Conrad Sewell broke out in 2015 in the form of “Firestone,” the sun-kissed track he wrote for Norwegian producer Kygo on which he’s featured. According to the 27-year-old Australian singer, the song is about “being on molly at a festival with a girl and how amazing that feels — running around and thinking you can take over the world.” After penning it, Sewell hoped to send it off to Steve Angello, of Swedish House Mafia fame, for production flair. “I was expecting [him] to come and make it like ‘Don’t You Worry Child’,” he remembers. But at the advice of his manager, it went elsewhere. “My manager said, ‘This kid Kygo is blowing up, you should give it to him and see what he does,” he says. “I was like, F–k it, whatever.'”
Kygo, who’s become a tropical house trendsetter with hits like “Stay,” “Here For You,” and a beloved remix of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” had beachy flourishes that didn’t immediately jibe with Sewell, though. “I just had such an idea in my head of what it was going to be,” the singer says. “Keep in mind I’d never heard tropical house before. [But] it grew on me. And then [Kygo’s team] told us [‘Firestone’] was going to be a single.” The song then nudged into the Top 5 in almost every European chart and racked up over 170 million streams on YouTube.
Sewell, who was born in the U.K., but relocated to Brisbane, Australia at eight years old, displays his left wrist tattoo in a lounge in his record label’s New York office. He opened for Jess Glynne the previous night at Webster Hall and soon he’ll head to Barclays Center in Brooklyn to do the same for Kygo. Two sugar-free Red Bulls and a cup of coffee sit in front of him. The singer is doing this entire tour sober, because he’d never tried that before, but clearly the travel has taken a toll on energy levels. “It’s the first guitar I ever bought,” he says of the ink. The Divine Mercy, a Catholic rosary prayer that his grandparents used to send him, surrounds the instrument.
Sewell’s familial influence is seen all over his music. His mother, who started a magazine company when the singer young, “was a big Motown fan,” he says. “Soul music, for me, definitely comes from that side of the family.” Both his grandparents were singers, as is his sister. His brother shows up frequently in his lyrics because, “He always get f–ked over by girls.”
When he was 18-year-old, Sewell moved back to the U.K. “I loved the music that was coming out of there,” he says of the jump. After that there was a year in Stockholm working with pop writers, and then a stint in Berlin, where he tried to become a rock star. “I started a band because I idolize the Strokes and the Killers. I thought I was really rock n’ roll — I wasn’t.” The group never took off. “Then it was time to get serious,” he says. Sewell headed for Los Angeles.
Though “Firestone” came out in early December 2014, “Start Again,” which debuted in March 2015, was the first song to scale the charts under his own name. The ARIA-winning power-pop ballad went platinum, hit No.1 in Australia, and immediately drew comparisons to Sam Smith for its themes and composition. But the Grammy-award winning British singer isn’t on Sewell’s list of influences. “I wrote that song before Sam Smith even existed,” he says. “Then Sam Smith came out and I was like, ‘Guys why haven’t we put this song out yet?’ But that’s just the way things have panned out.”
“Start Again” got him his deal with Lyor Cohen’s label, 300 Entertainment, but Sewell is eager to move on to his next single, “Remind Me.” Part of this enthusiasm seems rooted in those Smith comparisons. “I’m so not Sam Smith, it’s not even funny,” he says. “I’m a soul-pop project. I’m not standing there delivering a ballad, I’m sort of strutting the stage, thinking I’m Mick Jagger. There’s a whole different element of what I’m trying to do.”
On his EP, out this month, Sewell spools a web of blue-eyed soul, Michael Jackson-style dance pop, and gentle R&B. But his live set is more than just strutting. “I’ve always wanted to go to the extra mile when it comes to performing. Sitting on a stool was never enough for me. I always wanted to jump on the bar and walk around and kick glasses off — just to make a scene. I feel like I have to impress people.” A 30-minute set at Barclays Center on a Thursday night in January did just that.
Though he’ll continue to tour with Glynne and Kygo, and has already made the rounds opening for Ed Sheeran, fans will see more than a live show from Sewell soon: He’s currently writing tracks for his debut full-length and is working with heavyweight pop producers like Ryan Tedder on the project. “I want [fans] to get addicted to it — to crave to hear my voice,” he says.”It’s rare when I find an artist that I really get addicted to or fall in love with. I want that to happen when they hear me. When I fall in love with an artist, I want to hear them over and over again.”