In February, pop star on the rise Cian Ducrot put on a facemask and took the tube from his flat in London to the West End. There, looming over the street, a billboard bearing his likeness advertised the Cork native’s new single, Not Usually Like This. “Considering I was homeless year ago, this is pretty insane,” Ducrot told his 624,000 followers on TikTok as he posed with the image as backdrop.
“Insane” wasn’t an exaggeration. In February 2020, Ducrot, from Passage West, was couch-surfing around Los Angeles hoping to score a record deal. That dream has now come thrillingly to fruition, with Darkroom Records, the label that discovered Billie Eilish, putting its resources behind the tousle-haired 23 year-old. He’s still taking it all in even as Not Usually Like This – think Shawn Mendes covering Joy Division – burns up on social media and streaming platforms, having debuted at number 15 in the Irish charts.
“In February of last year I was sleeping on people’s couches. I had about £500 to my name,” he says over Zoom. “It was tough. But I always saw the bright side. That’s what drew me to LA. I had no money. I had nothing going for me in my career. I didn’t have a label. But I felt something was in the air. Something was coming.”
Ducrot is a very contemporary kind of pop star. As with Billie Eilish, his music is catchy yet deep and authentic too –and suffused in melancholy. He has an expressive, rasping voice which he deploys to pummelling effect on songs such as F**ked Up All The Time and Not Usually Like This, and which has powered him towards 600,000 monthly plays on Spotify.
He had gone to LA without a clear plan. An Irish acquaintance who worked for Interscope – parent label of Darkroom – had let him crash at his apartment. The friend was shocked to subsequently discover that Ducrot wrote songs and suggested a chat with Interscope and Darkroom. Back in London, Ducrot found himself zooming with 29-year old Darkroom CEO Justin Lubliner.
“What’s important for the label is authenticity,” he says. “They love people who make their own music and are as involved as possible. That was the attraction for me: they haven’t tried to change anything about my personality. With people like Billie, – they, as artists, are at the forefront of what they are doing. And it’s the same for me: I have the first and last say in anything I do.”
The ennui in his work flows from his early life. Ducrot had a difficult childhood. After his parents separated, he and his brother were raised largely by their French-born mother, a classical musician and music teacher. “It was extremely hard. My mum was incredible. My brother was amazing. We formed an amazing bond. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
He studied at St Peter’s Community School in Passage West before winning a scholarship to Wells Cathedral School in Somerset, where he took A-levels. Ducrot went from there to the Royal Academy of Music, before dropping out to pursue a career in pop.
“I was playing gigs all the time in Cork,” he recalls. “I was pretty much illegally gigging. I was 14, well under-age, and wasn’t allowed in any of these pubs where I was performing. I was busking, too. Going to place like the Savoy and seeing artists such as Gavin James, I would think, ‘I want to be up there – I want that to be me’. That’s a nice aspect of live music in Ireland: the artists you see inspire you: ‘If they’re doing it, I can do it’.”
Ducrot didn’t wait to be discovered and instead hit the streets with his guitar. “I’d busk whenever I could,” he remembers. “I’d go into town and if I needed some lunch I would take out my guitar and play until I had enough for a sandwich from Subway. And then go to the skate park for the rest of the day.”
He’s active on TikTok, where videos of Ducrot and his girlfriend mucking around in their flat have notched up thousands of views. But while social media has helped with his profile, he doesn’t want to overemphasise its significance. His plan though 2021 is to release a new single each month. And to eventually work on a follow-up to Started In College, the double-album (technically a mix-tape) he put out last year.
“You can have a lot of fans online. But what really matters is the music. You can have millions of followers and make bad music,” he says “The biggest artists in the world – they’re not just big because they have amazing music. They've got personality. People love their presence, their energy. In my opinion, there’s a big, big difference between being a great singer, a great songwriter – and being a great artist. Being an artist is so much more than being able to sing well or write good songs.
“There’s a lot of people who sign record deals and do things because they have amazing songs. But then their personality doesn’t match – or their stage presence doesn’t match. It’s the whole art. It’s another thing, being an all round artist. A lot of the time it boils down to having something to say.”
Only time will tell if Ducrot has what it takes to become as huge as label-mate Eilish. However, he clearly does not lack for ambition.
“I always knew I wanted to be an artist,” he says. “I also wanted to study classical music at the highest level. But there came a point where I realised if I want to be the next biggest artist in the world I should probably dive into the deep end. So that’s what I did. I left college and went all in.”