Tom Walker Delivers His Highly Anticipated Debut Album

The Scottish artist talks travel, influences, and the freedom of not being confined to one single genre.
Reading time 23 minutes

Tom Walker, who recently took home the Brit award for British Breakthrough Act (the British equivalent of the Grammy award for Best New Artist), previously awarded to such prominent musicians as Dua Lipa, Sam Smith, and Ed Sheeran, shows no signs of slowing down.  His debut album, What a Time to be Alive is out today, March 1, on which he has a duet with Zara Larsson, titled, “Now You’re Gone.” In addition to his Brit win, he was also nominated for Best British Single for his song “Leave A Light On,” which has over 350 million streams and hit #1 on the music charts in 20 countries, went platinum in 10, and became the sixth most Shazam-ed song globally.  These impressive accomplishments for the 27-year-old artist are just stepping stones in what in his blossoming career.

Walker’s music transcends multiple genres, is reflective of his personal experiences, including heavy topics, such as friends suffering from substance abuse issues, heartbreak, and feelings of hopelessness. On the other hand, Walker offers a glimmer of hope shining through the darkness by taking an optimistic tone throughout the songs and carefully curating this message in the video for his song, “Leave a Light On,” which has over 100 million views.

When catching up with Walker on the rise of his first album release, he discussed his father’s love for music and the impact this has had on Walker’s diverse and ever-growing love for different genres, his admiration for Ed Sheeran, and his recent engagement.  Walker’s presence feels as natural as his music. He is warm, unpretentious, and inviting, offering himself and his personal stories up with the same openness that his music does.

How does it feel to have won a Brit? Was this an aspiration of yours? What do you hope to achieve in the future?

I guess so, yeah. I mean it's a pretty big deal. Brits are like the biggest thing in Britain. I wasn't really expecting to win. I was very very shocked.  I'd had like five beers before going on to do my acceptance speech because I kinda thought I wasn't gonna win so I was a little bit tipsy when I went up.


What awards do you have your sights set on now that you've achieved the Brit?

It would be pretty cool to get a Grammy.  That would be nice. It would be pretty cool to just go to the Grammys because I've never been before.  What else? I don't know. I haven't really thought of what awards I want to achieve yet really. I've only got the one so far, so [Laughter].


How would you describe the differences between the American music scene versus that of the UK?

It's hard to say really because I don't spend much time in the US.  I've spent a bit of time here, but not as much as the UK. I think there's a lot of diversity in the US market and it takes a little bit longer over here to get a song going because it's so big.  If you do radio tours in the UK, you can probably do the whole UK in like two days, but in America, it takes like a month and you wouldn't even have covered everything. It's just a lot bigger and bolder in the US market.  You guys got some wicked music.


How do you think that Brexit has impacted music?

It's hard to say at the moment.  Everything is so up in the air with Brexit.  It's so depressing for like touring musicians. When I moved to London, I lived with Italians for three years, then I moved in with Italians and Portuguese and Brazilians and people from Sweden, you know what I mean?  I've lived with all cultures and to not be able to go to those places without having to get a Visa and then having to get an A1 and do all this crazy stuff is just it's going to hinder the touring industry in the UK. I'm not sure of the impact, but it's very depressing to me because I just think it's great that you could go anywhere in Europe that you wanted to without a passport, no visa, nothing. You could move out to Europe if you wanted to with no questions asked.  It's upsetting that you can't do that now because traveling is awesome. It expands the mind, so to do it less is unfortunate.


You just said that you've lived with people of all different cultures and walks of life.  How do you think that has informed your music?

Well, I've been around so much different music, especially the Brazilian scene.  One of my friends went out to live in Brazil for nine months and when he came back he was showing me all of this amazing music.  He sent me a couple of samples which started influencing my beats. Working with people from all over you get this better grasp of (the world).  Maybe that's why my music is doing well internationally. I never really thought about it, but I've been living with all different walks of life and cultures for years now and maybe that translates in my music.  It must be a subconscious thing. I'm not thinking “This track will do great in Portugal!”


I want to talk a little bit about your early days and your influences.  You grew up in Scotland. Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing?

I was only in Scotland for three and a half years, so I don't really remember much of Scotland, but a lot of my family is still up there, so every year I would go back to Scotland, like at least a couple times.  My grand still lives there, my uncle, my two cousins, and our extended family. They're friends of the family, but they are family. It's been an important part of the culture for me, going back to Scotland because the people are so lovely up there and the music scene is really cool as well.  King Tut in Glasgow is one of my favorite venues of all time and recently they put my name on the stairs. Oasis did one of their first ever gigs in there and they got signed because of their gig and it's got all this history so to be on the stairs there is pretty damn cool.

Were you always into music?

I've been playing guitar since I was twelve.  My dad took me to see ACDC when I was nine years old in Paris and it's one of my earliest memories of like an amazing rock gig.  Ever since then I wanted to be a guitarist so for several years I was a guitarist and I started writing songs and then I learned to play drums and then bass.  It was all linked back to my dad's love of music. I don't know why he didn't start playing an instrument. He went out to buy a piano one day and came back with a harmonica.  I was just like who's the guy in the music shop that says, "No you don't want this 15,000 pound piano, what you want is this 35-pound harmonica. That'll do you right, mate." But I always thought if he learned to play he would be amazing.  His music collection goes from like Bob Marley to BB King to Slipknot to Prodigy to Underwell to Foo Fighters to Muse to like everything that you can imagine. Because of that, I think I love so many different genres and I think that my album has loads of different genres influencing it.  I think you can hear that in the album. I think that's because of my dad.


Who do you think your earliest influences were?

In terms of songwriting, I'd say Ed Sheeran.  When I was going up to London, I did a three-year degree in songwriting there, every time I was on the train, I was listening to Ed Sheeran or I'd recorded some guitar stuff and I was writing lyrics.  I kinda just felt like this uncool ginger guy playing an acoustic using a loop pedal is writing these amazing songs and his is before he was getting any traction. He'd released "You Need Me, I Don't Need You" and I kinda just thought, “If this guy can do it, why can't I do it?  That's when I went to do the degree because I thought, "Why not? Why can I not do this?"


What did you want to be when you grew up when you were a kid?  Did you always think you would be a musician or was it something that came on because of the influence of your dad?

I think really early on like when I was a kid-kid, I wanted to be an inventor and then a fireman. I think I got a guitar when I was like eleven or twelve for Christmas. Before that, I was actually playing violin for a while, but I hated it and I was rubbish at it. It was so screechy and horrible, but as soon as I got a guitar I just fell in love with it.


Do you remember what the first song that you wrote was?  How old were you?

I wrote this song for my girlfriend at the time. We'd been going out from the age of like 13 or 14 to like 19 and in the first year we were going out she went over to America for 26 days. I called the song "26 Days" and it was this awful love song, like shocking. That's the first one I recorded. I've got it saved on my computer. Someday I'm gonna release it to just be like this is how far I've come, because it was diabolical. I couldn't sing. I didn't know how to write properly.  It was awful

Where do you find inspiration for your music now?

Just everyday life really.  I had twenty days off at Christmas and I went to see my friends and they're going through all sorts of different stuff.  They're having families or they're just moving into their first houses and they're going through all the trouble that kind of is involved in doing all that stuff and all the joy as well.   That's the kind of stuff that inspires me the most I think. This job, as a musician, more and more every day is getting detached from what the normal person’s life is. It's very difficult if you don't see your friends and you don't see your family.  You don't connect with these people. I think it's very difficult to write a song about writing a song or write a song about being on tour. I think the more I see my friends and family, the better songs I'm gonna write.


How do you feel that your sound has evolved over time?

I think it's just evolved naturally, but it did start off a lot more folky and stripped back.  I think it was just a mix of hip hop and folk and pop. Now it's so many other things. There are so many influences on the album.  Again, from all the genres I've been listening to since my dad introduced me to ACDC. When people ask me to describe it it's so difficult.  I always say it's influenced by hip hop beats, pop style, with a bit of folk in there, a splash of blues, a bit of reggae, there's a bit of drum and bass, there’s a bit of dubstep, there's a bit of Post-Maloney beat stuff going on.  There's so much stuff in there that's influenced. I couldn't write a rock album. I'd get bored in ten minutes.


How do you determine when a song is finished?

Oh, never.  Songs are never done. The album's still not done even though it's coming out.  No, I don't know. I think I have to let other people say "This is done." I've got a few people I send music to.  I think they always tell me when I've gone too far or I've made something too complicated. As a writer and as an artist, you're always trying to make it a bit too intricate sometimes and try to make it too clever for the sake of making it clever, which isn't clever.  It's stupid because no one will like it.


What is your best advice on how to work through writer’s block?

Go and do something cool for the day that you've never done before.  Go for a track day or go to a park you've never been to or go to Disneyland with your mates.  Do something fun that you haven't done in a while that's going to inspire you. Go traveling. Go and see the world.  I think that's the thing, isn't it? Writer's block is a really difficult thing, but it's just you in your head. If you write every day, you'll eventually just get out of it.  I think writer's block is a thing that people just make up and they're like "Now I've got writer's block. I can't write a song," but really you just need to persist.


You've talked a lot about travel.  What would you say your favorite place is to travel to?

I really liked Australia.  I'd never been to Australia and I went for five days and it was not enough.  It was so beautiful. It was the winter but the weather was still like eighteen degrees, which for me, being born in Scotland, was perfect.  But we also did a road trip with The Script across America and we drove from New York to Los Angeles.  That was one of the most eye-opening, inspirational trips I've ever been on in my entire life.  (We went) to some place that (we) didn't see anybody for like miles and went into these crazy bars where everybody was drinking and they just got in their cars and drove home.  I was like, "What is going on here?” But it was such an amazing journey. We went across like the salt flats on the way to Vegas. That was just miles and miles of flat salt as far as the eye could see.  So cool.


Do you feel that it's hard to share your music on a personal level?  Are there any times when you feel protective over your music or do you make music just for yourself?

I think I make music when I'm feeling a bit down, when I'm going through some stuff, and I need to process it and my way of processing it is writing a song.  The other way is if I'm going through something that makes me really happy like I just got engaged recently so I've written a bunch of stuff about that. It's either I'm feeling really bad or really good and to process those emotions I'll try to write a song.  I think that's why it connects with people. I guess it is selfish in a way that I'm doing it to make me feel better, but then I think because it is so personal to me, people can connect with the lyrics, which is something I didn't really anticipate when I was getting into the music industry.  I didn't really expect people to connect to the music as much as they have.


What was it like to work with Zara Larsson?

She came into the studio when the track was like half-written, so I didn't actually get to work with her per se, but she's amazing, mate.  I've loved her for so long. She did a live lounge in the UK on Radio 1 a long time ago and did "Ain't My Fault" and she was there with this Gospel drummer with all these amazing chops.  She's just a proper all singing, all dancing, pop star, so to have her on my debut album is sick. It's so sick. I'd obviously love to meet her. Yeah, she came into the studio and me and Steve Mack were working on the tune.  I was away on tour I think and she came in one day to do a track with him and heard the song. Steve asked her to vocal it and she said no problem and then we just ended up where we were. Our two voices sound so cool together.  You would never know we weren't in the same room listening to the song.


I know you've talked a little bit about the many genres that comprise the album, but what would you say is the vibe of the album?

The album is What a Time to be Alive because for me it’s been a crazy, ridiculously emotional rollercoaster of a journey writing and getting this album finished.  While I've been writing and getting this album finished the last like three years the entire world (has) seemed crazy. In England, we've got Brexit going on and everything's falling apart in politics and then over here it seems like you guys have had a fair few things going on in politics. [Laughs] And it's the same in Europe and it's just a bit scary when you turn on the news sometimes. The title, people are always like, they think it's really happy or its really depressing, depending on their take on the world, which I think is really cool. It is what you make of it, I guess.

What was the process behind creating the video for "Leave a Light On"?  It kind of reminded me of Life of Pi.

The idea was like my friend, who was really lost at the time, on the boat, not knowing what's going on, having the fear of seeing the reality of the situation and then hallucinating other parts of the situation.  For him, I think that was the situation at the time. He was in a bad place mentally and had a few problems with addiction and it was a bit scary for him and all our friends. I think I wanted the video to represent that, but not in a depressing way, in like a hopeful way.  I think we did a really good job on that.


What do you hope your music conveys about yourself and how do you hope people feel when they listen to it?

Oh wow.  I want people to feel like it takes them away for a moment and they can just kind of get lost in the tunes and forget about all the troubles that are pounding their brain.  Do you know what I mean? So they can just lose themselves in the music and relax. I want it to be thought-provoking in the same way. I don't want to preach to anybody. I don't think anybody should believe what I believe. I just want them to think about what it is that they're believing and what's important to them and what makes them happy and what makes them sad because that's what the album is for me. It's just the stories of my life where I've learned the lessons of what is good, what is bad, what makes me happy, and what makes me sad. That is the album.


It seems like a very personal album, but I wonder do you ever feel that there is a pressure to somebody that you aren't as an artist?

Yeah, there's loads of pressure, but I just can't really be anybody else but me. It's really difficult. I've tried to write songs for the people and I have written a few, but I find it quite difficult for it to not sound like me.  I remember having a teacher in university who literally said to me, "You sound too much like yourself" and made it out like a bad thing, but when it comes to being an artist, I don't think it's a bad thing.  I love Post Malone. He doesn't give a fuck, does he? He is just himself, going around drinking Bud Lights, loving life, and just being him and I think that's why so many people like him. He seems like a really nice, down to earth, chilled guy, who makes sick music.


Is there a specific song on the album that feels most personal to you?

I think "Fade Away" is pretty personal to me.  I wrote it when I was 19 years old after a really bad breakup and it has stood the test of time.  All my friends love it. When it was coming to putting the album together, I wasn't gonna put it on, because it was quite old and they were like "just go and reinvent it," so I did.  I went with Jim Abbiss and re-recorded it and got a string section on it and did it live in the studio with a piano and the vocal and stuff, which was sick. I'm so happy with the way it turned out.  It is definitely the most personal to me because it is quite old. It's been around for a long time. I think it's an important one.


What about it do you think really resonated with people?  You said your friends still really like it.

I think the lyrics in that song.  There's one that's like, "Silver devil with a tongue out," that I really like.  I think the lyrics just resonate with my mates at a point in time where I was and we all were and I think it's quite a depressing emotional ballad.  It's good to feel a bit depressed sometimes, isn't it? People love Adele. I've cried at an Adele concert. I'm not even ashamed to admit it. I felt much better afterward, ya know?  It was great.


Are you working on anything now?

I've been writing just because I like to keep the ball rolling.  If you feel like writing, you should write. I've written like four songs since we finished the album.  I'm going to keep writing, but not put any pressure on it. I just want to keep writing with no idea of what the concept for the next album is.  Just let it work itself out and then sit down one day and go through all the songs and try to put it all in one lane and see what the vision for the next thing is.


Is there anything non-music related that you have planned for the next year that you're excited about?

I'm going away with my parents and my fiancé because it's my parents' 60th birthday and they're having a big party, so I've got seven days off.  We're going to Spain for the week, which will be really cool. Somewhere nice, where I'll just get to spend some time with my family. Apart from that, I think it's going to be all music.  I'm looking forward to it, but it's going to be a whirlwind! 

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