“I can’t make music for other people. It would just be rubbish,” says Tom Walker, sipping a cider backstage at Live At Leeds Festival. The day we speak is both the start and end of his festival season, after having just got home from his honeymoon and with a long-awaited second album still to finish. “I’m just buzzing to be back onstage,” he grins.
Walker released his lush, emotional synth-pop breakout single ‘Leave A Light On’ in 2017 and by early 2019, he had a BRIT Award for Best Newcomer to go alongside a Number One debut album, What A Time To Be Alive. In the years that followed, Walker wrote and then scrapped “80 completely mediocre” tracks for a second album that’s yet to materialise, but he promises it’s “90 per cent done”.
Walker found the positive reaction to his debut something of a surprise. “I was just writing songs I liked, I wasn’t trying to make music like anyone or anything in particular,” he explains, with that debut “all over the place” in terms of genre. “Music is such a beautiful thing that you can play with, change and explore. It should never be this tedious thing where everything has to fit neatly into a box, it should just be fun.”
Following the success of What A Time To Be Alive, though, Walker found himself “chasing numbers” and trying to write songs designed to appeal to as many people as possible. “There was definitely a moment where I believed every song had to be bigger and achieve more than the last thing, but that’s just unfeasible,” he explains today. “Everything just feels like a failure if you do that, because that’s not how art and music works.”
“I was just trying to find my feet after the success of the first album,” he admits, after realising he wanted to create something that felt true to him. “I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get it right but also do something different.”
Over the past years, he’s finally figured out what feels right for album two, with Walker promising something “totally different” to the radio-friendly ballads that have come before. “It’s all done in a really exciting, unexpected way,” he adds, aware some of his fans might not be ready for it. “That’s a good thing though. To keep doing the same, predictable thing is boring. I think this album really is going to be a bit of shock and awe.”
“Everything is much more unexpected this time around,” he continues. For those paying attention, there have been hints Walker has been looking to shake things up in recent months though.
At the end of last year, he released standalone single ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ which was inspired by the misery of lockdown. “It was a really tough time for a lot of people but one of the few upsides for me was that I got to go through it with my now wife. We realised that no matter the storms or the shitty situations we’re put in, as long as we’re facing them together, we’re going to be sweet. We’ve been together ten years now and it really does feel like the best really is yet to come,” he grins.
The track wasn’t meant to be a proper single but after a rough piano demo of the song blew up on TikTok, Walker felt like he owed it to the fans. He took to his tiny home studio and recorded the track himself. “It just captured a little moment in time,” he says of why the upbeat track resonated with so many people. “We’d just come out of the pandemic, it was the start of the cost-of-living crisis and everything felt really doom and gloom. That song was a nice little reminder that you’re lucky to have someone by your side, even if things are crap outside.”
“All my music is slightly depressing, with an undertone of hope,” he adds. “That one was more of an optimistic song with an undertone of depression.”
Months earlier, in June 2022, Walker had released the aggy, political track ‘Number 10’ that didn’t exactly hold back with lyrics like “‘Cause it’s one rule for us, no rules for them / You can hear the Tories singing.”
“I was, and am, just sick of the government. It’s an absolute shambles,” he starts, before saying he doesn’t want to talk too much about it because of the inevitable headlines about Walker hating the Tories. “They’re all a bunch of liars and they need to go,” he continues, unable to bite his tongue.
“I fully believe people should vote for whoever they want to but everything they put us through during the pandemic and even now, it’s just too much,” says Walker, revealing he lost his grandad during the COVID period. “He was in hospital and we were told to stay away for the greater good so he died, surrounded by strangers. You know you’re doing the right thing but at the same time, the people in power were getting on the sesh.”
‘Number 10’ allowed him to pour all that anger, frustration and sadness into something creative. “All my songs are just me expressing how I feel about things. It’s how I process everything,” he explains.
“I knew it was never going to be played on radio because it was such a divisive song,” Walker continues. Even now, he sees people get uncomfortable when he plays it live but for the most part, ‘Number 10’ was celebrated. “The reaction to that song made it abundantly clear that it wasn’t just me feeling cheated by the Conservative government.”
Walker reckons ‘Number 10’ is “easily” the most political song he’ll ever write but the positive reaction meant he started thinking about how far he could take things in the future, both musically and lyrically.
“Both those songs I produced myself and put them out, knowing they weren’t big radio singles. I just wanted to release something that felt true to me at that moment,” he adds, though Walker won’t be self-producing his upcoming second album. “I can’t take things as far as they need to go.”
The first single from the record will most likely be ‘Burn’, a “dark, gothic track” featuring angsty, super distorted vocals. “It’s absolutely nothing like any other piece of music I’ve ever released,” he beams, referencing both Imagine Dragons and industrial metal. “Hopefully people don’t think it’s too mental.”
With four singles ready to go and the rest of the record just needing finishing touches, Walker can confidently say “it’s not going to sound like anything going on in the charts right now. But that’s a good thing,” he adds. “I don’t want to make music that just sounds recycled from another artist, I want to be doing my own thing. That’s taken me four years to figure out.”
Earlier this year, Walker went out on an intimate headline run around the UK while the video for ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ put fans and their stories front and centre, with Walker reconnecting with why he started making music in the first place.
“I came up playing open mic nights but when the album went Number One, the gigs needed a certain level of production so we got other people involved. At times, it felt like I was losing control of what I actually wanted the live show to be,” he adds, explaining how he and members of his band took back control by acting as creative directors for the last tour.
“It was such a beautiful, creative experience. I loved every minute of that tour and I really thought about what I wanted to say with the show and the songs. I feel like it really resonated with the fans as well,” he continues. Though his next headline run will see him return to bigger venues, he’s going to be as involved in the show’s creation. “It’s going to be a different beast with these new songs,” he adds with a smirk.
“I hope the fans can find a bit of an escape and a way to feel better about certain things in my music,” Walker continues. “If I’m ever in a crap mood, I’ll put on certain songs and they’ll pull me back to earth and make me feel better, almost instantly. I’ve heard stories from people who’ve found that with my music, which is such a beautiful, amazing thing.”
“I don’t make music for the sole purpose of trying to help people get through their stuff,” he explains.“It’s more me doing my own thing to help myself, but I think that honesty does speak to people and help them,” he adds.
“I do want to keep the fans happy, I want the new album to be a success and I want to be able to keep coming to festivals, singing for people and watching them sing back to me because it is absolutely class, so long may it continue.”
“But if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world because I can’t be defined by what I do for a living,” he continues with a shrug, before getting caught up in the excitement of the new music once again. “I will die for these songs that I’m about to put out and it’s the first time in a long time I’ve felt like that. You’ve got to ignore what everyone else wants from you, and you’ve got to do what’s good for you,” Walker says. “You’ve got to back yourself.”