Interview: Tom Walker On ‘What A Time To Be Alive’ & His Zara Larsson Duet
Everything is coming together nicely for Tom Walker. He just got engaged, won the prestigious British Breakthrough Act at the recent BRIT Awards (previous winners include Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa) and is celebrating the arrival of his debut album. What A Time To Be Alive drops tomorrow (March 1) and expectations are sky-high. After all, the 27-year-old landed one of the biggest international hits of 2018 with “Leave A Light On” and is closing in on the UK top 10 with “Just You And I.”
I spoke with the singer/songwriter earlier this week about his curiously optimistic album title (it is open to interpretation), recent buzz track “Not Giving In” and catering to his Day One fans. Tom also spoke about his duet with Zara Larsson, “Now You’re Gone.” It’s one of the many standouts on his debut LP and a collaboration that could introduce the breakout star to a whole new audience. Find out more about it in our Q&A below.
Congrats on your Brit Award. So many big names have won that category in the past. What does it mean to you?
It’s a bit crazy. Even past nominees are ridiculous, like Florence + The Machine. Everybody who is on even the nominees list has gone on to do great things. So not only to be nominated, but to win it is very surreal.
What A Time To Be Alive drops this week. Do you feel more excitement or relief?
I think it’s a bit of everything. I’m really nervous. I’m excited. I feel like we’ve been sat on this album for a little while. I just can’t wait for the fans to hear it. It always makes you really happy when you release a tune and then you see somebody put the lyrics on Twitter or when you go on tour and everybody’s singing along to the lyrics to these brand new songs that you’ve had to yourself for the last year. That’s an amazing feeling.
Can we talk about the title. Is it meant to be ironic?
It’s so interesting, I’ve done quite a few interviews over the last couple of weeks, and either people say, “It’s such a hopeful title,” or they say, “Oh my god, it’s quite a depressing title.” So it’s really funny to see that people interpret it in a totally different way and to me it’s both of those things. I just got engaged to my fiancee of five and a half years and I’m releasing my debut album. I’ve just won a BRIT Award. But, at the same time, England’s going through a pretty tough time with Brexit. And not just the UK, but Europe and America.
So the title… it’s like “what a time to be alive” because we’ve come so far, the human race, but also, I think we keep making the same mistakes over and over again, and not learning sometimes. It’s a thought provoking title, that’s why I like it.
You just dropped a song called “Not Giving In.” What inspired it?
I live near Century Park in London and there’s a railway bridge near the Underground. There was a homeless woman who was was there every day for a very long time. And then one day I sat down and had a conversation with her. And then one day she’s gone. It was quite sad. I often wonder if I had extended a hand or if I could have helped in any way, what would the outcome would’ve been and the song is just based around that. It’s just questioning what you can do to help other people. We all don’t really think about it enough, because we’re busy doing our own thing.
How did your duet with Zara Larsson come about? Because you are at different ends of the pop spectrum.
Totally. I have been awfully fond of Zara for such a long time. I think she’s an incredible artist. And she’s kind of the all-singing, all-dancing, incredible pop artist. I remember she did Radio 1 Live Lounge and she was pitch-perfect. One day, she was in the studio with Steve Mac, who I wrote the tune with. She listened to it, and Steve asked her if she wanted to do a vocal. She jumped on it. I think our two voices worked really well together and how cool is it to have Zara Larsson on your debut album? She really gives it everything in the song and it sounds sick.
Do you think that that might be a single moving forward?
Well, put it this way, you’ll find out on the first of March.
I’ll take that as a yes. Another one of my favorite songs on the album is “How Can You Sleep At Night?”
The story of that song is, my fiancee moved to London and kind of abandoned everything to come and live with me. And we were living in a house at the time with eight people. I had a studio in the basement. After a year and a lot of partying and not really being an adult, she wanted to move on to something else. But I really wanted to keep the studio. So we were discussing it one night and I was just having none of it. She was being so nice and diplomatic and she burst into tears because I was being such a dickhead. So a couple weeks later a wrote the song as an apology.
Living with eight people sounds like my idea of hell.
Yeah, well I’ve lived with twelve people before, so, for me, eight wasn’t actually too bad.
What kind of house can fit twelve people?
It’s a long story but I lived in this house in Southgate in London and it was a huge mansion. This American couple had let it to three of my friends, who had like turned up in business suits. And then, we filled the house full of musicians. Every time the landlord would come back to inspect the house, we’d have to rent two vans and put all the stuff in vans and drive them around the corner, so they could inspect the house. Once they were gone, we’d get all the stuff out of the van and put it back in the house again. And this would happen like once every nine months.
Have you already started thinking about your next project?
Well, I’ve been writing whenever I feel like writing, which is quite a lot over the last couple of months. I don’t want to wait until the last minute, when you need to turn in an album and you have to write, and you can’t because you don’t feel like it. So, I’ve just been writing as much as I can when I get a little break from the promo in the hope that, if I kind of do that for the next two years, by the time it comes to my second second album, I’ll already have a bunch of material that I really like.
Have you been writing by yourself or having studio sessions?
It’s a mix of both. I’ve been doing a lot of voice notes, and then writing down like lyrical ideas when I’m on the move. But I’ve also been booking in sessions.
What are you expectations for the album? You must have high hopes.
I don’t really know. I’d like it to be successful, but I’ve not got crazy high hopes. I think it will have a really successful week one. We’ve got a lot of pre-orders. But people buying something isn’t necessarily the definition of a good album. I really want the existing fans, who’ve been around since Day One, to love the tracks on this album. That’s what’s gonna mean the most.
Is that why you included some songs from your early EPs?
Yeah. I mean “Blessings” is one of my favorite tunes I’ve ever written, like lyrically and the way that we recorded it. You know, “Fade Away” is on the album, I wrote that song when I was 19. “The Show” I wrote four years ago, when I had just moved to London. The album represents the history of the last five years of my life… and even before that, you know? All the songs are super-personal to me. I found with “Leave A Light On” being so personal to me, it’s the ones that mean the most to me that normally mean the most to everybody else.
Another song that everybody loves is “Just You and I,” which is probably the happiest song on the album.
Totally. It’s the least depressing, I would say, on the album.
It kind of picked itself as your next single.
What happened was, we re-released a version to celebrate getting engaged in August. I put out a new version of it. And, it just started going absolutely mental. Hopefully, next week it’s gonna be in the top 10 in the UK. Which is sick, it’s all been really nice and organic. I haven’t been going out, ramming it down the radio’s throat or anything, it’s just cool that it’s kinda come about, especially leading into the album.
Best of luck with the album. I really love it.
Wicked, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, I appreciate it.