Conor Maynard: I am recognised more now than when I had top 10 singles every month
So, I ask Conor Maynard — YouTube star, singer and shriek-inducer in teenage girls — what’s the craziest present a fan has sent you? His cheeks redden. “A JLS condom. I don’t know what she was implying.”
Isn’t it obvious? He can’t meet my eye. “I was like: ‘Thanks?’” Even so, Maynard won’t let me call him a heart-throb. “An unconventional heart-throb, maybe. People like me for my goofiness.”
He adds in deflection that it’s his brother, fellow YouTuber Jack Maynard, who is “the model of our family”.
We meet in a taupe boardroom in the offices of his label, Warner. The 24-year-old — a doppelgänger for the elder son in Outnumbered — looks so young that if I were a barmaid I would ID him before pulling a pint.
Maynard is Tigger-esque, even though he didn’t get to bed until 5am that morning. Partying? “No, I was recording until three.”
“Insane” is one of Maynard’s favourite words — perhaps because he can’t believe his success. When he was 15, his schoolmates would ask him to do covers. “I didn’t even have a mike. I found a backing track online and I had a webcam. And it was awful. So bad.”
Initially he’d just send his videos to friends “but internet connections were dire — it would take forever to send one MP3”. So he started uploading them to Facebook and then YouTube.
He was getting “a couple of hundred views” when the rapper Anth — who lives in Washington DC — asked to collaborate.
They covered Usher’s OMG and their video got around 100,000 views. A cover of Ne-Yo’s Beautiful Monster garnered over a million views. Ne-Yo saw it online and it went “insane”.
Today Maynard’s promoting his new single, Are You Sure?, recorded with Kris Kross Amsterdam and Ty Dolla $ign.
He’s never actually met, nor even spoken to the latter. “That’s how modern music works. Everything is by email. The only interaction we’ve had is he tweeted the single when it came out and tagged me in it.”
Maynard has collaborated with stars including Timbaland and Craig David. But his “Oh, my god!” moment was spending a week in Miami with Pharrell Williams:
“That was insane.” Maynard was ill on the day they met. “He came in and I thought I was going to throw up. I didn’t know if meeting this star was having a weird effect. But it wasn’t that — I had food poisoning.”
Pharrell had a different vision for Maynard: there would be a band behind him but the act would still be called Conor Maynard, like Lukas Graham.
“He said it would take me away from the Bieber and Timberlake comparisons. It was a great idea but it was too late. People already knew who I was through YouTube.”
In the past year his social media following has ballooned: 4.3 million YouTube subscribers, 1.2 million Instagram followers.
So do the charts still matter? “To have a number one album worldwide is still an ultimate goal but I am recognised way more now than when I had top 10 singles every month.”
Building your brand through social media, he believes, gives you more power than going on The X Factor and signing your life away to Simon Cowell.
“I don’t have anyone telling me I can’t do something. I already had a fanbase when I came to the label, so they couldn’t say ‘Right! This is what we see for you’.
Now you need a fanbase to get signed — a lot of people don’t know how to do that. I love singing but I also know how to work the online world.”
His advice for others is to look at what makes a video go viral and learn the different rules for each medium. Facebook is about the “eye-grabbing factor, because people just scroll through their timeline” — he recently did a Coldplay mash-up at the end of a video, enticing viewers with the line “Did anyone see this ending coming?”.
YouTube is about “spotting trends, knowing what people are searching for”.
Given that he has young fans, does Maynard feel under pressure to be a role model? “I do believe you should lead by example.” He pauses. “I do go out sometimes and get absolutely wasted, and maybe that isn’t the best example — but I’m not going completely off the rails.
Although sometimes you don’t know until it happens. You look at celebrities having meltdowns and you think: ‘You seemed to have your head screwed on earlier in your career’.”
Maynard himself has started to feel the pressure of fame. At the start of his career, he was “on top of the world”:
“Even when times were tough — when a single didn’t perform how I wanted it to — I didn’t feel depressed. It would feel a bit s**t but I wouldn’t feel ‘Oh my God, my life is over’. Then this feeling came out of the blue — it was this dark cloud that suddenly appeared, with no indication what the trigger was.”
Initially, he wanted to keep this from his fans — “it would upset them if they saw I was having a breakdown” — but now he wants to become an ambassador for a charity working on anxiety and depression, especially in men.
“We struggle to talk about it. I went through a really bad period when I didn’t know why I felt the way I felt. It still affects me today. It’s just learning to cope with it in your own way. You can get as much help as you like, but you’re the one who has to fight your own battle.”
Rapper Stormzy talking about his depression, Maynard feels, has been a game-changer — “It’s amazing to see someone in that world talk about it so openly and with no shame. He’s opened the door for other people.”
Fame has taken a toll on his personal life too. Maynard is single now but previously dated the model Victoria Tansey and admits that fans make relationships hard.
“It was nearly impossible. Well, it was impossible — we broke up! You need someone who’s very confident and secure. It’s make me think maybe I should put off relationships for a while.”
The female attention can be tricky to handle: “It was a problem. Girls would come up to me and they’d be drunk and trying to flirt. It’s a bit odd to be like ‘by the way I have a girlfriend’ so you have to be wary.”
He worried about seeming rude. “If they asked for a picture they’d go: ‘Is it OK if I kiss you?’. There’s a thin line between all right and not. I’m not going to make out with them in a picture.
"If they ask to kiss your cheek, it’s kind of harmless, but if [your girlfriend’s] friend says, ‘Oh my God, there’s a picture of this girl kissing Conor’, it gets blown out of proportion.
"That’s why I’d say: ‘No, I can’t do that’. Sometimes [fans would] understand, sometimes they’d say: ‘You’re so up yourself’.”
He’s currently juggling a lot: meeting with agents about acting (“my first love”), a YouTube comedy sketch show and making new music.
“My problem is I get set on one thing, then it’s something else. I went full-steam ahead with the series and then we got halfway and I felt ‘I want to work on my album now’.”
Maynard believes music will allow him to escape the YouTube niche. “It makes me more universal. YouTube is a closed family of people who tune in. Adults don’t really grasp it. My parents can’t understand why people watch my brother’s videos.”
Does anyone over the age of 30 ever recognise him? “Yes, but it’s very different from [younger fans] grabbing me, or a girl licking my face.”
Licking his face? “Yeah,” he says, blasé. “I once made a joke about someone licking my face, and ever since then fans have thought it’s a funny thing to do.” There’s a contemplative pause. “I really shot myself in the foot with that one.”
Are You Sure? is out now