It seems like an eternity since we saw South African-born Nathaniel Willemse take the stage in the fourth season of X Factor in 2012. Finishing sixth, there was the potential for this talented performer to fall away from the radar, but Willemse is not one to step back from a challenge. Two hit singles and a daring new track Vapours just released, there’s no stopping him from reaching his dream of performing on the world’s main stage.
“I’ve always had this big, massive vision of being on the same playing field as those artists, and it’s a process of trying to find that number one song that slingshots me into that ball park,” he enthuses. “[Vapours] isn’t as pop and commercial as what I have released before… but it’s not to say that I’m not going to release songs like I have done in the past.”
With a swift move in the direction of electronic R&B and away from the pop for which we know him best, Willemse has made it clear that while the change was a necessary creative path for him, he wants to continue to build diversity in his sound. “For me in creating music – and this goes across the board – I try to make it as natural as possible. I guess in 2016, the majority of the year I was back and forth to America meeting a lot of different people. And I wanted to change the direction slightly and have something a bit more edgy and a bit more rebellious… I’m taking a bit more or a risk, pushing the boundaries.”
Five years down the track, how has his experience on X Factor impacted him as a performer and on his view of the industry? “This type of career isn’t for everyone,” he states. “You need to have a certain personality that goes with it and confidence that goes with it. It’s not going to get you in front of the right people if you don’t have that. It’s tough to be on stage in front of a live audience and four incredible judges, and artists in their own right, critiquing you from head to toe. It’s a lot for a person to take on… week to week having their self-esteem bashed inside and out.
“I guess X Factor was just a massive opportunity for me to get into the right people’s ears and faces. Because it’s open to such a massive audience… For me personally it’s what got me started, it got me on national television performing to millions of people, live audiences, and really got me known to everyone out there.
“It took about eight or nine months after the show ended, after multiple meetings and networking and writing songs and having showcases with record labels, that I eventually got there. It definitely kick-started my career on at the highest note possible.”
Having been released from his contract with Sony in 2016, Willemse has worked alongside a new team with a fresh vision. “The last year has been tough trying to adapt to this new independent world. Coming out of my contract with a big record label it was only natural for me to reflect on who I am and what I want to do. But the team I’ve put together, it’s good to have people out there who support you regardless of what you’ve been through and what you’re going through.”
And with a new team and a degree of creative freedom comes the opportunity to push boundaries. Enter the provocative accompanying clip for Vapours – larger than life and filled with seduction, it’s certainly miles from his previous clips. “It shows a mysterious side to me which I’ve always had… I’ve always had a vision of where I wanted the clips to go and in what direction and [Peter John – Epik Films] made it happen. I wanted a big, open landscape and to capitalise on such a big space.
Having started his career performing in front of massive crowds and under huge pressure, Willemse has his fans to thank, and heading out on tour is what pushes him to keep making music. “It’s the best part of this whole job… meeting fans and engaging with them and having a good time, and when it’s being up close and personal, it’s really important.
“It’s the engagement and the energy you get from the fans – you’re writing music and making music and being creative and a lot of your time is spent in a room where all the creative juices are flowing and you record the song and all that stuff. When you get the song in your hands and it’s out there in the world it’s like a recharge – doing gigs and touring and doing festivals.”