How a boy from Brisbane ended up on a Platinum single in the US and UK
‘Come Clean’ is expansive and confessional, like a one-sided confrontation that feels vital. It does not pick up where his past hits left off two years ago.
“I’ve never used the word cocaine and what not in my lyrics before, but I was like, ‘fuck it’.”
You know his voice before you place his image. Conrad Ignatius Mario Maximilian Sewell, much like his name, burst into public consciousness with an unavoidable responsibility in 2014.
Following a whirlwind journey with his band Sons Of Midnight – which arguably reached its pinnacle when they performed for the Princess of Monaco and ended the night with a limo party under the Eiffel Tower – Sewell’s trajectory played out like a Disney movie.
The success and critical acclaim of his first offering ‘Firestone’ was truly unparalleled. 10x Platinum in Australia, 4x Platinum in Norway, Platinum certification in the US, UK, Germany and Sweden, the track with Norwegian producer Kygo kick-started a string of sign-post moments: support tours for the likes of Ed Sheeran and Maroon 5, the obligatory move to LA, and the rubbing of shoulders with music’s beau monde.
Watch Conrad Sewell perform an acoustic version of ‘Firestone’ below:
“I was kind of thrown into it in America and all of a sudden I was with all these big people I used to look up to, and they were telling me what I should be,” he offers. “It’s very easy to lose yourself.”
The Brisbane native’s works to date have been prelapsarian; unspoiled and vulnerable, his career seemingly flawless. But until now, his life has been lived through the reigns of others. Granted, he was 13-years-old when he first sat inside a record label boardroom – and his guides were trusted decision makers whose opinions were worth their weight in gold – but his choices weren’t entirely his own.
His accolades include an ARIA Award (for ‘Start Again’), and his vocal advocates include Timbaland, YouTube’s Head of Music Lyor Cohen (who signed him to his 300 Entertainment in the US), Bono, and Ed Sheeran. And most recently Denis Handlin AM, who announced his signing to Sony Music Australia last month.
Sewell is seated in a room Sony Music’s Sydney Headquarters. He leans forward and his shirt sleeves inch upward to show off a few of his 12 tattoos. Some are for his parents, both musical influences who opened for an early iteration of the Bee Gees at one time. Another is the face of a lion, a salute to comments made by friends about his voice and of course, that hair.
“I asked myself all these questions that artists should early on and I didn’t,” he continues. “[…] I don’t think we took the time at the beginning to establish what a ‘Conrad’ song was.
“Because I had done it all,” he adds, his palms on the coffee table now. “I could show you a Bruno Mars record; I could show you a Justin Timberlake record; I could show you a Sam Smith record. I could give you three albums like that right now. But it was like, ‘which one do I want to stand behind?’”
Examining ‘Healing Hands’ and ‘Come Clean’, the two-track bundle entitled Ghosts & Heartaches (a la Drake’s Scary Hours), the references to self-destruction are palpable. The drug and alcohol abuse is there. The distraction from real change is there. The vindication is also there. He was fighting against the Aldous Snow rockstar stereotype but at one point, was physically unable to throw the first punch.
Stream Ghosts & Heartaches below:
“When I was about to play in one of the biggest bucket list moments of my life, I blacked out before I played,” he recalls. “I was up the whole night before […]. I took a second and thought, what the fuck was I doing?”
Sewell has penned over 300 tracks for his upcoming debut album. He’s still deciding which ones will make the LP, but one thing is clear: no scars have been left unrecorded, no wound closed before full exposure. His lyrics can be so intense that it’s the listener who ends up feeling exposed.
“I was drunk a lot,” he confesses. “And I was a party boy. And I have a bit of a reputation of it in the industry and outside the industry […] It is something I personally battle with and struggle with.
“I’m choosing to do this at the moment because I want to focus on my music and career,” he continues. “I used to party to the point where it started fucking with the good things in my life. I had the world at my feet and I was doing things that affected that.”
It was a woman who helped Sewell see the severity of his actions – “The girl I was first with made me realise I was fucking shit up, and that I was making mistakes”. But as he took control of ‘Conrad Sewell the business’, leaving his last record label and signing with Sony, he also took control of ‘Conrad Sewell the human’.
Currently experiencing sobriety, Sewell has placed his trust in reality. He’s opening his heart and bleeding through song every insecurity, every lesson, every discrepancy.
“I don’t want to be that person who loses everything due to fucking up their life to party. I don’t want to do that,” he insists. “Now I want to focus on myself, putting great music out and doing something positive with my gift.”
His gift is undeniable. With his distinct legato rhythms and his chameleon-like range, Sewell could be Invincible era Michael Jackson. Past tracks like ‘Start Again’ and ‘Remind Me’ traverse some of the same vocal territory, but it’s his gentle approach to the melodies on ‘Healing Hands’ and ‘Come Clean’ that prop him up against past contemporaries.
Watch Conrad Sewell cover Michael Jackson below:
A career like Sewell’s doesn’t come without sacrifice. He may live and breathe the international music scene since he relocated to the US in 2015, but Australia is his home, no matter how poised he is for another global takeover.
“I don’t really see my family and I don’t have many real friends,” he divulges. “Being an artist is all about sacrifice.
“I definitely want to get married and have kids, I want that so bad,” he smiles now. “But, I want this more. Right now I don’t need to be married or to have kids because I know I won’t be happy with anyone until I get that.”
‘That’ could be so many things at this point. Having toured with Maroon 5, Jess Glynne, Ed Sheeran and Kygo, performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and at Coachella, and with an ARIA Award and two nominations under his belt, Sewell’s idea of success essentially begs the question: how long is a piece of string?
On Sunday night (June 10), he’ll perform one of his new tracks on The Voice, and as he’s teased on Instagram, he’ll tap into his gospel/soul leanings and be backed by a gospel choir. Before heading back to LA, he’ll appear on The Project, but he’ll be back twice before the year is out. In fact, he just announced an East Coast tour this morning for September.
Among the class of soul-pop acts decorating the charts of late, Conrad Sewell might be the most intense. His two-track teaser bundle Ghosts & Heartaches suggests deeper annals are coming our way, as if they were the forerunners of a wave of pleasure and pain. Sewell has always been unavoidable, that’s part of the experience. His fearless sojourn through his own mistakes opens up a portal within ourselves, to connect to our own misgivings and to of course, come clean.
Conrad Sewell ‘Come Clean’ Australian Tour
With Special Guest Mitch James
Thursday, September 6th
Oxford Art Factory, Sydney, NSW (18+)
Tickets: Moshtix | Ph: 1300 438 849
Friday, September 7th
Howler, Melbourne, VIC (18+)
Tickets: Moshtix | Ph: 1300 438 849
Saturday, September 8th
Woolly Mammoth, Brisbane, QLD (18+)
Tickets: Moshtix | Ph: 1300 438 849
Frontier Members Pre-sale runs for 24 hours from Tuesday, June 12th, as 12 noon AEST
General public on sale from Thursday, June 14th, as 10am AEST
The article was originally published on Tone Deaf