It’s the week of Brisbane’s Bigsound, a conference for the Australian music industry. Conrad Sewell’s sister Grace (who performs under Saygrace) is one of over 100 artists showcasing at the festival as lanyard-toting industry types file in and out of music venues across the city, exchanging pleasantries and business cards as they shout over screeching guitar amps. But tucked away on the top level of Sony Music’s Queensland office is a calm dark studio space with simple furniture and unassuming practicality. It lives in stark contrast to other industry gatherings happening outside its walls.
Seated on the studio’s couch wearing a purple corduroy FFA jacket bought at a vintage store in NYC, you’d never know Sewell is running on fumes. Since returning home to Brisbane from London, the new dad to baby boy Memphis has slept just five jet-lagged hours in the last three days.
“Baby jet lag is the worst thing you’ll ever live through,” he half-smiles, tired but finding the comedy in it. “It’s been going all week, it’s ridiculous. He’s asleep right now, he thinks it’s night time.
“I started Googling ‘How do you get a baby over jet lag’? And all of the things start with, ‘Be prepared for the worst five days of your life’.”
In less than twenty-four hours, Conrad Sewell will release the lead single from his second album Precious. “I’m sure I’m going to get a lot of, ‘What do you mean God Save the Queen?’,” he jokes in anticipation.
Lyrically, the track is one of those ‘top of the dome’ songs, the ones that write themselves and kind of fall out of you. Written during a jam session with world-beating players like keyboardist Adam MacDougall (The Black Crowes) and drummer Victor Indrizzo (Alanis Morissette), the single takes on multiple meanings — mostly due to its impromptu beginnings.
“I kept saying, ‘God saved my life’ or something,” Sewell remembers of its writing phase. “And then someone said, ‘What about God Save the Queen?’ I was like, ‘What the fuck does that mean though?’ They were like, ‘Well, I guess it’s kind of like we’re doing this rock revolution thing’. Maybe I’m the last of a dying breed? Maybe ‘God Save the Queen’ means you’re saving all the people in your life who are Queens. There’s many ways you can read into it.”
But “God Save the Queen” didn’t get its big rock revolution release. The track was released just hours after Queen Elizabeth II passed away and social media timelines filled with polarising takes on her death; ranging from condolences to condemnation. The song wasn’t pitched to radio, and Sewell didn’t do any publicity for it.
In a message posted to social media on release day, Sewell said:
“Waking up to the news of Her Majesty’s passing this morning was absolutely devastating. With my family and roots in the UK I feel deeply for the great loss England and the whole world has faced today […] It’s a bittersweet day for me and I can’t quite believe the coincidence of this timing – I want to make it clear that I wrote ‘God Save The Queen’ over a year ago […] May Her Majesty Rest In Peace.”
When Sewell performed the track on tour with The Script a few weeks later, the crowd joined in for the chorus and erupted in an audible rush of applause and screams after the last note — an impressive response to a buried single performed on a support tour.
Conrad Sewell’s last local tour was in 2020 and on its final date on March 13th the world announced the pandemic-induced move that closed the live sector for a crippling amount of time. The next day he arrived in Los Angeles with his partner Jasmine. The plan was to write, collaborate and gain inspiration from Music City, Nashville. Instead, the pair were trapped in an apartment in ghost town LA for three months.
Sewell isn’t the type to find meaning in everything, he’s intuition-led but likes to take life as he sees it. However, four walls, twelve weeks and zero distractions from his own worst enemies led to what he calls “a full on mental breakdown”.
“I was drinking a lot,” he says, before quickly adding, “not that that’s part of the story.
“I guess it sort of shone a light on everything. I think everybody in the world stopped and looked at their lives. It was just like, ‘What am I even making music for anymore?’ I kind of questioned everything.”
Sewell parted ways with the drink for a year after that. He sat with the pain, the hurt and the trauma partly caused by living life in the spotlight. He may be best known for his global collaborative hit “Firestone” with Kygo, but after inking his first label deal with Sony Music at sixteen, he was ushered into a career out of his control. Sure, the radio-mainstays rolled in, from the mesmerising “Start Again” to soaring piano-driven marvel “Healing Hands” — as did career highlights like performing on Fallon and Good Morning America, and signing to Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment — but the pressure to deliver meant risk-taking music endeavours weren’t encouraged. “I think maybe they thought I could be like this next big pop star kind of thing,” he ponders.
Sewell’s time in isolation cemented his decision to make a blue-eyed soul record which he knew could eject him from the mainstream. And like an eagle gathering all the sturdiest pieces for its nest, Sewell started building out his collaborators for what would become Precious. From jam sessions with Adam MacDougall, to demos sent to Zane Carney (John Mayer’s guitarist), to conversations with Regiment Horns (from Justin Timberlake’s horn section), Timberlake’s bassist Aiden Moore and Victor Indrizzo, Conrad Sewell had found his players.
Taking inspiration from acts like Simply Red, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Prince, and Foreigner, Sewell paired his stadium-filling voice with his deep passion for brass band rock ’n’ roll and gut-wrenching soul. Precious covers Sewell’s soul-searching journey to date, from ridding himself of the ego that reared its head when he partied too much, to doing the work needed to be a good partner and father (“I’ve had a lot of therapy,” he notes). But the record’s creation was hampered by COVID rules and a need for a big budget.
Recorded live on the floor at Jackson Browne’s Groove Masters studio in Santa Monica, Precious involved an onsite doctor to test everyone who entered the studio, the shipping of Zane Carney’s thirty-seven guitars to the space, and a budget only made possible by pulling a few favours from higher-up industry execs.
The strings on tracks like “Tell Mum I Love Her”, “Caroline“ and “Bloodsugar” were recorded at Capitol Records with a sixteen-piece orchestra, the same space Frank Sinatra immortalised when he became the first act to record there in 1956.
The world-class players all helped with track arrangements, taking voice memos into jam sessions that bloomed before their eyes.
“There’s a class to them,” he says. “And I think there’s a class to great singers as well, do you know what I mean? You don’t over-sing and you know when to push and pull.”
The record’s title track was particularly special. Initially a ballad and sounding more like a soaring Elton John power hit, Sewell looked at the tracklist and decided the album needed something more up-tempo. But with the vocals from the original cut making the final version, the now upbeat funk-soul-rock number still transfixes with raw on-your-knees emotion about resilience and owning one’s missteps.
“My manager came out of the [studio] and was in tears,” Sewell remembers of the live recording. “It was just like something spiritual happened in that room.”
There were interruptions too. Some welcome, like the blessed surprise of his partner Jasmine falling pregnant, and some not; Conrad Sewell did three quarantine stints as he travelled to and from America to record Precious.
In keeping with his hand-picked selection of music’s major movers and shakers, Sewell tapped Michael Brauer — the Grammy-winning engineer behind albums by Coldplay, Paul Mccartney and The Rolling Stones, to mix the record.
Finished just over two years after its inception date, Precious marks a career risk for Conrad Sewell. A step outside the mainstream and into staunch timeless ‘soul man’ territory, the album is a reintroduction of an artist who had been waiting in the wings until now.
“Radio may not know what to do with this,” he admits; albeit prior to his single “Make Me A Believer” being added across the board to commercial radio stations.
“There was a whole detaching from things that I’ve had success with in the past and being like, ‘Well this is what I want to do’. […] It’s this whole rebranding, re-phase of my career. But also something that I felt like where I should have been the whole time.”
Conrad Sewell was just fifteen when he was introduced on Australian Idol as the pop wunderkind with that voice. Spending his formative years in the public eye of expectation meant he skipped many of his ‘bucket list’ items within music. But now, with Precious unleashed to fans, the new era of Conrad the Risk Taker can begin.
“I’ve been pulled in so many different directions my whole career,” he says confidently, as if it’s never been a secret. “It’s like this album’s the first time I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do.”
“[…] For me it’s a fresh start. It’s for people that are going to find this new music. Come to my page and you know, see it. They’re not going to look back and be like, ‘Oh he’s the kid who sang Firestone’. They’re going to be, ‘Oh this is dope, I like this’.”