Please don’t tell me, not another bubblegum teen-idol, garnering a fake personality, a washed up pop-star before they’ve even hit the age of twenty something, come-on…why me! Perhaps these words represent something of my first thoughts upon discovering I was covering the Cody Simpson concert here in Manila.
After all, from what I knew of him was basically through my 12-year old daughter, who keeps a close eye on trending YouTube artists. She had also pointed him out on a favourite TV show and some highly polished Disney Awards program. There was also a video of a him performing a collaboration with a famous rapper, certainly not my favourite genre. I’m a galaxy away from this demographic, which was evident from just a glance around the theater, mostly teenaged aged girls and young women in the crowd.
So I’m thinking boy band type of stuff, lots of glitz and glamour without much substance. Oddly enough, my Mom, who’s 70 plus years old, has also mentioned him on occasion, which I thought was interesting. But she’s a huge fan of the TV show “Dancing with the Stars” on which Cody appeared, so she keeps track of many of the celebrity contestants. At first glance, how could you blame me for picturing glorified karaoke with provocative dance moves, most people will judge a book by it’s cover.
Well let me tell you, he’s not what you’d expect him to be. I was way off the mark, and more than pleasantly surprised. Had the chance to meet him briefly also, easy going, friendly and down to earth. And just as impressive, the team he surrounds himself with from bandmates to stagehands, a bunch of all-around nice folks. The stage set-up was bare bones, three guitars and a set of drums, the epitome of a true rock and roll band’s choice of equipment. A simple black backdrop of tiny glittering LED pin lights, that shone like stars in the night sky. And the band came out with all cylinders firing, he grabbed the audiences attention from square one, and took them on a ride, from fits of screaming, to a eerily uncommon hush among the entire crowd. At one point, it was so quiet, you could almost hear him breathing, and I was actually concerned you could hear my camera shutter noise.
If you don’t have a teen aged daughter at home, you most likely are saying Cody who? But if you’re a teenage girl, from down-under, you’ll recognise the name in an instant, and perhaps follow it up with a semi-contained squeal of excitement. So for most music fans over thirty, maybe some bio information is in order here.
“In 2008, 11-year-old Cody Simpson opened a YouTube account and began posting videos of his own musical performances. Accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar, the Australian preteen sang songs by other artists — namely pop stars like Jason Mraz and Justin Timberlake — while also giving some air time to his original tunes. Producer Shawn Campbell stumbled across his YouTube page one year later and invited Simpson to the U.S., jump-starting a series of songwriting collaborations and studio sessions that resulted in a 2010 deal with Atlantic Records. His debut single, “iYiYi,” was released later that year and cracked the Top 20 in Australia, thanks in no small part to a cameo by Flo Rida. Two versions of the song were later featured on 4 U, Simpson’s debut EP, which appeared in December 2010. Simpson kept himself busy with a variety of projects in 2011, releasing the single “On My Mind” that May, then launching a brief tour of the United States, all designed as promotion for his EP Coast to Coast; he also appeared on Australian television with some regularity. Simpson finally released his full-length debut, Paradise, in October 2012; it was preceded by the aptly named summer EP Preview to Paradise. Paradise did well in Australia, where it peaked at number two, and in Canada, where it went all the way to number one; the album performed respectably in the U.S., peaking at number 27. Simpson quickly followed Paradise with the breezy, sun-kissed Surfer’s Paradise album in July of 2013. In 2015, he delivered his third studio album, the Cisco Adler-produced Free. The album showcased yet more laid-back, reggae-infused vibes and featured collaborations with Donavon Frankenreiter and G. Love.” press kit bio by Andrew Leahey
To describe his sound, think Jason Mraz and John Mayer had a baby, although Cody has blonde hair, go figure, it must be a recessive gene thing. The music itself is inviting, with a laid back style, and that be-achy kind of sound. And now I’m thinking; G. Love! That’s a collaboration I want to hear, I’m a G. Love and Special Sauce fan. According to Billboard Magazine, Simpson described his sound as “acoustic rock, basically. It’s mellow rock and obviously has tinges of reggae and tinges of western sort of spruced on top. It’s like the taco, and then the lemon and then the salt and pepper.” Searching YouTube on his recent performances, most of them are acoustic versions of his new songs performed on some ubiquitous TV Talk show program. A good sign, opposite of what I would have thought. Taking away all the instrumentation and just focusing on the voice is not an easy task for any performer. There’s no place to hide, you have to lay it all out there and if you screw up, it really shows. Performing to a camera can also be tricky, it’s another whole ballgame and it was obvious, after a few videos that this young man has had plenty of practice and was good at it.
When I first arrived at the venue, they were in sound check, which is always interesting to watch. Although, it doesn’t make the greatest photos, as some might think and most bands prefer not to be photograph at all during this time period. While others don’t even want you to watch, often closed doors policy. But if you get the chance, and you pay attention; you can gain some insight on what will happened during the show and sometimes into the psyche of the band themselves. There’s physical stuff, like where the performers will stand, blocking or quick review of lighting effects, or setlist songs they going to perform. This information can be a tremendous advantage, in order to be in the right place at the right time during the concert. But it’s the other insights that intrigue me. You could see that the drummer was the new guy in the band, as Cody patiently explained how he wanted the songs to be performed. Cody was obviously the leader here, people assume the lead vocalist is in charge but that’s not always the case. I was impressed with his laid back style, with a wisdom that usually comes at a later age, as he guided the band through the rehearsal. As I left the soundcheck to attend a preshow meeting, a Jack Johnson song was rocking, which sounded cool but was not on the setlist for the show. Which also provides some insight to this young performer, seasoned bands have learned to take time rehearsing songs slated to play at a later date on tour.
Remarkable really, the growth of this performer. What has sparked this metamorphosis? Simpson recently parted ways with his major record label, now choosing an independent route. As he addressed the crowd, he explained how liberated he feels now, to perform the type of music he loves. Hence the new album title, “Free”. That’s the disadvantage sometimes with a major label, only the top dogs dictate what type of music they will record, many young performers are simply chewed up and spit out. Can’t blame the business end of it, they’re just looking to make a buck, and popular songs are just that; very popular, so profit will follow, art for arts sake is not on the list.
What also impressed me was his skills on guitar. These guys can rock, and it shows! It was evident from the pre-show research that he was competent guitar player but shined in this live performance! He lit ups the room when plugged in with an electric guitar. The band was wailing the blues during a medley towards the end of the concert, “Sweet Home Chicago”, one of my favourites and they knocked it out of the park, very well done. It was also fascinating to watch was how involved he was in the music itself. There were times you could see he was just in his own world, fully concentrated, sitting on the floor in the center of the stage, just really getting into the sound. They also communicated non-verbally, you could see many cues and plenty of smiling at one another, they were really having fun.
His banter while introducing songs gave insights on how he was inspired to write them. For one track, he was inspired by a bumble bee, and explained concern with environmental issues. Although he didn’t say anything about his single, “Thotful.” Which he recently caught some backlash over, due to the title reference to the slang term “thot” which is a derogatory word for a sexually active woman, which some groups protested saying it seems like it’s created to shame women. Cody acknowledged to MTV News that the song “caused a bit of a stir online,” but insisting it “isn’t about a particular woman” and isn’t “calling anyone out.” He explains: “My job as a storyteller is to start conversations…this one particularly being an interesting play on words that is relevant in pop culture at the moment.” He spoke about the “real” meaning behind the song, stating that the original title was “Thoughtful” and that it’s about a girl who “shares everything with everyone else and never thinks about me.”
Even if you’ve never heard of Cody Simpson, I encourage to check out his music, leave the label machine at home and really listen. Musically beyond his years, he’s one of those artists who just have something special, an indescribable gift. And I say judge a book by it’s cover, but also what’s inside, Cody Simpson is only in the first few chapters of his musical career, plenty of reading to go.