Conrad Sewell Talks “Hold Me Up,” His Debut LP & Embracing Soulful Pop: Idolator Interview
Conrad Sewell moved to Los Angeles in the hope of writing a hit for his rock band Sons Of Midnight. That endeavor was put on hold (permanently) when the Australian’s soulful voice and knack for writing a killer melody caught the attention of a group of industry heavyweights. He eventually signed to Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment and landed a global smash out of the gate as the voice of Kygo’s “Firestone.”
The 27-year-old quickly followed that up with debut single “Hold Me Up,” which is currently top 30 on pop radio, and soaring ballad “Start Again.” I recently caught up with Conrad to discuss his journey from struggling rocker to being The Next Big Thing. He spoke openly about finding his sound, the very impressive line-up of songwriters and producers working on his debut LP and the lack of rivalry between him and pop star sister Grace. (The recently recorded a duet). Find out more below.
Are you surprised “Hold Me Up” is getting such a warm reception at pop radio? In Australia, it was the second single that really exploded for you.
Yeah. I am a little bit. That’s the thing, you can never tell which market is going to connect with what song. For some reason, songs really work here and they don’t work anywhere else or vice versa. “Start Again” is a song that is going to connect everywhere. I feel that and I’ve always felt that about that song. “Hold Me Up”… I had my worries about. It’s more on the straightforward pop side of what I do. It doesn’t mean it’s not a great song.
I still love it and I still jam to it, but it’s very pop. Sometimes those songs can really work — especially in America. I’m happy that radio’s playing it and it seems like they’re really behind me, which is amazing because I’ve always wanted success over here. As much as success back home has been incredible, I left Australia for a reason and that’s to get international success and this is where it all happens.
I think of “Hold Me Up” as a fun introduction, before getting into the meaty stuff.
It’s a door opener. I have a few songs in my catalog that I know are bigger than that song, but it’s uptempo and is great for pop radio. It’s just a fun, cool, happy, pop song. When we sent it out to radio they really attached themselves to it, especially in America. I’ve talked to all these radio people and I ask them, “Do you think we’ve gone with the right single? Is this going to be big enough as a first single?”
They’re like, “Dude don’t worry about it. We’re not in the single business for you, we’re in the Conrad business. We’ve heard the rest of the material. This is going to set things up for you and we know that there’s so much more to come.” It’s really nice that they’re even thinking about that. I didn’t think that radio people thought like that.
Is it hard to juggle different campaigns in different territories? You’re up to single three in some markets.
It’s really hard and it’s especially hard because I’m with a label that’s a young label and we go through Atlantic in other territories. Trying to juggle each market and trying to get everyone on the same page is a challenge. That’s what I’m hoping the EP is going to do. Then everyone will have the same music. We may be on different singles, but by the time I put my album out next year, I want everyone to be buzzing on Conrad and be ready for album.
To answer your question, it’s very hard to keep everyone on the same page. You have to give them different things. This market wants a video, but we haven’t shot a video for that song. Do you know what I mean? That’s how we’ve had to do it because “Firestone” took off in certain countries. That allowed me to say, “Okay we need a single.” However, “Firestone” didn’t really go here.
I still heard it everywhere.
It was close but it wasn’t a top ten hit like it was in every other country in the world.
Taking a step back for a minute, how did you get signed to 300 in the US?
I was here writing songs. I had written “Start Again,” I’d written a couple of other songs. I’d been into meetings with Roc Nation and Jay Brown was showing me love, Interscope was showing me love. John Janick over there was putting a group together and I was potentially going to be in this Civil Wars/Fleetwood Mac kind of group. There were a lot of things happening. I met Austin Rosen who’s my manager and he had gone into business with 300 and Lyor Cohen.
Lyor called me from London and I went to meet him. It’s a fresh label, it’s a young label and he wanted a pop act that he could make his staple. He’s been so heavily involved in Ed Sheeran’s career and Bruno Mars’ career. I really trusted him. He’s the kind of guy that picks a few things and then he just throws the kitchen sink at it. It’s been so good because there’s nothing that he won’t do or no phone call that he won’t make to make the shit happen for me. I don’t how or why they were so interested, but I’d like to think it has something to do with my talent.
Clearly. They’ve got great taste. 300 also signed Meg Mac.
Yeah. She’s amazing. They’re collecting a good little roster of people. He’s so passionate about his label and everything that’s there. We’re in a good place.
After being in Sons Of Midnight, was the original goal to be in another band or was the end-game always a solo career?
It was definitely to go solo. That’s why when Interscope wanted to put me into this group I wasn’t really having it. I’d been in a group for so long, which I loved — it was the best time of my life, but I was ready to have the spotlight on me and I was ready to write solely for me and what I wanted to do musically. The thought of having to ask a person in a band what they thought about this or that didn’t really appeal to me.
But I was desperate. I had hardly any money left and when Interscope was like, “There could be a deal here with a band,” I thought it might work. I wanted to see how the music came out. We got together and it just wasn’t right. I was definitely ready for a solo thing to start.
Did you head to LA as soon as the band broke up?
The band hadn’t really broken up. I moved to LA and I was here trying to write us a single that would get the label excited again so that we could push on and continue to make records with the band. When I was here I wrote “Start Again.” I remember showing that to Jay Brown at Roc Nation and he was like, “Dude, this is the kind of stuff you need to be writing.”
To be honest, I should’ve been doing this by myself the whole time. It was always me driving the band anyway. I just thought I was more rock and roll than I was. At the end of the day my voice is a soulful pop voice that sounds good with limited stuff behind it — not over-produced with a bunch of rock guitars over the top. It needs to be in that angelic space. I loved my mates and I loved the thought of being in a successful rock band. I idolized Kings Of Leon and The Killers and The Strokes, bands like that.
I’m no Julian Casablancas. Maybe I drink like him, but I’m not him. If only I would’ve known that. That’s part of being an artist and trying to figure out yourself out.
Did you have an aha moment when everything clicked?
Probably when the Roc Nation crew suggested I delve into that R&B side of myself because that’s where this whole thing started — with me singing Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder songs. That’s what I grew up singing. You would think I would’ve figured it out earlier, but I’ve always been a late bloomer.
How did “Firestone” come about?
It was crazy because as much as I knew that Kygo was coming up, and I seen the Ed Sheeran remix on SoundCloud, I didn’t really get it. I was like, “Cool. This guy’s going to do one of my songs.” The thought of it becoming what it became and how big he got in just six months is just crazy. I remember hearing we passed one million streams and being blown away. I never thought that would happen. Now it’s like 400 million streams.
We sold 6.5 million singles. I always thought I knew what a hit was and when I write them I’m like, “Okay this song’s going to do something really amazing.” As much as I loved “Firestone,” it felt too vibey to really do much. I felt like, “Yeah, the cool kids are going to like this.” I didn’t think it was going to be this big, fucking international thing. “Firestone” was originally written for my album. It was just going to be a little piano ballad.
Is “Start Again” your next US single? It’s a stone cold smash.
That’s going to be the single that we go with. I really can’t wait for “Start Again” to come out here in America. We’re going to roll with “Hold Me Up” and then after Christmas, when it’s cold and everyone’s miserable, we’re going to launch “Start Again.” Hopefully that’s going to explode like it did in Australia. I think it’s a career-defining song. Every artist needs a couple of them. They only come around every now and then but you definitely know it when you have one.
Roc Nation tried to snatch the song for Kylie Minogue. Were you tempted?
Definitely. Whenever a situation like that comes up you’re always tempted, especially when you’re young and you have no money. I think things happen for a reason and that didn’t pan out the way I wanted it to. I ended up keeping the song and it was a blessing in disguise.
You just released another killer track called “Who You Lovin” in Australia.
That’s the single in Australia at the moment. I wrote that recently. We needed another uptempo that was going to fit my vibe before we go to our next big ballad in Australia, which is another “Start Again” moment. I want to give those tracks to people as well as the ballads. That’s what differentiates me from Sam Smith and James Bay and the other singer/songwriters that I could be pigeonholed into with songs like “Start Again.” But I love Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson. I love pop stars.
“Who You Lovin'” has an MJ vibe.
Yes, but Michael could do Off The Wall-era pop songs and then ballads like “She’s Out Of My Life.” I want to be known for that. I want people to be able to listen to a Conrad record and have everything that they need on it. Which may sound like I don’t really know what I want to do, but to me, that’s just what I like to listen to. Some days I want to write an up tempo song and sometimes I want to write a piano ballad with a beautiful soaring melody.
You wrote “Who You Lovin” with Jacob Kasher.
He’s the dude. We wrote a couple really good ones together actually. He’s super talented. He’s come on board the project a lot.
Who else are you working with?
Jamie Hartman, I work a lot with. When it comes to my softer stuff, he’s very behind that. He sort of brought that out of me with “Start Again,” which we wrote together. He executive produces a lot of stuff. Sean Douglas, another Atlantic writer, I’ve been working a lot with him. John Ryan, who’s done a lot of the One Direction stuff. I wrote with every man and their dog when I moved to LA.
There are some great writers out there but there are some shitty writers out there as well. It’s also just who you get, who gets you, or who’s chemistry you work well with. I’m working with Wayne Hector in London. I think he’s great. Also Fraser T Smith. Hopefully some sessions with Jimmy Napes next week. He did all the Sam Smith stuff. I love to be in a room with melody men. Being a singer, I’m the first person to throw down all the melodies in the room. It’s lovely when you have someone else who throws a melody at you and you’re like, “Wow that was fucking amazing.” I’m working with Ryan Tedder in January.
Is the album almost finished?
We’re kind of still figuring it out. I could put out an album tomorrow. I have enough songs. I’m really happy with the six songs we got on the EP. I think it’s a great body of work. I’ve got so many great sessions that are coming up and so many people I want to get their vibes on the record. Then I want to go in and I just want to wrap it all in a nice bow, so it really has a polished sound that feels cohesive.
Do you have a vague timeline?
I think it will all be done and ready by March, April next year. That’s the goal in my head.
I interviewed your sister a couple of months ago. She’s also killing it with “You Don’t Own Me.” Is there any sibling rivalry?
It’s funny, there is and there isn’t. She’s my baby sister and I brought her into the industry. I took her to her first recording studio, I got her her first manager. I was very, very heavily involved in her career up until her manager took over. I want nothing but success for her, but it is funny because we both came out the same year. Now we’re like… She gets something, then I’ll get something. It feels like rivalry, but we don’t even try to be like that with each other.
We never see each other, so the last thing we want to do when we talk is be like all, “What did you get? I’m doing this and all this shit.” It’s just not what we’re about. I don’t think there’s a competition because we’re in such different lanes. She has this unbelievable soul voice that is reminiscent of Amy Winehouse and people like that.
You have got some crazy genes.
We should bottle them up. It’s crazy. I don’t know where the singing stuff comes from. It came from our grandparents probably because they were entertainers. Yeah. There’s nothing but love. Hopefully she explodes and I explode and we’re both winning Grammys one day. That’s the plan.
Have you ever had the thought about doing a collaboration?
Yes. We wrote a song recently called “The Code.” Me, her, and Jamie Hartman wrote it. It’s a sick song. It’s like throwback to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. We wrote it about a code that only a brother and sister can understand, I guess. Like a language that you speak when you’re a family. You know what I mean? It’s a beautiful song. I’m going to put it on my album. Hopefully she puts it on hers.
We’re just waiting for the production to be finished. It’s just got to be the right song because we have quite overpowering tones. If it’s not the right song, it just sounds like we’re trying to compete. The last thing we’re doing is want a song with us just singing over the top of each other. It’s a really special song actually. We love working together.