Cody Simpson talks homework, self-promotion and being a pop perfectionist
When Cody Simpson was 12, he shot a two-minute video of himself playing guitar and singing Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours, and uploaded it to YouTube. Something about the clip clicked with fans far and wide — maybe it was his shaggy blond hair, or his Australian accent, or his prepubescent voice, which to this day sounds strikingly Mraz-like.
Today, more than 2.5 million views later, Simpson — who turned 15 in January — is a rising teen-pop star. Atlantic Records swept him out of Australia and onto U.S. airwaves, and his six-song EP Coast to Coast is positioning him as a potential heir to the Throne of Jonas, the House of Bieber. But there’s still a little bit of that laid-back 12-year-old wunderkind inside him.
“I want to do stuff that you don’t really hear too much in pop music,” said Simpson, who performs at the Ritz Ybor Friday night (tickets are $20; click here for details). “I love experimenting and I love being a little unpredictable.”
How’s this for unpredictable: When we caught up to him by phone recently, he was just about to delve into some schoolwork.
Is that what you usually do on your days off? Catch up on your homework?
Yeah, a lot of the time. I try to get in as much school as I can every day, at least three hours, four hours a day. If you cut out recess and lunch, it’s kind of the same amount of work a regular school would be doing. I try to get that in every day, but it’s hard, because I have so much going on certain days. Like yesterday in Montreal, I was doing crazy interviews and soundchecks and videos and all this stuff. But usually, my day off is usually when I pretty much catch up on all the school I missed out on.
Is it an American curriculum or an Australian curriculum? Or is there much of a difference?
I don’t think there’s too much of a difference. I do all of the course subjects — math, English, science, geography, history. Because I get enough P.E. and music in. (laughs)
Do you ever go back and look at those early YouTube videos? Do you notice anything in them that you wish you’d done differently?
No, I don’t think so. Music-wise, obviously, I’ve improved a lot. I could do them so much better now. But I was young, and that’s what I was doing in the beginning. They got me here. I’m not going to complain about them. Everyone’s going to look at what they did a couple of years ago and not like it as much as they did a couple of years ago. You’re improving as an artist. And when I’m 18, I’ll look back at what I’m doing now, and say, “I’ve improved a lot since then.” I’m always getting better.
Are you fairly critical of yourself in the studio, or when you see yourself on video?
Mm-hmm. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’m a perfectionist. But I don’t think I’d be where I am now if I wasn’t the way I am. It’s important for me to be content with the work that I’m putting out. I look at a lot of stuff that I do, and I’m like, “I couldn’t have done this better; I could have done that better.” No one else would do what I did the same way. I’m the one actually creating this work, so I think if I’m happy with it in my eyes, I think fans will love it. I have a pretty good sense of what my fans enjoy.
How old were you when you started trying to market yourself through social media?
Well, I was turning 12 when I first put my videos online. I put a couple of videos out, but I wasn’t trying to market them or push them in any way. When I actually started to hop onto Twitter quite a bit, and Facebook and YouTube and stuff, I think I was 13. Actually, I had my meeting with my record label on my 13th birthday. So that was when everything started happening. I have my album coming out this year, and it’s all happening in a very short amount of time. Obviously, I work very, very hard, and I think I’m a very self-motivated, dedicated guy. Like I said, I’m a perfectionist. I want to work as hard as I have to in order to reach that level where I want to be. I’ve been working for a couple of years now, and I’m excited, because a lot has happened without even having that debut album out.
A song like On My Mind, which has these massive synths — is that the sort of song you saw yourself singing before this whole thing took off, when it was just you and a guitar on YouTube?
When I was 10 or 11, I thought I was going to sing country music.
Like, American country? Nashville country?
One of my biggest inspirations when I was younger was Keith Urban. That’s what I thought I’d be doing. And on my 11th birthday, I had my first party — we had a bunch of strobe lights, and we were playing a bunch of hip-hop music that I don’t think my parents really allowed. And I started dancing for the first time, and I was having fun. I was gliding, doing all this crazy stuff. I’d never done it before. And my friends were like, “Dude, what’s going on? We’ve never seen this side of you.” It was crazy. That’s when I started getting into the Chris Browns, the Justin Timberlakes, the Michael Jacksons — all that side of the music industry. I was like, “That’s where I want to go now.”
Justin Timberlake, I’m totally into him. Even now, I think he will be always be my biggest inspiration, because he was my age when he was doing the Disney Channel, the Mickey Mouse Club stuff, and now he’s a very respected, very credible artist. I think he proved to the world that he was much more real. He wasn’t just another teen artist. And I think with this tour that I’m on right now, and this album I have coming out, I want to prove that what I’m doing is much more real than that.
Do you ever see yourself wanting to strip down and go back to country singer-songwriterdom, or do you feel like that’s in the past for you?
Honestly, I really can’t predict what I’m going to be doing in the future. If you listen to my EP, there’s this song called Angel that is still pop, but it’s a singer-songwriter style of pop, like a Jason Mraz kind of thing. I wrote that song, and I think that style, a lot of that kind of music, will feature on my album. That’s the kind of stuff that I’d like to do as I grow up as well.
Do you ever get the urge to just shred out and go nuts on an electric guitar?
There’s one song that I’m working on right now that’s like a dance track, but I took the synths out and put electric guitar in, and I want to put an electric guitar solo in there. I want to do stuff that you don’t really hear too much in pop music. I know Lady Gaga recently did that saxophone solo on one of her tracks. I love experimenting and I love being a little unpredictable, while still keeping it all in a very nice balance, of being that mainstream sound.
In Australia, is your hometown a beach community?
Yeah, you could definitely call it that.
What do you do when you go to the beach? Do you surf, or wakeboard, or play volleyball or anything?
I surf. The beach is my life. It’s hard, because I really never get the time anymore to be able to go and chill at the beach. But that was my lifestyle growing up. I was a swimmer. also. I’d go to the beach a lot of mornings before school and surf at sunrise, and it was just an amazing chill, relaxed lifestyle. I’m still very much like that. I see a lot of people stressing out, and I’m a very chill, laid-back kind of guy. Obviously I get stressed out at times when things don’t go right — like I said, I’m a perfectionist, and I want to make sure everything I’m doing is the way that I envisioned it musically. But I think it’s important to keep a level head in this crazy, crazy world that I’m in at the moment.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Chris Baldwin