“This kid will change the face of pop music…” Pharrell Williams
Occasionally, a talent descends upon planet pop whose arrival is utterly meteoric; Conor Maynard’s collision into the UK consciousness has been just such an incredible impact, with ripples emanating around the globe.
Making his name online with captivating cover versions of Usher, Drake and the Kings of Leon, Conor’s innate ability to make other people’s tracks his own saw his online stats spiral stratospherically. Now counting 90 million combined YouTube views, nearly 300,000 Twitter followers and 400,000 Facebook Likes, Conor was also the winner of MTV’s fan-voted Brand New for 2012 in January.
He’s just followed that award with the announcement of another prestigious gong, the TAG Newcomer Award of 2012 at the Nordoff Robbins Silver Clef Awards at the end of June.
All this is a result of Conor’s distinctive musical merit alongside his naturally appealing personality. So it’s no wonder that both Ne-Yo and Pharrell Williams showed interest in signing the Brighton teen and with those ambitions thwarted have opted to work with him on his stunning debut album, Contrast.
While there are echoes of childhood inspirations including Brandy and Mario, Contrast’s focus is firmly fixed towards the future. Featuring the production and writing prowess of Midi Mafia, Stargate and Frank Ocean, alongside the afore-mentioned Pharrell Williams and Ne-Yo, Contrast manages to appeal to a global consciousness while retaining a distinctly British sensibility. Indeed, while the album may boast international hitmakers, it’s a UK trio that has played the biggest part in Contrast.
Jason Pebworth, George Astasio and Jon Shave AKA The Invisible Men are the trio behind hits for Jessie J (Do It Like A Dude) and DJ Fresh (Hot Right Now). As well as producing Conor’s No.2 debut smash Can’t Say No, the trio also take the reins on its follow-up, Vegas Girl. In fact, after spending three years making homemade YouTube videos in his bedroom, working with the Invisible Men was Conor’s first ever studio experience after signing to Turnfirst Management and EMI/ Parlophone.
It was in their West London studio that Conor felt most comfortable, and where he would discover his signature sound. For both sides it’s been an astute and proactive creative partnership. “I had time to chill with the Invisible Men; we sat around for a couple of weeks, taking our time. It’s how I think I work best generally, though sometimes, what you can get in 15 minutes is incredible,” he says, referencing another track, Turn Around. “It’s like the stars were aligned with that tune; the second I heard it, I loved it.”
Turn Around was written by Ne-Yo and produced by Stargate. Recorded in a “very quick” session in L.A. earlier this year, it’s an uplifting, anthemic emo-urban-pop track. “It’s one of the last ones we did for the album and it wasn’t a song we ever expected to happen,” says Conor. “Stargate heard I was working with Ne-Yo and sent it over there and then. It really ties the album together; I’m so glad we happened to get it in time.”
Ne-Yo has been a long-time fan of Conor Maynard; two years ago, the R&B superstar happened upon his cover of Beautiful Monster and invited him to a Mayfair hotel for a meeting. Though he decided not to sign with Ne-Yo, it got the ball rolling and before long Conor had most of the music industry at his door. “I signed to Parlophone/ EMI for the same reason that I signed to my management; I got on well with the team,” he explains. “That was so important to me, to be happy with the people I’m surrounded by.”
While Conor had huge creative input in Contrast, he’s pragmatic about co-writing with other people. It was putting his own twist on known songs that made him so popular in the first place. “I’m still learning so to get a song from someone I look up, I’m not about to knock that back.” The Midi Mafia produced (50 Cent) and Frank Ocean penned Pictures takes the album in an altogether different direction.
While Conor was “intimidated” by taking on a track written by his hero Ocean, the lyrically suggestive, slow and sexy falsetto-filled jam underlines that Conor is most definitely a man, not a boy. “Yeah, it is quite racy in places,” he grins. “The lyrical content is crazy. Frank always writes some mad lyrics but it adds to the vibe, it adds to the flavour. I wanted an album that took people by surprise, musically and lyrically. I didn’t want everyone to catch everything the first time round.”
One other track that Conor deferred songwriting credits to was Pharrell Williams on the track Lift Off. The N*E*R*D producer, it turned out, had, like Ne-Yo, been following the young singer for a number of years. “When he first called, he was trying to sign me,” says Conor. “He’d been watching my progress on YouTube over the last few years and said that really believed in me.” While Conor was already signed by the time Williams called, he requested the chance to work with the up-and-comer and invited the teen to Miami for a week.
“I saw more famous people then that I have in my whole life,” he laughs. “Ludacris was in the studio, Tyler, The Creator, Lil Wayne…”, Conor remembers of their session earlier this year. “It was an incredible time and I can’t believe I got to work with Pharrell on my first album. He said that he thinks I’m going to change the future of pop music. That was a big line from the Pharrell-meister!”
Lift Offrevisits N*E*R*D*s notorious sci-fi synths and throwback soul but with an almost four-to-the-floor middle eight. “We took a chance with that,” admits Conor. “It doesn’t sound like anything else out right now so I had no idea how it would fit in. I’m so happy we went with it; it’s become one of my favourites.” And Pharrell also worked with Conor on another album highlight in the form of the slinky Glass Girl.
If Lift Off and Glass Girl are soulful, then Drowning is overwrought-R&B at its best. Recalling the likes of The Weeknd, the Crada (Drake, KiD CuDi) produced tune swims deep in dramatic drums, sweaty synth and a vocal that shows off Conor’s incredible range. “Even though that one wasn’t written by me, I really understood it because I’ve been through break-ups myself; I put my own twist on it.”
With its Looney Tunes opening, Mary Go Round quickly descends into darker territory. “I wrote that about a relationship I’d been in,” says Conor of the song that recalls classic Timbaland/ Timberlake. Again, a soundbed for Conor’s super-charged vocal, the production is never obvious, opting instead for unusual ad-libs and tempo twists while creating yet another incredible pop tune. Animal (co-written and produced by The Invisible Men) is another cut that provides chart appeal without reverting to the generic. “I wanted a song that I’d dance to in a club with my friends, but wasn’t your typical ‘Euro-Dance’ track. That’s not cool to me; I had no interest in going down that route.”
Starting life as an actor (Dream Team series 9 fact fans), Conor Maynard switched to singing in his mid-teens; hearing Conor messing about with his mates in the street, a girl at his school begged him to come and sing to the rest of her friends. It got him thinking that maybe other people would want to hear him too.
“I used to sellotape two Singstar microphones together and then sellotape them to my bedpost, that’s how I first started recording covers,” he grins of his humble beginnings as a 15 year-old. From there, he began uploading videos of covers to YouTube. “Initially they were watched by literally three people, basically my Mum and my Nan!”
As Conor began to step up the production levels, putting visuals to the vocals, more and more people started paying attention. He also put his own spin on proceedings; switching up the melodies, adding his own lyrics and stripping back whole instrumentals to the bare bones. “I think people started respecting me as an artist; they wanted to hear me covering a song because they became a fan of me, rather than the song I was covering.”
His behind-the-scenes specials, The Conorcles, showed Conor’s willingness to put his personality online; his keen sense of humour attracting fans to his off-the-cuff wit and innate likeability. Here was an artist with enviable talent but also an everyman manner. Someone who you want to see play live and then hang out with after the show.
With his already impressive digital statistics continuing to sky-rocket, Conor Maynard is set to become one of pop’s hottest picks. After winning 48% of votes in MTV Brand New (beating Lana Del Ray in the process), he has since played at the Royal Albert Hall and the Capital Summertime Ball at a packed Wembley Stadium, performed in Canada for Richard Branson for the inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight to Vancouver, and has just announced his own 5-date headline UK tour. While in Canada, Conor had to move hotels five times to escape the hoards of teenage fans trying to get a glimpse.
The rest of 2012 is fast shaping up to be an incredible year for this confident, quick-witted and immensely young singer. Up next is presumable global domination, award ceremonies and multi-platinum sales on an international level.
“It’s pretty nuts,” admits Conor of his success. “When I went to No.2, I had a little celebration in Brighton with my mates,” he remembers. “I definitely had fun, but I also had to finish the rest of the album so I really just got on and did that.”
So while an awful lot has already been crossed off Conor’s To-Do list, he’s far from complacent. “Everything that has happened so far has been amazing, but I’m not about to take my eye off the ball. Right now I’m getting ready for the next step because I don’t want to trip myself up. This is the most exciting thing to happen to me, and I don’t want it to stop.”