When an unknown artist comes out of nowhere and takes up a vast amount of pop-radio real estate without the help of a record label, people notice quickly.
Enter Sebell, whose song Till the Sun Burns Out hit the Canadian Hot 100 Billboard charts within a week and a half of its quiet February release. There was no biography for DJs to reference. Pictures of the artist never showed his complete face. Even the song’s video featured only his silhouette in the rare occasion he was seen.
Until now, Sebell has been an enigma, but after an impressive debut shrouded in secrecy, he has decided to pull back the curtain.
“I think we live in a time where there is no mystery any more,” Sebell says during a chat in a quiet downtown Toronto diner. “The Internet kind of broke down that barrier between fan and artist, which is awesome, but now it’s oversaturated.”
Unmarketing, as he calls it, was always his initial strategy. “That is the true test. If a song can connect without any back story and people like it, then I feel you have something really special.”
In Sebell’s case, listeners decided quickly that they enjoyed his music. But when fans started looking for more information, Google searches turned up Twitter, Facebook or Instagram profiles filled with snapshots of objects, foods and places Sebell visited. That’s it.
“I think people enjoy that hunt for more information,” Sebell says. “It is important to be accessible to a certain extent and to connect with your fans through social media or at live shows, but also to let there be room for them to get to know you over time.”
So, who exactly is Sebell? No overnight success, he already has a 12-year music career with an impressive résumé under a different name. If you’re looking for an underdog story, he’s the independent artist that could.
His name is Greg Sczebel (pronounced, yes, “Sebell”) and he has won Juno Awards for both of his records, the last of which came out in 2010. The 29-year-old Salmon Arm, B.C., native is also winner of Billboard’s WorldWide Song Contest, a two-time grand-prize winner of the international John Lennon Songwriting Contest and more. He also toured as country artist Paul Brandt’s keyboardist for seven years.
Years ago, Sebell decided he needed to step away from the piano-driven, R&B-meets-pop music of his past and tap into the accessibility of mainstream pop.
“I needed to press reset,” he recalls. “Musically, I was a different person then. My palate had changed, so it was a chance to start fresh while still having some ties to who I was.”
Having started his career right out of high school, Sebell was heavily influenced by the faith-based music played almost exclusively in his home growing up. The goal was to one day sign with a major Christian record label in Nashville. However, after meeting with the Christian labels during his career’s infancy stage, he found it wasn’t the right fit.
“I think that was the turning point,” he recalls. “The box is very small in that genre. They have their expectations and a very precise format for radio with a very specific sound to it. Frankly, I was told that my music wasn’t Christian enough.”
Sebell pushed forward and experimented with both his music and audience as Greg Sczebel – playing clubs, wineries and malls, with a church performance on the odd weekend. But he knew that, in order for true creative freedom, a complete reset was necessary – including his name.
“My whole time as an independent artist, I was in self-development. I was really fine-tuning my thing.”
To help discover this new style, Sebell enlisted Canadian producer Davey Badiuk, who has made remixes for Dragonette and Tegan and Sara. Originally, Till the Sun Burns Out was a mellower tune that began two years ago, before turning into the dance-driven mix that eventually went to radio. “It was still a love song before, but a sad love song,” Sebell says. “We just made it a little more happy.”
Sebell has been in Toronto for nearly two months working with his team on new music. An EP is scheduled for a summer release, with a second coming not long after that. A full-length debut will come next year.
The mystery and rebranding seem to be paying off. Major labels in Canada and the U.S. have approached Sebell since his song hit the radio, potentially opening the doors to a larger audience.
“I want to write songs that mean something and connect,” he reflects. “Music is so unifying and can speak a language that nothing else can. I love that.”