The first time rising alt-pop singer-songwriter Nicky Youre heard his breakout single “Sunroof” in public, he was walking into a Panda Express. “I heard the last 15 seconds,” he recalls. “I was thinking about talking to the Panda people and going, ‘That was my song you just heard!’”
It wouldn’t be the last time. Since its release last Thanksgiving, the breezy pop-rock hit has grown from TikTok favorite to streaming sensation to one of the year’s most unavoidable radio hits — topping Billboard’s Pop Airplay chart for two weeks so far. It also crossed over to a No. 5 peak thus far on the Billboard Hot 100, and recently earned Youre his first trip to New York, where he walked his first red carpet and heard “Sunroof” called out as one of the nominees for song of the summer at the MTV Video Music Awards. “My dad was like, ‘What do I need to do to get on this with you? I’ll do anything!’” he says, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Dad… no.’”
It’s an impressive journey for the 23-year-old Aliso Viejo, Calif. native, who was still in school studying international business at the University of California San Diego when he wrote “Sunroof” in spring 2021, not even sure at the time that he was going to pursue music as a professional career. “I was over music, trying to take a break,” he says of that period in his life as a singer-songwriter. “Nothing was connecting the way I was wanting it to. And I kind of just wanted to live my life.”
His more relaxed senior year ended up being an extremely positive experience — and ironically, it was one of the few bad nights he had that spring that inspired his joyous breakthrough hit. “I was sick one night, and I was just like, ‘I wanna feel good — like how I’ve been feeling lately,’” he says. “So I wrote this song… and then 30 minutes into writing, I was [singing], ‘I got my head out the sunroof!’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s kind of sick. A sunroof.’ ”
To help bring the song to life, Youre sought the help of collaborator Dazy, a producer/artist whose work he admired, and who DM’d him after they followed one another on Instagram. (“A classic [modern day] love story,” he jokes.) Youre, who admits he “can’t produce at all,” sent Dazy the song’s lyrics and melody, along with a list of musical touchstones (including recent TikTok hits from breakout artists Tai Verdes and BENEE) for the song’s sonics.
“I wanted the guitars to sound super-full and bright — that was something we talked about,” says Dazy. “That was a new lane for me to try in terms of making pop music. I had mostly done a lot of electronic stuff.” Even so, Dazy nailed the slick, upbeat production Youre was looking for on his first try. “It was the first song that I had felt inspired by in a really long time,” the singer/songwriter says.
From there, Youre and his Keel Management team, where he signed last October, set their sights on making the song happen on TikTok. “We encouraged Nicky for many months to work in tandem with us and come up with some clever, fun and engaging ideas for content that would create some type of hyper-movement leading into the release,” says Peter Rugo, Keel co-founder. “I think the one that really started it off was [a video he made of] ‘Here are 10 songs that I like…’ People ended up getting more focused on the background audio than they did on the songs he was listing.”
That song was, of course, “Sunroof,” which quickly took off on the platform, ultimately being used as a sound in nearly 8 million TikTok videos to date. Youre’s team kept pushing the song, focusing on specific markets where it was performing notably well — Southeast Asia, Australia — and partnering with TikTok’s all-in-one music distribution and marketing program SoundOn and opting into the service’s Commercial Music Library (which pre-clears songs for royalty-free commercial use) to increase the song’s global exposure. “Our main goal for it was, ‘Let’s try to extend the campaign for this song as long as possible to try to get to the warmer months in North America,’ ” Rugo says.
By April, the song had grown to daily streams in the hundreds of thousands, and the team moved their focus to U.S. radio. For that, though, they decided they required extra help. Keel had already signed Youre to its own Thirty Knots sister label, but to conquer radio, they would need the muscle of a major label as a partner — opting for Columbia, which in recent years has helped artists like Harry Styles, Lil Nas X and The Kid LAROI all become FM mainstays. “We felt like Columbia is the best in the business at top 40 radio,” Keel co-founder Joey Papoutsis says. “And we really got to know Ron [Perry, chairman/CEO] and the rest of the team, and felt the most comfortable and confident with them taking this thing the distance.”
Their instinct quickly paid dividends, as “Sunroof” entered Billboard’s Pop Airplay listing on the chart dated May 21, and topped the tally by the end of last month. With the song climbing into the Hot 100’s top 10, Youre and his team kept the pedal to the metal with an EP of remixes for the song in mid-August, featuring artists from different genres — EDM (Loud Luxury), hip-hop (24kGoldn), Latin pop (Manuel Turizo) and country (Thomas Rhett).
“[We asked ourselves], ‘How can we really maximize this moment in growing the song, as well as Nicky’s audience?’ ” Matthew Hyun of Keel says of the strategy behind the remix package. “It was just to get a little more eyes on it that traditionally wouldn’t have been listening to that song.” Adds Rugo: “It felt like a great way to kinda revitalize the energy for those audiences who heard the original record ad nauseam at that point.”
Though “Sunroof” is still growing on the Hot 100, Youre and his team are now focused on what comes next, with the dual goals of establishing him as a live presence — with Keel putting out asks to more established artists in the hopes of booking him an opening slot on a 2023 tour — and expanding his song catalog (Dazy teases that the two have “another song that’s pretty much finished and ready to go.”). Youre says he’s been “living in the studio the past three months,” trying to find collaborators to help him build up a signature sound, and give his fans more of the good vibes he’s cultivated with his now-signature hit.
“I have some angsty teen energy in me as well — it’s definitely not, like, all summer stuff,” he clarifies. “But I know that that’s working right now. I gotta give the people what they like. So that’s what I’m aiming to do.”
A version of this story will appear in the Sept. 17, 2022, issue of Billboard.