Nathan Sykes, of U.K. boy band the Wanted, got a phone call from his mother about 10 minutes after tickets went on sale for his first U.S. solo date. She was concerned that the website had crashed.
"She was like, 'Nathan, I'm really worried,'" he recalls with a laugh. "She said, 'I just checked Twitter, and [the fans] are all sad because they can't get tickets.'"
His label then informed him that his July 22nd show at the Gramercy Theatre — the same site as the Wanted's American debut in 2010 — was completely sold out. "It's been full circle," says the 22-year-old about his return. "The fact that I've been able to sell it out so quickly is just incredible. We didn't do that with the Wanted."
In 2009, at the age of 16, Sykes joined the British boy band, best known for their Eurodance-tinged sound on early singles "Glad You Came" and "Chasing the Sun." They were the competitors to the only slightly more wholesome One Direction and released three albums, toured the world and starred in an E! reality show — The Wanted Life — before announcing a hiatus in 2014. "I never really got a chance to kind of figure out what I wanted to do," the group's youngest member says. "I was like, 'OK, here we go! Right into the industry!'"
Before the hiatus, Sykes made his solo debut back in 2013 on a duet with then-girlfriend Ariana Grande called "Almost Is Never Enough." He found himself creatively connecting with Harmony Samuels, one of the track's producers and co-writers, who is the executive producer on Sykes' as-yet-untitled LP, due in January of next year. Together, they found the young singer's new voice: a more soulful, lounge-y, big band–tinged pop croon that shines on first singles "More Than You'll Ever Know" and "Kiss Me Quick."
"I surprised myself a tiny bit [with the sound]," he says, "and I was surrounded with music like that all the way through since I was a child." His mother, a music teacher, plays saxophone, clarinet and flute and kept Sykes surrounded by big band and swing, especially from the Rat Pack era. His father provided the Motown and R&B influence. "I think it was important to keep the album as a pop album while bringing in elements like soul and jazz and R&B as well."
In the studio, he was joined by Diane Warren and Babyface. "The Diane song is the only track on the album I didn't write," he says of the "up-tempo, funky" tune. "It was quite scary actually. She said, 'Let's see some of the songs you've written.' I was just like, 'Oh, no! I’m about to be judged as a songwriter by Diane Warren.' But she really liked the song I played her, which is such a big compliment."
According to Sykes, Babyface helped co-write the most emotional song he had ever written. He sees it as one of the most surprising moments on the album, alongside the Samuels-assisted "Famous," a guitar-heavy slow-burner with hints of Miguel. In writing "Famous," he found an unlikely muse. "I think the trick with this song is that I really wanted to make it relatable for the fans. You see it all the time: fans holding up signs at concerts [that read], 'What do I have to do to make you love me?' Then I see on Twitter, they send pictures of a really cute couple and write, 'This could be us, but I'm in school and you're famous.' I wanted to tell a story from a personal point of view, but I didn't want to be selfish with that writing where people didn't quite get what was happening."
After a few shows on his own in the U.K. — including the Capital FM Summertime Ball at Wembley Stadium — Sykes is feeling confident in his new direction, though he wouldn't count out a return to the Wanted. "We did the leave the door open to potentially make music in the future, but I think that everyone is very happy with what they're doing in the moment," he says. "I really hope that people enjoy this complete reintroduction [of me], but I say, 'Never say never.'"
Though they still need a proper catch-up, his bandmates have been supportive of the new songs. "I was talking with Jay [McGuiness] the other day, and he said, 'Mate, I'm back in England, I'm really hung over and your music is really helping me.' That's the biggest compliment you could ever get!"