There’s a line in one of Conor Maynard’s songs, Animal, that goes: “I know I’m getting close from the trail of broken hearts.” I was hoping I wouldn’t need the map in my pocket to find the TV studio where I’m meeting Britain’s answer to Justin Bieber, a Brighton 19-year-old who looks 13 and whose publicity people earlier this week were eagerly sending out pictures of the new singing star getting so thoroughly mobbed in Dublin airport that he needed a police escort to get to his plane. I was just planning to follow the screams.
Sadly for the schoolgirl velociraptors ofLondon, or “Mayniacs” as they’re known, his whereabouts have not been announced today. He allows his stylist Cobbie to change his T-shirt for him, carefully clipping a camouflage baseball cap to the belt loop on his skinny blue jeans, and steps into the street unescorted. Before I know it I’m in the back of a taxi in sole charge of this prime piece of teenager catnip, glad for the opportunity for a closer look but slightly concerned about the possibility of me having to batter a nine-year-old with my dictaphone to protect him in the event of a roadblock.
Take away the hip outfits and the high, sweet voice and he could be pretty much any college kid around England. Cherub-faced and a bit quiet in company, he’d fit comfortably on the cover of Lisa Simpson’s Non-Threatening Boys magazine. On record he plays up his appeal and availability: “Girls, girls, girls, I just can’t say no/Never see ‘em coming I just watch them go” he sings on Can’t Say No, his superbly catchy debut single and a number two hit in May. “I got another one one one one” he brags on Another One, another highlight of an imminent debut album that has classy production and tunes capable of appealing far beyond the playground.
In person he tries to play the party boy persona down: “People say, it must be great with all the girls, and I’m like, ‘Yeaaaah, as if I have time.’ I’m single and every now and then I might go out with my friends but my whole life isn’t partying and girls. It’s all music.”
He admits that bar staff regularly ask to see his ID, and that he still drives his first car, a Vauxhall Corsa, around the streets of Brighton, though he hasn’t dared to take it to London yet. Just nine months ago he was living with his parents and younger brother and sister in Hove. Now he’s looking to move away from a place in Fulham because the local fans have found out where he lives.
“I made a stupid error, basically. I went round the corner to get milk at Sainsbury’s.” Not usually the kind of thing that leads to catastrophe, but it does when you’re a YouTube sensation and the winner of MTV’s Brand New for 2012 award. “There were six girls wanting to take my photo which was fine, but then one of them ran off and came back and she must have had literally about 40 kids with her. I had to get back into my house, and I told them it was my friend’s place, but now I get knocks on the door all the time, little Post-it notes with phone numbers on. I’m human just like everyone else. I need to go home to my private place, and it’s not private any more.”
While we’re talking, his phone rings: “Sorry, who is this? Okay I don’t think I know you, I’m sorry. I need to go, I’m actually quite busy. Nice speaking to you too, bye.” He hangs up. “I need to change my number really soon too because that happens quite often.”
We’re not at Bieber levels of hysteria yet – Maynard has 369,000 Twitter followers versus the Canadian poppet’s 24.7 million – but that seems to be the goal for those around him, if not necessarily for Maynard himself. “The portrayal of me has maybe limited the number of people who want to listen to me,” he says. “When people hear the album I think it has a more mature sound to it. There’s something for everyone in there.”
I for one can’t stop humming the chorus of Can’t Say No, with its rubbery bassline and infectious “Houston, I think we got a problem” breakdown. The pounding piano dance of Turn Around, featuring Grammy-winning US R&B star Ne-Yo, is another winner that should expand his screamy core audience.
Bieber comparisons are inevitable given that both teenagers (Maynard is 15 months older) started out in the same way, uploading home-made videos of themselves singing R&B and pop cover versions to YouTube. Maynard was more shy at first, illustrating the music with just a still picture, before he started doing one-take videos, often in arty black-and-white, of him singing into a large microphone at home.
“I was doing the covers for maybe a year before the first one blew up,” he says. That was a version of Usher’s 2010 number one, OMG, and it reached around 100,000 views. But the video website is teeming with bedroom teens trying to be singers, so it was smart of him to realise that he would get more attention if he sang songs that were on the radio but hadn’t yet been released. A version of Ne-Yo’s Beautiful Monster, another UK number one in 2010, reached the ears of the American singer himself. “His friend told him, ‘There’s this kid on YouTube who sings your song better than you do.’ Sure enough not long after that I was sitting talking to him on Skype with him wanting to sign me to his label.”
In the end he opted for a UK record deal in order to avoid having to uproot over there, but North America is clearly firmly in his sights. He’s off to Toronto for a 10 day tour of inteviews and showcase appearances the morning after we speak, and his album features songs written with Ne-Yo and fellow American stars Frank Ocean and Pharrell Williams. “Pharrell seemed more excited to meet me than I was to meet him,” he claims. “He’d been watching me on YouTube for a couple of years and tried to sign me too.” They wrote Glass Girl together, a rare slow moment on the album that shows Maynard having an unlikely case of lady trouble.
The taxi reaches our destination, Covent Garden’s Hospital Club, where Maynard is attending a playback of tracks from Ne-Yo’s fifth album, out in September. He vanishes to a back room to catch up with his sometime mentor, and comes back wearing a new bright red watch. “He told me, ‘Every interview I’ve done over here has been all about working with you,’ so it was really cool to hear that.”
It’s with long-established musicians like Ne-Yo that Maynard prefers to be associated. He obviously prefers a comparison with another Justin, Timberlake (who he refers to as “JT”) than with Bieber. “I honestly can’t wait to get to that point where you’re successful and your own artist and there’s no point comparing you any more,” he says. “I’m not taking all this for granted because I know it could end like that. But I want people to stick with me.” Watch this space and given time, this boy could yet become his own man.