“If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it my way.”

Although SXMSON has been making music for over 10 years, the rising star has only recently launched his bid for superstardom.

Over the past year, SXMSON has received critical acclaim for his pop anthems, particularly his latest release Smile – a dark electronic ballad in which the 26-year-old captures “the raw reality that comes with identifying as an LGBTQ+ musician”.

His music videos have also received praise for their authenticity and unapologetic queerness; the clip for Memory sees SXMSON torn between two male lovers and the visual for Smile aims to humanise drag performers to audiences.

However, it took a while for SXMSON to feel comfortable enough to express himself in this way.

“I learnt to hide my emotions through being in the closet for such a long time,” he tells us. “It trained me from a kid to either ignore my emotions or tell myself that whatever I was feeling inside was wrong, and it shouldn’t be kept to myself. It’s only more recently, the past few months, where I’m training myself to think differently.”

We caught up with the British singer-songwriter and discussed his incredible new single Smile, why he refuses to “shy away” from his sexuality and the importance of discussing mental health within his music.

Have you always wanted to be a musician?
Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a singer. That was something that I secretly wanted to do for years before I actually came out as wanting to be a musician. Before that, I said I wanted to be some kind of spaceman, an astronaut but deep down, I wanted to sing. I was really shy about it as a kid because for some reason, I thought singing, music and sexuality were linked and I was really scared to admit that. I thought I would be called gay on the playground – even though I was. I started having singing lessons when I was around 11, and that was the first time where I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna try this.’ Then when I was 15 or 16, I started writing. 

What did you write about?
[Laughs] The first song that I wrote was called Bang Bang and it was about my ex-girlfriend breaking up with me, and about how much – and I quote – it “shocked me in the heart”. It was a stretch! Back then, writing music was so different to me writing music now. Now, I can actually be fully open and honest about what I’m writing about, whereas for a good few years, I was writing shit because it meant nothing to me. I was trying to emulate whatever I heard on the radio. When you’re writing and it’s literally coming from nothing, it’s pointless. 

At what age did you start writing more authentically?
I continued to write when I was at university, but I still don’t think that was my authentic self. Even once I came out, when I was around 19 or 20, I was still struggling to connect with myself. I was able to delve a little bit deeper into my writing but… The first song that meant a lot to me was In My Mind, which I wrote about four years ago, it was about mental health. Once I started exploring my sexuality, it slowly came together. 

Who were you inspired by growing up?
As a kid, I was pretty lost when it came to finding inspiration. That’s why I’m now slowly coming into my own a lot more. I used to love boybands, bubblegum pop, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but I had to hide all of that. When people used to take my iPod, I was really scared about what songs would be on there. I used to make a different kind of playlist that people at school could see. I definitely had people that I was inspired by, but unfortunately I saw it as something that I shouldn’t like, that I should be ashamed of. It was when I got older that I was like, ‘I love making music, I wanna get deeper.’ That’s when I started getting inspired by people like Prince and Janet Jackson.

Karen Ftouni

You’re Iranian and Jewish – how was your coming out experience?
It wasn’t negative. I definitely had negative experiences growing up but as a whole, I would like to think that my Iranian and Jewish roots didn’t create a negative impact on my lifestyle because I’m very proud of it. How I like to see life is that you take from life what you want. I think that there’s some people who had some of the experiences that I did, more-so within the Jewish community, where people have been like, ‘All Jews think this. They’re homophobic.’ At the end of the day, people are people and you can have really religious people, or you can have people born in Iran who are only presented with one view, but they can still think very differently. For me, it’s just about the person and how they choose to act. In general, I’ve had a good experience. However, sexuality within the Iranian community… sometimes things aren’t spoken about as much. Also, I’ve removed myself naturally from these communities. I do have Jewish friends, but I surround myself with like-minded people. My grandparents know about my sexuality because they got introduced to my boyfriend a few years ago, but I’m not close to them. It’s not discussed.

How did you get your start in the industry?
I don’t know what ‘getting my start’ really means to be honest with you. I was slowly introduced to a few different music producers, who I would make songs with when I was younger, but those songs would never see the light of day. Things started coming a bit more serious when I left university. I started working with a producer who really got my sound and pushed me to think a bit more about what I was writing. Even though I’ve been making music for a long time, it’s only really been this year that I said to myself, ‘Right, get a grip. You need to stop burying your hand in the sand and asking yourself why all these opportunities aren’t coming to you. Start pushing yourself.’ 

Where did the inspiration for your new single Smile come from?
I wrote Smile two years ago. I was going through a really rough time with my mental health in regards mostly to the music industry. At the time, I felt super lost. I felt like I had all these experiences and I had potential opportunities coming up, and it never led to anything. I felt alone and I felt like no one cared. I decided to go away to Berlin for a few days to have a bit of a break from everything, and I had a massive breakdown while I was there. All of a sudden, I realised that I had been holding in all of the shit that I had been feeling and trying to put on a brave face for everyone. In the industry especially, it’s all about how you look. It’s all about trying to appear like you’re doing things. You see people you’ve met on social media posting about all these amazing sessions they’re in, or they’re writing with these producers that you were writing with, but now they’re ghosting you. When I got back, I had a session and before we started writing the song, I was a mess. I poured my heart out.

How did you get to the point where you thought to yourself, ‘Okay, let’s not bottle this up anymore.’
I learnt to hide my emotions through being in the closet for such a long time. It trained me from a kid to either ignore my emotions or tell myself that whatever I was feeling inside was wrong, and it shouldn’t be kept to myself. Holding in your emotions for 20 years is a big deal. When I wrote this song, I just realised that I don’t deserve to feel like that. Even after I wrote it, I went through really shit times with my mental health. It’s only more recently, the past few months, where I’m training myself to think differently. 

The video is amazing – where did that story stem from? 
I have been opened up to the drag community through one of my best friends, a professional drag queen called Tayce. Through that friendship and being around the people behind the drag queen, my perception of the drag community is so different in such a positive way. It humanised the drag community for me. I think RuPaul’s Drag Race has done a good job of humanising the contestants, but I think people are so used to seeing drag queens as entertainment. In this video, I wanted to show a different perspective to drag; with their makeup off, with no face. I thought it would beautifully tie-in my story with someone else’s experience. 

It’s your second consecutive video in which you put queer stories at the forefront. Is this important for you to do?
It brings me such a smile to even think about it. I’m not doing it for the sake of it, at all. When it came to the Memory music video, I literally wanted to retell my story. My story was about me and an ex, who is a man, and me with a new person I was seeing, who was a man as well. It was my first proper music video and I wanted to be honest. I wanted to create the music video that I craved as a kid, to recreate those straight music videos because I have every right to do that and I’m not going to shy away from it. I’ve still got a lot more to show in future music videos and I hope to bring in other aspects of the queer community. I don’t want to be one of those LGBTQ artists that shies away from being queer. There are too many videos by queer artists that have them standing there singing, while it tells the story of a man and woman. If I’m going to do this, I want to do it my way. 

How are you navigating the music industry as an independent gay artist?
In all honesty, I’m just focused on what I’m doing. There was a time, especially before I was releasing music, when I was trying to navigate myself too much. I didn’t understand why nothing was working. I just want to make music and put out content, because that’s what I love to do. I’m so much more confident in the message that I want to convey to people in my music, whereas beforehand I wasn’t so sure. I was trying to push myself for the wrong reasons. The more that I pushed myself for the wrong reasons, the more nothing was happening. My plan is to put out content and see what happens from there. I’m not interested in chasing things. 

You have to go at your own pace, but social media makes you forget that. 
So much so. You see all these pop stars at 16 and they’ve hundreds of thousands of followers which is amazing, but if I look at myself and where I’m at now, and I see where I was a year ago, I’m a completely different person. It’s weird that I’m able to say that because I never thought I’d get to that point. I really do believe that I will get to where I want to be eventually, when it’s meant to be right. 

What are your plans for releasing music? Is an EP on the horizon?
If you would’ve asked me a couple weeks ago, I would’ve just said that I’m releasing singles, but I’m actually in the process of releasing an EP which I’m really excited about. The thing that I’m most excited about is that it’s all just starting to make more sense. I originally had a plan to release a different EP with a combination of songs that were made by different producers, made at different times and I was going to create a concept around it. There was something that wasn’t feeling right. I learned to listen to myself. 

What can we expect from SXMSON in 2020?
2020 you’ll have an EP and a more fully-formed SXMSON. I’ve also got a dance feature coming out! I want to continue to make videos, make music, perform more… I want to perform at festivals. I want to feel like I’m progressing.

Watch the video for SXMSON’s incredible new single Smile below.