INTERVIEW: Conrad Sewell

Conrad Sewell might just be the hardest-working boy in the business right now. Following his feature on Kygo‘s chart smash Firestone, the young Australian – taken on by former Def Jam and Warner exec Lyor Cohen – has certainly made quite a concerted effort to build on this early recognition (an effort that’s paying off both in the UK, where he’s landed Radio 1 Track of the Day, and in his home country, where he’s just scored his first #1). 

His approach makes sense, given he’s actually been trying to crack the industry for about ten years. So it’s no surprise when we turn up to chat with the Hold Me Up singer and he’s a bit exhausted from a 22-city, 28-station radio tour of the UK, his voice a bit sore from singing up to three songs for each. It’s also no surprise that despite this he remains professional, knowing the game he has to play and doing so with matey charm. 

On this particular day, wearing a monochrome take on a buttoned-down Hawaiian shirt, there’s also an odd mix of press-day weariness and genuine gratitude that people want to know about him (of course, the former could have been because of his underlying need to go for a piss but, Conrad being ever the gentleman, we only found that out much later). 

There’s ever the danger that singer-songwriters of his ilk – the Sheerans, the Bays, the Mars-es of the world – end up coming across too vanilla. It turns out that through an f-bomb littered chat about his Catholic upbringing, some Clean Bandit and Robin Schulz collaborations, an upcoming Michael Jackson cover, getting sick of his own songs and a general aversion to being squeaky-clean, we have nothing to worry about with a man who seems destined for chart success.

OK, we can tell you’ve had a right day of this already. What are you sick of talking about?

(laughs) How did the Kygo song come about, that one comes up all the time. Questions about my sister and – fuck – how did Hold Me Up come about.

We were lucky enough to premiere one of your Hold Me Up remixes recently. Do you get a say in which ones go out there?

Yeah, we get a bunch and I just choose them. The original was a straightforward pop song. And some of the remixes I actually like more than the original! (laughs) Don’t tell people that…

You do know this is being recorded for publication, Conrad…

Oh yeah! Well, it’s just because you get sick of hearing the same things. I’ve heard Hold Me Up so many times now so I want the remixes. A remix is there for when you get bored of the original…

We quite like the original though, but we haven’t lived with it as long as you have. Incidentally, how long have you lived with it?

I’ve lived with it for about eight months. Start Again, which is out in Australia, I wrote that about two and a half years ago. And it’s only just gone up. I’ve heard that song so many fucking times, you have no idea.

We read somewhere that Start Again was quite personal to you. You hear it so much, you live with it so long – do those feelings get diluted somewhat?

Yeah. You’ll have moments when you listen to it again, or it’ll come on in the car and for some reason you won’t change it, and you’ll put yourself back in the place where you wrote it.

What was that place?

It was the first time I ever felt like a physical feeling of heartbreak. Like an actual… You know…

Like when you feel physically sick.

Yeah, exactly.

Well, before we all throw up… you’re signed over at Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment in the US. How’s that working out?

It’s been good. They’re almost like an indie but with major label mindset. It’s interesting. I’m lucky enough to be close to Lyor, he’s the head of the label. He’s been incredible, I’m fortunate to have him. I love it, it’s the perfect set-up for me as I get to control a lot of the music and I get to A&R my own project alongside other people. I have a lot more of a say than I would with a major.

“[Major labels] were so radio-driven. It’s like, okay, let’s throw a song at the radio instead of ‘let’s build this kid’s career'”

Isn’t it terrifying working with someone like Lyor who comes with such pedigree?

It is and it isn’t. It’s terrifying in the sense that he’s very opinionated, but at the same time he’s such an artist-driven guy. He purely does it for breaking artists, almost to the point that when they’ve broken he doesn’t really give a fuck any more! He’s not interested in the Kanyes and stuff that he’s dealt with before. It’s like gambling. He’s addicted to being able to break someone. I’m just the kid he’s chosen to put his money behind.

And it’s clearly working. You said he’s quite opinionated but, come on, you don’t exactly strike us as a retiring wallflower either.

No, exactly. He’s very opinionated but if I really believe in something he’ll let me do it. If I want a shoot a video for something, or my gut tells me to do this, he’ll let me trust my instincts. Which is quite weird for someone of his stature to let go of it. He’s opinionated in the sense that he’ll call me if he doesn’t like something and say “I fucking hate that, that’s terrible!”

Well you’ve experienced both sides of it, haven’t you? It sounds like the major label wasn’t a great experience…

It was more that they were so radio-driven. It’s like, okay let’s throw a song at the radio instead of ‘let’s build this kid’s career’. Whether Hold Me Up works for radio or not, it’s more making it about the fact that I play live, the fact that I write my own stuff. We’re trying to build a career, not basing it on just one song working on radio. Because I don’t want to be known as just a radio artist. There’s more substance to me as a person and an artist. The thing I have at 300 that I didn’t have at a major is that they understand that and not say ‘hey let’s see how much money we can pump out’.

You feel less of a commodity, then. Going back a bit, you said earlier that Hold Me Up was ‘straightforward pop’. That wasn’t your background though, was it?

No. I still think Hold Me Up has something different to it, but it’s definitely as pop as I go on the spectrum of the album. It’s the most straight one. Which is a little concerning because people can judge it for what it is, but some of my favourite songs are straightforward pop songs.

So that’s not a taste of what the entire album might be like?

No, definitely not. My album has so many different flavours on it, because I love all different types of music. Hold Me Up has a Michael Jackson overtone over it, and then there are songs that sound like an Elton John record, and some that are straight soul records. The underlying thread is my voice. This con… what is it?

Continuity?

Continuity! Big words! That’s it. It doesn’t seem like it’s all over the place.

Your voice is the thread, but is there another in terms of subject matter?

A lot of my subject matter is quite broad. It’s not specific like an Ed Sheeran or a Jake Bugg or something like that. It’s more open and pop-orientated and you can read into it what you want. Certain lines are very specific to me, whether that’s a street that I grew up on or saying something that’s faith-driven because I grew up in a very strong Catholic home. It’s not like a Bruno Mars record – it’s for the masses, but there’s never a line where you think ‘only Bruno would say that’. But with me there is.

“Anyone who knows me and knows what I get up to knows that I’m not squeaky clean… You Name IT, I’VE DONE IT”

We didn’t know about your Catholic background. Was it quite strict?

It was to an extent. My dad’s side of the family is very strict, like going to church on Sundays. I don’t go as much any more! But still, I’m a spiritual person and that still comes through. There’s an element of that in my music too. It’s a part of me, it comes through in my music even if it doesn’t come through in any other part of my life! There’s little religious terms that pop up, or there’s a lyric in my song that says “I lost my faith but I still pray at night” and that’s generally how I feel.

What prompted that loss of faith, then? Not the major label dramas?

No, but you could read into it like that! It’s more about losing faith in the Catholic church. It’s more of a personal thing.

Are they all supportive of what you do?

Yes and no. I haven’t really gone and done anything that’s disappointing to them…

That they know of.

That they know of! They definitely worry about that. The minute I say something or do something that’s very frowned upon, Dad’ll be getting a phone call from the all the aunties and uncles! But you can’t live your life based on what other people think.

Are you worried, then, about maybe coming across too squeaky clean?

Yes and no. As a person and as an artist, I’m not like that at all. Anyone who knows me and knows what I get up to knows that I’m not squeaky clean.

Dying to know what that entails, by the way.

Anything and everything! You name it, I’ve done it. The music can come across a bit too straight, but the fact that I like it and I’m not squeaky clean. People are reacting to it though, so there must be a connection there.

You mentioned two people earlier in connection with the album: Elton John and Michael Jackson. That’s a pretty strong inspiration.

Massive. Any frontman, whether it be Prince or Freddie Mercury or Michael, any entertainers like that. It also came down to a song. I was addicted to one song at a time, any great pop song from Take That to Train, whatever resonated with me.

We didn’t have you down as a Take That fan…

Oh, I’m a big Take That fan. Gary Barlow is a great songwriter. My friend Ella Henderson was supporting them and I was texting her saying ‘I’m so jealous of you!’. I’m so bad-boy Robbie. I could be up there.

What else are you listening to these days, other than Take That?

James Bay I love. Leon Bridges, Years & Years…

Are you still writing for other artists like that?

Yeah, always. I’ve been doing loads of cool sessions too, I went in with Clean Bandit the other day, worked with Naughty Boy last month, Robin Schulz I’m hopefully going in with next week…

Do you enjoy that kind of stuff? Or do you feel like it takes you further away from “Conrad”?

I do enjoy it, as long as they’re bringing the same amount of heat to the table as I am. Otherwise I fucking hate it!

Not saying this is going to happen, but do you ever worry about being slotted as just a ‘featured’ artist?

Not really. I think my own stuff is as strong as my features. I don’t mean that in a cocky way. Jess Glynne and Sam Smith are working because their own stuff is so strong.

What are your musical guilty pleasures at the moment?

Saxophone! Like cheesy, George Michael – Careless Whisper kind of saxophone. I want to write a modern day Careless Whisper! I keep trying to do it, every time I walk into session I’m like: how do you feel about a modern day Careless Whisper? (laughs)

We feel pretty shit about it. We might be the only people in the world who actively despise Careless Whisper. 

(laughs) Really? It’s a good song!

Nope. Hate it. Please don’t do it.

Maybe you’ll like my version of it!

You never know actually. We have to admit that your kind of genre isn’t what we’d normally cover on PressPLAY, but Hold Me Up is SUCH a jam we just had to. So there you go. On that note, what sort of things can we expect next?

I’m finishing my album, which will be out later this year. I’m going on tour with Maroon 5, playing a lot of shows and pushing a lot of music. We’ll be spending a lot of time in the UK, and let people know who I am.

Does the album have a title yet?

It doesn’t. I’m working on it. I want something that’s going to sum up my journey of trying to get into this crazy industry. Something poetic, in the way Kings of Leon had Youth & Young Manhood, I want something that sums it up like that. I keep looking for little quotes for it, I’ve gotta figure it out!

So what do you want people to know about Conrad?

Keep an open mind when you first start hearing the music. There’s a lot of different elements and there’s going to be growth, and it’s obviously my first album so I don’t have it all figured out. Keep listening, because there’s a lot that’s going to come. If I don’t touch on something that you love straight away, don’t worry, I’m covering it all! If you like the stuff that sounds like Michael Jackson, I have a bunch of stuff like that I’m working on that I’m gonna grow towards.

Do you think that’s going to drive your next piece of work? Like, if people want the MJ stuff, that’s the way you’ll go? Or do you have an idea in mind already?

I’m already leaning towards that kind of stuff. I wanna lean towards the rhythmic kind of stuff. There’s a lot of growth that’s going to happen.

What about a Michael Jackson cover?

I’ve done a bunch of covers. There’s a few that people will be hearing soon. I did this really cool cover I’m going to put on Soundcloud of Thriller. It’s a broken down version, and I did it with the guy who I recorded my album with. It’s a very moody version.

We have to ask this to everyone on PressPLAY because it says a lot about a person. What is your favourite Beyonce song?

I have three, and one is a Destiny’s Child song. Say My Name, Love On Top, and Bonnie & Clyde. Love On Top though, if you turn that on, that is my SHIT.

And finally. We’re just going to go for it. What puts the ‘rad’ in Conrad?

(laughs) The question you should ask is: what doesn’t put the rad in Conrad?

What doesn’t?

Um… How do you explain how cool you are?

It’s gotta be that shirt though, hasn’t it? It takes a bold person to do that. But we’re going to let you pee now. 

Thank you. And thank you for not asking me the same questions!

Hold Me Up by Conrad Sewell can be ordered here

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INTERVIEW: Conrad Sewell
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INTERVIEW: Conrad Sewell
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