“Finding a sound is everything,” says Conrad Sewell, “especially since I love so many types of music and grew up listening to so many types of music. With my voice, I can sing a lot of different styles, and it was a real struggle to hone in on one thing. So since this is the first thing people are going to hear from me, I wanted to focus on the songwriting—write songs that I felt were timeless or represented what I really wanted to say.”
Conrad’s debut album marks the arrival of a major new talent, although the 25-year-old vocal powerhouse has already racked up some significant accomplishments. He has written songs for other artists in his native Australia; had a European hit with his previous band and, most recently, wrote and sings the hook on Kygo’s global smash “Firestone,” which already has over 100 million streams on Spotify.
Now, for his debut solo recording, Conrad has worked with an all-star team of writers and producers, including Jamie Hartman (Christina Aguilera, Joss Stone), Sam Hollander (Train, One Direction), and Eric Rosse (Sara Bareilles, Gavin Degraw). “Hold Me Up,” the sparkling, exuberant first single, was written/produced by Brian Lee (Lady Gaga, Icona Pop) and Louis Bell. The results draw from pop, dance, rock, even gospel, and display an impressive command of styles, from the blue-eyed soul of “21 Questions” to the wistful “Neighbourhood.”
Born in Brisbane, Conrad started chasing his musical dreams early. “Since I was 8, I’ve been sending out tapes, going to random places to record demos in people’s garages,” he says. “But in Australia, ‘pop’ was still almost a dirty word, so I felt like I had to get to America or Europe—and when I did, people reacted to my voice right away.”
“I took out a credit card and maxed it out to make a demo when I was 18, and that’s what led to the whole band thing. We got signed and had a bit of success in Europe, then that sort of fizzled. But early on, it was clear to me that the songwriting is what gets you to that next level. If you write a great song, people start to listen to you.”
Eventually, Conrad found his way to Los Angeles, where he connected with Hartman. They began refining the material, and recording everything live in the studio. “I think previously people have tended to over-produce my voice,” he says, “so we wanted to keep it simple and go with the old-school way of making a record.”
In the process, the singer was discovering new, more nuanced approaches to his craft. “I’ve learned that sometimes I need to pull back,” he says. “I have quite a big range, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to use it all the time. Sometimes it’s nice to have those moments when you sing softer, so I’ve been trying to control it more.”
He also developed the confidence to have faith in performances that were more spontaneous and natural. “Capturing moments is an important thing with me, not just singing the record 60 times and trying to make it bigger and more perfect,” he says. “Some of the tracks on this album are one take—“Start Again” is the demo vocal that I sang once, and it sort of defined me, like ‘I need to be singing soulful music like this!’ Those moments are so key for me as an artist.”
Conrad points to the classic pop sensibility of “Beautiful Life” as another turning point for the album. “It has this timeless rock feel, like an Elton vibe, and when we finished that one it was like, ‘Cool, this is what it is’—it didn’t sound hip or trendy, it just felt right.” The anthemic “Hold Me Up” emerged out of a late-night, free-form session in the studio. “I’ve been doing this thing lately where I set up a mic live, put on some reverb so I feel like I’m singing in front of people, put on a track and just flow a melody over it,” he says. “It’s been hard for me to get up-tempo songs, because I love nothing more than sitting at the piano and melting your heart—that’s definitely what I’ll tend to do in a writing situation. So when that one came, it was just a fun track that you can dance, drive, sing to, and we can worry about the serious stuff later.”
The album is coming out, of course, on the heels of the staggering success of “Firestone,” which served as an ideal way to introduce Conrad’s name and voice to the world. “We were looking for hip-hop or dance features, so I wrote something in the vein of Swedish House Mafia,’ he says. “I thought ‘Firestone’ was a great title for a song, it sounded epic. Kygo heard it and loved it, and he sent back a first draft with that amazing keyboard line. It wasn’t what I was expecting—I was thinking it would be a big EDM thing—but after a couple of listens, I loved it.”
Millions of listeners around the world agree, and the pre-release buzz has only gotten louder since Conrad’s initial, triumphant showcase performances. It’s been a long ride for a debut
artist, but everything seems to be lining up perfectly for his arrival.
“I’m putting this record out at the right time for me,” says Conrad. “When I decided to do a solo record, that was exactly the time that I was having all these thoughts of ‘What do I want to say, what do I want the music to mean to people?’ With my band, I never thought about that. I loved singing and being around my mates, and I didn’t think so seriously about it, whereas now, with my name on the cover, it’s more important to sing about stuff that I feel and have it be real.”
“I wasn’t ready to do this three years ago. But now I’m ready to come in and be myself.”