BRAND NEW YOU is a lesson in self-belief. Sydney pop artist Nick Ward's new EP, BRAND NEW YOU, follows on from his 2021 debut EP, Everything I Wish I Told You, and is the second installment in a trilogy of EPs. The introspection that took place on his debut project is present on BRAND NEW YOU, but the lens is wider this time. The production is more involved, Nick's lyrics are more incisive, and his vocal performances are imbued with the hunger that comes from a burning desire to create something that lasts.
When we sit down with Nick over Zoom in early April, he's excitedly awaiting the release of BRAND NEW YOU. Having lived in the world of BRAND NEW YOU for so long, he's now shared the project with the world, telling stories about death, higher powers, masculinity and more across eight tracks. It's a whirlwind journey, and the project will leave you pondering some of life's infinite questions. Strap in.
Hearing Nick softly sing "Did I ever tell the story where I killed a boy in self defence?/Cos I loved him so much at the time it made a lot of sense/I don’t wanna explain myself to them/So they can find a little box they can put me in" on opening track ALIEN is a signpost for what's to follow over the next 26 minutes. The moment, like many others, sees Nick battling with society's pre-defined notions of masculinity; murder is an animalistic act, but claiming it was done in the pursuit of love softens the notion when paired with his delicate, almost-whispered vocal delivery. The track, which Nick wrote alongside Cub Sport's Tim Nelson, takes a look at how queer artists are swimming against the tide in an industry that is full of toxic masculinity. The song's production, created by Nick and prolific Melbourne artist Lucianblomkamp, bubbles away at first, before building to a cathartic crescendo. The track's thumping drums will reverberate around your skull, and it's set to be a high point of Nick's upcoming tour to celebrate the EP.
ALIEN also talks about Nick's Chinese-Malay heritage, and as he explains, the song captures his desire to fit in, and the frustration with feeling like you're an outsider. Lyrically, this sentiment is expressed when Nick laments that "I feel like an alien in every single room I'm in" - all-too-relatable for anyone that's felt like an outsider looking in. He recalls, "I've always never felt 100% welcome, anywhere. Whether I'm surrounded by like my Chinese-Malay relatives and I feel like the white guy, or whether I'm in high school, and everyone's calling me Chinese racial slurs or something, either way, you feel torn away from something, or you feel like a bit of a wallflower.
"The same goes with queerness. I can either be in an all-boys school by myself, feeling so threatened and intimidated by everything, or, at the time, my friends, and I would sneak out to like gay bars. I would still feel like I wasn't brave enough, or I wasn't confident enough. I'd still be on the sideline." It's a song for those that find themselves in a situation where they're still trying to find the truest representation of themselves.
Sydney rapper Zion Garcia's hypnotic verse on BRAND NEW YOU is one of the best moments on the project, and it's a reminder of the community that Nick and co. are building in Sydney. Community lies at the heart of everything Nick does, and he says that he "wants to surround [himself] with the best artists. Artists who are doing things on their own terms and aren't trying to look for a cop-out." He mentions the numerous listening sessions he held for BRAND NEW YOU prior to its release as an example of how he refined the project, creating a community that would help him shape the EP throughout the creation process. Showing the project to journalists, visual artists, producers and more, Nick used the time to run it past as many people as possible, and gather as many thoughts as he could on how it was all coming together.
He compares the importance of community to Nouvelle Vague (aka French New Wave), a period in French cinema that began in the late 1950s where filmmakers rejected the boundaries of French cinema in favour of experimenting with narrative structure, editing and more. It's a compelling comparison, especially when Nick explains that he conceptualises songs like a "three act structure", rather than existing within the "verse chorus verse, chorus verse chorus" framework that is present in so much of popular music.
Nick's often-collaborative approach to the EP doesn't strip away any of the personality from the project. In actuality, this spirit of community adds to the stories being told on BRAND NEW YOU. Nick worked with some of the most exciting artists in Australia on this project, like Lonelyspeck, Ashwarya, Dylan Atlantis, Jerome Blazé, Chris Lanzon and Simon Lam, as well as the aforementioned Tim Nelson and Lucianblomkamp. They're all artists that are looking to push the boundaries of how people currently view Australian music, fearless in their pursuit of more expansive, cinematic compositions. It's a reminder that there are multiple pathways into music, and while Nick highlights that the music industry can be an "intimidating place", joining forces with other artists is a way to bring everyone up with you. You don't have to simply be good, or just be great. There's a third choice. You can be good by doing great things for the people around you, and you can achieve your dreams alongside them.
This sense of community came to life at the listening party for BRAND NEW YOU, held in Sydney. It was a celebration of both the visual and aural aspects of the EP, with works displayed that reflected each song off the project. Speaking about the listening party, Nick explains, "It was nice to experience it in the room with people, rather than it be this over the Internet, one-way kind of thing. It felt like a communal experience. It was very wholesome." More of a concert than a listening party (as Nick tells us, "people were moshing"), it was a physical manifestation of the work that he's been putting in over the last couple of years in particular - work that, due to the pandemic, has largely been online.
The visual aspects of BRAND NEW YOU are something Nick is particularly excited to talk about, lighting up when the topic is mentioned. Nick worked closely with his art director, Curtis Maguire, to bring the project to life through photography, artwork and cinematography. Whether it's the "suit of armour" Nick is wearing on the FUNERAL cover, or the "very motherly, feminine pose" that Nick adopts on the cover for ALIEN, the artwork, and the music videos, tell as much of a story as the lyrics on BRAND NEW YOU. Cinema references pepper our chat, and indeed, Nick's discography (Everything I Wish I Told You features a song called Aubrey Plaza), and Nick tells me that the aim was for the project to be "50% visuals, 50% sound".
Throughout our conversation, Nick references forward-thinking artists like Rina Sawayama and Jean Dawson as influences. Closer to home, he cites the impact and success of Genesis Owusu and Tkay Maidza as a reminder that more than ever, Australian audiences are open to having their minds blown by a project. Genesis Owusu's 2021 album Smiling With No Teeth is grand in its ambition, and successful in its execution, and its success is somewhat of a blueprint for artists looking to make a similar impact. As Nick puts it, "People don't love Genesis [Owusu] for one song, people love him for a body of work and the world he created."
The world of BRAND NEW YOU prominently involves a series of vocal interludes taken from an interview with a younger Nick Ward, conducted by his late grandma, with the questions and answers being discussed often mirroring the overarching topics of each song on the project. FUNERAL, which features E^ST, channels Nick's grief of losing both his grandparents in the space of a month into a song that is as poetic as it is devastating, while the video for FUNERAL features a swathe of Nick's closest friends.
He has previously described the filming of the visual treatment for FUNERAL as "the antidote to the feelings the song addresses," with the despair present in lyrics like "Could you show me what it's like on the other side?/In times like this, I feel like a little child" continuing the theme of the vocal interludes. E^ST's feature is equally haunting, as is the found footage that is interspersed throughout the video for FUNERAL. Much like these home videos, the vocal interludes give the listener a chance to further connect with the story of BRAND NEW YOU, and offer an unguarded insight into a younger Nick Ward's thought processes.
The discovery of the interview took place during the creation of BRAND NEW YOU, with Nick explaining that the project was already "40-50% done" by the time the audio was discovered. The audio sees 12-year-old Nick Ward answering questions about heaven, what happens after you die and religion, as well as what he thinks he'll have achieved by certain ages. His debut EP features snippets from his earliest years (including the sound of his birth on the opening track Overture), and he sees this trilogy of EPs as a "documentary-esque telling of my childhood".
The project's exploration of masculinity, and how it's expressed, even extends to the sequencing of BRAND NEW YOU. ENTRANCE MUSIC serves as the project's halfway point, and raucous, energised anthems like STEVE JOBS (which resulted from a conversation that Nick and his partner had about legacy) give way to more ethereal, fragile ballads; PRINCESS, BLANKET (HOME TO YOU) and HEAVEN, a trio of gentler, yet no less insightful, tracks that speak about being truly there for someone.
The cinematic strings on PRINCESS are angelic. Gone is the manic energy of the earlier songs on the EP, instead replaced by a more grounded, tender mindset. Elsewhere, album closer HEAVEN continues the conversation about legacy, with Nick singing, "There's so many things I'd like to do/Cos if I die, then where's the proof/That I existed all those years/Did they forget that I was here?" Nick highlights, "The project really is about the push and pull between two sides of yourself, whether you're supposed to be the protector/warrior or if you're supposed to devote yourself to something and serve a purpose that's not yourself and something that's bigger than yourself." It's an age-old question, and one that BRAND NEW YOU will have you pondering for days on end.
The title BRAND NEW YOU hints at transformation, and as Nick explains, it's a project about eschewing thoughts that have previously held you back. "This project is about me shedding all of these preconceived ideas and looking at myself in the mirror. Whether it's songs like on STEVE JOBS where it's like, 'Hey, this is probably not the most healthy way to look at things', or songs like FUNERAL where it's like, 'Well, maybe this process would be easier if I had religion or some kind of a higher power'.
"The resolution of the project is that I will actually get a bigger, more rewarding sense of purpose by just being a good person to my partner and allowing myself to be second fiddle and being there for someone. Letting yourself be a completely fluid, ever-changing thing rather than defining yourself."
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It's easy to feel inspired after walking away from a conversation with Nick Ward. Every time we broach the topic of the future there's a palpable sense of joy and determination, and across BRAND NEW YOU, listeners get an insight into the future Nick wants to build; one that's full of endless possibilities. While the EP talks at length about various push-pull factors, it's also a reminder that there is no rush to fit into a box that others might want to push you into. Nick sums up the EP by saying, "You're bigger than the sum of your parts. You can just exist in this big, beautiful grey area.
"You don't have to worry about where you sit on any spectrum."