Photo: Frank Fieber
Tom Walker On 'What A Time To Be Alive,' Music As Therapy & More
U.K.-based singer/songwriter Tom Walker's debut full-length album What a Time to Be Alive is coming out on Oct. 19, and he's pretty thrilled about it. A single he released last year "Leave a Light On," a touching, emotionally-charged track that he wrote about a friend dealing with a substance problem, has already gained him an international following.
It is clear that music has been Walker's lifeblood since his early days listening to Michael Jackson's Thriller on this dad's record player as a kid, and that he is ecstatic to be sharing his passion—his music—with the world.
We caught up with Walker at our Santa Monica, Calif. headquarters to learn more about his upcoming album, how songwriting helps him work through lives challenges, his favorite venue he's played at, and more.
Your debut album What a Time to be Alive comes out soon, October 19th. How are you feeling about putting that out into the world?
I'm happy, it's cool. I've been working on it for ages and ages. It feels like it's in a really good place. The songs are just really strong and I've picked up, I think I've picked up of like 120 songs, I picked 11. Its 45 minutes of music. Spent ages getting the track list. I know people listen to a lot of stuff on streaming and don't listen to albums as much these days, but to me, a proper artist has a proper album. I wanted to make sure the flow and the mix of everything, the continuity, was all one thing and it was fluid and I feel like I've gotten there. We've been a bit pushed for time because we've had 150 gigs this year. If I've not been out on the road, I've been in the studio and it's just been back and forth and back and forth, crazy. I'm really excited and I'm really happy, which I didn't think I'd be, I thought I'd be super nervous, but I feel like I'm ready to put it out into the world and see what everybody thinks.
How do you feel working on this album versus your EP that you came out with; how is the creative process different?
With this album, I went with three different producers. I worked with Jim Abbiss who I made the Blessings EP with, Steve Mark who I did two of the singles with and Mike Spencer who I've done a couple of the singles and some of the album tracks. It's a really amazing opportunity and quite rare to work with three producers of that caliber, at this stage in your career, when you've had one big song out. You know what I mean? It was such a cool experience and all three are really different and really unique in their own ways and brought the best out of me in a few different ways. It was really cool. I love being in studio, I really enjoy it. I'm a bit of a studio guy, if I'm not out on tour, I wanna be in the studio. As soon as I'm in the studio for too long, I wanna be out on tour. It's been a good balance, doing that for the whole album. It feels good.
Speaking of hit single, "Leave a Light On" is very emotionally stirring and has caught the attention of a lot of people worldwide. I read that it was about real people in your life. How has songwriting helped you process things that you've gone through in life? Have you gotten feedback from fans that your music has also helped them?
I feel like songwriting, for me, is kind of therapy. If I do have issues and I do have troubles, the best way to work it out is to write a song about it. I think you mentally just internalize the problem and somehow, you just get through it a little quicker. That's for me, that's probably why I'm a songwriter, you know? It's not gonna work for everybody. I just find, putting it on paper really helps it. And "Leave A Light On" in particular is about a friend of mine, who kind of had a bit of an addiction problem. I had messages from people all over the world saying they had a brother or a sister or a parent or a friend or anybody who's gone through a similar thing and this song's helped them get through something and when I wrote it, I never really expected that. It's been a really cool side effect of writing the song. Other people have had issues and it's helped them through it. It's kind of cool that music does that. I never really thought of that when I wrote it. I didn't expect the reaction that it got, it's cool.
I've had a few people come up to me as well and tell me some pretty tragic, heartbreaking stories. It's always nice to meet people who've had their own experiences with the song and got through something pretty tough. Makes you feel good about what you're doing. Because I think the music industry can feel a little selfish sometimes, like everything's about you, but it's nice to actually be helping some people through some stuff.
You mentioned that you've been touring a lot. You're finishing up your tour in the U.S., you've played Glastonbury – what's your favorite show that you've played so far?
Favorite show? There's been loads this year. I think Coco in London. I was so nervous cause it was the biggest venue we'd ever played in London and we sold it out super quickly. All of the label and all of my publishers and everybody came down, all my friends who I wrote the songs with and producers that I worked with, everybody was there. It was super nerve-racking, but it was amazing.
Glastonbury was special as well because I finished by set, which I could only do acoustically, I couldn't even get tickets for the band. I basically got offered the slot because I already bought a ticket for the festival. I didn't have any help with my gear but this little trailer and had my guitar amplifier and my acoustic, I was lugging it through Glastonbury.
It took an hour and an half to get it from my car to the stage, and then from the stage back to the car, another hour and an half. So like three hours for the day, just getting there and back. I did the set and it was amazing, the tent was full, which I couldn't believe because there's so many amazing artists playing at Glastonbury, I was like, "Well, nobody's gonna come and fill this tent up", but they did and it was great. Then as soon as I came out and finished my set, Elbow, which is like one of my favorite bands, were doing a secret set on the stage right there. So, I literally finished, put my gear away, came out, and they started their show and I just sat and watched it. I was like, how cool is this? I just finished my first set at Glastonbury and then I've come out and I've watched one of my favorite bands play a secret gig. That was pretty special.
I heard Thriller was one of your favorite albums growing up, and perhaps still is?
Yeah, I don't listen to it as much these days, but it's the first thing I remember ever hearing on vinyl. My dad had a pretty cool stereo at the time. My sister, unfortunately blew it up at a house party. Thriller was one of the first things I can remember dancing to around the living room, as a kid to and just being really scared, you know all the sounds effects that they put in that song and the speech at the end of it. It was really frightening when you were a kid. I just thought that was really cool.
Growing up listening to music, did you know that was what you wanted to be an artist, or how did that change as you grew up and started pursuing music?
I thought I wanted to be a guitarist, not an artist. I didn't start singing and writing songs properly until I was 19. I think I was quite late to the party, in that sense. I've since made up for it, but I just loved guitar. I was a massive fan of AC/DC, Foo Fighters, Muse – I went to see all of them live. B.B. King, Chuck Berry, I love Ray Charles, I just like a bit of everything. I always was fascinated by music and when I saw my favorite bands doing a live show or seeing them on TV, I just thought "That looks so much fun." I kind of wanted to pursue some form of that, I didn't realize I would end up being an artist and being a songwriter and a singer. It just kind of all fell into place naturally, which was nice. I never really forced or didn't set out to be like "I wanna be famous," I just wanted to play music.
You studied music in college. Do you think the degree helped prepare you for working in the music industry?
I think the degree was really interesting because, in England it's not free to go to university, but they lend you the money. It's the best loan you'll ever get. It's a bit harder now, but when I was doing it at the time, it was fairly easy to get it. It just gave me three years to really focus on songwriting. The degree was good, but I felt there was bits of it that really weren't that relevant to the industry. It could've been better in that sense. It's an amazing degree, but actually getting into the industry, there was loads of things that they never told or warned us about, but it gave me the time to really build my craft. The songwriting teachers there were amazing. Really helped me with the songwriting, for sure. Also, I had Logic lessons, which really helped me recording and getting to production and stuff like that. The kind of music business side of it wasn't really there, but the rest of it was great.
Is there kind of like a dream collaboration that you have in the near future or?
I'd love to write a song with Paolo Nutini. I've loved all of his albums so far and I love his voice. He was born in Scotland, I was also born in Scotland. I've always wanted to meet him, but he doesn't really gig or do many shows. I've never actually seen him live and he's one of my favorite artists. Every time I look online, he's not doing anything. I feel like I've missed out. I should've gone when he was gigging, but hopefully he'll come back with an album in another two years after like five years, whatever its been and it'll be absolutely banging and he'll go out and do a tour and I might hopefully see him on the circuit one day.