When Cody Simpson got his start in 2010 as a fresh-faced 13-year-old, the Australia native was about as ready-made as they come for a teenage pop star: shaggy blond hair, blue eyes, a cute accent, and an endearing prepubescent singing voice. As he grew into his teens, though, he developed a more distinctive, ocean-inspired aesthetic, with his first two albums titled Paradise and Surfer’s Paradise.
Now 21, Simpson continues that breezy summertime vibe with a new three-person project called The Tide — but not because a label wanted him to. The singer parted ways with Atlantic Records in 2014, releasing a 15-track LP titled Free independently that kept a low-key acoustic feel, but steered away from the beachy theme. Already over a half-decade into his career before even turning 20, Simpson then took some much-needed time off.
Spending the summer of 2016 indulging in the beauty of Venice Beach, California, Simpson wrote poetry (a passion that has inspired his songwriting), surfed endlessly, and played music simply when he wanted to. He wasn’t in career mode, but before he knew it, his relaxation turned into revelation.
“I went through what you’d maybe consider a metamorphosis of some kind,” Simpson says. “It wasn’t particularly just the summer, I think it was the last year or two. [It was] an extreme prolific period recently as a songwriter.”
With that songwriting growth came a passion for the environment that led Simpson to activism, as well as a new kind of creative energy. Just months after being named the first United Nations Development Programme advocate in June 2017, Simpson announced that he had formed The Tide with drummer Adrian Cota and bassist Shareef “Reef” Addo.
A few jam sessions was all it took for Simpson to know he was on to something with the guys, but a house party show in the summer of 2017 solidified it. “We just kinda nailed it,” Simpson recalls. “It was one of the better experiences any of us had had playing music.”
Though Simpson has transitioned from a solo artist to a trio frontman, his surfer-dude sensibilities have returned: The Tide’s first EP, released last fall, is titled Wave One, and the group’s first follow-up single is a wavy, densely produced love song titled “Underwater.” The new project is allowing Simpson to explore different sides of his voice, introducing more production on this next round of tunes. The Tide released another new track today (Aug. 31) titled “Don’t Let Me Go,” released via Stem, which adds bouncier beats to the synth-heavy sound.
Billboard caught up with Simpson in between The Tide’s latest two releases to hear a little more about how that fateful Venice Beach summer has played into his new music, and why The Tide is exactly where he’s supposed to be today.
This new music is pretty different from Wave One.
It’s definitely a step for me musically. When we got back in the studio after [Wave One], we were all much more interested in creating something fresher and more modern, more lively and colorful — that’s where we’re at now musically. My drummer and bass player and co-producers have been working quite diligently at less live production and more programmed production. That was a major asset and a major improvement. Making this kind of music was an extreme and immense growth period. We experimented a lot, we were working on music from rock to reggae to blues to pop and incorporating all of those influences, and this is what we came up with.
What made you want to take a break in the summer of 2016, and how did it end up impacting what you’re doing with The Tide?
I think it was a natural evolution from boyhood to manhood, and me wanting to expand my creative field. Expand my consciousness, in a sense. It was that yearning for evolution and that yearning for new endeavors. Obviously spending my teenage years in music, and in popular music, I wanted to continue this career, but in a way that allows me to dictate it and create it myself as opposed to relying on third party or more corporate decision making. But otherwise it’s just a natural growth. And the creative energy kind of hasn’t stopped.
What were some of the realizations you had that have played into The Tide?
All the best music comes the easiest. That’s something I learned recently: All the best stuff comes in flow. It’s part of the reason I call my band The Tide, because the tide has the knowledge of that flow and it never alters it — just comes and goes as a flow, and it doesn’t fight it. That’s what I wanted to do musically, and that’s part of the knowledge I gained. The best stuff comes when we’re not thinking, and it comes when you’re in that flow. It was very revelatory.
Can you speak to how the environment played into that revelation?
It kind of puts you in a state where you’re kind of always stoked, and you’re digging everything. I’ve gone to different places, and no matter where I’m at, as long as I’m in nature, I can easily slip back into that state of mind. That’s what I want to share with people through music and through my life.
I think that state is where my environmental interest comes from, because you’re like, “Well, if I’m part of all this, what am I doing kind of destroying it?” Our society is set up in a way that’s so against the natural state of nature, and the way it’s all initially intended to be. I kind of have to — not rebel, but peacefully rebel, in a sense — and do my part to protect it, regardless of the way that society is set up.
And Adrian and Reef had a similar state of mind when you guys started working together?
I think we’re all kind of seekers in our own sense. I think that’s part of the reason it works so well, because we’re aligning different styles of music and different kinds of people — and participating in the experience of music together. People of three different races, three different parts of the world, and when we all met we were just seeking a certain unity and I think we found that. It sounds corny, whatever, but we found that in each other and in the music that we could make together.
Can you speak to how you individually bring to the group because of your varied musical backgrounds?
Adrian comes heavily from jazz. He’s been a touring jazz drummer since he was 11 years old or something. He’s toured with Herbie Hancock and a bunch of prestigious jazz guys since he was young — he’s quite renowned in that realm, even as a young [guy]. Reef grew up in Brooklyn, and he’s an incredible producer, incredible hip-hop and rap producer. He’s a great songwriter, beat maker and bass player, and also comes from everything from R&B to pop to hip-hop. [I came] in as the guitarist and songwriter and singer. Having pop sensibilities from my past and also being a lead blues and sort of rock guitarist allowed me to bring that kind of beachy rock groove.
You got advice from John Mayer for your last album. Did some of that advice stick with you for what you’re doing with The Tide now?
Oh, definitely. We sent him a bunch of stuff, and he had some incredible advice for me, just in terms of producing music and being a writer and producer. Just how to make things richer and more colorful, and think about things on a scale of frequency and producing and writing in a way that allows it to be interesting to the ear. You kind of pick up something different every time you hear it, and he’s a master at that.
Any other artists that have played into the inspiration?
I really like the place that popular music is in and music in general is in now. I think it’s fresh, and I think a lot of it — at least a lot of the good stuff — kind of cuts the bullshit and the production and the songwriting really gets to the point. I think that Ed Sheeran and Drake have played a big role inspiring us, and inspiring things being very fresh. It’s almost like a “less is more” mentality, where if the butter and the bread is there, there’s no point in taking it any further than that. I think [music has] come to a really nice place where it’s fresh and it’s simple, and that’s kind of where we’re at too. I think it’s all the way it’s supposed to be, and things that are coming easiest to me is kind of also what people are digging at the moment.
You’ve said you want your music to kind of inspire a positive change. Have you seen that happening with The Tide’s music yet?
I think I’m starting to see it now. We’ll continue to see it build. I’m a seeker of transcendence through music, and that’s kind of where I’m at with the live shows — wanting to help people get out of their heads a little bit. If we can do something kind of like that and make people feel the way they would in some kind of religious setting — not that we consider ourselves religious figures, by any means – but to have the experience that fills them up, music has the power to do that. And I think that’s where we’re at with our live shows, at least.
Can fans expect that you’ll be heading out on the road soon? What’s beyond these releases?
A bunch of one-off gigs and kind of see where we’re at with the music and how people are digging it and that will determine where we go for live performances. But we wanna be going wherever people want us. We’ll see how we go into 2019.
It sounds like you’re at least the happiest you’ve been and proudest of the music you’re making.
I’ve always been happy, and everything I’ve done has been exactly what I wanted at the time. Being young and growing up, it’s like you’re constantly learning along the way. I don’t regret a single thing — it’s all been a part of my journey. But I’m learning and I’m improving extremely. Pretty stoked, it feels good.
Does it feel like a group is what you’ve been meant to do all along, or do you think you’ll go back to doing solo stuff eventually?
It’s hard to say. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet, but now I sort of can’t imagine not playing with the guys and not having this dynamic. This is where I feel like I’m supposed to be going.