A year ago, Justin Bieber was a kid from Toronto who had a gift for singing sweet-natured covers of Usher hits, a penchant for playing the drums and a resourceful mother who posted clips of him on YouTube.
Today, Bieber could be the biggest tween heartthrob in music. After signing with Island Records, with the support of his mentor, Usher, the 15-year-old released his debut single, “One Time,” in the summer and almost instantly turned his online audience into an army of dedicated fans. “Bieber mania,” as his management now calls it, has spread so quickly that NBC says more than 2,000 people attended his October 12 “Today” performance at New York’s Rockefeller Plaza — the largest crowd for any artist this year, including Miley Cyrus.
Bieber’s second single, “One Less Lonely Girl,” recently joined “One Time” on the Billboard Hot 100, and a third, “Love Me,” which lifts its hook from the ’90s Cardigans’ hit “Lovefool,” also looks poised to enter the fray. With his debut album, “My World,” due November 17, Bieber reflects on his whirlwind of a year, the experience of recording and co-writing his album and how he stays connected with fans.
Billboard: When did you first think you might have a talent for music?
Justin Bieber: I’ve always loved music, especially percussion … I’m a big fan of (Blink-182 drummer) Travis Barker. My mom bought me my first drum kit when I was 4 because I was banging on everything around the house, even couches. I picked up the guitar when I was 6 and taught myself to play, but I didn’t really start singing until I was 10.
Billboard: How did you start taking it seriously?
Bieber: I entered a singing competition, and some of my relatives who couldn’t make it wanted to see how I did. I posted the videos on YouTube, and then other people started viewing and subscribing. I didn’t tell my friends because they didn’t really know that I could sing. They knew me for playing sports. I just wanted to be a regular kid, and I knew they wouldn’t treat me the same way if I told them.
Billboard: Your first three singles are all about young love. What are the rest of the songs on “My World” like?
Bieber: Most are about love and stuff that girls can appreciate, but I also co-wrote a song called “Down to Earth.” It’s a ballad about the feelings I had when my parents split up and how I helped my family get through it. I think a lot of kids have had their parents split up, and they should know that it wasn’t because of something they did. I hope people can relate to it.
Billboard: Do you still keep up with your fans on YouTube?
Bieber: Oh, definitely. I think the Internet is the best way to reach your fans. A couple of years back, artists didn’t have that tool, so why not use it now? I’m also on Facebook, and my fans got together and sent me a “Get Well” card on Twitter when I was sick the other day. That was really cool. For now, I’m too worried about getting too close to the fans. I don’t share much personal information.
Billboard: What has been the biggest change for you in the past year?
Bieber: I’ve gained a lot more fans, and I’m able to travel a lot more. I went to the U.K. for the first time in the summer, and hundreds of girls came out to see me. I wasn’t totally surprised because a lot of the people who comment on my YouTube videos are from overseas, but I still had no idea that many people would come.
Billboard: In September, you presented at the MTV Video Music Awards and defended Taylor Swift after Kanye West interrupted her acceptance speech. What was that like?
Bieber: When I first found out I was going to the VMAs, I was like, “Wow, this is such a big deal — let’s go shopping!” After I presented, Taylor Swift thanked me for saying that she deserved to win her award. She said, “Thanks for sticking up for me, lil’ bro,” and I was like, “Yeah, I’ve got your back.” I wasn’t nervous at all, though … I never get nervous. I don’t think any performer really does.