As the summer of 2016 starts, Nick Jonas is in a place that’s… complicated. On one hand, he’s managed the rare feat of Male Pop Star Maturation. After all, when you think “Nick Jonas” these days, you think smoldering sensuality along the lines of “Jealous” or his role as a ripped prize fighter exploring his sexuality in TV’s Kingdom — not the fresh-faced, Disney-approved Jonas Brother of yore.
But his personal life is another matter. As the 23-year-old’s relationship with his family evolved this last year (as it does for all coming into adulthood), he went through a breakup in 2016 with a live-in girlfriend whose identity he remains tight-lipped about.
Speaking to Billboard ahead of the release of his aptly titled Last Year Was Complicated album, Jonas freely offers up that “a lot” of his new album is about a breakup and “transitioning to a different part of life.” The “Close” singer also explains the unique approach to his ongoing Tidal-exclusive docuseries Last Year Was Complicated (the second episode debuts today — see a teaser below, and yes, it features shirtless Nick) and how his fascination with masculinity led him to Goat, a visceral film about college hazing that boasts his finest performance to date.
For this new album rollout, why did you decide you needed to document it?
For me, this next chapter of my career is all about getting as vulnerable as possible with the art and sharing my story in the most personal way possible. I had the idea, with my team, of filming every step of the process of the album rollout, and having the people who are close to me tell my story. So I got my friend Jonathan Tucker [also of Kingdom] to come be a part of directing the first couple episodes. We started filming 102 days before the album release date. It’s been a good way for me to document my life and this crazy moment I’m in.
In the first episode we see you on a ski lift saying you wish you could go off the grid for a while in the woods. Do you watch a lot of survival shows on cable?
What’s funny is that the documentary series has been foretelling of things that have come together over the last couple months by chance. I mentioned that in the first episode, which we shot 100-some days ago, and two weeks ago I did Running Wild With Bear Grylls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. So it was nice to have that synergy. I was also talking on the lift of wishing I could take back my words after telling someone I met that I liked their Instagram as well as their TV show. And then recently I did an interview with Emilia Clarke [on BBC Radio 1 with Nick Grimshaw], and she was the person I was talking about [ICYMI, Jonas revealed on BBC that he felt embarrassed after telling the Game of Thrones actress something along the lines of “I’m a fan of your show. I’m also a fan of your Instagram”]. It’s funny to see these little moments from months ago becoming reality.
Your brother Kevin has plenty of docuseries experience (E!’s Married to Jonas). When you were preparing for your new one, did you ask him for advice or consult with him at all?
As a family, we had quite a bit of experience in living a life in front of a camera. We did a little bit of a reality show for Disney Channel back in the day and my brother obviously had a show with his wife. And I think that was great for them and they enjoyed it and it was a good place for people to look into their world. The exciting opportunity for me was to show people the lighter side of my world — that it’s not all heavy and serious. I wanted people to feel like they’re one of my friends hanging out with me. The other part that was exciting for me was partnering with Tidal — now I’m part of the Roc Nation family. I was thrilled with the chance to partner with them and knew they would give me the freedom to tell the story and not censor anything and just lay it out.
Speaking of Tidal, no one really knows what the future of music is. What do you see as the future of music with regards to streaming, physical albums, downloads, etc.?
It’s tough to say. I think the evolution is exciting. You have to look at is as an opportunity as an artist and get creative with rollout. I think in a lot of ways, the album model is slowly fading out. What you’re seeing is that people are getting creative with the release — if you flood the marketplace with material and stay creative, you win. My hope is that I continue to adapt with the way I release my music. I’m the kind of artist that likes making albums, but maybe that evolves to something like 12 songs released over the course of 12 to 18 months. Thankfully, between the different streaming services and things like Vevo, there are opportunities to do something big.
The title of your series and album is Last Year Was Complicated. When you use the word “complicated,” what does that entail? “Difficult”? “Weird”?
Hopefully with everything I do, I give people a better idea of my personality. As an artist and songwriter, I’m best if I draw from real-life experience. This record in particular, a lot of it is about a breakup. The way I approach my songwriting is that it’s never melodramatic or even dramatic for the sake of being dramatic. I try to put a little twist on it some way and give it an element that references my personality. With the title, it allowed me to take ownership of what was, in a lot of people’s minds, a great year. And that constant thing of, with success must come happiness. And there’s truth to that to a degree, but I’ve learned we’re all human and we all go through the same thing — a breakup is something we all go through. That and transitioning to a different part of your life — in my case, career and family changing and all that. I liked the idea [of the title] once the conversation with Jay Z happened, where he said, “What was the last year of your life like?” and I said, “The last year was complicated.”
Does that breakup factor into the documentary? Or had the fallout cleared up since you were filming?
Yeah, I mean the thing I’m pleased with in the documentary is that it never goes into any drama. It’s a great vehicle for me to share my story on a deeper level without worrying about trying to create drama. It’s me living my life over the last 100 or so days and being open about what has happened and sharing. As far as getting into the breakup, I’m speaking openly about it, but by no means is it the sole narrative with the whole thing.
Speaking of drama, you’re starring in the new movie Careful What You Wish For. Additionally, I recently saw an advance screening of Goat, the fraternity hazing drama you did that premiered at Sundance. I was really astounded by it — you can tell even from the first frame it’s a different type of movie. What attracted you to the project?
Thank you, that means a lot. My first moment with the script was two years, two and a half years ago. I had just started doing the show Kingdom and my agent sent me the script for Goat and I fell in love with it right away. Obviously, stories about brothers have a deep connection for me and anything that deals with the topic of masculinity is a subject matter I’m always interested in getting into. So I sat with the director, Andrew Neel, and we had an excellent conversation and I read for the part — and thought I tanked the audition and it was all over. Thankfully, they saw something in it and hired me and shot it last year. It was just incredible to see the reaction at Sundance and Berlin. We always push ourselves to make something that pushes the envelope and starts a new dialogue. It’s great to do that and I’m humbled to be part of the whole thing.
How did you prepare for that role? Obviously there’s a lot of talk about hazing, but people involved aren’t exactly forthcoming with their stories.
There was a great documentary our director told us to watch which was called Frat House , which gave a behind-closed-doors look into fraternity hazing culture. And also I spoke to a friend who was in a fraternity. It is, really, a very private thing. Part of the fraternity culture is to not speak about what happened, and it is tough to do the research and get the information you need. But I think the other part is when you get a bunch of young men together, even if it’s acting, there’s a heavy level of testosterone and energy and it becomes this thing naturally. You see how things happen the way they do in the film by living it.
There’s one very disturbing scene where your character’s brother is force-fed a banana from a toilet while blindfolded — obviously he thinks it’s something else. Was it dehumanizing being part of hazing scenes, even though it’s a film set?
Absolutely. There was a real care and respect for the actors that we had while filming and getting caught up in those moments. But there were moments that were really uncomfortable after the hazing.
So what attracts you to masculinity as a theme?
The thing I’m most drawn to about it is that the most standard stereotype of what being a man is continues to evolve in 2016. I like subject matter that challenges thinking and makes people try to become more aware of themselves and the world around them — it’s a great opportunity as an actor and storyteller. To say, “This is what we know about this topic,” but the world is so big and there are so many people with so much to say. If we can have a more broad understanding, I think there’d be a lot more love and peace to go around.