ‘Start Again’ hit. Seriously, how good are TV syncs?
It’s crazy, the power of TV! And ‘Home & Away’ in general. I remember watching ‘Home & Away’ as a kid, but I didn’t realise the impact that the music had.
Record companies seem to be fighting tooth and nail for TV syncs these days, because it’s now one of the best ways to get a song away…
It’s so important. It can change the future of a song. So I’ll definitely be working on some more syncs in the future.
So tell us about ‘Start Again’ and how that catapulted you into the stratosphere.
It’s always been a special song. It’s sort of been my little poker chip that I had. It’s the song I got signed on and for some reason with that song, you play it and people connect with it emotionally. So I was always excited to put it out, but I didn’t know the extent of what it would achieve.
I didn’t think it would be a number one song, an ARIA-nominated ‘Song Of The Year’ song. So it’s been an amazing ride and I can’t wait for the rest of the world to hear it as well. We’ve just released it in the UK and it’s just been added to all the radio stations over there too.
Are you doing a ‘Home & Away’ sync with it there too?
I think it gets the same sync. But you never know. Maybe the timing won’t be right. Maybe it will be.
Radio has actually been really good to me. They’ve all been really supportive. For me, it’s more about now connecting my live performance and putting a face with the songs, I think. One thing about me as an artist is that if you come to a show, it’s a blessing and a curse… I sing and always have, a lot better live than I’ll ever sound on a record. And there’s a certain energy that you get from my shows that will make you a Conrad Sewell fan even if you’re not necessarily a fan of what you’ve heard on the radio.
That sounds like I’m being cocky… I’m not. Ask anybody who comes to my show. It’s the truth. So I just want to get to a point where people are buying tickets to the shows and get to see what I really do. It’s the only reason I want to make music… to entertain and play live, because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life – in pubs and shit like that. The music on the radio is a source for me to play shows. So eventually if I get to the point where I’m like Ed Sheeran and I’m selling out stadiums every day…
Well you’ve been supporting him…?
Yeah, I’m close.
So let’s talk about the ‘All I Know’ EP – a little hors d’ouvres for the forthcoming album, we suspect?
Pretty much yes. I’ve written most of the songs for the album, but because this year’s been so crazy and once ‘Firestone’ exploded, I sort of got put on a press run and couldn’t finish my album. I had six songs that were ready to go, so I thought, ‘let’s do an EP first’.
So basically what you’re saying is that Kygo’s completely fucked your life up this year.
Oh… er… No, not quite. (laughs) But the EP is a great piece of work and I just want my album to be so right. I’ve waited this fucking long to put it out, so I might as well get it right. I just had a session with Naughty Boy, Clean Bandit… I’m in with Ryan Tedder in December. So hopefully I get some Christmas presents from Ryan Tedder; them being incredible songs.
Are you writing WITH him?
I’m writing with him, yeah. I’ve always been a big fan of his stuff, so you put a piano in a room with me and Ryan Tedder and I think we’re going to come up with something pretty special.
So you’re obviously thinking next year for album?
So as far as what comes next? Another single from the EP, we’re presuming?
I think we’ve got two more singles off the EP, but you never know… record labels change their mind all the time. Next is I’m going back to America after the ARIAs. Hopefully there’s an award. I do not expect anything, but I would absolutely be the happiest man alive if I won.
You’re not going to get one of those on in your hand luggage, we’re afraid.
I’ll have to leave that at mum’s place, I think.
Pop it in your checked baggage.
Definitely. Then I go back to America and I do all the Jingle Balls with One Direction and The Weekndm. We play Madison Square Garden, which is a big deal. We were in New York a couple of months ago, driving in a van with my band and we drove past Madison Square Garden and I said, ‘just think boys… five years from now, that could be us!’. And a month later, we got the call for Jingle Balls. They’re not all going to be there for me, but I can say I’ve played Madison Square Garden.
You must be doing something right, however… Three ARIA nominations, including Song Of The Year and Breakthrough Artist… you’ve got to be happy with that? How do you rate your chances?
To be honest, I don’t expect anything. Just because… Jarryd James had a great year, a lot of people are talking about Courtney Barnett. If I win one, the shock on my face will be 100% real. Like I said, I don’t think this is my year yet. I think it’s a set up for what’s to come in 2016.
It’s the only time you’re going to be up for Breakthrough Artist though…?
Well I would like… I’d be the happiest man in the world if I win. So we’ll leave it up to the stars.
So cartwheels to the stage?
There’ll be backflips to the stage. With beers in my hands. I have to perform as well, so I have to stay somewhat sober.
Conrad Sewell’s ‘All I Know’ EP is out now.
See him perform on tonight’s ARIA Awards, screening nationally from 8pm on Channel 10.