The soulful evolution of Conrad Sewell

Almost four years on from his chart-topping debut, the singer-songwriter Conrad Sewell has a son, a dream band and a new album that mines the influences of his childhood.

Article by Tom Lazarus

Conrad SewellThe award-winning musician Conrad Sewell has had “a crazy couple of years”. Photography by Simon Lakeman.

Conrad Sewell’s music should come with a warning: contains earworms of Marvel Universe proportions. If you have somehow made it this far without being able to recall the opening couplet of “Firestone”, his 2014 mega hit with the DJ and producer Kygo, ask your smart speaker to cue it up — and say goodbye to half your mental real estate for the next two days. Upon its release, the song was streamed a million times a day, and its success sent Sewell careening off on a world tour of arenas and dance floors he has characterised as “a blessing and a curse”. After other profitable DJ pairings, with Arminvan Buuren and the late Swedish hitmaker Avicii, Sewell released a series of indelible solo singles culminating in his debut album, “Life”, launched in early 2019. A slick, piano-driven package chronicling love, heartbreak, ambition and self-sabotage, it landed atop the ARIA chart. Finally, after doggedly trying to make his career happen since he first strapped on a plastic guitar in his lounge room at age seven, Sewell had made it. When he performed at his old high school, St Laurence’s College in Brisbane, wearing sunglasses and a cabana shirt that showed off his tattoos, it felt like vindication. “Australian Idol” may have passed on his talents, but Bono approved.

Sewell, by then living in Los Angeles, started to plan his second album. Then the pandemic hit and, with it, a personal crisis. Sewell was confined to his apartment for months. “If there were any cracks or flaws you weren’t dealing with, [lockdown] shone a light on it,” he tells T Australia over Zoom from a rehearsal studio. “I feel like I’d been chasing success in the music industry for so long, it got kind of dark. It got to a point where I was so unhappy, and I got really bitter about the industry and why I’m even doing it in the first place.” Despite his status among the glow-stick crowd, Sewell was never a club kid. “That’s just the way my trajectory was,” he says. “It all got put into a very ‘pop’ place.” He found himself missing the camaraderie of his early days in rock bands. “I don’t like being by myself,” he says, “as much as I crave the attention when I’m on stage.” Sewell aims for “brutal honesty” in his lyrics, but now wanted authenticity in the songs’ delivery, too: “You turn around and you’re 33 and you’ve never made anything that really feels like you.”

Sewell grew up listening to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, then Joe Cocker, Queen, The Rolling Stones. His grandparents sang with the Gibb brothers pre-Bee Gees, and he was exposed to “a lot of Motown in the house, a lot of great singers”. He recalls discovering Michael Jackson’s “Ben” at age six and spending hours imitating the vocals in front of a mirror. In his Los Angeles apartment, he realised his new album needed to mix truth-telling with soul-rock swagger in homage to his childhood idols; he’d write his way out of the rut, this time without the crutch of a Grammy-winning team. “I playlisted my favourite songs,” he says. “A lot of them were from the ’70s and’80s — Simply Red, Rod Stewart — me and my manager call them ‘grocery-store records’. Songs that get played in grocery stores for the next 50 years. And that was the pitch for the album: shamelessly classic, timeless songs.”

Through the grapevine of Los Angeles friendships, Sewell corralled a dream team: the keyboardist Adam MacDougall (ex-The Black Crowes); the guitarist Zane Carney (who plays with John Mayer); the drummer Victor Indrizzo (Alanis Morissette); the bassist Aiden Moore( Justin Timberlake); and a brass section, The Regiment Horns. They rented Jackson Browne’s studio and took six weeks to turn voice memos on Sewell’s iPhone into full-band arrangements. Produced by Pro J (Robin Thicke) and Roderick Kerr, the album was recorded like they used to be — live, in one room, with minimal overdubs.

Working this way “wasn’t the world I came from,” says Sewell. “This was the first time I got to create a sound around my voice and take time with the arrangements and choose performers and record something that felt unique to me. It’s been really freeing.” The resulting album (launching March 3, 2023; the single “Believer” is out now), is alternately raucous and honeyed, and richly textured with hand claps, roaming basslines, shimmering organ, tambourines and sultry guitar licks. Sewell’s voice is raw and virtuosic, elasticising into a falsetto and assuming the rock ’n’ roll yowl he perfected playing rowdy pub gigs with his first band, The Frets. The hooks are real, but they persuade rather than bludgeon.

Sewell is now 34, “almost completely sober — off all the hard stuff”, more at ease in the spotlight and “in a great place” after therapeutic self-reflection. “I tend to make better decisions these days,” he says. In March, his fiancée, Jasmine Hingston, gave birth to their first child, Memphis Rose Ignatius. Sewell strums his guitar to soothe him when he cries and has vowed to trade after-parties for family time. His best friend, the guitarist Matthew Copley, joked, “If anyone needs a kid, it’s you. You need the responsibility.”

Sewell recently posted to Instagram a gauzy snap of him playing an acoustic guitar next to a blonde in a hat by a lake. It was Taylor Hanson of “MMMBop” fame, a fellow survivor of the pop machine, whom he met through the DJ Samantha Ronson. They bonded — both had worked with the late vocal coach Ron Anderson and been signed by Def Jam’s Lyor Cohen — and co-wrote four songs, which Sewell produced and hopes to release. “I pretty much have the next album finished,” he says, adding that he co-wrote feverishly with Pro J. He often jams with his sister, Grace, who has her own career as Say Grace. Genre-agnostic, Sewell is ever evolving.

It’s common for artists to view past work peeking through their fingers. What was once an urgent truth can calcify into what feels to them like an emotional remnant. “I don’t want to perform anything that I can’t wholeheartedly sing,” says Sewell of culling his live set lists. A song can also take on unanticipated meaning when it soundtracks a cultural moment. The first single from the new album, “God Save the Queen”, was released hours before news broke of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, imbuing its titular refrain with an eerie resonance. “It was obviously such a sad day for the world, and it felt really weird,” says Sewell. He has been oddly prescient before. In “Big World”, long before the pregnancy and the plaudits, he sang:

“I hope one day before I’m gone / I leave a legacy that people know / I hope I get a chance to tell my son.”

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