Nathan Sykes, 23, has risen from the ashes of boy band fame to propel himself as one of this year’s buzziest new artists. Formerly one-fifth of the defunct U.K. act The Wanted, he’s now a certified solo pop upstart all his own, and — on the heels of massive collaborations alongside his former flame Ariana Grande (“Over And Over Again”) and of the moment emcee G-Eazy (“Give It Up”) – he’s readying the release of his aptly titled solo debut LP Unfinished Business, set to arrive November 4 via Global Entertainment.
“I didn’t want to just be known as that guy from the band that took a break at the age of 20 and no one ever saw again,” he tells Billboard of him solo ambitions during his stay at The Patch in Brooklyn, New York — one of two houses developed by SOUR PATCH KIDS to support touring artists. “I had more to do, I had more to say, I had more songs to write, and I had more to give as an artist.”
Linking up with executive producer Harmony Samuels, the duo worked together to hone Sykes’ brassy modern pop sound, fused with elements of funk, blues and soul. “When I got into the studio, for the first time I’m asking myself, ‘Who am I as an artist’? Not ‘Who is Nathan from The Wanted?'” he said. “It was a really amazing process. We wrote songs that really gave me an identity as an artist, and being able to drive that was an experience I’ll never be able to forget.”
But The Wanted’s nosedive wasn’t the young singer’s only obstacle in his pursuit of solo pop stardom. In 2013, Sykes suffered a near career ending vocal hemorrhage, forcing him to undergo emergency vocal cord surgery – a situation that has also plagued fellow chart toppers Adele, John Mayer, and Meghan Trainor. And as if the experience wasn’t traumatic enough – it was all documented on the Wanted’s E! reality series The Wanted Life. “[The surgery] was on my 19th birthday, and it was a really scary time,” he recalls. “I had to be sat down and told ‘if this doesn’t go well, you won’t sing again.’ This was before we even decided to take a break so I’m being looked at like ‘if it doesn’t go well, he’s gonna be out of the band, he’s gonna be dropped by the label.’”
After the group’s split in early 2014, Sykes stayed positive and continued on his path to recovery with a back to basics approach, teaching himself via vocal rehab how to use his voice to his full capacity. “I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason and if that surgery didn’t happen I wouldn’t be on stage today singing the way that I sing. I wouldn’t have written the album that I’ve written and I wouldn’t be able to sing the notes that I sing. The control, the technique — it wasn’t there,” he admits. “It’s really intense the way that I sing now, and I use the whole range of my voice. It’s really allowed me to develop that.”
Today, Sykes is flourishing – in town to perform at Billboard’s second annual Hot 100 Festival at Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, sponsored by The Patch, with dates supporting fellow buzz kid Alessia Cara set for the fall. “The biggest difference between doing shows as a solo artist and doing shows as a band is when I was in The Wanted, you’re singing one out of five lines, but now the focus is all on me,” he tells Billboard en route to the Hot 100 festival grounds. “If I do a bad show, people are going to walk away and go ‘Nathan Sykes just did a bad show!’ With the journey that I’ve been on, I’m very fortunate. I have crazy goals and things that I want to achieve, so I’m not going to stop until I’ve achieved them. And when I do achieve them, I’m going to keep going.”