He might do skateboard tricks in his hotel suite and compare himself to Ghandi, but Bieber is close to shedding his brattish image. Tom Howard spends two hours with a pop star on the cusp of redemption
Here is an enjoyable selection of things Justin Bieber got up to between September 2012 and December 2014. He vomited onstage in Arizona; abandoned his pet monkey at German customs; went to dinner at Mr Chow in London wearing a gas mask; wrote “hopefully she would have been a Belieber” in the guestbook of the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam; was caught sneaking out of a Brazilian brothel; had a scuffle with Orlando Bloom in Ibiza; was arrested for assault and dangerous driving in Ontario, Canada; posted on Twitter that he had “officially retired”.
The 21-year old was, for a while, the biggest freak show around. Today, as he walks into the suite of a five-star hotel in London, introducing himself with a handshake, a smile and a “hey man”, he’s here to tell NME why un-Beliebers have got him all wrong.
It’s a week before ‘Sorry’ – the second single from Justin Bieber’s fourth album, ‘Purpose’ – is due to come out. Bieber recently posted the words “if you don’t like ‘Sorry’ I will punch myself in the face repeatedly” on Instagram. Sounds like he’s feeling pretty confident. “Yeah, I don’t know, I just really love the song,” he says, of the Skrillex and Blood Diamond-produced track. “It’s a simple melody, but I think music right now is missing those effective real songs.”
For someone who’s sold almost 50 million records, has the second-most-watched video on YouTube ever (‘Baby’, with over 1.2 billion views) and pulled in $77million on his 2013 tour, Bieber is curiously unsure of himself when talking about music. But his mind’s been elsewhere since he last released an album, 2012’s ‘Believe’.
A few days ago, he completed the 40 hours of community service he was sentenced to in July 2014 for causing (allegedly) $80,000 of damage by throwing eggs at his Californian neighbours’ house. “I think I’m the first person with a felony egg charge,” he says, smiling, seeming to enjoy how silly it sounds. “Right now I’m on probation from an egg charge.”
On community service he had to “paint walls, clean up and move boxes” in a community centre in South Central LA, “the ghetto”. As he talks, he cannot stop moving. His feet are on the table, then off. He takes his shirt off, puts it back on, takes it off again. He’s sitting up, lying back, yawning, staring straight at me with giant brown eyes, looking sort of shellshocked and talking slowly.
“I built a plastic playground for these little kids,” he says. “I was pretty hidden away. Usually you have to do it in the street but they didn’t make me. I was painting, listening to music and having the best time. There were families there, and I got to meet a lot of people who were happy to see me. That felt good. Like I wasn’t just doing it because I did something stupid.”
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His new album, reckons Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun, is the moment he moves from “teen phenomenon to actual phenomenon with real credibility and huge hits. You saw it with Michael Jackson, you saw it with Usher, you saw it with Justin Timberlake. You start young, but you transition when you make great records.”
The redemption isn’t being attempted alone. On ‘Purpose’, alongside Skrillex and Blood Diamond, you will find Ed Sheeran (co-wrote ‘Love Yourself’), the soon-to-be-huge Halsey (sings on ‘The Feeling’) plus rappers Nas on ‘We Are’, Travis Scott on ‘No Sense’ and Big Sean on ‘No Pressure’.
In a looser capacity there’s legendary producer Rick Rubin, whose work includes the Beastie Boys’ ‘Licensed To Ill’, Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’, Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’ and ‘X’ by Ed Sheeran. Bieber says Rubin is “not really the producer, but kinda like one. He brought in a band and there were some dope vibes, but it wasn’t the music I wanna make. So I said, ‘I love you, but no thanks.’”
And then there is Kanye West, who has recovered from being seen as Public A***hole Number One, and is “one hundred per cent” someone Bieber can talk to. “Out of anyone in the industry who is creative, he really gets me. His advice is always just, ‘Make music that’s so good people can’t hate on it.’ I didn’t wanna bore him or waste his time. So I was like, ‘Can I play you these songs?’ and he was like, ‘I wanna hear everything.’ To hear him say that, it just showed that he cared.”
Justin Bieber was plucked from obscurity as a 13-year-old by his current manager Scooter Braun in 2007. He became, he says, “a kid in this industry with millions of dollars, where people come into your life and wanna gain from you, and I was naïve”. He adds: “People take from you, lie to you and steal your trust.”
Six years later he started “rebelling against everybody and everything, and being a normal 19-year-old”. But he was, he thinks, held to a “different standard” than other 19-year-olds. “It’s because of the way the ‘Justin Bieber brand’ was portrayed. I was a wholesome pop star who was so amazing who had nice hair and a fucking image that no one could ever live up to. So when all this happened people were like, ‘Woah, let’s rip him apart.’ If you see Ghandi roll up a blunt, it’s different to seeing Ryan Gosling roll up a blunt. You wouldn’t give Ryan Gosling a hard time.”
As Bieber gets more introspective his tone changes. “I never wanted to portray myself a certain way,” he says. “I just want people to know I’m human. I’m struggling just to get through the days. I think a lot of people are. Like, today is hard, man. We’ve got a lot of stuff to get through, and although there’s a lot I’m looking forward to and it’s awesome, it’s a struggle.”
In what way?
“You get lonely, you know, when you’re on the road. People see the glam and the amazing stuff, but they don’t know the other side. This life can rip you apart. I watched the Amy Winehouse documentary on the plane and I had tears in my eyes because I could see what the media was doing to her, how they were treating her. She was on drugs and they were just making fun of that. People thought it was funny to poke her when she was at rock bottom, to keep pushing her down until she had no more of herself. And that’s what they were trying to do to me. No one knew what I was feeling. I was rebelling against something deeper, and it took me a minute to realise I’m not gonna let them win.”
Did the Amy Winehouse documentary freak you out?
“It didn’t freak me out, but it made me sad. When I started out I just wanted to sing and make music. I was young, didn’t read celebrity blogs or see what the fuck was going on, but then I got famous and people started recognising me. I was like, ‘Dude, I didn’t sign up for this.’ And Amy in the movie talks about how she didn’t want to be famous, she just wanted to make music. It’s like, ‘Can you guys just leave me alone, I just wanna make the music. Please leave me alone.’”
How do you handle that?
“I let that shit affect me so bad. I used to not go places because I knew they’d follow me. But now I’m like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna have to deal with this probably for the rest of my life, so either I stay strong, or I let this affect me.’ I could think, ‘My life sucks, I have no privacy and every time I see the paparazzi I get mad.’ But that’s just gonna make me depressed.”
Do you get depressed?
“All the time. And I feel isolated. You’re in your hotel room and there are fans all around, paparazzi following you everywhere, and it gets intense. When you can’t go anywhere or do anything alone you get depressed. There’s a famous Jim Carrey quote, ‘If everyone was famous then nobody would wanna be famous.’ [Carrey actually said: ‘I hope everybody could get rich and famous and will have everything they ever dreamed of, so they will know that it’s not the answer.’] And it’s true. I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone.”
Whenever Bieber starts feeling too sorry for himself, he puts a positive spin on it – the sort of trick a therapist might teach someone recovering from a trauma. At one point he says he has to accept his life is “a trade-off”, and that “if I wanna do this, there’s gonna be darkness thrown at me”.
The public perception of Justin Bieber started to change at the beginning of 2015. First, in January, he apologised on The Ellen Degeneres Show for all the stupid things he’d done. Then in March he received two hours of ribbing by some of America’s most famous comedians on a Comedy Central Roast. Will Ferrell, in character as Ron Burgundy from Anchorman, cut deep: “People refer to Mr Bieber as a kid or a boy. Well here’s a newsflash, gang: He’s a man. A full-grown man, who sings songs for nine-year-olds and cuts his hair like a gay figure skater.”
By June one of the most remarkable recoveries in musical history was underway as Bieber became – for the first time ever – both trendy and credible after appearing on the Jack Ü track ‘Where Are Ü Now’ with Diplo and Skrillex. Now – after the subtle electro-pop of ‘What Do You Mean?’ – the rebirth of Bieber is almost complete.
He still might have a way to go to shake off his bratty image, however. Today, NME’s photographer has made a playlist. He tells Bieber he can turn it off if it starts getting on his nerves. “Well fuck,” Bieber drawls. “It already is!” He walks over to the iPod and puts on his own album instead.
But he’s not a total diva. When asked to do skateboard tricks off a variety of hotel furniture he just grabs his deck and does it. The same goes for his willingness to wrap a plastic joke shop knife around his head.
Outside the hotel is a modest gaggle of Beliebers. When asked what one thing they want to know about Justin, the response is unanimous: “Is he OK?” It’s hard to know what to say. He’s a charming dude, seems sad, happy and confused, all at the same time. Since this interview he’s appeared on TFI Friday and Radio 1 with no drama, but also cut a Spanish radio interview short and cancelled a gig in Oslo after one song, so who the hell knows? Maybe it’s best not to overthink it. Maybe he nailed it when, earlier, he simply said: “I’m alive, and that’s all that matters.”