Maclean's Interview: Justin Bieber

The R & B sensation talks about Usher and Justin Timberlake, his mom and his fans, and what his swagger coach teaches him

At just 15, R & B singer and Stratford, Ont., native Justin Bieber has seen his debut CD, My World, enter the Nielsen Soundscan Album Chart at No. 1 in Canada, and crack the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S. An only child raised by a single mother, Bieber has seen his life change dramatically over the past year. Once the class clown, he now travels with a tutor and hopes to graduate from the School Of Young Performers in New York. With the European leg of a tour opening for Taylor Swift just completed, Bieber spoke to Maclean’s from on the road in the U.S.

Q: You first started getting attention after you posted clips of yourself singing on YouTube. Why did you do that?
A: I was in a singing competition and my friends and family that couldn’t see the competition wanted to be there, so I posted videos on YouTube and sent all my family the links. I really just did it for friends and family. Then other people started watching it.

Q: Had you ever thought the clips might lead to a record deal?
A: Not at all. I wasn’t putting it up for that reason, so it wasn’t something I was really interested in. I never thought that it could even happen. I was from Stratford, a town of 30,000; it was something that you just didn’t think of, you know what I mean?

Q: How did it lead to a record deal?
A: I was contacted by many different record executives, a lot of different managers and agents. My mom was basically like, “Justin, I don’t think this is going to happen, it’s not going to work, we don’t have a lawyer, we don’t have money for a lawyer, and we’re not going to just sign something that we don’t know what it says.” So we ended up just declining all these people. And this one guy, his name’s Scooter [Braun, an Atlanta-based music promoter], he was trying to contact my family. He got in contact with my school board, with my great-aunt that I’ve never met before, and ended up getting in contact with my aunt, who passed the message to my mom. And my mom was like, “Who is this guy?” And then she went and called him to get rid of him. They ended up having a two-hour conversation. My mom had that gut feeling. I think moms generally know when they have their gut feelings. This guy offered to fly us to Atlanta no strings attached. That was basically how it started.

Q: It’s well known that Usher and Justin Timberlake ended up fighting over who would sign you. What happened?
A: I was going to a studio in Atlanta to meet some people and Usher was there, he was rolling up at the same time. It was kind of weird, I’d never seen a famous person before. So I ran up to him. I was like, “Usher, Usher, I love your songs, can I sing you one?” And he said no in the politest possible way. Like, “Well, let’s just go inside, little buddy, it’s cold out.” So I didn’t end up getting to sing for him. I was a little bit disappointed. Back in Canada I told everybody, “Yeah, I met Usher,” and they were like, “Yeah, right.” I got a call a week later from Scooter who said Usher saw my videos and was like, “This kid’s very talented,” and offered to fly me back to Atlanta again. So we were like, “Why not?” We flew back to Atlanta, had a meeting with Usher, it went great. He wanted to sign me right then and there. But we’d already scheduled a meeting with Justin Timberlake. Justin and Usher are definitely rivals in the industry. They both wanted to sign me and we basically ended up going with Usher. They were both great guys, but it came down to my lawyers making the final decision.

Q: Your CD debuted at No. 1 in Canada and it’s doing very well in the U.S. You’ve worked with some well-known R & B producers. Do you think it’s that the songs are good or the production? What accounts for your CD’s success?
A: I got to work with a lot of great producers and a lot of great writers. I got to work with [Christopher] “Tricky” [Stewart] and the Dream, who wrote Obsessed by Mariah Carey. The album was just a blast and I think that having so much fun was reflected in the album. I think people saw that.

Q: You’re successful in large part because of things like YouTube and Twitter, social networking websites you use to constantly remain in touch with your fans. Did you do that consciously, is it something that you now try hard to keep up?
A: It’s something that is very good for any new artist. I think that the Internet is something that keeps your fans involved in the project. They can talk to you, they can write to you, you’re able to interact with your fans, you can keep them updated, you can put videos on YouTube saying where you are, and it just makes them feel like they’re part of the project. It’s a new day and age. I think a lot of older artists didn’t have the chance to use the Internet and Facebook. It’s a great way to bring your fans in.

Q: YouTube is also full of clips of you at events surrounded by screaming girls. For people who’ve never been the centre of attention like that, what’s it like to be there and be you?
A: I think I’m in the right business, I’ve always loved to be the centre of attention. In class I would always be the class clown.

Q: Is it ever claustrophobic?
A Of course. I’m a really claustrophobic person to begin with. I hate elevators, especially crammed elevators. I get really scared. So I think that it’s very definitely scary when girls are all around me and I can’t go anywhere. At the same time, I guess I got to get used to it, you know what I mean?

Q: Recently at a Long Island mall you had a planned appearance and there were thousands of unruly fans there and the police had to get involved. What’s it like to trigger that kind of problem?
A: It was crazy. To have 10,000 people show up at a mall signing was definitely crazy. And I really wanted to go and I showed up and the police wouldn’t let me in, they said it was a hazard, and basically said, “If you come inside, we’re going to arrest you.” I didn’t think it was fair and we’re still trying to make it up to my fans. It was unfortunate.

Q: Recently during a concert in the U.K. you broke your foot on stage but finished the song. What was it like to go through that?
A: It was a lot of fun. I mean my foot broke at the beginning of the song—I was running and there was a little dip in the stage and I rolled my ankle real bad and broke it—so it was definitely a struggle to finish the song. But I really didn’t want to let my fans down and they were looking for a show so I had to give it to them.

Q: A few reviewers of your CD have talked about some of the more adult lines in some of the songs—like, “I was a playa / when I was little / but I’m bigger / I’m bigger,” and about there being “no chaperones” in First Dance, where you sing, “Girl, I promise I’ll be gentle.” How do you find the right lyrics to match your age? You’re 15 and your fans are mainly tweens, so some of your lyrics are a little bit more adult.
A: Really, you think so? I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so at all. I think my lyrics are definitely appropriate for my age group.

Q: As you grow older, what would you like to do with your music?
A: I just want to excel musically, instrumentation-wise, as well as just my tone in general. But I think that as my audience grows with me, that my lyrics will change and they’ll be more directed for the older audience. I mean, right now I’m singing to young and old. I’m singing to basically anybody who wants to listen.

Q: When you were a kid and you were learning how to sing, who was it that you were trying to emulate?
A: Nobody. I was just singing. I would never try to be like anybody. I definitely had people that I looked up to. I looked up to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and Boyz II Men. But I never tried to sound like anybody.

Q: When did you know that you’d made it as a performer?
A: I don’t think that I’ve succeeded yet. I mean, I have to a certain extent. But this is just the beginning.

Q: It’s been reported that you have a “swagger” coach. Can you explain to me what is that?
A: It’s pretty simple, it’s basically a swagger coach, he kind of teaches me, he helps me just stay swaggerific. I don’t know.

Q: What is it to be swaggerific?
A: You don’t know? I mean, it swaggers. It’s confidence, it’s style, I don’t know how else to put it. It’s swagger. It’s a word.

Q: You’ve said that you grew up beneath the poverty line in Stratford. What was your childhood like?
A: I mean, some people have it misconstrued. I wasn’t poor. I definitely didn’t think of myself as not having a lot of money. But I definitely did not have a lot of money. I couldn’t afford to get a lot of new clothes a lot of times. But I had a roof over my head. I was very fortunate. I had my grandparents, I saw them a lot, they were very kind. So I grew up getting everything that I wanted.

Q: How have your friends reacted to what has happened to your success?
A: My friends are very supportive. I have two really close friends—Ryan and Chaz. They’re really close to me.

Q: You thank Ryan and Chaz in the liner notes to your seven-song EP for “helping me stay just Justin.” How do they do that?
A: They’re very happy for me but they really don’t care about any of this. They like me for me. When we’re hanging out and I say something stupid or something, they’re not going to treat me like I’m a superstar, by any means. They’re not going to treat me like I’m bigger than everybody else. They’re just going to treat me like Justin. They’re going to pop me in the head and not care. I get to see them at least once a month. I get to fly them out to wherever I am. I’ve flown them out to L.A. and Atlanta. I think it’s really important to just have your close friends around you. We’re very active, we play basketball and hockey and soccer and stuff. We go to the movies with girls and stuff like regular teenage boys.

Q: You don’t live in Stratford anymore—I gather you live in Atlanta.
A: I have a house in Stratford and I got a house in Atlanta but I don’t really live anywhere—I live on the road. I’m kind of like living in a suitcase, travelling so much. My day changes every day—some days I’m doing one thing, other days I’m doing another. But I usually work all day.

Q: Are there things about Stratford that you miss now?
A: Of course, I miss my family, I miss my friends. I mean the city itself, which is very pretty and familiar because it’s really all I ever knew. But it’s more my friends and family. I could go without the city. It doesn’t really matter where I am as long as I have family and friends close to me. It’s really all that matters.

Q: You also mentioned in the liner notes to your CD about your mother, that you might want to buy her a house. Have you managed to do that yet?
A: Of course, I definitely want to buy my mom a house once I get enough funds. I think that’s definitely something that I want to do. I think that any person, it’s their dream to buy their mother a house. Don’t you?

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