Northern Irish singer JC Stewart has been releasing music since 2014 – but it was an inspired moment of lockdown fever that gave him a breakthrough last summer.
Bored at home in Magherafelt, the 24-year-old wrote a parody of the Friends theme and uploaded it to TikTok.
“It looks like we’ll be inside for a year,” he sang to the familiar tune. “Or it might only be a day, a week or months – it’s really not clear.”
The song went viral, eventually being shared by Jennifer Aniston and earning Stewart an appearance on US TV show Good Morning America.
“People are like, ‘How did you plan it? How did you make it go viral’?” he says. “But I can’t stress enough how little I thought about this video.
“I made it in 20 seconds. It doesn’t even rhyme. And my mum was raging because I didn’t clean the fridge properly and the whole world saw it!”
The parody might have brought JC Stewart to worldwide attention, but he was already on his way there.
The singer-songwriter has 4 million monthly listeners on Spotify, thanks to melancholy, soul-baring ballads like I Need You To Hate Me and Lying That You Love Me.
He learned his craft writing for the likes of Lewis Capaldi and Kodaline – after getting his first studio experience working on a remix of Chic’s Le Freak with Nile Rodgers and Rudimental at the age of 17.
More recently, he co-wrote an EP with Tom Odell; while Niall Horan helped out on his latest single, Break My Heart.
Stewart is modest about it (“I’m still kind of amused that I’m here, doing this”) but he’s worked hard at it, persistently writing emails and blagging gigs to gain a foothold in the industry.
His ambition sometimes shines through the self-deprecating humour. He admits neglecting personal relationships while building his career; and at one point declares that he’s “competing with everybody in the world” when he writes new music.
But he’s also a country boy at heart. Raised in Derry and sharing a name with the family business (the JC Stewart grocery store dates back 120 years), he says the first lockdown “was genuinely the best two months of my life”.
“The sun was shining and I was just outside with my family the whole time. It was amazing.”
To find out more, we got JC (John Callum to his parents) on the phone to discuss his rise to fame, his celebrity collaborators and why he calls himself a “professional sadboy”.
Break My Heart is much more upbeat than your previous singles. What made you step away from the ballads?
This has always been my plan, to get to these more upbeat, lively songs. I grew up playing live in the pubs in Belfast, and you’d get people moving by playing your guitar as loud and fast as you could. I want my live shows to be like that – and this is where it starts.
You wrote it with Niall Horan. How did you hook up with him?
The song was born out of lockdown. I was working with a producer who was also working with Niall, and we both ended up writing this song simultaneously – back and forward on emails.
Was it always your song or did Niall have his eyes on it?
At the start it was definitely his. If you listen closely, it’s actually all Niall singing backing vocals from the demo.
You’ve been releasing music since you were at school. How did you get started?
When I was 15, my mum sent me down to a place called the Burnavon Theatre in Cookstown, and there were loads of jazz musicians from the University of Ulster and like [Irish singer] Foy Vance’s team teaching kids how to write songs.
I’d never thought of myself as creative before that. I didn’t really care. But I went, I wrote a song, and I just got the bug for it. And from that day I literally was beating down the door of any email address I could find. Those poor people!
How did your mum know you’d be good at music?
I was always singing and playing drums on tables. But as a 12-year-old boy, I just wanted to play rugby. I went to a rugby school and I was like, ‘If you don’t play rugby what’s the point?’ But I was also terrible at rugby which made it very difficult.
You seem to have survived unscathed. I don’t see any cauliflower ears.
No – but in my last ever game, the other team picked me up and dropped me and broke my hand. I was like, “Ah, no piano playing for me.” That was the nail in the coffin.
You said you harassed people over email… is that how you got your first gig?
Yes! I pestered a band called More Than Conquerors. I literally found all their personal Facebook accounts and messaged them on Facebook until the drummer Jamie was like, “Yeah, come down, you can do 20 minutes at the start of our next show”. And that was my first gig, when I was 16.
How did it go?
I don’t remember being overcome by the nerves. It was a weird gig, don’t get me wrong. I was a 16-year-old pop singer playing to 50 people who’d gone there for a rock show. But it worked out.
A lot of singers talk about a “eureka moment” where everything just clicks. What was yours?
When I was 21 or 22 I’d kind of resigned myself to the idea [my career] wasn’t ever going to happen. I was sad about it but I was like, “Right, well, you’re going to go and write songs for other people”.
Then I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote – until I came up with a song called I Need You To Hate Me. A week later, after bashing down the doors for three years, I got my record deal.
You’ve hit a rich seam of writing about heartbreak and failed relationships. Has your love life really been that bad?
Yes and no. I try to write every day and I can’t write about myself all the time. Especially now. I am the boring man who’s ever lived! I don’t think you can write about watching The Office for the 14th time. So a lot of it is based on personal experience, a lot of is based on the people around me.
I love that your Twitter biography says “Professional sadboy”.
That came from my sister. She’s like, “I’ve been to Uni, I’ve worked really hard, I’ve got my grades. You just sing and now you’re doing TED Talks and interviews. That’s not fair. You’re just being sad for money!”
What was your TED Talk about?
I talked about collaboration and creativity and I listed my top five collaborations: Alexandra Burke and Beyonce; Ant and Dec and Santander; and Muller fruit corners.
Which Muller Fruit Corner is the best Muller Fruit Corner?
I like the strawberry ones – because I wasn’t allowed the chocolate balls ones as a kid.
But your family ran a supermarket! Surely you could have liberated a chocolate yoghurt?
But I didn’t know what sweets were! I was lied to and told that raisins were sweets until way too late.
Presumably you now eat sugar all day…
Yeah, I’ve got no teeth left. They’re all gone.
Tell me about working with Lewis Capaldi and Tom Odell. Did that force you to raise your game?
I definitely wanted to go in with ideas and prove I deserved to be there.
But I’ll tell you what, there’s never been an artist, except for Nile Rodgers, where I’ve gone into the session and been like, “Oh, my goodness, they know exactly what they’re doing.” Everybody’s on the same page – not got a clue, but working through it. I suppose that’s what writing is.
You’ve got eight songs with more than one million Spotify streams, and your monthly listeners keep going up. Is it just a matter of time before you crack the top 40?
I used to joke that I wanted to be a one hit wonder. It was kind of my dream! But every song I’ve released since I signed a record deal has pretty much doubled the last one. If it keeps going like that, that’s the dream come true.
My only goal in all this was to not get a real job.
There’s a lot of focus on whether artists can make a living from streaming right now. Are you seeing money from those songs, or is it just pennies and pence?
When I was releasing music independently, I had 300,000 to 400,000 monthly listeners and I was definitely making a little bit of money. Now, I’ve signed a deal with a major label, and I owe them a lot of money for that. So I currently, obviously, don’t see any money.
That’s quite common, right?
The one thing I would say is: As a songwriter, which is actually where I make my living, it’s pretty tough. I have a song I wrote for a guy that got 150 million streams, and you’d be surprised how much you make from that. It’s not great, you know?
But it’s tough issue because streaming sites do so much for me. I arguably wouldn’t have a career without them. But yeah, I think maybe something does need to change going forward.
Since the first lockdown, you’ve moved back to London. What do you miss most about home?
Just the simplicity of it. Living out in the countryside, making music, eating good food.
When I go to Belfast, I always come back with a loaf of Veda bread.
Yeah Veda bread, and as much potato bread as I can put in my suitcase.
Why can’t you get potato bread in England?
I introduced my girlfriend to it, and now she has it every weekend. We wake up and she’s like, “We need to get potato bread”. And there’s one Tesco around me that always has one pack of potato bread. It’s real cheap, nasty stuff but it’ll do the job. It’s such an amazing thing.
You’ll just have to learn to make your own.
That’s the next thing, innit?
JC Stewart’s single, Break My Heart, is out now.