Growing up isn’t easy for anyone. The path to adulthood is long and strewn with awkward situations social problems and family pressures, but as uncomfortable as it is from within the privacy of your own poster-covered bedroom walls - a select demographic of people have to navigate their way through all of this in front of millions of people. While all of this understandably tolls heavily on some (read “Amanda Bynes”), there are rare instances where the subject is fortunate enough to make it through in one piece - and in the case of Cody Simpson, perhaps even introspective enough to offer a glimpse into the other side of the tabloids.
Last year Simpson parted ways with Atlantic Records, who had fostered and developed his career since age 13. His decision came as a shock and surprise to many, and it is hard to imagine how that would come to fruition without burning a few bridges. Shortly after, he started his own label (Coast House Records) and in June released his first post-Atlantic record, Free.
I was able to catch up with Cody on his way to a rehearsal in LA, and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. A childhood sensation recently divorced from his million-dollar record label to pursue a passion project? Not an easy thing to pull off without seeming contrived or overeager, but instead of the classic zealous teenager mold, what I found was something more like Michael Douglas in Falling Down; a case study on oppression through the bureaucracy of an industry.
David: You’ve had a pretty exciting past year, a lot has happened. You left Atlantic, and started your own label?
Cody: Yeah man, it’s been kind of gnarly, with trying to navigate my way through the politics. I’m only 18, and I’m not really a big fan of politics in any way. I try to keep my stuff pretty simple and straightforward and organically done. I guess from being super young – I got started when I was 13, and signed to Atlantic on my 13th birthday, and I was kind of taken on this ride for a while being this innocent and impressionable Aussie kid, and you kind of just do whatever anyone tells you because you’re young and people are throwing shit at you. And you’re kind of psyched but still don’t know exactly what you want. I think any musician that would have been offered what I was offered at 13 would have taken it just to see what happened. And it only took me 5 years until I was 18 and moved out and started standing up for myself to realize that I had been taken so far from my authentic self and style. So I kind of had a sudden shock and had to leave my label and throw everything back in the water and build from the ground up, which I couldn’t be happier about.
I don’t have the same philosophy as most artists do who try to get their music on the radio – I don’t really care. I see myself as a normal person who just wants to have a balanced life of being able to hang with friends and party, and surf and skate – as well as make music that does some good for people as well. But it’s all sort of a natural growth.
It’s interesting to hear you bring up the ‘politics’ of the music industry, because that’s something that I don’t think a lot of people get to see. What kinds of politics are you referring to?
Within the craft of music, there are these people called A&R’s. And these people will try to basically tell you what kind of music you should be making, and try to change your music so it’s supposedly more commercially marketable – when these people can’t sing or play a lick themselves. And I think that’s bullshit personally.
Why do you think that record labels believe A&R’s have this ‘ability’ to predict what people will like?
I think honestly the reason is that people’s attention spans have become so short, that if something doesn’t work – I’m talking about record labels, not about people that want to build something their entire lives, but it’s a business that is so hung up on having to make money right now.
I personally don’t care about money, and I’ll live in a shack, as long as I get to stay true to myself as a musician and an artist. I think it’s just that people want things so immediately, and are super impatient when it comes to things like ‘we need a hit on the radio that’s going to make us a little bit of money now’ as opposed to a more organic way of building something that might inspire people.
This new record of yours is pretty drastically different than what you had been putting out until now. Do you think the response to the new music has confirmed your suspicions about the way music is consumed?
Up until now, I wasn’t putting it out - they were, you know? It just wasn’t my voice. It might as well have sold in Target or some shit. It was sort of a commercial product, and I can’t blame anyone or myself because I was 14 years old or whatever and I didn’t care. But turning 18, I’m starting to learn so much about myself – and most people don’t ever really know who they are until they’re even older than I am, so I’m still developing it all. But to know what kind of music I want to make, and to be able to make the kind of music I’ve been listening to since I was a kid, and what inspires me is super refreshing and relaxing. I don’t mind if it doesn’t have an immediate reaction on a major scale, or if it sells a thousand or a hundred thousand. That doesn’t bother me and I’m not looking for any of that right now. I’m just looking to develop who I am. I’m always talking to my manager and saying ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this, I don’t’ want to do that, because I just want to sit in my bedroom and practice and get better because I have so much time ahead of me.’ Some people are saying ‘oh well his album didn’t sell,’ but dude I’m 18 – I don’t really have to do shit for another 5, maybe 10 years if I don’t want to.
You have a pretty expansive fanbase, were you worried about alienating any of them with this transition?
Yeah I definitely lost fans and stuff. I guess people being like ‘oh well we thought we believed in you as a young dude.’ But I think the best way to do things is honesty. Honesty is the best solution, and I try to be honest and don’t like to hide anything. I’m grown up, I’m 18, I smoke weed. I’m just a normal guy with super good intentions for people. I care a lot about the environment, I care a lot about uplifting my fellow youths to live cool lives and do fun stuff and enjoy their lives and be free and have their own freedom of choice as young people. I’m always going to be open and never try to be something I’m not. I’d rather be hated for who I am.
Do you think a lot of other people who are caught up in record contracts wish that they could do what you did?
I don’t necessarily think that I’m a role model or anything. I definitely would encourage other people to do that if they feel that way. It depends on how you feel, if you’re happy with your situation then you should stay with it – but I wasn’t happy with my situation, and it wasn’t doing justice to my authentic self so I had to be honest with myself.
How premeditated was the non-musical aspect of your recent change? Did you deliberately change the way you were branded, or your social media presence?
I guess it was deliberate. I sort of took it all over and was honest about it and made it who I am.
What other kind of personal freedoms came when you departed from Atlantic?
I think more time to do my own thing, and make my own decisions. I get to do things that I might not have been given time for. I didn’t have much of a say in my schedule, but now I can be more of a normal guy and say ‘Hey, I don’t really want to do this because it’s going to drive me nuts’ and take a couple days and go on a road trip, or surf trip with my buddies. Everyone should have their freedom of choice.
I read about your emphasis on Free working as a record, and placing less stress on singles – which is in contrast to most people’s opinions that 2015 is primarily a singles market. Was this a conscious rebellion as well?
I’m not really trying to rebel against anything, I kind of just wanted to make an album. I wanted to make my first real album, which is something I was never really given an opportunity to do before. I’d never been given the chance to sit down and do it, and had always been thrown into the room with these weird pop songwriters who are so textbook.
Do you have any people you want to work with in the future?
Yeah just being a young musician in California you end up making your own friends. The guys I’m starting a band with and starting to write a bunch of music with are super cool, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve been talking to a bunch of musicians that are super cool, and that I admire – and was able to work with some on the album, people like G. Love, and Donavon Frankenreiter which were super cool to learn from. I also got a little advice from John Mayer from sort of e-mailing back and forth with him. So I’m just sort of taking advice from people who have done the same thing that I’m hoping to do for the next generation.
You mentioned practicing before, and how you’ve been taking more time to practice – what is your practice regimen like? How intense does it get?
Not too intense – and what I’ve found is that when you practice too much you end up not liking it. If I’m sitting down doing scales for four hours a day, then I will just start hating to play the guitar. I find a balance. With guitar, I’m super into it – I try to sit down for an hour a day with a buddy and trade solos, and pick up a new riff here and there. And it all hopefully adds up.
Are you planning on finding and adding artists to the roster at Coast House?
Yeah definitely. The whole movement isn’t really about me, it’s about other people – and bringing other people to back the movement and lifestyle and this way of doing things. I have a bunch of friends who are awesome singer-songwriters that I’d love to get involved with. I’m also starting a band with a couple of my buddies from Venice Beach. Free was a cool transitional mellow piece, and was me sort of finding my feet as a guitar player and a songwriter – and was a good start at making the music that comes out of me naturally. It definitely reflects the way I was feeling in a relieved situation. And now I get to make another one and start the band and get better as a player. I just want to keep improving as a musician, and that’s really what I care about is getting better.
photography: Dennis Golonka
styling: Romina Herrera Malatesta
art direction: Lisa Dotson
grooming: Gavin Harwin
producer: Chelsea Maloney @ See Management
photo assistants: Nick Turk & Matt Brown
fashion assistants: Page Schultz & Giorgia Fuzio
special thanks: Jay Stadwick, Ashley Lanaux & Justin Stirling
location: Dune Studios, NYC