When was the last time you had an honest conversation with yourself? For Music Performance student Nicolas Duquemin, it was self-reflection that sparked a decision to follow his intuition and focus on becoming the artist he always wanted to be.
With influences like Etta James, Sam Cooke, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé informing his techniques and styles, it was during his teenage years that he began nurturing his own sound and landed in the surreal race of reality television. Looking up to the incredible roulette of artists he saw on screen, Nic auditioned for The Voice Australia in 2015 and made it into the Top 16, giving him insight into the different worlds music exists in.
Now songwriting and producing under his moniker SKŸE, Nicolas' work hears him explore his true feelings with honesty—his latest single, 'Better', reaching a huge 1,500,000 streams and has featured on popular playlists like Spotify's Sad Songs. In late 2019, Nicolas also gained the attention of Universal Music Australia, who he has since signed with, writing and producing songs for both himself and others.
Celebrating the momentum of his artistry, we caught up with Nicolas to chat about honest songwriting and how his time at Collarts has shaped the way he approaches his work.
Hi Nic, thanks for chatting with me. How did you first start out at Collarts?
I actually started studying in 2016, out of a different university. The energy didn't really feel like home to me and I didn't feel comfortable for about two years. I was studying part-time because of this and ended up deferring for a bit, where I decided to work in hospitality.
So because you were unhappy at that uni you went into hospo?
Yeah, I set myself up for hospitality and hated it. It didn’t feel good and it was a really confusing time in my life. I think it was the weight of responsibility—money, parents, those ideas—and I was in the mind set of, “I need to make money, I need to have something to support myself.” But at the same time, I kept telling myself, "You're not supposed to be doing this, go back to where you're supposed to be.”
What happened when you listened to that voice?
I went back to my university and realised I didn’t like it. That’s when decided to go to Collarts. Since then it's been a really good time. There’s better energy and it's got more of a community vibe, which I appreciate.
I’m so glad to hear that. Had pursing music always been your passion?
We can backtrack a bit to high school. In Year 12, I was on the Australian version of The Voice. Growing up my whole life I saw artists on singing shows like American Idol and The Voice, and that it was cool and that I could do that. So in Year 12, I auditioned and got in. I made it all the way to the Top 16. It was intense; I was doing this plus my VCE, so my mental health suffered. I felt really, really whack, mainly because the way the TV show was representing me as an artist and a person just wasn't me.
I understand what you mean. Celia Pavey is an example that stands out to me, who now makes music as Vera Blue. I’d imagine once they pick a role for you, no matter what you do that’s how you get edited and designed.
That’s pretty much it. It's funny because I'm friends with everyone on Facebook from the same season, and at least 80% have gone by a different name. Most cut themselves off completely from the past to make it in the industry. I think that in itself shows what it does to your mentality when you're on a reality TV show. The way I was dressed and the way they scripted my story, it wasn't me. I felt like I had been through a whirlwind of emotions.
"As an artist, it's been really difficult to kind of pinpoint what I want to sing musically—but then, at the same time, its like, who gives a fuck? If it's good art, it's good art."
With all this in mind, what has it been like to have complete creative control over your new project, SKŸE?
It feels natural. I think I was sitting on the name for ages. SKŸE felt comfortable and my friends felt it reflected who I am. I think of SKŸE as an escape from the mundane reality, where I want to shape it into this creative androgynous free spirit. I feel like I'm not able to do that in regular life and wanted to recreate myself. When I think of my name, Nicolas, and what I associate with it, it’s like I look at all the bad stuff from my past and want to keep moving forward. Having SKŸE allows me to let go and create, you know?
Yeah, I get what you mean. What was your inspiration when starting SKŸE?
When it comes to music, I have many different inspirations… Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Moses Sumney, and James Blake—my biggest obstacle is that pop music is very formula. And when you think pop, you think mainstream success, and every artist wants that to some degree because they want to impact more people.
Of course. If I were a musician, that would also be something I would struggle with. As an artist, you’re constantly changing and touching more people along the way.
Exactly, I don’t want to have the business-y mindset that overtakes the artsy things I connect with. As an artist, it's been really difficult to kind of pinpoint what I want to sing musically—but then, at the same time, its like, who gives a fuck? If it's good art, it's good art.
"To me, momentum is mindset. Momentum is the head space of creating. I think the opposite of momentum for me would be writer’s block. "
Studying at Collarts, do you feel your classmates and teachers have inspired you push your own boundaries?
I think that being surrounded by creatives and people that are passionate about what they do, it reinforces your passion and also momentum. I think momentum is another big obstacle for me because as musicians and artists, we're so much more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and doubts. Having that community to give you momentum kind of allows you to get past those ripples.
I love that idea of momentum. What does momentum mean to you?
To me, momentum is mindset. Momentum is the head space of creating. I think the opposite of momentum for me would be writer’s block. And that's not something I can control, but then when I get a bit of momentum, it just keeps going. That's what happened last year; I was doing backing vocals, I was gigging, doing all these other projects—I was feeling really good because it was that momentum happening. When it comes to SKŸE, I’m glad I have a love for art and music because I’ve nurtured the project from the beginning, including the visuals.
Totally. Have you considered yourself an upcoming independent artist in Melbourne?
No, that's crazy, but then it's valid. I’m from Melbourne and I'm an artist. But yeah, I carry a lot of humility with me, but sometimes that's not the best thing. Sometimes it translates into doubts and stuff like that. With my song ‘Better’, it's doing really well but I don't really know how to translate that. It’s got 900,000 streams and I'm like, “Well, that's crazy." Because I wrote that in my bedroom, produced it by myself, and spent 80 bucks on mastering. But then it's reinforcing the passions I have and I didn't have a big label telling me what to do—it’s just me.
"I think there's something really beautiful that comes from people connecting to honest music."
I feel that. What was the inspiration behind ‘Better’, anyway?
I had a breakup. And then, maybe four months after, I was really reflective. I was past the sad destructive stage and into a smooth transition of what I learned. And then it came in the form of a song, but then when I was writing it, it was very emotional. The first recording I have of it is just me half crying. Which is beautiful, because I don't allow myself to do that much.
That sounds incredible cathartic. What advice would you give to those wanting to write really personal songs?
I feel like it's all about intention. If you have a really good, solid intention behind a song, then it's going to come through. I feel like my focus isn't too heavy on lyricism. I think it'll add, but ultimately just be clear on your intention, what you want to say and what you want to leave the world with because we need honest songs. I think there's something really beautiful that comes from people connecting to honest music.
Interview originally published 20 March, 2019.