Walker down memory lane

Up for two Brit awards this week, Tom Walker’s rise to stardom has followed three years of solid gigging across the world

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Nestled between Knutsford and Macclesfield, just off the A537, the small Cheshire village of Chelford (population 1,174) is as far from a rock and roll mecca as you can get.

A village website, run by volunteers, advertises upcoming antiques fairs and parish council meetings, while Wikipedia lists a post office, the Egerton Arms and St John’s church, burial place of former world champion racing cyclist Reg Harris, among its attractions. For over a century, the village was best known for its bustling cattle market, but that closed in 2017 when the land was sold to developers.

“It’s about as rural as it gets – the middle of nowhere. There’s a Shell garage, two shops and that’s about it,” explains singer-songwriter Tom Walker, who was born in Glasgow but spent his formative years in Chelford, prior to becoming one of 2019’s most hotly-tipped acts. As a teenager, he considered his home to be “the most boring place ever” –  made worse because there was no one else there his age who played a musical instrument.

“I had a few friends in Knutsford [who played], but I didn’t have a car, the bus ran once every hour and ended at six o’clock, so it was useless. I had no choice but to sit in my room and learn to do it all on my own,” recalls the now 27 year old, seated backstage at Manchester’s Ritz, dressed in his stage uniform of jeans, shirt, bulky work boots and woolly hat.

“Politically some of the stuff that’s been going on with Brexit and Trump is just a bit mad.”

In a few hours’ time, he’ll take to the stage in front of 1,500 excitable fans, the latest in a growing line of sold-out gigs. But for now, the singer is taking a trip down memory lane and explaining how he went from sleepy Chelford to multiple Brit Award nominee on the verge of potential pop stardom. It all starts, he says, with his music-mad father – who works in the building services industry – taking him to his first concert aged nine.

“We went to see AC/DC. I remember it so vividly,” reminisces the singer, whose dressed-down appearance matches his humble, easygoing manner. “We used to go at least once a month to a concert: Foo Fighters, The Prodigy, Underworld, Muse, BB King, Slipknot – loads of different stuff. He really got me into music and into art. He adores it.”

After several years playing music alone in his makeshift bedroom studio, Walker formed his first band while at college in Northwich. At first, he only played guitar and did backing vocals in the group. “Then I wrote a song one day and I was like: ‘Is it all right if I sing this one?’ All my mates were like: ‘You can really sing.’”

The band, Plastic Highways, didn’t last long “because everyone started having kids and becoming adults”, but the experience and Walker’s growing confidence as a singer laid the foundations for his solo career. At 19 he enrolled on a songwriting degree at the London Centre of Contemporary Music.

“I turned up and thought: ‘Yeah, I’m a great musician.’ And then realised very quickly that everyone was way better than me and that the world is a bigger place than Chelford.”

The change in environment was equally dramatic. “I remember moving to Streatham and being the only white guy on the bus and thinking: ‘This is definitely different.’ I loved it. I was going out to gigs every night and I moved in with four Italians who I’d never met before and didn’t really speak good English. I lived with them for two years and by the end of it they all had northern accents. It was hilarious.”

Graduating with a 2:1, Walker stayed in the capital, working as a mobile photobooth attendant by night and on his music by day. “You know the guy who comes to a party, builds a photobooth and is there for three hours, basically babysitting drunk people, making sure they don’t break it? Well, that was me, four nights a week, all around London in a Renault Clio, the tiniest car ever.”

He was also developing his live skills by busking late at night when you were less likely to get moved on for not having a license. “It teaches you how to hook people in. I was playing my own songs, which is a really hard sell as a busker,
I can promise you.” To complement his earnings – over £100 on a good day – he’d perform covers of well-known George Ezra and Ed Sheeran tracks to drunken revellers.

He continued working on his own music. “I was just obsessed with it. I really couldn’t see another option of doing a job that was going to make me happy other than doing this.”

Eventually he got a manager and then a record deal with Sony imprint Relentless, also home to Professor Green, Nadia Rose and DJ superstar Steve Aoki.

A succession of well-received singles followed, but none charted or delivered the breakthrough he craved. But that all changed in October 2017 with the release of Leave A Light On, an emotive piano ballad co-written with multi-million selling hit maker Steve Mac that showcased Walker’s full-bodied rasping vocals over crunchy drums and a nagging earworm synth hook.

“That one song has given us 150 gigs,” credits the singer, who was inspired to write the track about a close friend whose drinking was getting out of hand. Leave A Light On went on to become a top 10 hit across the world, including the UK, topped the charts in France and has now been streamed over 350 million times.

“Everybody at some point in their life has dealt with addiction or knows someone who’s dealing with addiction and I think that’s why the song has connected. I’ve had so many people all over the world telling me about their brother, sister or mum or a friend. I didn’t realise how big a problem it is for everybody until then, because no one really talks about it. People just sweep it under the carpet. So I think people take a bit of solace in that song and that’s why it’s had this massive reach.”

It’s also a song with a happy ending, reveals Walker, as the friend who it’s about has addressed his issues and is “totally cool now”. In the meantime, the singer’s solo career has gone from strength to strength, with 2018 seeing him perform to over 800,000 people at festivals and sell-out tours, including his first trek around America. In December, Walker performed on both Christmas Top of the Pops and The X-Factor final (his second time on the show) and just
a few weeks ago he was nominated in the British breakthrough act and best single categories at this year’s Brit Awards, which take place on 20 February. The title of his upcoming debut album, What A Time To Be Alive, nods to his rapid rise, as well as current world events.

“The last three years of my life personally have just been the best. Everything is bigger and seems to be progressing and all the hard work that me and all the team have put in seems to be paying off. But also the world’s just a bit mad, isn’t it? Politically some of the stuff that’s been going on with Brexit and Trump is just a bit mad. You watch the news and it’s like: ‘How is this going on?’ So the album reflects that. It’s about stories from my life that are really positive and things that are important to me. I want people to listen to those songs and question what is important to them. And then other songs are – without preaching to anyone – my views on certain things that are going on around the world.”

Produced by Mike Spencer (Years and Years), Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Adele) and Steve Mac (Ed Sheeran, Anne Marie), What A Time To Be Alive is likely to lift Walker to the next level with its radio-friendly blend of romantic ballads, string-laden confessionals, crisp hip-hop beats, and rousing rock-styled anthems, positioning the raspy-voiced singer in the same sphere as Ed Sheeran, James Bay and fellow beardies Rag‘n’Bone Man and Jack Garratt. Collaborations with Zara Larsson and dance act Rudimental have more of a dance-pop feel and won’t hurt his commercial prospects.

“It’s really diverse. There’s something on there for everybody. I honestly couldn’t have made it any better,” says the singer, who believes his music connects with people because of its pure emotional honesty. “A lot of chart stuff
is about ‘I’m having a great day. I’m in the club. I’ve got loads of money and I’m driving a Lamborghini.’ I can’t relate to that music. It’s good to have ambitions and dreams about having a mansion and a Lamborghini, but it’s just not the reality of life.

“I talk about everyday stuff that I’m going through. There’s songs about me and the missus, about me and my mates, my troubles and my friends’ troubles, the good and the bad. It’s as simple as that. Sometimes songwriters can overthink lyrics and you’re listening to them thinking: ‘This sounds really cool, but I have no idea what you’re on about.’ I don’t think you ever get that with my songs. They’re straight to the point and they are what they are.”

And what if the career he’s spent years building doesn’t work out as planned? “I never thought I’d get this far,” he says, running a hand through his thick ginger beard. “So if it all ended tomorrow I’d be gutted, but I’ve done way more than I ever thought I would. I’m going to try not to worry about it and just enjoy each day as it comes because it’s just getting better and better.”

Tom Walker plays Manchester Academy on 27 April. What A Time To Be Alive is out on 1 March on Relentless/Sony

Tom Walker on… 

Getting inspiration from Ed Sheeran
I’d been to see him in Liverpool when I was still at college. I remember he was playing to 200 people and afterwards he said to everyone: “Come and say hello.” I remember listening to his Number 5 Collaborations Project EP where he collaborated with all the rappers and thinking: “Here’s some white ginger kid doing urban music.” I saw his progression over a period of time and I remember thinking: “If he can do it, so can I.”

What fans can expect from his debut album
I’m really proud of the work that’s on there. We’ve got a 30 piece string orchestra for Angels and My Way. There’s arrangements that are just piano, strings and vocals. All three producers are all amazing in different ways and each section of the album is just so different and so cool. With Jim [Abbiss] we were recording us dropping chains and stomping on floors to get a nice sound. Steve [Mac] just seems to know the perfect form and production to make a good pop banger and then you get Mike [Spencer], who is in the middle of both of those and does super-cool guitar stuff, so it’s really diverse.  

Why his album release was pushed back to March
Because of the amount of gigging that we’ve been doing this year we didn’t give ourselves enough time to go and promote it properly. The workload was just becoming insane. I was doing all these gigs, seven interviews a day and promo sessions. Mentally, vocally and physically I just didn’t feel I was going to be able to keep up with it. So we decided to push it back [to March]. What’s the rush? 

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