Superstar idol, indie acolyte, festival boss – Louis Tomlinson has been a lot of things over the course of his time in the spotlight, but as he releases his second solo album ‘Faith In The Future’, he’s set to surprise the world all over again.
Words: Abigail Firth.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Photo Assistant: Natalie Lloyd-Shaw.
Styling: Helen Seamons.
Styling Assistant: Will Moore.
Grooming: Krystle G.
“TikTok is probably telling the kids what to drink these days. I just still drink me vodka Red Bull, you know what I mean?” For an artist who found fame as part of one of the biggest boy bands of all time, Louis Tomlinson is remarkably down to earth.
Sipping on a Stella, he sits down with Dork on one of RMT’s August strike days – which he’s 100% here for, btw. We’re pulling a lot of strings for this. Frantically organising our shoot and interview in the space of about 48 hours, Louis takes it all in his stride, plopping down in the evening for a supremely relaxed chat after a cig and a beer.
He’s about four shows off finishing his first solo world tour (another sell-out under his belt), which actually began in 2020. Managing to squeeze in a couple of dates before the pandemic hit, it was the energy of those initial gigs that sparked the inspiration for his forthcoming second album ‘Faith In The Future’, arriving in November.
For the first five years of his career, the cycle of touring and recording and touring and recording was all Louis knew. Then being the last of his ex-bandmates to release a solo album, taking his time creating music to actually hit the road with, meant he was a decade into being a musician before he toured alone.
“It was a long, long time for me to wonder what it might be like,” he says. “And also, there was a fear in the back of my mind that, because I’ve experienced touring at such a high level with the band, in amazing, massive fucking venues, I didn’t really know what my tour was going to look like or feel like or even sound like in terms of energy in the room and fans singing back.”
He needn’t have worried. Never disappointing, his Louies showed up in their droves. “It’s blown all my expectations. I’ve felt fucking blessed this whole tour, like every place I’ve gone, and I’m not just being dramatic; it’s been fucking amazing everywhere.” A proper World Tour, he’s played to more than 500,000 people across 80 shows over the last year. Getting back on the horse and smashing arenas quickly became his life again.
“That obviously gives me a lot of pride, especially going places like Australia. It’s a long fucking way from Donny, you know?” he laughs. “So to play sold-out shows over there, it’s fucking mind-blowing, really. Every single night, it doesn’t really matter how my day’s going; after the first song, I just get slapped in the face with the energy of the crowd and the adrenaline that then feeds me.”
It’s a tale as old as time at this point, provided your calendar only starts in early 2020. Artist plans a tour, pandemic hits, doesn’t happen. Except Louis found himself in limbo. Caught between feeling the highs of his first solo shows at the start of the year, then crashing into the isolation of what followed, he wrote ‘Faith In The Future’ imagining what the tour would be like when it went ahead. The process saw him moving away from the intimacy and emotional weight of ‘Walls’ and creating something more uplifting.
“Originally, in my master plan that I had in my head, I was going to go on a year’s worth of touring,” he explains. “That was going to feed me full of experience that I could then go on to write about. It didn’t. I almost ended up in kind of a middle ground where I was lucky enough to get a taste of what the shows would feel like, so that was part experience and part imagination going into this next record.”
When reflecting on his debut, he found that there weren’t enough uptempo numbers for a live show. ‘Walls’ was Louis telling his story so far – effectively twelve ballads detailing the love and loss that was recent memory at the time. That’s not to say he isn’t proud of his debut. It was a necessary step in his career that cemented the vision he had for his own sound after spending years finding his feet in the public eye post-One-Direction.
But with the heavy stuff out of the way (“I don’t like people feeling sorry for me. That’s not the way I carry myself in life in general,” he says of his first album), Louis landed on the phrase ‘Faith In The Future’ in early 2021, setting about making a record based on hope, and more importantly, bangers.
“I had the title for the album before I’d written any songs for this record. I was 99% sure I wanted to call the album ‘Faith In The Future’, then COVID happened, and that was, like, weirdly appropriate. I feel like people needed that kind of hopeful sentiment.”
He tweeted out the phrase and found legions of fans naturally gravitating towards it, which sealed the deal. Fast forward to September 2022, and he was putting it out online again. This time, it was in tandem with an album announcement and introductory single ‘Bigger Than Me’, which takes the balladry of ‘Walls’, puts a positive spin on it, and blows it up big enough to match the arenas he’s filling.
“That was definitely the first moment where I had a song that I felt represented the ambition and the statement of intent,” he says of the track. “It’s got one of those big choruses, and I think my vocal shines off it. Out of everything on the album, it was pretty clear what the first thing was going to be. I think I would have struggled to pick another first track. It just felt so appropriate.”
He notes that writing ‘Bigger Than Me’ gave him more confidence in writing the rest of the record, and doing it in a way that finally felt like he was making something that aligned with his personal tastes. At the very beginning of his solo venture, he’d played with dance-pop on collaborations with Steve Aoki (‘Just Hold On’), and Bebe Rexha and Digital Farm Animals (‘Back To You’). Then he’d sacked it off and run in the other direction on ‘Walls’, choosing a sound indebted to the early 2000s indie rock he grew up on. ‘Faith In The Future’ is where he finds a happy medium, spurred on by an interest in Stuart Price’s work on Australian trio DMA’S last record, ‘The Glow’.
“With the first album, I was so particular about every specific sound, especially what I didn’t like. So, for example, because I’d done the song with Steve Aoki – which, again, was a great launch to my career, but musically never felt that true to me – I was like, well, I’m just going to kind of deviate from those sounds and go all-in on the guitars with as much authenticity, musically, as possible. It wasn’t until I heard the latest DMA’S album where they managed to use all these really interesting dance sounds, but in a very authentic, unique way. I think it gave me food for thought going into this album.”
Remaining authentic has clearly been a huge part of this process for Louis. Tracks like opener ‘The Greatest’ and ‘Bigger Than Me’ are expansive and wide open, while ‘Written All Over Your Face’ melodically pulls from indie floor fillers akin to early Arctic Monkeys singles. Then he dials it right back to the conversational intimacy of ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ on the closer.
Seeming slightly disgruntled with previous writing sessions, he set out to work with more artists who aligned with his current philosophy on songwriting. Those being Hurts’ frontman Theo Hutchcraft, Courteeners’ bassist Joe Cross, indie-pop songwriter Nico Rebscher (who gets a special shoutout for being a “good boozer”), and The 1975 and Wolf Alice producer Mike Crossey. He wanted to keep the writing team smaller this time around because he’d worked with “about a hundred different fucking people” on ‘Walls’, making it harder to maintain the sonic continuity he’s achieved on ‘Faith In The Future’.
“What’s been slightly different about the writing process this time is that I tried to work with less professional songwriters and more artists, because there’s a different level of care and love for the music you’re doing. And that’s not undermining any other session I’ve been in. It’s just sometimes when you go into these sessions with certain professional songwriters, they’re looking for singles, you know? And sometimes that comes across in the writing as well. If you want to have authenticity, and you want the music to have a soul to it, you can’t really be going in with that kind of intention because it kind of dumbs down the reason that you’re writing, and it becomes something else. Do you know what I mean?”
At heart, Louis has and will probably always be A Normal Bloke. Despite the dizzying heights of fame he’s reached over the years, his feet have always been on solid, Northern ground. What Sam Fender is to Newcastle, what Adele is to Tottenham, that’s what Louis Tomlinson is to Doncaster. He rarely discusses his fame in song, if at all. In fact, he hasn’t really addressed it since ‘Perfect’ in his One Direction days. Instead – and especially on ‘Faith In The Future’ – he favours songwriting that resembles pub chatter and inherently human topics. From one of the tracks borrowing its title from Pulp (yep, that’d be ‘Common People’) to the fact that he consistently pronounces another track as “art a’ me system” (that’s ‘Out Of My System’ for any non-Yorkshire-dwellers), he’s remained proud of his roots and is finally, properly, getting the chance to shout about it.
“Even conceptually, and with the topics that we speak about, I think it’s a better representation of who I am as a person, this record. And those things are important to me. It’s also, as a songwriter, where I feel most comfortable – writing about these kinds of really normal things. It’s something that I’m definitely conscious of. It was a deliberate choice.”
It’s refreshing to see a star of his scale consistently in touch with his working-class beginnings and conscious of the changing landscape across the industry. Of course, Louis is an anomaly in that he’s probably set for life off the back of selling millions of records in his early 20s, but he’s always got those in mind who don’t have that luxury. In 2021, he put on his first Away From Home festival, for which tickets were completely free, at Crystal Palace Bowl when the live music circuit was getting back up and running post-pandemic.
“This is not me pointing fingers, but I don’t see enough of that in the industry to be fair,” he says of the decision to make it free. “That’s something that I think is important to me, definitely, everyone being represented. It’s something that I’m very conscious of across everything I do – prices for merch, ticket prices, etc. etc. It’s something that is very, very important to me because I know myself, if I hadn’t got into this, I don’t know, some people are charging like 400 quid a ticket or summat daft. I wouldn’t be able to afford that. So it’s important that that is representative. And also, when you put your tickets at that price, you create a certain type of audience. It’s good to have everyone in the room, I think.”
Nowadays, Louis is redefining what success means to him. While he admits he felt the pressure when venturing out solo, he knows he wasn’t alone in that. These days, he’s less focused on scoring a Number 1 record (although it’s pretty certain his fans could get him that), and more invested in creating moments with the fans that are exclusive to them, hence why his first world tour has been such a turning point.
“I’m sure other people can relate to, you know, your previous experiences. They’re relevant when you’re speculating what the next stage of your career might look like. I think we all [the One Direction boys] will have had a similar feeling going into that first record. But for me, it was an especially long time. It’s been seven years now since the band, and I think I’ve just got a different understanding of what the word successful means to me. This tour definitely has taught me that. It’s only really me and the fans that have got me to where I am here in my solo career.”
He describes touring as black and white, with none of the nuances he has to deal with in the rest of the music industry. It’s the one thing that’s barely changed over his career, the simple exchange of getting a ticket and seeing your favourite artist. It means the world to his fans and, in turn, means the world to him.
“My biggest aim since I started my solo career, because it was my favourite shit in the band, was can I create something where it gives me the ability to tour for the next 10 years? So I’ve got one year down. If I could do another nine, I’ll be happy.”
We ask, rather cheekily, if the general public – because we all know what they’re like, don’t we, Dear Reader? – might be surprised to see that Louis is still selling out venues as big as Wembley Arena on his solo tour. Testament to his personality, he actually agrees that it’s a good point, but he’s used to people underestimating him by now.
“I think that’s a frustration I’ve found across my career to date. But you know, there’s a little thing that me and the fans say together, and it’s that they never see us coming. It doesn’t matter how many times we fucking do what we do, they never see us coming. But you know what, I like it that way. I like catching people by surprise.” ■
Taken from the October 2022 edition of Dork. Louis Tomlinson’s album ‘Faith In The Future’ is out 11th November.