It’s a long way from The X Factor UK to Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square. That’s where former reality-TV contestant Niall Sexton found himself one evening last October, under the dazzling billboard lights, as a crowd gathered to hear him perform his version of the hit Sam Smith song “Stay with Me.”
Sexton appeared on The X Factor UK television series with Simon Cowell, where he competed but ultimately didn’t win.
“They’re just trying to make a good TV show instead of nurturing talent and caring about what’s going to happen after the show,” said Sexton, 24, explaining why he remains disappointed by the reality show’s priorities, and why his angelic tenor is being heard charming people on the streets of downtown Toronto, a city he now calls home.
The self-trained singer-songwriter from Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, has been singing professionally since he was 16. When Sexton was 8, his friends encouraged him to enter a local singing competition in Ireland called Stars in Your Eyes. He won.
When he was 13 or 14 and spending time playing an Irish team sport called Gaelic football, he began to take music seriously.
“It’s that kind of like a Troy Bolton thing, you know, it’s like I’m giving up my sport for music,” he said with a laugh, referring to the character in the Disney movie High School Musical.
His 2016 appearance on the 13th series of The X Factor UK put him on the pathway to fame, at least for a short time. (A 2011 attempt on the show saw him sent home right before the contestants sang at the judges’ houses, where judges narrow down the acts to three or four to mentor for the live shows.)
During his second shot, he made it through seven rounds before he lost, including three pre-auditions, the television audition, the boot-camp group challenge, the six-chair challenge, and the judge’s house, where he was critiqued by Cowell, Nicole Scherzinger, Sharon Osbourne, and Louis Walsh.
The contestants are pretty much left on their own. Especially the ones who don’t win.
The X Factor UK helped Sexton get his name out there and gain a following on social media. His YouTube channel — where he covers songs by artists such as Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran — has over 3,300 subscribers. His video of the song “Run,” by his mentor Scherzinger, has 24,000 views.
However, according to Murtz Jaffer, the self-proclaimed world’s foremost reality-TV expert, the show does not contribute to a musician’s career after their X Factor journey is over.
“The contestants are pretty much left on their own,” he said. “Especially the ones who don’t win.”
He believes that the participants can use the minimal fame they get from that limited platform for about two months, depending on how far they made it, to get other gigs.
Jaffer, 38, from Toronto, is the former host of Reality Obsessed, a CTV News Channel chase producer, and entertainment editor of InsidePulse.com. He’s been covering reality television since 2000, when the genre made its debut on network prime time.
“Success, when you go on one of these shows, is not so much about becoming the next breakout singer,” Jaffer said.
Participants should be realistic about what they want to get out of the show, he suggests, instead of going there with the false pretence that they are going to be a huge star right after it ends.
After the show ended, Sexton signed a management deal for a year, but unfortunately, things didn’t work out because it was difficult for him to find someone with the same vision as him. After a year, he started busking and ended up doing it for two years in London, after which he decided to broaden his horizons. He flew to Toronto last spring to visit his brothers, who live here. He recorded his first demo in April. He moved to Canada in September to pursue his music career.
While performing cover songs as a busker in Toronto, and also working in the hospitality industry, Sexton has written and recorded five originals and has done two collaborations with a local rapper, Ellevan. He also visited Los Angeles to work with Stevie Mackey, who is a vocal coach for Jennifer Lopez, Selena Gomez, and Adam Levine from Maroon 5.
While in L.A., he met with Eli Rise and Justin Trugman, who work together regularly. Trugman did pre-production on one song on Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP. Sexton hopes to record with them during his next visit to L.A.
Miles Jones, a music producer and composer from Toronto, has been working with Sexton for the past year. The singer’s modesty intrigues Jones.
“In this industry, if you’re not humble you’re going to get swallowed up very quick,” Jones said in a telephone interview.
Jones also likes the singer’s eagerness to learn and his ability to follow instructions, which he believes is a struggle for a lot of artists.
He likes Sexton’s tone and his voice, which is very androgynous, creating some mystery.
“If you look at Niall and you hear this voice, they don’t necessarily add up, and I think that adds this unique factor to what he provides,” Jones said.
Jones, who writes commercials, including for Freedom Mobile, also composed the music for the hit CBC Television show Kim’s Convenience, which premiered in October 2016. He thinks reality-TV shows aren’t the best vehicle to make someone a star. While they’re fun to watch, they are structured, leaving less room for the artist to head in the direction they prefer.
So what about a musician busking to gain recognition?
“You’re probably not going to get anything more than a couple of nods and, like, a couple of dollars,” Jones said.
Still, he feels events like Toronto’s BuskerFest, where well-known acts go and busk, can serve a purpose.
It’s all about “finding the pieces to the puzzle and knowing when you found something or when you need something else,” Jones said.
Now working on his own in North America, Sexton is making connections in the music industry, but he also realizes that he is facing the same problem in Toronto as he did in the British music scene in London.
A lot of people he has met are “fake and they make empty promises,” he said.
Luckily, he has his own strategies to tackle these issues. He won’t burn bridges but will focus on associating with the right contacts.
At the end of November 2018, Sexton played his first official show in Toronto, at the Cameron House. His debut single, titled “Counterfeit,” which he has been working on for two years, is coming out on Feb. 22 on all music platforms, including Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon Music, Google Play, Deezer, YouTube, and SoundCloud. His original music will be available on Spotify in the future, after which he also aims to put out an EP at the end of the year; until then, he will be releasing singles.
Sexton is taking his time, writing and learning about who he is along the way.
One person who does believe in him is Sexton’s older brother, Killian, who is his acting manager and also does videography for his songs.
“I know he is going to have my back even more than I do,” he said.
Sexton feels he is not yet where he aspires to be as a performer, but he is satisfied with the way things are headed.
“There’s a difference between confidence and cockiness,” he said. “I like to be quietly confident. Just believe in yourself or else no one else will.”