At the time it seemed like the apogee of Conrad Sewell's burgeoning career. The Brisbane-raised singer-songwriter stood centre stage at New York's Madison Square Garden, a headline act at the 2015 Jingle Bail mega-concert. He belted out “Firestone” and “Start Again”, two of the hits that had shot him to stardom. Was he joyful? In complete command of his talent? Well . . . not exactly. In hindsight, he did well not to keel over mid-act.
Leading up to the show, Sewell had been on a drinking spree. As his team battled to clear his head in time to perform, Sewell’s response was to demand more alcohol.
“I got through that show. I killed that show,” says Sewell, who on this warm, windy lunchtime is kicking back on a shaded bench adjacent to an outdoor gym in Sydney’s Alexandria. “Somehow, [feeling wasted] didn’t affect my performances. But I knew it wouldn’t be long before it would.”
The Garden wasn’t an aberration. Having settled in LA, Sewell was a mid-20s not-soinnocent abroad; a pedigreed artist who, for reasons he still struggles to grasp, seemed hellbent on sabotaging his emergence as Australia’s next pop phenomenon.
Perhaps the touring (with Ed Sheeran), the dollars and attention came too fast, he muses. Perhaps the pressure he felt to produce his first album was too intense. He has, he says, addictive tendencies. “I started drinking a lot and partying a lot.” Cocaine was in the mix, while his health and relationships were in freefall. “I almost hit rock bottom.”
First, Look Within
The realisation he needed professional care dawned gradually. At last, he turned to a Californian therapist, who helped him get clean before focusing on his mind, encouraging Sewell to think about the man he is, to understand his proclivities and motivations, to reflect on his adolescence.
“Growing up, I wanted to be a fucking rock star, and I just drank a lot from an early age,” he says. “From 15, I was going out and getting drunk. And if you do that for long enough, with one of the most addictive substances in the world, you’re going to become a fucking alcoholic. It’s just science.”
In LA, biology collided with circumstance to create the perfect storm. He was suddenly part of a scene: beguiling, but also shallow and destructive. “People would visit me and I’d feel like I had to take them out, show them a good time and get drunk with them,” he says. “I was the party guy.”
Sewell recognised it wasn’t only his mind that needed attention. With his body creeping more towards Meat Loaf than JT, he set about getting fit. He would also clean up his diet. “I just knew I had to start taking care of myself,” he says. “Otherwise I was going to lose it all.”
Never mind strolls to the shops. “I’m an all-or-nothing person,” Sewell says. “I went from three-day benders to two workouts a day and eating as clean as I possibly could.”
Sewell’s preference is to work out first thing. In LA, his trainer, Bret Lusis of Show Up Fitness, favours military-style workouts. On trips home, Sewell links with Rafael David, who guides him through heavy-lifting sessions. If time’s short, they’ll target Sewell’s whole body with squats and deadlifts. If several sessions can be squeezed into the week then the singer will hit separate muscle groups on different days. “I also make sure I get out and move every single day, whether that be a circuit class or a long walk. But you don’t get results unless you lift, I feel.”
Simplicity reigns in his kitchen. Breakfast is eggs and spinach; lunch: fish and salad; dinner: chicken and vegetables. He’s barely budging from that menu as he sheds the last remnants of some extra weight he stacked on during an extended Christmas cheat.
The clean living is reaping professional dividends. Sewell’s first album – LIFE – is a PHOTOGRAPHY: JASON LEE wrap. After its release on May 17, he’ll tour Australia in May-June – a two-week, sevenconcert sweep of the country that will test his stamina as much as his vocal cords. “My aim is to be in the best shape of my life before I go on tour,” he says. “I mean, I’m already fit. I can go for a five-kay run and do that easily.” But he’s chasing a body that screams stellar conditioning rather than merely whispering it. He wants a body-fat reading of sub-10 per cent – and the six-pack that goes with it.
LIFE is a peek into how low he got. There had been a girlfriend who saw the best in him during a period when he couldn’t. “Eventually that belief in me faded and that broke my heart, and broke me, and that’s what a lot of the stuff in the album is about.”
It’s a catharsis? “Definitely, man. It’s taken me my whole life to write this album. Thirty years old and it’s my debut album! Which sounds insane because I got signed at 17. Imagine writing the most real stories you can and singing the absolute shit out of them. That’s what I’ve done.”
He makes no claim to a squeaky-clean life. He hasn’t sworn off the booze, he says; he’s simply drinking a lot less and picking his times. Music comes first now. And new habits are a shield from relapse. “I’m a work in progress. But I feel like everybody is.”