It’s opening night of Daniel Seavey’s first solo tour and he’s leaning back on a couch at the House of Blues in San Diego, fine-tuning his guitar. He has to go onstage in just a few minutes, yet he’s showing no signs of pre-show jitters. Instead, he’s totally relaxed and laid-back. “I’m nervous about the fact that I’m not nervous,” he says with a laugh, putting his guitar down. “I should be thinking harder about what I’m going to say and do.”
The moment is a little familiar to him: He performed at this exact venue with his former band Why Don’t We back in 2018. But after five years of being tethered to the group, he’s finally doing something he’s been anticipating for years and stepping out on his own. He’s the first member of Why Don’t We — which announced a hiatus last summer — to release music as a solo artist and with Dancing in the Light, an EP expected to drop later this year, he’s ready to show the world exactly what he can do.
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“For myself and for my sanity, I’m going to be so authentically me,” he tells Rolling Stone. “If it hurts me, I can at least die knowing I did that for myself because I needed to.”
Still, he’s doing things a little differently. Instead of dropping singles leading up to the EP and then launching a tour, Seavey has opted instead to ”reverse engineer” it all. He’s hitting the road before his project comes out, giving fans a preview of the futuristic, pop-meets-glam-rock record that he’s been working on for months. Everything, from his rollout strategy to the sounds on the Dancing in the Light, is a turn from the careful, manufactured approach of his former group.
With only two songs out, he’s letting his live shows do the promoting for him. In San Diego, Seavey plays some of his new songs for the first time, letting loose and showing off his dexterity playing multiple instruments, using an Ed Sheeran-esque loop machine to layer the guitar, bass, and keyboards. He performs a cover of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” expertly adding each instrument into the arrangement onstage. And he covers his boy band’s song “8 Letters” while playing the damn cello.
The cover served as an homage to five years in a group that he describes as “the biggest blessing.” However, he’s open about the struggles he went through with the band, sharing that he felt like part of him got lost at one point, “fading from myself more and more.” “We were getting tired and just robotic,” he says.
Now, he’s eager to reconnect with audiences and start over by putting himself and his music first. “I want to enjoy this again. I need to be in front of fans,” he says. “I just want to grow on people.”
It’s been a long, winding journey for Seavey to get to where he is now. The 23-year-old artist fell in love with music as a kid, after he stole a pink toy piano from his younger sister. (“Big bro things,” he jokes.) Later, he bought a keyboard at a garage sale and then began busking using equipment from his dad’s church. He tested out his skills for the first time at a local art walk. “I stopped a few hundred people in the middle of the street,” he remembers.
With his busking money, Seavey bought his first guitar and learned to play other instruments like the viola, cello, and violin. Seavey’s dad, who’s a pastor, saved enough credit card points so the two of them could make a trip to San Francisco, where Seavey auditioned for American Idol in 2015. He was just 15 years old and, with his voice practically cracking, he performed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on piano and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” on guitar for Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban. People were impressed with his talent and he ended up making the competition’s top nine. Idol became a training ground where Seavey started building a following.
After the show, Seavey returned to school in Portland. “I was Idol boy for about a year. Can you imagine that?” Seavey remembers with a laugh. But things changed quickly: By the end of that semester, his friend, the singer Jack Avery, called and invited him to audition for a boy band he was joining with three other young artists, who included Corbyn Besson, Zach Herron, and Jonah Marais. Avery thought maybe Seavey could be part of it, too. Seavey asked his parents for permission to fly to L.A.: “I never came back,” he says.
What followed were five years of major highs as the band released hits such as “8 Letters” and “Trust Fund Baby,” attracting a loyal fanbase called the Limelights. They performed at storied venues like Radio City Music Hall and the Microsoft Theater. But those accomplishments were followed by extreme low points behind the scenes. The band worked non-stop, touring to a grind. Seavey says Why Don’t We even beat Atlantic Records’ record for most promo stops in one year. In a 2021 statement, the members of Why Don’t We accused their production company and a manager of “mental, emotional, and financial abuse.” A lawyer for that manager called the allegations of abuse “completely untrue” and “false and malicious.” The lawyer also pointed to the management company’s ongoing defamation lawsuit against the band.
In between constant interviews and live shows, Seavey would sit at the back of the bus, writing songs. He tried to pitch those ideas, but says they were turned down and “stomped on.” “We were all brainwashed and it was tough for us to dive into ourselves and our personalities,” Seavey remembers, biting his nails. “We looked like little clones at one point.”
It wasn’t until the group’s 2021 album, aptly named The Good Times and the Bad Ones, that Seavey and some of the other members were finally able to co-write and produce most of the music. Still, their sound was carefully controlled – and by then, Seavey was also going through one of the worst moments of his life. Three months before the lead single “Fallin’”came out in 2020, Seavey’s best friend Corey La Barrie died in a car crash.
On the night of May 10 in 2020, La Barrie, an Australian YouTube personality, was celebrating his 25th birthday at his house in North Hollywood. At one point, he went out on a beer run with the 27-year-old tattoo artist and Ink Masters contestant Daniel Silva. According to reports, Silva was driving while intoxicated and lost control of a 2020 McLaren 600LT, crashing into a tree in the neighborhood of Valley Village. La Barrie, who had been sitting in the passenger’s seat, was killed. Silva was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading no contest to a felony count of gross vehicular manslaughter.
Seavey remembers arriving late to the party that night, something that’s always stuck with him. “I just kept being like, ‘Why did I not get to see him that one last time?’”
The moment scarred him. He struggled to get through his Why Don’t We commitments. “I was just not there and couldn’t think straight. For a while, I just had to compartmentalize… I just had to carry on,” Seavey says. “I didn’t feel like myself one bit. I tried for the first two months to act like myself and kept that robot switch going on and one day, a gear flew out of the system and I was just like, ‘Who am I?’ It was not easy.”
He coped with the trauma of losing his friend by writing “Goodbye,” a track he never intended to put out. The song, backed by simple, haunting piano chords, is on the EP and shows a deeply vulnerable side of Seavey. After recording it, he played it for La Barrie’s mom. Her reaction encouraged him to release it. “She loved it,” he says. “I realized, okay, this is special.”
It made him aware of how much his music helped him process his own grief. “Prior to this happening, when I would hear an artist say, ‘Music is therapy to me,’ I would shit on them. I’d be like, ‘You’re so lame. That’s bullshit,’” Seavey says. “Then here I was, this little boy crying on my piano singing these lyrics.” He hopes “Goodbye” helps other people going through a hard time. “I would love for that song to just be a help to people because it was for me,” he says. “Definitely, it was for me.”
Dancing in the Light has allowed Seavey to heal in a lot of ways. Still, he’s nervous about sharing it with the world. Last summer, he met up with Rolling Stone to play a few songs from the EP for the first time. He was excited, but also apprehensive: The project is full of unexpected sounds that take inspiration from artists like Lana Del Rey and Cigarettes After Sex. Seavey wanted to marry the stickiness of pop music with soulful, gritty production. On the lead single, “Can We Pretend That We’re Good,” he experiments with echoing voice filters and adds a spiky electric guitar solo. On the ballad “I Tried,” out Friday, he reflects on the end of a relationship and takes accountability for his failings while acknowledging that he did what he could.
After playing each track, Seavey would turn his head to try to make out the reaction to his music. “I’m biting my fingers off freaking out like, ‘I hope people enjoy this,” he admits later. “I hope I don’t get left in the dust with this.”
Just a few week before our meeting that summer, Why Don’t We had announced a hiatus. Seavey was devastated about stopping the journey with his bandmates, but despite everything that’s happened, he says he has no regrets about his time with the group. “Not. One. Bit,” he says. “It was the biggest blessing of my life. It hurts to know how much bad happened… But I don’t regret it at all.”
Plus, he’s been reassured by how much his “brothers” in the band have supported and encouraged him to release music on his own. “When the band broke up, I could have let it turn me into a vegetable and it would’ve actually been easier,” he says. “But I did not waste a minute. I started working and for the first time, I decided to do it. It wasn’t someone telling me to do it. I wanted to do it.”
After getting off stage in San Diego, Seavey is giddy, still filled with the adrenaline of his first show. But he’s also replaying his performance in his head, going over the crowd’s reaction and analyzing the energy in the room. He’s just played a lot of new music, so his fans didn’t know the lyrics. Did they enjoy it? Was it fun for them? “’I’m debating if I should do fewer songs and give them something they can sing,” he says, thinking out loud.
He’s heading to Phoenix for his next tour stop. Already, he’s brainstorming changes he can make, trying create a better stage experience and grow as an artist. “Right away, I’m like, how can we improve?” he says.
There were some first-show kinks to work through: Right before the show, one of his cello strings broke and he had to improvise with just three strings. And before he could play his set’s last song, his guitar gave out. But despite all of that, he kept a smile on his face and kept going, grabbing a different guitar and ending the show on a high note. It was as if nothing had gone wrong. The energy was there, his manager reassured him. This is all just growing pains.
“It’s part of the process,” Seavey says. “I’m adjusting.” And right now, he’s got so much momentum and only wants to keep going. “This feels unstoppable.”
This story was updated on Jan. 13 at 1:20 PM ET to include a statement from Why Don’t We’s former manager.
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