Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Nathan sykes1

Welcome to the Music Industry

19 May 2016, 07:00

The Wanted's Nathan Sykes tells Lauren Franklin the true story of a boyband survivor.

At the age of 16, Nathan Sykes was propelled to international stardom in boyband, or as the media labeled them ‘lad band’, The Wanted. With a string of number ones, sold-out tours, and fans across the globe, Sykes went from stage school student to the babyfaced one that teenage girls (and women) went crazy for.

But while The Wanted certainly enjoyed huge success releasing an array of iconic pop songs from "All Time Low" to "Glad You Came", and constantly occupying the column inches, they were soon to discover that the lows could be as crashing as the highs were awe-inspiring.

And perhaps Sykes felt the brunt of the tempestuous music industry most of all. Not only did he have to deal with their "very dramatic and very quick" nosedive in the midst of rivals One Direction’s ascent, but only months out of his teens he was twice faced with the possibility that he may have to retire, when he had a potentially career ending vocal haemorrhage, and then in January of 2015, when the band decided to take a "break".

It’s a typical boyband story with added twists.

Now, as Nathan carves out his promising and exciting solo career as one of pop’s most stand-out voices, he tells what it’s really like to deal with that level of fame as a teen and almost lose it all.

"I remember standing in the kitchen with my mum, at the age of 20. I was on speaker phone, it was a conference call of about seven or eight of us - all the boys in the band, and two or three other people," Sykes, now 23, tells me, half matter of fact, half recoiling at the memory, sitting outside bar in London’s Leicester Square. "And we came to the conclusion that we were going to take a break and go our separate ways. I remember putting the phone down and just looking at my mum saying: 'What am I gonna do?' It was a real moment of, 'Oh shit, I’m 20 and I’m in a situation in which I might be retiring.' All I could think was that I couldn’t just stop doing what I loved, what I’d worked so hard at since I was six. To stop at 20 - that was mind-blowing for me."

When Sykes says he’s worked hard since he was six, it’s no exaggeration. Performing from a young age, and being academically gifted as well, by 10 years old he had been accepted into a prestigious grammar school in Gloucester, the city where he was born and grew up in.

"I was a very young 16-year-old... I'd had a couple of girlfriends at school, but it was all very innocent, then suddenly I had all these older girls, women, trying to make a man of me."

"I really wanted to concentrate on my education, I’ve always been a big believer in education," explains the singer, whose mother Karen is a music teacher. "But every week I used to save up my pocket money and buy [entertainment industry newspaper] The Stage, and look for auditions so I could go and sing and get experience. One week I saw there was an audition for Sylvia Young’s. There’d recently been a documentary on it, and I was so fascinated by how the kids were completely prepared for the industry straight out of school. It was a fee-paying private school in London and quite expensive so my mum couldn’t afford, but I just wanted to put myself forward to see how I was compared to all the other kids in the country my age."

So he went to the audition, sang Billy Joel’s "New York State of Mind" ("I remember the teacher Pete looking at me like, 'as if you have the arrogance to sing a Billy Joel song...'"), and proceeded to the last round. "I sang Eva Cassidy’s 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' and told my mum I hadn’t got in because I made the panel cry. I was too naïve to realise that it was a personal song for some of them."

Later that day Sylvia phoned him and offered him a full scholarship, leaving the 10 year old having to decide whether to pursue academia or performing. "But Sylvia said that no one had ever declined a scholarship from her and I wasn’t going to be the first to do so."

Once it was decided that Sykes would attend the infamous theatre school, the family had to decide what they would do about living arrangements. The first year they relocated to Aylesbury, a halfway compromise between the two cities, but after they missed their friends and family, and his sister Jess had problems adjusting to her new school, his family decided to move back home, leaving Nathan having to decide whether to board in London or move back to Gloucester and join the grammar school a year on.

"But I didn’t really want to do either of those so I decided to just commute from Gloucester."

And so began years of 5am alarm clocks, 6am trains, and not returning home until 7.30 in the evenings, where he’d stay up until midnight doing homework – Sylvia Young’s students have to fit all their National Curriculum studies into three day weeks, and spend Thursdays and Fridays in acting, singing and dancing classes. The daily five-hour roundtrips were paid for by mum Karen, and the money he earned from voicing English language tapes.

"That was my life for the next four years, but to be fair, it taught me the demands of the industry and how dedicated you need to be to succeed."

Which leads us to The Wanted…

"When you join Sylvia’s you immediately get signed up to the agency. There would be a list of names on the door and if you had an audition for something your name would be highlighted. One day mine and the other ten boys’ names in my year were highlighted, but when I walked into the office and was told it was for a boyband, I was like, 'Nah, I’m alright'. I was listening to a lot of old music like Dean Martin, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra… I loved boybands, everyone likes a boyband ballad, but I didn’t see myself in one. But Sylvia pulled me aside and said I should definitely go for this one and it was a good opportunity. I was 15 at the time.

"So I went and sang Stevie Wonder’s 'Lately', but didn’t think I stood a chance. By then I’d just turned 16, and all the other boys there were so much older. Jay McGuiness was the second youngest, but he was three years older than me, and the rest of the lads [Max George, Siva Kaneswaran, and Tom Parker] were in their early twenties. We kept getting whittled down, and by the time there were 10 of us left I kept getting put in all the different lineups they were trying out. I remember thinking, 'Oh god, I’m gonna get this aren’t I… here we go'. And suddenly there were just five left, and you look around to see who got in, and I just thought, 'Oh I like these guys, I can do this'."

Nathan Sykes

Within a matter of weeks, The Wanted went from five unknown boys, to the biggest boyband in the country, with their debut single "All Time Low" going straight in at number one in the summer of 2010.

"I was surprised by how quickly we became really popular - it was really quick. One day we were performing at schools and no one knew who we were, then the next we had a number one record. Still to this day, was just the most mind blowing moment of my life. I thought if we got Top 40 we'd have done well, but we got sat down and told we got number one - I just remember uncontrollably sobbing for hours. I'd just turned 16 and had a debut number one single and it just doesn't really happen to people."

Quickly, every cliché in the boyband book started to invade the band’s lives.

"Suddenly everywhere we went it was chaos. I remember going to Manchester and not being able to get into a radio station as there were 200 kids in a car park trying to get into the van, shaking it to trying to get in, it was moving from one side to the other. It was petrifying but amazing at the same time, that you've been able to have that impact on their lives. It makes you sit there and go, 'We've done really well here lads'."

"Everyone [has] a moment when they get carried away, I went through it when I was about 18-19... I was stroppy, irritable, ungrateful, and I started to hate myself for it."

At this point I have to ask him how it felt at being in his teens and suddenly becoming incredibly sexualised by females of all ages.

"I was a very young 16-year-old, let's just put it that way. I'd had a couple of girlfriends at school, but it was all very innocent, then suddenly I had all these older girls, women, trying to make a man of me as such and making it quite public! We were doing two club performances a night... we'd be walking through and you'd get the lads trying to bottle you, and the girls trying to grope you, then at the same time you'd get security trying to get you through even though you're not supposed to be in there even though you're about to perform onstage. As a 16 year old it was a whole world I hadn’t experienced, going to clubs and having people try and sleep with me, while others tried to beat me up. It was really eye opening.

"By the time it got to my 18th birthday everyone wanted to go clubbing and I wasn’t interested. Besides, I’d been blacklisted from most of the clubs in London - my face was on every single door so bouncers knew not to let me in."

What had happened?

"I got taken by this promoter one night to a club and they told me I'd be fine, but I got thrown out very, very quickly. It was really embarrassing, they wanted to throw me out the front door, but I was a few drinks in, so told them: 'Guys you've got to be really smart here, I'll happily leave, but let me go through the back door, because if you're pictured throwing me out and I'm drunk, it will show you’ve let a 16-year-old in your club and you'll get shut down tomorrow, so let's do a deal here, you save my blushes I'll save yours.'"

It was also around this time that an interesting twist in The Wanted’s legacy occurred when Amy Winehouse made her last ever onstage appearance when they were headlining the iTunes Festival. Their support act was Dionne Bromfield, Winehouse’s goddaughter, who was romantically linked to Nathan at the time.

"Being close to Dionne at the time, and as a huge fan of Amy’s music, it was really nice to stand there and talk to her. It was really funny as all the lads were trying to trying to come over and talk her and she was like, 'No I don't wanna talk to you, I wanna talk to Nathan, he's the one that Dionne's friends with.' It was nice having a chat with her, she was absolutely adorable, she was lovely."

As the band grew bigger and bigger, notching up more chart-topping hits and selling out tours, was it hard for Sykes not to go to the ‘dark side’ and develop a personality changing ego?

"Everyone does experience a moment when they get carried away, I went through it when I was about 18-19 and became really unpleasant to be around. I was stroppy, irritable, ungrateful, and I started to hate myself for it, so thankfully it didn’t last too long," he confesses.

Were there any specific contributing factors?

"Yeah we were touring and like, the band were having a really good moment, and I was being linked to famous people as such, and we had loads of different teams around us, and it was around the time of 'Glad You Came' going to number one, so everyone's telling you're amazing, you're the best person on the planet, the best singer on the planet. But when you're selling three or four million copies of a song, everyone you meet is telling you how amazing you are and after a certain time of hearing it, I stared to believe it.

"Soon I realised how what was happening and I woke up one say and thought, 'Why have I believed everything they're saying? It's turning me into not a very nice person.' Then I started to hate the person I’d become so instantly - I remember going back home for a week, and by the time I went back to work the person who had intruded had disappeared and I just got on with it."

Nathan Sykes

Just as Sykes had learnt one tough lesson about fame, another was soon to come his way.

"I learnt that as quickly as people can give a shit, people can quickly not give a shit as well. And that there is: 'welcome to the music industry'."

After more than a year sitting comfortably at the top, and two albums in, a newer, shinier, fresh from the X Factor boyband had arrived and were on the cusp of taking over the world. One Direction. While at first it seemed like there would be room for both the acts, no one could predict the fanaticism of the 1D fans, and The Wanted were to slowly become collateral in the One Direction storm.

"It was very dramatic," he laughs. "It was very quick and very dramatic. I remember around the time of 'Walks Like Rihanna' and you just kind of felt people go 'we haven't got this one right’. We’d been selling out gigs, then the tickets started to get less and less and less, and One Direction tickets were getting more and more. Our fans had grown up and they were all at college and uni, and this new wave had come in and it was quite incredible to see. It was just fascinating, and it really made you wake up and realise what happens in the music industry."

"I remember bumping into Harry Styles and saying, 'What the bloody hell happened there?'... it just turned into this really vicious feud."

Despite Sykes never having any bad blood with One Direction, other members of the band began to have very public Twitter fights with their rivals.

"You know what was funny about that, I never had anything to do with any of them. It was Tom and Max, versus Zayn [Malik] and Louis [Tomlinson]. Then Jay got involved, then Liam [Payne], and it was me, Siva, Harry [Styles] and Niall [Horan], just sat there being like, 'We don't know what's happening'.

"I remember bumping into Harry Styles and saying, 'What the bloody hell happened there?' It was just odd, and really sad, because it just turned into this really vicious feud.

"We were actually doing a gig at Madison Square Garden with Z100 in New York, and we'd just done 'Glad You Came', they were doing 'What Makes You Beautiful', so we were having really great moments, but when the focus wasn't on 'we've got two of the world's biggest boybands coming in and we're going to put on a great show', it was on 'there's gonna be a big fight backstage.'

"Then we got a phone call from their security asking if there was going be trouble, and it was like 'Well I don’t think so', then they turned up with so many extra security guards, then we got all these extra security guards and it turned into this big thing where this was gonna be this massive fight backstage."

Who were they expecting to fight?

"Certainly not me, I’m not a fighter! Imagine it two boybands scrapping, it'll be like West Side Story! I imagine they thought it was gonna be the lads involved in this so'called feud, but it was just sad, especially as I'm a fan of 1D, and to see what they were doing musically was so good on such a massive level, as a fan of music, I loved them."

For the self-confessed people pleaser, not in being everyone’s favourite band could sometimes be hard.

"There were always a lot of people telling me they preferred other bands, and I’m naturally a people pleaser, so when people would tell me they thought JLS or One Direction were better than us, my immediate reaction was, 'But why?' But thinking and worrying about that will send a person insane, and the quicker I realised that the quicker I could relax. You just have to hope that more people think positively about you than negatively."

Does that make Twitter hard to deal with?

"At 16 I had to develop a very hard shell to deal with Twitter, as everyone has an opinion, and they’re often strong and negative, but they feel you’re an easy target."

And then, as if on cue, a man who looks in his late twenties comes up to Sykes, puts his phone in his face and starts filming him, trying to kiss him to get a reaction.

Despite the obnoxious and invasive behaviour, Sykes is polite and just asks him to leave him alone and "take care".

I’m flawed as to how well he handled it.

"You’ve got to [handle it]", he tells me with a shrug. "If he’d gone up to anyone else he would have been knocked out, but because you’re in the public eye and seen as a celebrity - I hate that word - you’re more used to that sort of treatment."

Does it annoy you that you’re an easy target?

"Of course, but you just have to be nice to people, as they will use your negative reaction for their gain. You just have to smile because otherwise it’s a bad headline just because he was trying to boost his self worth."

In January 2014 The Wanted announced that they were going on a hiatus to pursue individual projects. The months leading up to this announcement had been some of the toughest in his life. Not only had he been dealing with the dwindling ticket sales and more chart misses than hits, he’d also had a vocal haemorrhage that could have ended his career and needed to be urgently operated on.

"I was fuming with myself when I was told I’d need surgery. I was quite cool and collected when the doctor told me, 'obviously there’s a chance you won’t sing again' and just signed all the papers, but that’s because I’d gone numb. But when I left his office I just remember sitting outside the surgery floor and sobbing down the phone to my mum. I don’t think I’ve ever uncontrollably cried like that. It was a mixture of anger at myself at not looking after myself properly, anger at having to have surgery, fear of never singing again, and fear of my career being over and stopping doing what I loved. And she really helped me getting in the right head space and feel like I was going to be okay."

And he was okay. In fact he assures me, "everything’s great now, no scars or issues."

"I’m a belter," he laughs. "I like to use my full vocal range and use my voice intensely. I like to test my voice and be as expressive as possible, I know it sounds so wanky, but I like make music colourful when I sing, so people can hear different emotions and feelings."

Indeed, he was always known as ‘the one who could sing’ in The Wanted. But does he miss being with the rest of the boys everyday?

"It’s amazing [being away from them], I love it! People often look confused when I say that, but working as a solo artist and having the creative freedom is incredible. People always used to say I’d be the one who’d go solo, which would make me quite angry, but now it’s great to explore my potential that I only became aware of after the break."

There are few artists I’ve spoken to that have the complete genuine passion for what they do than Sykes, who has just finished his debut solo album. He loves singing, he loves songwriting and after years performing with four others, he loves being able to express himself.

"I’ve learnt so much, like how I work as an individual, what I like to write about, how I write a song, how I like to phrase a song. Melodically I no longer need to think about four others, I don’t have to think that mathematically when writing a song. The freedom to chose what to write about is brilliant. It’s all been very natural, free and open writing process, and very personal as well.

"I never went into my personal life that much in The Wanted, but on this album every single song is personal. The song I wrote with Babyface in particular was heartbreaking. There was so much built-up emotion over what had happened in the previous months that when we sat down together and wrote, I thought it would be the most hateful song, this hateful breakup ballad - but it wasn’t, it ended up being a nice breakup song. It was the most vulnerable I’ve ever been on a record, with a real release of energy and emotion."

Despite having a loyal fanbase and being in the industry for all his adult life, Sykes doesn’t want to just burst onto the scene again and drop the album; he’s starting from scratch.

"It’s completely a reintroduction process, people who know me as 'Nathan from The Wanted', will now discover who Nathan is an an artist. While there are some really jazzy, soulful, and mainstream pop songs on the album, there is a deeply personal side to it. I’m going to release a few singles to show a well-rounded view of what the album will be."

Nathan Sykes' single "Give It Up" is out now.
Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next