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Interview: Sheldon Riley Talks 'Left Broken', Fashion & Vulnerability In Music

In 2019, a young man with an incredible voice appeared on the audition stage of The Voice. Dressed in a fashion forward purple shirt with ripped white jeans, the then 19-year-old Sheldon Riley, enamoured Australia with his rendition of Culture Club’s ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’. His timeless voice and iron will took Riley to the season’s top four, and also allowed him to travel to the US to compete in America’s Got Talent.

Nowadays, Riley is back in Australia and is ready to make his mark on the music industry. His latest single, ‘Let Broken’, is atmospheric, slightly husky, all-encompassing and epic. We spoke with Riley himself to learn more about the rising star and what he hopes to bring to Aussie music’s table.

You’re undeniably stylish. Why is fashion important to you and who are your biggest style inspirations?

“Ahh thank you so much! That’s very kind. I tell most people I meet that I never want to be known as ‘just a singer’. I aspire to be a complete performing artist in music and in fashion. Fashion is always at the front of my mind … [with] inspirations including Alexander McQueen, Bob Mackie, Giambattista Valli, Marc Jacobs, Valentino (artists who create SHOCK FACTOR fashion). As I'm writing a song, I start to picture how it will be performed, how it will look. Which ultimately leads me to think about what piece of fashion will really give the song that ‘moment’. My music tells stories in its own merit, but when I perform, when you watch what I do and the very thought-out way in which I’m dressed, the fabric, the structure of what I’m wearing. I feel that’s what brings my music into a new realm.”

You competed in America’s Got Talent 2020 and your performance of Billie Eilish’s ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’ has over 5 million views on YouTube. How did that experience shape you as a person and artist?

“It was a big experience for sure, especially flying over to the US during this crazy world we live in at the moment. AGT is a TV juggernaut, and I knew that what I did would be available to the entire world to see. It was the first time I had complete influence on song choice, no restrictions on outfit[s]. Just a big show who loved what I did in the past and believed I could bring an audition worthy to show the world. With this global audience in mind, I had a big choice - I could have ‘done what I thought people wanted from me’ (a big cinematic, over the top performance) - but I took a risk and all I wanted was for people to see what I had created, listen to my voice and hear my heart. The experience taught me to trust myself and most of all proved that, like a REAL ARTIST, my talent (my voice, the fashion I create) speak[s] for itself. I don’t need to rely on a whole production, that’s all just a bonus!”

You once stated ‘I’m a visual singer/songwriter. I love to hide my heartbreak behind masks and stories’. With this in mind, where do you draw the line between being vulnerable and being comfortable?

“That’s a tricky one, when you ask it like that... I would say that in a ‘Sheldon Riley’ performance, if I’m not as far away from the ‘comfort line’ as possible then it really isn’t Sheldon Riley! I have been through a lot (as a lot of us have), but not many choose to really live in their trauma for a career, hoping to write the perfect song. There are much deeper meanings behind what I sing and what I write. In the literal sense, the fashion side, crystals, masks, outfits, nails, makeup... it’s never all that comfortable, HAHA! So although I wear my fashion almost as ‘armour’, and now as a part of my identity and DNA, I never feel any less vulnerable. I would say now, I’m never actually hiding, it’s more a beautiful addition for myself and the people who come to listen!”

‘Left Broken’ is hauntingly beautiful. The second verse especially tugged at our hearts. How do you deal with knowing that people close to you and strangers are going to hear your innermost thoughts? Did that affect the songwriting process?

“Thank you. [T]o answer the first part of that question, for strangers... this song is for you. I suppose ‘Left Broken’ is a reset of sorts for me. [I]t’s about heartbreak, as we have all experienced that in one way or another, I hope everyone can connect to this song in that aspect. The people close to me however, it’s a tough one. As I was saying earlier, I have my own trauma, my own heart break. And I’m also learning to forgive and let go, so that definitely affects my writing process. My music is my therapy and I usually get my feelings out in my songs or at my piano. So by the time I’m ready to release, my head’s in a new space for that reason I’m careful not to be too literal. I don’t write revenge music or lyrics to ‘call people out’, I write music to heal. The song is for the individual listener. [T]he real meaning is just for me.”

What do you hope will be people’s takeaway after hearing ‘Left Broken’?

“I just hope people will connect to the song in their own way. As I was saying before, for me, I wrote this about a particular heartbreak, one where I wasn’t ready to give up on my love, but I had to ask them to let me go, leaving me in my own broken-ness. So, I gave the visual of Edward Scissor Hands because he was a formidable, authentic character who was left completely broken and ultimately unfixable and in his way he was truly beautiful and captivating. I want people to feel that when they listen, understanding that not every song gives a perfect ending. I don't plan on writing music with fairy tale endings because my reality is like Edward’s. [I]t was unfixable, it hurt a lot, but it has made me so much stronger!”

What’s next for you?

“I’m LOVING writing music, creating new visuals and giving more of my original work to the world. I’m passionate about what I do because every song that I plan on releasing really is such a big part of myself! I have BIG plans on where I want to take myself in this crazy career, but for now, you’ll definitely be seeing lots more original music and content on the horizon!”

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