Nick Ward: Sydney artist makes affecting, personal pop music that embraces contradiction

Every month in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’d have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite act. Confident and confessional, Nick Ward’s second EP ‘Brand New You’ finds the 21-year-old navigating the “tension of all the different parts of yourself”

“I’ve realised that what inspires me the most are contradictions,” Nick Ward tells NME. It’s not difficult to believe him: ‘Brand New You’, the Sydney singer, songwriter and producer’s new EP is practically built on them, his disparate identities as both a person and an artist interwoven throughout.

I don’t want to explain myself to them / So they can find a little box they can put me in,” Ward sings early on opener ‘Alien’, a song about rejecting binaries and easy categorisation. The sounds follow the theme: ‘Alien’ begins with lush, dreamlike atmospherics and ends with a pop-punk crescendo charged by big, distorted riffs.

Both sonically and thematically, ‘Brand New You’ flourishes when it leans into the spaces in between. Ward’s brand of pop rarely takes the most accessible route, melding fingerpicked acoustic guitars, soaring synth hooks and glitched-out experimentation, often within the same song.

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“The project is really about the tension of all the different parts of yourself, and realising that everything can kind of co-exist,” Ward explains.

‘Brand New You’ is the second in a trilogy of EPs that began last year with Ward’s debut, ‘Everything I Wish I Told You’, released when he was 19. As with ‘Brand New You’, the songs on that EP are about negotiating one’s identity.“It wasn’t too long ago that I was attending an all-boys school that warped my sense of masculinity and sexuality, and made my ‘coming out’ pretty convoluted,” he explained in a statement upon its release.

Like his new EP, ‘Everything I Wish I Told You’ saw Ward exploring contrasts, pairing sparse acoustic instrumentation with hip hop-tinged production. ‘Brand New You’ builds significantly on those nascent sensibilities, channelling them into a more coherent approach.

“That first EP is this naive, fresh out of high school, queer thing. I’m kind of just trying to tell the story and just try to throw all these giant emotions into it,” Ward says now. “With this new project, I think I just came at it with so much more confidence. And I’m not trying to box myself in on this one. Musically and with my identity, it’s like: no, I can do anything.”

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Halfway through ‘Brand New You’ is the emotional core of the record, the E^ST-assisted ‘Funeral’. Written about Ward losing both his grandparents in a short amount of time, it’s the most personal song on the EP, underscoring its search for something beyond one’s own internal world. “I wish I believed in something that was bigger than myself,” Ward sings.

Scattered throughout ‘Brand New You’ are snippets of a recorded conversation between Ward had with his grandmother when he was 12. She asks him a series of questions about his future: What does he think he’ll be like at 21 (his current age)? What about 100?

Ward found the recording, along with the Super-8 footage that’s included in the ‘Funeral’ music video, while at his grandparents’ house for the funeral the song describes. He was already around 60 to 70 per cent done with ‘Brand New You’ when he came across the recording, and says it was a “bit of a mindfuck” to discover it. “There’s a nice contrast between the questions that I was being asked then and then these giant questions I’m asking myself now, where they connect and where there’s a difference.”

Ward’s grandmother was religious, and some of the questions she asked him were about faith: What does he think heaven is like? “I’m not sure there is one,” a young Ward replies. He says today: “I’m not a religious person at all, but I think that the project is really about trying to find something bigger than yourself. Something that gives you purpose.”

“I’m not trying to box myself in on this one. Musically and with my identity, it’s like: no, I can do anything”

Listening to ‘Brand New You’, it’s obvious that the ‘bedroom pop’ label is mostly literal. Some connotations of the genre – minimal, homespun production and off-the-cuff songwriting – don’t really apply here, as the amount of time and effort meticulously invested into these songs shines through. “I think it’s only with this rollout that I’ve realised people can actually feel the work you can put in,” Ward says. “I’m realising, ‘Oh shit, people do really see it,’ which is really nice.”

Ward wasn’t alone in the work. ‘Alien’ was co-written with Cub Sport’s Tim Nelson and co-produced by Lucianblomkamp. Other contributors include Maxwell Byrne (aka Golden Vessel) and Lonelyspeck, with the likes of Ashwarya and Kllo’s Simon Lam providing background vocals on select tracks.

As personal a project as ‘Brand New You’ sounds like, each of Ward’s collaborators leave their mark – exactly what he says he approached them for in the first place.

“I want to be a bit of a curator. I know what I’m coming to them for,” he says. “I’ve been in sessions where the producer is a glorified engineer and there’s no input coming from them. I really need to work with people who are going to add something to the source rather than me controlling what they’re doing to them.”

Nick Ward
Nick Ward. Credit: Jacinthe Lau

Having built a community of like-minded peers, Ward is transparent on social media about navigating the industry as a young, emerging artist. He’s optimistic about what comes next for Australia’s “fertile” scene, post-Denis Handlin and two years after the pandemic forced a shutdown of business as usual. “I think history has a way of doing the opposite of what came before, and I feel with so much power being given to major labels and gatekeepers in the Australian industry, there’s just going to be a time where…” he trails off into thought. “Well, what comes up must come down.”

With his second EP soon out in the world, Ward has turned his attention to the third project in the series. He envisions it as a prequel reflecting on his childhood, about “how people and moments in my life when I was younger have stayed with me today” that references the music playing in the car in his youth – Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac.

But for now, Nick Ward welcomes listeners to ‘Brand New You’: an affecting, incredibly promising snapshot of an artist confidently stepping into their identity – with all the contradictions that entails.

Nick Ward’s ‘Brand New You’ is out April 29 via Hunnydew Recordings. His Brand New Tour hits Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in June – more info here

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