Interview: Sheldon Riley on coming out, self-love and his debut single “More Than I”

You might recognise Sheldon Riley from your TV screens, having competed in The Voice Australia Seasons 7 and 8, and recently came back from wowing international audiences on America’s Got Talent Season 15.

With an impressive fanbase garnered through his television appearances, the demand is high for Sheldon’s original work to be released into the world. Luckily for his intensely devoted fans, the countdown is nearly over.

Friday November 6th marks the drop of Sheldon’s debut single, “More Than I” – a deeply personal cinematic anthem that battles crippling hesitation through stark polarities. His song foreshadows a diaristic album to come, leaving no corner of Sheldon’s life in the dark.

We caught up with Sheldon ahead of the release and his debut performance at the Australian Hair Fashion Awards, to get entrenched in the story behind “More Than I” and to hear about what more is to come.

Sheldon, we are so close to your debut single’s release! How are you feeling?

Good, I’m feeling really good. And I feel like it’s scary. I feel like everyone’s been waiting to hear music come from me from one show to the next show, to the next one, and then I’m finally doing it. It’s happening.

You’re taking the plunge. I feel like that’s very much on theme with the release because in “More Than I”. I was listening to the lyrics and you talk about fight or flight, do or die. And I think this is one of those moments where you’re like, ‘I want to run away right now, but I’m going to go forward.’

Yeah, definitely. What’s crazy about this song is that, I don’t know. I actually brought this book with me over to America; because I’ve got a heap of song lyrics written in this little book that I’ve been writing for years now, and when I got back from LA, I had to quarantine. So, I thought I might as well dive into this song, but when I was a little kid, I was writing about this angsty feeling of always wanting to just do something or just say something or just be something but always hesitating.

So, I think for me, when I had all that time to be in quarantine and really think about it, I think for my whole life, I’ve always kind of been that person that’s always too scared to deep dive into doing something. So with this song, I wanted to start at the beginning and really think about what was the biggest thing that I ever really hesitated on and I think that was… It wasn’t really about coming out as being gay, but really coming out as being myself almost.

So for me, this constant fight with myself, if I am myself, am I going to be liked or not? That kind of stereotypical, obvious factor of it, but then also, will I like myself as well when I do come out to the world as who I am? Will I like the version of myself that I’ve always felt that I wanted to be, but I wasn’t sure about how that was going to go. Do you know what I mean?

A hundred percent. It’s nice to have that time to sit down and work through that. I think a lot of people can have a strong takeaway from that message of your songs.

Look, I think the main thing that I really wanted to hone into with this song is thinking about those moments of hesitation and what came after it as well. I think the main reason for me writing the song was always; my biggest hesitation, was always expressing to people how I was feeling in those moments and hesitations.

So for me, my biggest thing was when I came out as gay and also when I came out as how I dress, what I wear and everything, there’s this kind of small moment. It’s a very small moment where you come out and you’ve now let yourself out onto the table, and you’ve got all these people that are waiting to reply, and you have to wait to see what they’re going to say.

And I had to kind of remind myself in that moment, in that little break, that no one’s going to love you more than yourself. Because, there’s so many people out there that come out as gay or come out as whatever they are and they don’t become well-received from what they’ve come out as.

For me, I wanted to write that song and let people know that whatever you are, if you’re not living the truest version of yourself or your authentic self, when you do come out as whatever it is, whether the response is good or bad, no one’s going to love you more than yourself in that moment. So, treat yourself with kindness, like how you’d want other people to respect it when you do come out.

Wow. Yeah, that’s really important. It’s such a scary thing to do, and it’s helpful to remind people that regardless of how it’s received, you’re going to thank yourself for it, over and over again.

Can I ask, how old were you when you came out, if you don’t mind?

I was fourteen or fifteen years old. I was really young, but I’ve always been, I don’t know… A lot of people don’t believe it because I’m such a social butterfly now, but when I was a little kid, I was fully diagnosed with Asperger’s. I was mute to everybody. The only person I spoke to was my sister. I was incredibly quiet and I had so much hiding and building up inside.

So, I think a lot of people that have spoken to me that have said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you came out at fourteen. That’s so young.’ To me, I was already at fourteen with so many different anxiety issues thinking about what’s going on in my head and why am I so quiet? And why am I always being told I’m so different from everybody else? So yeah, it was a lot going on in my little fourteen-year-old brain.

Do you think there was a switch at some point, like once you came out, you were like, ‘Oh, weight off my shoulders. I feel like I can move through the world more freely.’ You got out of your head?

Definitely. That’s why I know it’s hard to kind of understand and explain. But, I think that’s why I tell people that coming out as me was bigger for me than coming out as gay. So, I came out as gay but I was still very insecure and I still was so unsure of what I was and who I wanted to be. Whereas, when I came out and said, ‘I want to be a male. I want to be a gay male who dresses up and dresses big and lives life excitingly, and always does things different from everybody else.’ That was the moment where it switched for me, where I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve found my thing.’ I think it’s harder to understand, as well now, in 2020 when everyone’s trying to be different and everyone’s trying to be an individual. It’s like, back when I was doing that, it was totally different. No one wanted to be a standout, everyone was following trends.

Yeah, particularly as a 14 or 15-year-old, all you want to do is fit in. The last thing you want to do is do something to stand out. If you look at kids on TikTok nowadays, there seems to be less of that awkward phase…

Right? I know. I was looking at a few of these kids. I was never that kid. I look at kids now and I’m like, I don’t know. I know that there are still people out there, though, that are super insecure in what they’re doing. Especially in a world where aesthetic is so big now, I think there just needs to be somebody that stands up and says, ‘Hey, you don’t need to follow the trend of everybody else just because that’s what it is.’

If anything, I think the divide is larger in that there’s like hyper-awkward and hyper-put-together. And that’s just simply because the put-together people are projected and then that just makes you want to shy away even more.

Tell me more about this book that you’re writing lyrics in. Was it kind of like in diary-form?

Yeah. It’s like a really small diary kind of thing. It’s like one of those old Officeworks notepads, but I’ve had it for years now. And, again, when I say I didn’t speak to people, I really didn’t speak to anybody. I was that kind of kid that just sat in his room and did creative stuff, played arts and crafts, and rip things up and turn them into little outfits. I really was that kid.

So, I did have this little book. I wrote a heap of different things in there. Some of it’s super awkward and embarrassing, but then other parts I’m like, ‘Oh, this is really full on for a fourteen-year-old or twelve, eleven, or ten-year-old kid to be writing into.’ It was pretty full on. I think that’s why I wanted to release this single, because I wanted to start with something that was kind of from the moment that kind of kicked it all off.

And then, the album that’s to come will be pretty much a big story of what’s written in this book. And, there’s a lot that goes on in there. I kind of forget myself from when I was a little kid and I feel like little things like this book are the things that make me remind myself, ‘Oh, that’s right. That’s why I feel this way. That’s why I feel pain when I’m singing.’ I kind of feel like for me personally, I go into this space when I’m singing and it’s so dark and it’s so painful. But then when I snap out of it, I go, ‘Where did that come from?’ I’m so happy now and I often forget that that was the kid that I was and that was the feeling I was constantly having in my mind.

So yeah, this book’s filled with so many different, so many songs in there and I’ve re-imagined a lot of the things that I’ve written when I was a kid into the songs I’m about to release. And, it’s kind of almost been a very big reminder of how far I’ve come.

It’s quintessentially the phrase, ‘This too shall pass.’ At that time you’re feeling just darkness, but now look at you. You just radiate, you’re a beaming light in human form, and I think a lot of people can see that. If anything, it just chronicles your evolution, this album.

Thank you! I’m excited to let everyone hear it. And then I’m really big on aesthetic and metaphors and everything, as well. I come from a pretty religious family, so I struggled with that a lot. I wrote a lot about that in this book of mine and I think that’s why I wanted to start off the album cover with the angel. I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover of it yet, but I’ve been posting a lot of all this angel stuff. I’ve already always kind of looked at myself as this kind of dark angel that didn’t fit, but I’m not a dark angel in a weird way. I still look like this angelic white angel thing. I don’t know if that makes any sense. I think it’s really cool that I’m playing with my fashion and stuff, as well as in my music.

The dichotomy. I love it. Tell me about working with collaborators on this one, because this would be quite a nerve-wracking experience to bring these storylines to complete strangers.

A thousand percent, especially because they’re so personal, as well. I think that’s what the big thing is. That it is so personal to me, but I think that’s also a big reason why it’s taken me so long because I’ve been really searching for the right person to bring these songs to life. They’re fully formed, ready to go. They just need to be produced by someone that gets it and understands the world.

So, when I was introduced to Sam Sakr for this song, I just fell in love with his work. He’s got this really cool, dark, ambient, he makes it like this light and shade. He’s very similar in the way that I create, this kind of ‘it’s not dark, but it’s not light.’ It’s really mixed and it’s got quite a cool edginess to it. So, I think working with him, he’s a real introvert as well. I consider myself a kind of introverted extrovert. So when I went into this space, we both didn’t really talk much, but we both understood each other a lot. So, I just wanted the song to be really me and I felt like he really got that.

It sounds like you guys really perfectly compliment each other.

From what I can tell from your fan base, you’re definitely an idol to a lot of the people who follow you. I’m curious who you look up to.

Yeah. I’m actually really surprised at that; at the audience that I’ve got. I can’t believe people actually really tune in. I get surprised by it every day. I’m so grateful and so blessed for it every day. But especially like for me, I have always looked up to a lot of different people, but it all came in later parts in life as well.

So I love Amy Winehouse. There’s something about her that’s super cool. I think for me, again, coming from a religious background, when I first heard “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse, that changed my life and I didn’t know what it was, but she made me feel something that made me go, ‘This is cool.’ And I realised probably in that moment that if I was going to create music, it was going to be music that inspired rather than just music that made sense. Amy Winehouse is awesome.

Gaga is a massive fashion standpoint to me. Adam Lambert‘s been awesome for me in my branding and everything, as well. I get compared to Adam Lambert a lot; but we’re so different. I think, just for me, it gives me hope that there is room in the industry for boys who like to put makeup on. But, yeah, I think those three are probably my biggest.

Those are definitely three great idols to look up to. Do you have a sort of ‘I’ve made it’ goal?

Definitely. The two things I’ve always kind of said, because music and fashion go so hand-in-hand with me, so I think fashion-wise, I would love to be an Australian singer that’s invited to the Met Gala. That would be incredible, to finally make it to there and then be respected as a musician and as someone who does fashion, too.

But music, I have so many goals in music and I think some of the ones that were my biggest goals and are things that are so possible to me. I always wanted to do Eurovision. But I think now I look at it and I think that’s so possible for me, which is so cool. But now, I would love to sing overseas and be recognised in parts of Europe and countries that don’t speak English.

I would love to break into the Asian kind of market, as well, and do that. I just love audiences that respect the amount of effort and time that go into my appearance as well.

These are definitely all possibilities on the horizon and it’s super exciting to chat to you at the very beginning of this whole solo phase of your career. It’s incredible and I think what you are doing and what you’re spreading is just so topical and necessary.

Thank you.

“More Than I” is out November 6th. Catch Sheldon Riley LIVE at the sold-out Australian Hair Fashion Awards at Sydney’s Luna Park on November 8th.  

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