In the time since the pandemic forced the postponement of his first solo tour in 2020, Louis Tomlinson has written a new album and signed to a different label, marking the end of 12 years in the major system. On his heartfelt, guitar-heavy second record Faith In The Future, he is shooting for the stars by embracing going indie in every sense of the word. Music Week meets the singer, alongside BMG and Seven 7 Management, to talk about making positive change in the industry and stepping into the unknown…
WORDS: CHARLOTTE GUNN PHOTOS: ED COOKE
Leeds Festival, 2009. A 17-year-old, Louis Tomlinson and a group of mates descend on Bramham Park for the weekend. It’s a rite of passage for music-loving school leavers around the country and, along with 70,000 other teenagers, they’re hyped for three days of live music and debauchery. It’s a year before his successful X Factor audition, the moment that will change his life forever, thrusting him into what would become one of the biggest selling boy bands of all time. But, arriving at Leeds, he is just another lad with an indie-sleaze haircut, psyched about jumping around to his favourite bands.
“It was such a great line-up,” a now 30-year-old Tomlinson reminisces. “Kings Of Leon headlined, Bloc Party were sick, Jamie T was massive. It’s got its own feeling, Leeds Festival, there’s always a little bit of chaos around it. I liked that as a young lad.”
Fast forward to 2022 and Tomlinson is now a festival boss. Away From Home, his own one-dayer, sold out its second edition this summer. The first was a celebration of live music post-pandemic, a free show that got fans back together in Crystal Palace Park, London last August. This year, he had bigger ambitions, taking the event to a larger 17,000-capacity site in Malaga and, with a bill including The Vaccines, Hinds, buzzy Liverpool band Stone and Tomlinson headlining, it was a great advert for his new era. Louis Tomlinson, you see, has embraced his inner indie kid.
You might not associate Tomlinson – one-fifth of One Direction – as an indiehead, but seeing him today, chain-smoking cigarettes, shaggy hair combed forward and retro polo shirt buttoned to the neck, he certainly looks the part. We’re in a hotel room in central London to talk about his upcoming second album, Faith In The Future (out November 11 via BMG), his first as an independent artist. Obviously, BMG is in no way, shape or form a DIY bedroom project, but last May’s announcement of a global deal nevertheless marked the end of Tomlinson’s long association with Sony and the major system.
“I think it probably made sense for both me and Syco to go opposite ways,” he says. “I had my own frustrations, I’m sure they had their own frustrations with me to a degree. I wasn’t really the traditional Syco artist. So it was a bit of a no-brainer for me really, and I did feel relieved when I was out of that.”
Tomlinson now feels free to make the music he’s always wanted to, and BMG – who posted record half-year results in August, with revenue increasing 25% to €371m (£312.4m) – are excited to help facilitate it. When the results came out, CEO Hartwig Masuch suggested that Tomlinson’s record could fire more huge numbers for the second half of 2022 and beyond.
“The significance of Louis signing to BMG is clear from the global excitement across the company in the run-up to the release of Faith In The Future,” says Alistair Norbury, BMG’s UK president, repertoire & marketing. “Every market is taking ownership of this outstanding album and we are all fully invested in delivering the international success Louis deserves, especially following the extensive touring in 2022 which has set the record up beautifully.”
Faith In The Future is a rousing guitar record that was, in many ways, born in those piss-soaked Leeds fields 13 years ago. Its predecessor, Walls (70,483 sales, according to the Official Charts Company), hit No.4 in January 2020 and showed hints of a new guitar-heavy sound for Tomlinson without quite committing. That, he says, was a frustration. And with a 1D legacy comes an immensely fervent fanbase (65 million people follow Tomlinson on social media), so he had options for where to go next. And, having been in the industry for his entire adult life, he felt able to make an informed choice.
It was BMG’s mantra of transparency that appealed.
“Everything BMG stands for is really important,” he explains. “The level of control, even the way that the deal is structured, everything makes you feel like you’re in control and they’re there to help. Yes, they offer opinion, but it’s not saying, ‘This is what the single or video should be.’ I needed that freedom because the last thing I want is to be sitting in my rocking chair when I’m in my 70s thinking I should have made my own decisions. They’ve really embraced me as an artist, all of my ideas and thoughts, which gives me loads of confidence and was what I needed.”
Jamie Nelson, VP, A&R (new recordings), was instrumental in securing the deal and is still basking in the glow of a coup.
“There was competition, and we like coming to projects as they leave other labels because there’s often a new energy and excitement,” he says. “Our conversations with Louis and his manager Matt Vines were detailed and honest, and that made getting the deal done relatively painless. In terms of what attracted us to signing him, it was immediately evident that his ambition matched ours. Since he left Sony, his previous record has streamed incredibly and the constant growth of his live business has built a great foundation for us to work from. We want to sign contemporary and relevant global artists, so Louis fits in perfectly. Plus, he has a strong vision for his music.”
And Faith In The Future certainly has a clear identity.
“I fell in love with the phrase before lockdown, and before I’d written any of the songs,” explains Tomlinson of the title. “It’s actually a lyric in Mind Games by John Lennon. I love the song anyway, but every time I heard it, that phrase just said something to me.”
As someone who has suffered immeasurable loss in recent years with the death of both his mother and sister in quick succession, its resonance makes sense.
“I think there’s an argument that I’ve had to have faith in the future, in my personal life and my professional life,” he says. “I had a feeling that was what I wanted to call the record, then I just put it out on my Twitter without any context to see the reaction. It just felt like an appropriate time to put out a positive message, I’ve always found it beneficial to look at the glass half-full.”
Tomlinson is full of good vibes today, but talks seriously on the subject of mental health, the fragility of an artist’s state of mind.
“In terms of One Direction, it’s often easy to stereotype these big evil managers or big evil label heads who demanded that we did this [or that],” he says. “It wasn’t really like that, I will say that everyone did their best by us, and I’m talking specifically about our mental health. However, being an artist is very individual and the pressures that you have day-to-day, no manager or record boss understands that. Until you experience it, you don’t understand it. Sometimes words are powerful, it can be a little throwaway phrase that comes from this suited label boss and you think about that for the next couple of months.”
While writing his debut, Tomlinson was still grieving and he poured some of that into his songwriting. Two Of Us, a standout emotional ballad about his mum Johannah Deakin who passed away in 2016, is his biggest solo streaming success to date. It has 151,993,445 streams on Spotify, where the singer has more than five million monthly listeners.
This time around, however, Tomlinson wants to keep things a little closer to his chest.
“It’s always been really important for me to be honest and authentic,” he explains. “On my first album, I thought that meant, ‘Let’s just tell everyone, to the nth degree, what everything means.’ But, actually, that takes away the magic of the song. If one of my fans was told the story about what a song actually means and they had a really special individual way of interpreting it, I’d hate to kill those dreams because, to me, that’s what music is all about. If you write a little bit more metaphorically, it gives you room to have a deeper concept and the listener more room to relate.”
Another thing that happens when you share personal stories to a very large fanbase is that it prompts fans to share theirs back with you. Over the years, Tomlinson’s nurturing personality has shone through – both in his personal life (he’s a dad to a six-year-old boy) and in his work, as a mentor on X Factor and as previous boss of Syco imprint Third Strings.
He has a strong desire to help people (“If I hadn’t got into music I would have been a teacher or a football coach,” he says) and that goes for the fans too.
But when tens of millions use you as an outlet for their grief, does it get a bit much?
“I want to be careful how I answer this question, because I like being that person for people – don’t get me wrong, I really do,” he says, pausing to consider his words. “Especially when I’ve had very raw moments like when I did Two Of Us and, all of a sudden, I’m having people share deeply personal stories with me about their own individual experiences. Now, the difficult thing with that is, even when a friend brings up those kinds of conversations, there’s always an element of wanting to say the right thing, because you understand the enormity of what they’re talking about.”
Tomlinson’s concern is palpable as he continues.
“There were times where I was doing signings on the first album and I came out of them not deflated – that would be the wrong word – but just kind of worried for these people,” he says. “Taking on that burden at times can be… You just feel the weight of it, basically. I feel good that the fans feel comfortable enough to be able to share those deeply personal things with me, but I’d be lying if I was saying that sometimes you don’t feel the burden.”
On Faith In The Future, Tomlinson is moving forward and to do so, he’s taken an Indie Avengers Assemble approach. With credits including Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys, The 1975, Wolf Alice), Theo Hutchcraft (Hurts), Joe Cross (Courteeners), Dan Grech (The Killers, The Vaccines, Halsey), Nico Rebscher (Aurora, Alice Merton) and Rob Harvey (The Music, Kasabian), the line-up is like an NME reader’s dream come true.
“I definitely had a clear idea of who I wanted to work with, what kind of songs I wanted to make and the direction I wanted to go in,” Tomlinson tells us. “And that meant missing out on any of the moments of treading water and trial and error. When I look down the list of people that have worked on the record, it makes me really proud and especially people like Joe who plays with the Courteeners. I’ve seen loads of Courteeners gigs. Like, that’s fucking dead cool that he’s associated with my record!”
Pounding opener The Greatest is a real statement of intent. From there, through tempo shifts and the odd dancier moment (inspired, Tomlinson says, by Aussie outfit DMAs) the album unfolds as a heartfelt, 16-song beast of an indie-rock record.
“Something I did differently was to work with more artists than I did professional songwriters, and I found that really, really fulfilling,” Tomlinson says. “I completely understand the other model, and there is a lot of benefit to working with professional songwriters. However, that’s their livelihood. So what you often find is, everyone’s looking for the single. It kind of stains the air creatively, because you’re coming into the room with a slightly different intention. Whereas when you work with artists, the most important thing is the song, serving the song and authenticity and all these great words that we would use to stereotype a good artist. That’s where I’ve really benefited from working with those people, because it means every song gets the attention it deserves.”
Tomlinson wrapped his most recent tour – which included a stop at OVO Arena Wembley – in September and he can’t wait to get back on the road. Indeed, there’s a sense of making up for lost time as, just two dates into his first real solo tour in 2020, the world shut down. He may have entered the Guinness Book Of World Records for staging the most live streamed concert by a solo male act after selling over 160,000 tickets to fans in over 110 countries, but getting back on the road properly was a priority.
“I love touring,” he says. “Like every artist, my world is full of so many theoreticals, and question marks. Like, if you do this favour for radio, it’s going to mean this. And if you do this for the label, it’s going to mean this. There’s all these different things that live in this mysterious world where you just cross your fingers and hope that, if half of what they say is true, then it might be all right. But you get a very black and white thing at a gig of singing the songs and hearing the reaction – there’s no in between. And that’s what I love, there’s no bullshit. You’re not trying to read between the lines, you can just feel it and that’s why I think it’s given me loads of confidence.”
Manager Matt Vines recalls the difficulties of trying to get back on the road at the earliest possible opportunity.
“Touring was stressful,” he says. “We moved the American tour five times throughout the pandemic and we were one of the first world tours to go out early this year. But it was more what we had to put in place because Covid was flying at that point. It was the bubbling, we also had musicians trained up across America ready to fly in and out of shows. At one point in the tour, we had members of the party in isolation in three different states. So it was testament to our touring party and all the agents that we were able to complete the tour without dropping a show. I saw a lot of other tours go down so we were very grateful.”
“He’s an international arena act,” says the agent. “It’s gone from the Roundhouse and then during Covid it grew on its own. The One Direction thing has its own economy. We don’t do many festivals at the moment but if I was a festival booker, one of the first acts I would book is Louis, because he’s bringing his own fans along too.”
“I would love to have those opportunities,” echoes Tomlinson, while also sounding a note of caution. “My biggest worry is that there is a certain perception or judgement.”
While music fandom has undoubtedly become less tribal over the last decade, music snobbery hasn’t gone away altogether. In pivoting to a very distinct sound, one that’s traditionally been associated with ‘proper’ musicians as opposed to ex-boy band members, is there a worry that the indie world won’t accept Tomlinson’s new era?
“Ironically, I used to be one of those people,” says the singer. “I grew up in Doncaster, which is a judgemental place in terms of music. What’s cool is cool and what’s not is definitely not. It’s not as if I judge the people who have those thoughts, it is definitely still relevant to me and it is still apparent, but I would say things like that are getting easier. Where I don’t help myself is I sometimes get frustrated with the snobbery or the perception or whatever, but then I’ll see a line-up for a festival and I’ll be like, ‘Fuck, no, where are all the bands?’ Do you know what I mean? So I can’t have it both ways.”
Some acceptance and support from his musical heroes has helped Tomlinson feel like he belongs.
“It sounds wet, like, I wish it didn’t, but even just meeting Liam [Gallagher] the other day [helped],” he says. “Historically he has been such an asshole to so many people – and I love him for it – but he was really, really fucking nice and considerate. And it just meant a lot to me, because there have been times in my career where I’ve been swimming against the tide.”
Despite making hits with Bebe Rexha and Digital Farm Animals (Back To You, 659,547 sales), plus Steve Aoki (Just Hold On, 665,869 sales), Tomlinson maintains that he held himself back commercially.
“I’m sure Syco would have been over the moon if I was willing to make a more commercial, down the middle record,” he says. “There have been times in my career where I’ve thought that maybe I deserve a bit of credit for following what I want to do.”
Now, though, he senses the tides are changing, that people are starting to give credit where it’s due. The same extends to his patronage of emerging bands.
“I do really care about guitar music and new bands, it’s been a massive part of my growing up and now I’m lucky enough to have a platform to be able to help these things,” he says. “It’s fucking cool.”
As for his audience, the change in direction has been slowly seeded over time. Through regularly updated playlists of new music that Tomlinson shares, this year’s Away From Home and songs like Kill My Mind from Walls, many of his hardcore 1D fanbase are now as indie as he is.
“Louis’ fans have been amazing,” says manager Vines. “When artists support Louis and go on tour with him, the fans almost take those artists under their wing and into the fold. It’s been an education for a lot of fans in alternative music. We saw a lot of them posting about how they love The Vaccines and Hinds after Away From Home. We also saw that with the tour support acts, their streaming numbers go up and we’ve seen them sell out tours off the back of it. And I think that we’d really love the opportunity to expand that out into a label set-up where we can then work more closely with an artist to break them.”
Lisa Wilkinson, BMG’s director, UK marketing (new recordings), says the team has helped listeners acclimatise.
“When we first started working with Louis, we knew that there might be some work to do in terms of brand positioning; not because we have to [make] something that isn’t there, but because people potentially weren’t seeing what is there,” she says. “When you’re in a boy band, you have to conform to that. And rather than people believing that Louis is now trying to create a niche for himself and he’s just gone, ‘OK, I’m going to do indie,’ this is the other way around. This is who Louis always has been but he had to change to be in the band.”
And while Tomlinson had complete control over the creative for the campaign, Wilkinson points out that photos and artwork are just the tip of the iceberg.
“We knew it was important to get in front of the media, to get him talking to DSPs and radio stations so people could understand, like and appreciate Louis and give him credit for who he is,” she says. “Before, there were just assumptions, so people are going to assume unless you do the work and take him in and allow him to tell you who he is and to show himself through his work and through his creative, which I hope we’ve done. Hopefully, we’ve gone some way to breaking down any bias or presumptions about who he is.”
By his own admission, Louis Tomlinson was “the one in the back” in One Direction. Never being given a solo part to sing throughout the band’s time on The X Factor knocked his confidence in the early days and, as time went on, he threw himself into the business side of things and took on more songwriting. Unclear of whether he could or even wanted to have a solo career, he took the band’s hiatus hard and was a little slower out of the gate in launching on his own.
“With hindsight, I always knew I wanted to do it,” he says. “But the question was, could I? What would it sound like? It wasn’t as sudden as this, but in my brain it felt like I woke up one day and all of a sudden, the band had gone on a break. And it took me a long time to get over that idea. There was a petulance there, I wanted it the way I wanted it.”
Does he still feel like it’s a break?
“Errrrr…”, he says, looking at the ceiling. “I suppose it’s only a break if we ever get back together! When we had the conversations, we never got any real clarity on what it was. And I can remember going into those meetings and saying, ‘You know, I understand – it’s not what I want – but all I would ask is just put a rough time on how long a break.’ And there was never really an answer. So I definitely came out of the band, crossing my fingers thinking, ‘Oh, maybe it’s only going to be like a year or two.’ That’s also why it took me a long time to get over it because I didn’t really know what it was. I think that’s probably stopped me from going into my solo career because I was still just thinking I wanted to be in that band.”
Although it’s taken Tomlinson a moment to build his confidence, the new team he has around him now are incredibly positive about the future.
“There aren’t any challenges with working with someone like Louis, because he just sells tickets!” laughs Alex Hardee. “The thing that we don’t get at the moment is the festival business, which we may move into because on the right festival bill, he’d pull a massive crowd.”
“Where Louis came from was dominated by airplay, commercial radio and record sales,” says Matt Vines. “Now, as an artist on his own, he’s been so successful in terms of ticket sales and with the support of the fans, I think he’ll continue down that route. People are constantly surprised by the demand. He’s got an incredibly successful merchandise business and that’s something we’re going to look to expand. We’re looking to launch some things at some point in the next year, on the clothing side.”
And whatever they do will put the fans first.
“It’s a massively psychological job being in the industry,” Tomlinson says. “In terms of what I think could be better, honestly, there’s too many fucking greedy fuckers. As artists, we can all do a little bit more to help out, with things like ticket prices, merch prices, everything that we put any kind of price on… Those things are really important to me. I could have had a meet and greet for the seven months I’ve just been on tour, and it would have been amazing fucking money. But the bottom line is, whoever’s got the richest parents or the most money gets a better experience, and that’s not fucking fair.”
Louis Tomlinson doesn’t want your pity, but he does want recognition. It would have been easy for him to keep making big pop hits and listening to everyone else’s opinion on the type of artist he should be. But he’s taken it back to his roots – to the kid in a field dancing to Bloc Party, to the nervous boy on the X Factor audition stage belting out Scouting For Girls.
“I want this album to chip away the blanket of sympathy that songs like Two Of Us created, ’’ he says. “I don’t like that – I understand it – but I don’t like it.”
And, his cigarettes smoked, Tomlinson underlines the idea that he’s moving on for good one final time.
“I’m a happy, very positive person so it’s been a deliberate choice to create a sense of happiness, excitement and hope on the record,” he concludes. “I hope people get a better look into who I am and I hope people think I’ve been brave as an artist to follow my gut. It’s a bit of a wanky thing to say, but I would have more success and make more money if I made a straight down the middle pop record. The fact that I’m not should count for something.”