Never Too Late: Justin Bieber Interviewed
When generation Bieber looks back to tell its grandchildren the trajectory of its premier male pop model, they will annotate 2015 as his annus mirabilis. Last year Justin stealthily upended each brattish pre-and mis- conception he’d opened the calendar year with, bowing out with a triumphant flourish of pop aces sitting at numbers one, two and three on the British chart. Re-tooling a pop fable and making it all about the music has never looked quite so effortless.
Let us recap. 2015 opened with a series of news stories surrounding Bieber’s late adolescence. The visit to Anne Frank’s house, the curious case of the illegal monkey, the neighbour’s car episode and some doobie-related tardiness when it came to meeting onstage deadlines began to converge into a wider narrative, that perhaps Bieber was on the verge of his Britney-in-a-barber-shop moment. Unlike Miley Cyrus, whose pot-smoking antics appeared to coalesce with a complete rebranding in clever thrall to Madonna’s early rebellion, Bieber had begun to look as overshadowed as Michael by incumbent arrested development.
Behind the scenes, Justin had been stealthily prepping his fallen hero status for total re-evaluation. It began with an intern’s idea at his management office, to appear on his Comedy Roast, in which Justin’s sins would be routinely atoned for, while Martha Stewart would get to make jokes about what might or might not happen to a pretty boy of Justin’s vintage were he to end up where it looked like it was all heading, in a state penitentiary. A Calvin Klein underwear campaign alongside the brand’s house bombshell in residence, Lara Stone, re-established Bieber’s pin-up credentials.
These incremental positioning exercises would’ve been nothing without the killer tunes to slay the plentiful remaining doubters. All the while, Bieber had been sequestered to the studio with new collaborators (and one significant old, in the form of beatsmith and melodist Poo Bear) to start shaping something that could stand next to the work of his timeless pop heroes. Under the tutelage of executive producers Rick Rubin and Kanye West, he had begun fashioning ‘Purpose’ in earnest, his first proper, grown-up adult pop record; the first to talk about him not as a toothless teen fantasy but to disembowel a little of his spikier reality.
His contrition complete, three weeks after his 21st birthday on March 1st, young Mr. Bieber took a lowly third credit on the effervescent trance-pop banger, ‘Where Are Ü Now’, after earnest party boys and architects of 21st century sound, Skrillex and Diplo. Like the Comedy Roast and CK briefs commercial, it kept him conspicuously and humbly tied to elite company. By autumn Bieber was ready to drop ‘Purpose’, a vintage collection of stone-cold pop classics that took in the drifting musical timbres of the moment without ever genuflecting at their altar. Strains of tropical house, EDM, the tremulous acoustic busker melodies of Ed Sheeran and a canny ear for one-shot choruses that could straddle the stadium and the ringtone, all sat neatly under his new musical umbrella.
‘Purpose’ made it all sound so easy. Even the inevitable circulation of more pictures leaked online toward the end of the year couldn’t get in the way of the most impressive turnarounds in pop perception. Twelve months ago, the jokes about Justin Bieber’s manhood littering the Internet would’ve written themselves. Now, all anyone could do was sit back in quiet admiration. For the naysayers who opened their 2015 predictive musical handbook writing off Justin Bieber at the bottom of a whirlpool of tabloid speculation, only one question remained: in 2016, is it too late now to say sorry?
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Firstly, congratulations on your continued campaign to smash all chart records, and your most recent achievement: being the first artist ever to occupy the top three singles. How does it feel for you knowing that you’re displacing legendary names such as The Beatles, Elvis, Madonna, etc - all influences of yours?
It’s always a great feeling to see people responding to your music positively. As an artist, it means they understand what you’re doing and that’s an incredible feeling. I don’t view setting new records as displacing anyone though. Everyone’s accomplishments deserve to be celebrated.
It’s an achievement that feels all the more significant because it perhaps represents the changing tide of perception from the public - they’re prepared to forget what they read about you and instead just enjoy your music. Have you noticed any different kind of feedback from these new songs? Have you reached a new fan base?
I think my fan base is changing a lot. It changed naturally because my fans who were kids when I was a kid are now in their 20s, like me. But I also think guys are coming around - and I’m involved in skate culture and the fashion world now, which makes a difference.
What do you think it is about this particular record that is resonating with people so much?
I’m really proud of what I released this time out. I thought it was great music and I am happy people seem to be agreeing.
This is clearly a humbling album for you; you’re making efforts to apologise, to ask for forgiveness, to be given the chance to move on. Did it feel like a challenge to decide to make these admissions public? Was it something you felt driven to do?
No, it was something I was ready to do. I made mistakes. Part of being a man is owning up to that.
Kanye West admitted in 2013 that ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was a determined attempt to prove himself to his listeners after his own troubles. Did you share that view in the creation of ‘Purpose’, or have you always been confident that your music can speak for itself?
The music I make is always about what’s going on in my life. So I don’t know if this album was a conscious effort to explain myself as much as just a reflection of where I am in my life right now.
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I just grew up and decided it was time to take control of my life.
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The public saw a Justin Bieber that was constantly getting in trouble with the law, making the headlines for the wrong reasons, while behind the scenes you were apparently numbing your pain to cope with everything. Was there a breaking point that made you quit your vices and focus back on creating something special?
I just grew up and decided it was time to take control of my life. I realised that God gave me a gift and an incredible platform to share his light and it is my responsibility to live a positive life in exchange.
Did those experiences change you as a person? What do you think you learned from it all?
I’ve learned that I do have a responsibility to my fans to act maturely. That doesn’t mean I won’t make mistakes - everyone does. But I now know I need to turn into my faith when things get hard.
Was it a challenge for you to be able to satisfy your self-expression lyrically in these songs while maintaining a musical foundation that isn’t too analytical? Like, making them meaningful but still able to dance to?
No. Everything flowed pretty naturally.
How important is credibility to you? All the positive reviews of ‘Purpose’ suggest this is the benchmark that will see you transgress from pop star to artist in the eyes of the world’s media - is this a validation of the effort you put into your songs?
Credibility is important. It feels great to be recognised by your peers and be taken seriously.
Do you have a clear vision of how you want your sound to evolve, or is it just an instinct you follow? How do you know when something is right for you? Are you prepared to take risks?
I think I took a lot of risks on this album. It’s a big departure from what I released in the past. It was really a virtue of gut and instinct. The music I was making with Poo Bear, Skrillex and Diplo felt right - and I was pitched and tried a lot of different things to get to the music we released. We just knew that was the sound we were looking for.
You attempted various routes and methods to get to the finished product, including sessions with Rick Rubin. How did your studio process this time around differ from that of previous albums?
It was a longer road. I didn’t just take what was handed to me. I experimented and took the time I needed to find my sound.
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I’m lucky to have good people in my life.
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What part did ‘Journals’ play in inspiring you to step forward creatively, and how did it translate to what became ‘Purpose’?
‘Journals’, just like with ‘Purpose’, was reflective of where I was at that time in my life. I have always been a fan of R&B music. I love listening to it, writing it, singing it….
You kept the vocal features to a minimum on ‘Purpose’ - what was it about Travi$ Scott, Big Sean, Halsey and Nas that made you want them to be on this album, and what did you learn from working with each of them? What is it that you look for in a collaborator?
We don’t necessarily write songs with a particular feature in mind. We write and then think, if the song needs a feature, who could be the right fit for the song?
Apparently Ed Sheeran introduced you to Big Narstie - are there any grime artists that you’d consider working with?
Same as above: if it were the right song at the right time, I’d be open to it.
Most of the songs are co-written with Poo Bear; why do you think you work so well together? Was there any kind of agreed direction or brief for what these songs were to become?
Poo just understands me. He knows what I’m trying to say. We don’t sit down before a session and then say, ‘This is where we need to go today.’ It happens naturally.
The people around you - your team - have similarly been on the same journey as you, and it’s a close-knit family that you obviously love and depend on. How important is it for you to have this stable support, and is it difficult to maintain the work/personal balance with them?
It’s very important and can be very difficult. I have to remind them sometimes to chill out and let me be a 21-year-old, but I know it comes from a place of love and I’m lucky to have good people in my life.
You’re also grounded by your spiritual beliefs. What role does religion play in your life? Is it difficult to maintain a Christian life with all the temptations and distractions that fame throws at you?
Not at all. I love God. He is present with me everyday.
You’ve admitted in the past having trouble with anxiety; how do you cope with the level of invasions of privacy you suffer? What pressures does this attention put on you?
It’s not easy. I can get frustrated. But I know this was the choice I made and I wouldn’t change my life at all.
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I love creating. I love performing. I love my fans.
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The public reaction to the naked pictures of you was crazy - your reputation was being picked apart. Does it exasperate you that this behaviour and these attitudes are almost accepted now, that they see you as fair game for criticism?
I had no idea anyone would even be able to take that picture. It was a total invasion of my privacy and it wasn’t okay. I was not pleased when it happened but at a certain point you have to just keep things moving.
What keeps you motivated?
I love creating. I love performing. I love my fans. That’s what keeps me motivated.
If you could turn off the fame for 24 hours, how would you spend the day?
I’d probably go to Disneyland or somewhere like that and experience it like everyone else gets to.
Is it easy to enjoy your success despite the disadvantages it brings? What does success look like to you?
Success is getting to continue to perform for years to come. It will eventually mean a wife and family.
At this level of success, how do you go about setting new goals for yourself? Is it easy to become lazy or complacent, and if so, what propels you to push forward?
I haven’t had a minute to stop to become lazy. I’m in tour rehearsals now. There’s always something else to be working towards.
What are you most proud of about your career so far?
This album and having such a strong relationship with my fans that they have stuck by me through thick and thin.
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NO PRESSURE: THE QUICKFIRE ROUND
What’s in your pockets right now?
Who’s the last person you went to dinner with?
My friend John.
If you could go back in time and hang with anybody, who would it be, and what would you talk about?
Michael Jackson. There are so many things I want to ask him.
What’s your favourite insult?
I don’t like to insult people.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
‘Crazy Train’ [by Ozzy Osbourne].
Do you have any phobias?
What’s the most memorable piece of fan mail you’ve received?
My fans make me incredible art and tell me their stories… there are too many to count.
Which TV character do you most identify with?
Which aftershave do you use most?
Surf or turf?
Do you Supersize?
Will you still love me tomorrow?
Probably - I’m a loyal person.
If you had to choose a song to replace the American national anthem, what would it be?
I’m Canadian - not going to weigh in on that.
Who’s the first person you call to share good news?
Depends on the news.
Do you know any good Justin Bieber jokes?
I’ve heard them all.
Have you ever worn someone else’s underwear?
What’s your favourite beach?
Will never tell.
What are your top three juice ingredients?
Orange, ginger, apple.
What’s the dream car that you’d love to acquire?
LaFerrari - I’m waiting for mine to come…
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Introduction: Paul Flynn
Creative Concepting: Rob Meyers
Photography: Rory Kramer
Artwork: Christian Oita
Collages: Patrick Waugh for BOYO Studio