It’s been a long and turbulent four-year road for Louis Tomlinson. Since his band, One Direction, announced their ‘indefinite hiatus’ in 2016, Tomlinson has struggled to find a professional path that suitably represents him as an artist. As he gears up to finally release his long-awaited debut album Walls this coming January, the singer-songwriter finally feels comfortable in his own skin, finding his own unique Britpop-inspired sound which has been spurred on by the resentment towards a diluting of his vision in a bid to find radio play in the States.
Tomlinson, it is safe to say, has finally found his feet and, with a new record label firmly behind him and a renewed energy propelling his every move, the 27-year-old is now a man on a mission with two fingers in the air and a point to prove.
His remarkable story really needs no introduction. Plucked from a crowd of hopefuls auditioning for the X-Factor in 2010, the then 18-year-old singer was placed alongside Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Zayn Malik by Simon Cowell much to the joy of their growing social media fanbase. Just 12 months later their debut album, Up All Night, was released and propelled the group to international fame. In the six fast and furious years as a band One Direction tour relentlessly, released five hit records and became unfathomably rich in the process.
For Tomlinson, however, the immediate highs were quickly met by severe lows when it all came suddenly crashing down. The end of the band, the media relentlessly pursuing his private life, personal tragedy and more have followed. Now though, with a renewed vigour and clarity for his future, Tomlinson has picked himself up and is about to carve out his own niche of pop music.
I met Tomlinson in a back bar of a central London hotel as I self-consciously began to consider the possibility that I may be underdressed for the occasion. Thankfully though—and much to my relief—he arrived casually dressed in a brown quarter-zip jacket, jeans and Adidas trainers which arrived as a refreshing change in reference to the typical, modern-day pop star. Having travelled down to London from Yorkshire that day, with my editor’s words ringing in my ears, the somewhat opulent surroundings of our meeting lacked the relaxing edge I was hoping for.
It must be said that interviews with musicians of international fame can be tricky — especially when they have a new album to sell. With media training, PR managers typically watching over and a sense ill-trust with the media, it will come as little surprise that popstars can be standoffish in interviews. Despite my initial trepidation though, Tomlinson greeted me with immense warmth and immediately offered to get a couple of beers in from the bar—the first sign that our conversation would follow the laid-back pattern I was hoping for.
After we’d sat down and had a sip of lager, our Yorkshire accents clashing, my mind turned to his recent performance of his last single ‘We Made It’ on Children In Need. Tomlinson looked in his element, like he’d finally found his feet as a solo artist—something that hasn’t been an easy adjustment for him to make in the last few years. “Yeah, naturally I feel as any fucking solo star finds – the longer you’re in it, the more experienced you get, the more confident you get. I think it took me a second to work out who I am musically, to fully detach from One Direction and stuff but I feel like I’m there now so, naturally, I’m more confident in my songwriting ability, I’m more confident performing, singing and all of that, so it feels good.”
Following the split from the band, it did feel from the outside looking in that there was no clear direction where his solo career was going to take him. With collaborations with the likes of Steve Aoki and Bebe Rexha, both of which performed commercially well, there was a creative direction that left more questions than answers. Earlier this year, he took to social media to make a statement to claim that he was turning a page, that he was fed up with writing to a formula in a bid to chase radio play and instead he wanted to make music he loved.
That moment was the beginning of the second chapter in his solo career, which he expands on looking while back at that difficult time with more than a pinch of honesty as always, disclosing: “Yeah but I’m not going to lie, it’s still something that I’m fighting up against if I’m being honest. I mean, because there’s constant opinion around me and you know a lot of people do want to focus towards radio—which I do understand—but what bugs me is just how much it limited me — especially because what I grew up listening to on pop radio is very different to what’s on pop radio now and because I couldn’t see a place for myself. I thought that it wasn’t not going to be authentic because I’m going to be trying to sound like what’s on the radio. Today, in 2019 more than ever, people can spot bullshit. So yeah, I think since that moment I’ve always been conscious of that and as I say it is a constant battle, but I think I’m winning at the moment.”
The state of mainstream radio is something that Tomlinson is passionate about. As an artist who aims to make songs that are accessible to the masses without compromising integrity at the same time, Louis appears to be well versed on the shift in the popular musical landscape: “If I’m being honest, I didn’t actively search for stuff because it was on pop radio,” he said while discussing the change in approach to consuming music. “Especially a band like Catfish and The Bottlemen,” he adds after a moment of contemplation. “When I was growing up they would definitely, definitely, be on every radio and I think those bands are very important and now I have to actively search for them or listen to the right station.” He continues, “Also, I think it took me a second to come out and say what my influences are because I know what people expect from someone who has been in a boyband and stuff like that.”
With this lightbulb moment, Tomlinson wanted to detail more about the inner workings of his creative process, how collaborating with like-minding musicians helped free his thought process. “Once I’d had this epiphany and put this message on social media, at that point I’d done four songs that are still on the album. I think ‘Kill My Mind’ was actually a turning point, I wrote it with a guy called Jamie Hartman and the next session we had together we wrote ‘Walls’ which is the title track for the album and is going to be my next single. I think from that moment it unlocked something and we got some momentum so then the second half of the album was written relatively quickly but I think as I say it being transitional I’d have loved 10 ‘Kill My Mind’s’ but maybe the next record.”
‘Kill My Mind’ looks and sounds like the first step towards the definitive direction that the Yorkshireman is aiming for. It has a punchy Hot Fuss era Killers’ chorus and is more reminiscent of the type of music that Tomlinson himself loves. “That’s probably the proudest I’ve been of a song because that is genuinely a song that I fucking love listening to and that’s not necessarily always the case when you’re playing for radio all the time. It didn’t get the attention that I think it quite deserved but that’s the way it is.”
The shift towards the guitar-led music, which bucks the trend with current chart-toppers, is the path that the 27-year-old is determined to follow. A recent writing session with Australian indie giants DMA’s had popped up in our conversation and the beaming smile across Tomlinson’s face said it all: “I’ve hung out with those boys (DMA’s) actually, one night because we were in the same studio and I’ve written together with [them] before,” he said before clarifying that the drinks were flowing which resulted in an unfinished recording. When probed on whether this is something he’d like to re-visit at a later date, Tomlinson expanded with an eye firmly on the future: “The DMA’s session was a bit of an experiment, to be honest, when I look at my solo career I’m looking at it as a five, six or seven-year plan. I realise this from doing the DMA’s one, I would fucking love to do an album full of them but it’s a transition you know what I mean, I’ve got to understand the fan base and what they want. I don’t want anything to be so drastic so in my eyes, it’s a two, three even four-album progression before I get there and I also think to write those kinds of songs that I love I need to have more experience as a songwriter as well.”
For someone who has had such rich successes in their career to date, the singer-songwriter does seem to have struggled with his self-confidence since going solo—but this year seems to have changed that. One song that stands out is ‘Two of Us’, a track which was released earlier this year is a tribute to his late Mother who tragically passed in 2017. Tomlinson’s life was then struck by more devastation following his sister’s sudden death in March this year.
‘Two of Us’ clearly carries a heavy weight of emotion. Created from the inner workings of Tomlinson’s grief, the song is by a distance the most personal release in his entire career to date. Despite that, the track manages to find the universal within the personal as it’s lyrics resonate for anyone who has ever lost anybody close to them—myself included. While our conversation remained on this topic I was keen to know whether these heart-breaking events had impacted his professional epiphany, whether the personal grief had allowed him to stop worrying about the chart and instead focusing more on enjoying the ride: “When I wrote ‘Two Of Us’ that was something I never really had with music before where I like to think every lyric has meant something. There was a different emotional weight with that song and just hearing people’s stories about what it meant to them and how they related to it, that was amazing for me.”
“If I’m being honest what made me have my epiphany was me spitting my fucking dummy out because I was sick of being put in writing sessions which I couldn’t relate to, or people trying to pull me in a certain way to work on American radio. I could probably have commercial success like that, but I’ve got the luxury of having had that already with One Direction and I thought ‘what does success mean to me?’ I just thought I’ve got to follow my fucking heart and if I can win like that it’s like a double win you know what I mean.”
One Direction’s immediate success was unprecedented for a British boyband. Together they conquered the world with their debut Up All Night going straight to number one in the States and shifting more than 4.5million copies globally. Just one to this moment, Tomlinson was an 18-year-old living for the weekend in Doncaster—but he was determined not to let his newfound fame change him: “Yeah I was always pretty resistant to it [fame] to be honest, I always say that when I got famous, when I first got put in band, that I was having the best year of my life. So, it was a lot to deal with to leave my favourite year behind and to be doing something else where you’re working really hard.
The personal and professional problems that have occurred in recent years appears to have given Tomlinson a remarkable sense of life experience. Despite still being so young, despite having lived a whirlwind life, he still has the ability to self reflect on with a grounded honesty. “Being from Donny you don’t expect to get that kind of opportunity and I then got put into the band and then had to deal with everything on the job. Honestly, it was a fucking incredible time in my life that shaped me as an artist and shaped me as a person, I saw some amazing things but it is also nice now to have a little bit more free time because we were so fucking busy and also you know stand on my own two feet and say this is who I am.”
“As far as what’s on my checklist of a credible artist you know they have to write their own tunes, that was always important to me and I did a lot of writing in the band which I think gave me the incredible experience to write now. It was like a crash course, there were so many sessions and I think it’s put me in good stead, but I feel like I’m always getting better as a writer man I feel like with every song I learn a little bit more.”
Although, it’s clear from speaking with Tomlinson that he looks back on those years he spent with the band with all the fondness in the world. Yet the media attention that came with all the success was something that got the better of him at times. “That was hard and I’ve often envied artists from an era where smartphones weren’t around. There were definitely some days where it got the better of me. I suppose you’ve got to be selective on where you go and I learned the hard way from a few different people that you can’t trust. Some people want something out of you and it took me a second to understand, but again I think that helps me have a thicker skin in the real world outside of my job. There are times when I’ve gone through difficult things in my life and I’ve thought certain people haven’t been amazing but it’s part of it, fuck it.”
As our conversation then meandered toward the split of the band and what life was like for Tomlinson after exiting the world of One Direction— which was all that he had known for the entirety of his adult life up until that point. A sense of honest emotion entered his voice, a moment that seemingly suggested that this permanent change was something that was taken from his own control: “It was good to be back doing normal things but I wasn’t ready for the band to go on a break and it came as a shock for me,” Tomlinson exclusively told Far Out Magazine. “It definitely wasn’t my choice but I understand why the decision was made and there’s a good argument for that. I’m enjoying expressing myself now but it rocked me for a time and for a bit and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said, vehemently.
From the tone in his voice, it is obvious that the subject is still a relatively raw one for Tomlinson who initially struggled to find the right sound for him following the split of the band—a factor stemmed from his initial reluctance to move solo. From the gravitas of the moment to the importance of his first steps back into music, it was clear that Tomlinson wasn’t ready to be going out on his own so soon after the band’s breakup—a learning curve which other members of the group seemed to overcome in different ways.
The break was initially thought to be just that ‘a break’, but nearly four years after the announcement there are still no signs that the group is entertaining ideas of reuniting anytime soon. With Louis Tomlinson set to release his debut album in January, Liam Payne’s debut LP1 out next month, Harry Styles’ second offering, Fine Line, being made available on December 13th and Niall Horan working on the follow-up to his 2017 Flicker, the One Direction members are firmly in solo mode.
Tomlinson acknowledges that during the final One Direction tour he began to accept that the break was inevitable, admitting: “It had kind of been brewing and we knew the conversation might be coming around but it was just one of those things. It was always going to happen, we were always going to take a break, but I think there are always people who are going to take things better than others.”
Looking on the bright side, however, since the break he has been allowed to live a bit more of a quieter life. From speaking with Tomlinson I get the sense that he’s in this because he loves the music, appreciates the love he gets from fans and loves playing live. However, the celebrity lifestyle that comes with it isn’t why he’s in this game. “I think I can definitely have a bit more of a balance now, there are obviously times when I’m releasing songs or releasing album when it’s really ramped up and I don’t get to see my boy, Freddie, as much as I’d definitely like to. It’s hard but definitely easier in those off times to have the balance because otherwise when you’re so busy it’s impossible to literally fit everybody into your life. It’s definitely nicer having more time to do normal fucking things,” he adds with an almost sigh of relief.
Tomlinson’s solo career, which has found its feet with emphatic effect and is currently flying high with a sold-out world tour and highly anticipated debut on the horizon, was something that the singer himself had never initially envisioned. With Tomlinson originally wanting to take a back seat in the music industry following the end of the band, he revealed exclusively to Far Out: “I’m not going to lie it hit me hard but it definitely inspired me to get on with my own solo career because it wasn’t something I was always going to do. I was just going to write songs and just hopefully send them to other people and stuff like that, but everything happens for a reason, so they say anyway.”
As the careers of all five members of the band have all taken off, with each turning into different avenues sonically, our conversation then turned to the competitive nature between the band since they went their separate ways. Typically, the avid Doncaster Rovers fan opting to use a hugely specific football analogy to describe the relationship with his former bandmates: “I could be wrong but I think we’ve all got that in us, there’s a competitive side to everyone. I can only speak from personal experience, and as time goes on you understand the differences. It’s not all that relevant but I liken to the feeling at first was that you’ve all been at Barcelona’s youth academy, so we’ll call One Direction ‘Barcelona’ and then we’ve all been put off at different clubs and that takes a second to understand and compute but we’re all still lucky to be able to do it as solo artists.”
Having time off to relax over the last few years for the first time since stepping foot for his X-Factor audition all those years ago, Tomlinson seems to have returned with a renewed love for music and everything that comes with it. For a while, it appears the music was falling second in line to all the hysteria that surrounded his fame—a situation that has been duly rectified.
Next year will see him return to Doncaster as part of his world tour for a very special homecoming and, with that mention, his face lights up with a grin on his face the size of South Yorkshire: “It’s going to be class, I can’t wait for Donny Dome. I don’t feel like my career has fully started until I do that first tour show, it’s all well and good writing songs, releasing songs, doing all the promo and everything that comes with it but the most important fucking thing is that you put on a good show. I started realising the longer that I’ve been in this that there’s a level of importance in these nights to people, especially the avid fanbase that I’m lucky enough to have. You can see from the reactions and look into people’s eyes and see what certain lyrics meant to them.”
What struck me the most from the time I spent with the singer-songwriter was just how grounded he was, seemingly bereft of any level of arrogance and still just that same local lad from Doncaster who began this journey ten years ago. His working-class Yorkshire heritage, he told me, is what has made him the man he is today: “You’ve got to be fucking humble where we’re from you know what I mean? Because otherwise you get called out like ‘who the fuck do you think you are?’”.
The greatest takeaway from our conversation is that Louis Tomlinson is still that music enthusiast that entered the music industry in 2010 who, despite all the success and fame, has managed to stay grounded. With surreal highs came earth-shattering lows—all of which has shaped him in one way or another. Instant success is no longer what he seeks with it now being about the long game for him, this change in attitude is a sign of maturity for Tomlinson who no longer losing sleep about pleasing streaming algorithms.
Having been sitting at the mountain top of the music industry for almost a decade, it seems it is only now he is really getting started with a long-term plan of where he wants his solo-career to go. With a strong sense of support around him, his future and creative vision is firmly in his own hands. With an abundance of experience behind him and has renewed enthusiasm, Louis Tomlinson is finally ready to find his own direction.
Walls is available on 31st January via Sony Music, for tickets to his world tour – visit here for tickets.