While most boy bands only spawn one major solo superstar — think Justin Timberlake from *NSYNC, or Ricky Martin from Menudo — the men of One Direction have bucked those odds. Zayn Malik, Harry Styles, Niall Horan, and Liam Payne have all found success, in genres ranging from R&B and EDM to folk-pop and retro rock, since 1D went on indefinite hiatus in 2016. But one member, Louis Tomlinson, has kept a relatively lower profile. “I've tried to!” he laughs softly, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment about his much-anticipated new solo music.
“I had a couple of things in my personal life which made momentum a little bit more difficult, naturally,” says Tomlinson, now age 27. He is referring to the loss of his mother, Johannah Deakin (who died from leukemia at age 43, the same year of 1D’s split), followed by the fatal overdose of his 18-year-old sister, Félicité, earlier this year. Only one week before Félicité’s death, Tomlinson had released the single “Two of Us,” a heartbreaking ballad dedicated to his mother. He once described this “darkest s***” period in his life as his “rock bottom” during an interview with The Guardian. But as he readies his debut solo album, out January 31 next year with a world tour to follow, Tomlinson says he’s no longer writing from a place of mourning. While the album, WALLS, will contain “light and shade,” fans can mostly expect anthemic rockers with “plenty of guitars,” like the ‘90s-style Britpop banger “Kill My Mind” and the just-released buoyant terrace-chant “We Made It.”
“I touched on [grief] with ‘Two of Us,’ but I definitely kind of told that story with that,” Tomlinson explains. “I felt like I needed to get that off my chest creatively in my songwriting because around that time, it was hard for anything to feel more important, obviously, than that. ‘Two of Us’ is an important song for me, but I understand how heavy it is — emotionally, for me to sing, and for some people to listen to.
“I don't think for a while I'll be going near anything else too heavy emotionally; I'm not really that way inclined,” Tomlinson continues, speaking of his future musical plans. “I want to make songs that make people feel good, you know what I mean? I'm conscious of trying to make happier songs, definitely. What I've learned about the writing process is you can't write a happy song if you don't feel happy. And I feel like I'm in a good place in my life, and naturally with that comes happier songs. So I think it all depends on what headspace you're in, really, at the time.”
Tomlinson is clearly in a rock ‘n’ roll headspace at the moment. To tease the release of “Kill My Mind” last month, the proud Northerner made a Spotify playlist of his influences that included Oasis (“probably forever my favorite band”), the La’s, James, the Verve, Arctic Monkeys, the Smiths, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, and newer artists like Sam Fender, the Courteneers, and Catfish & the Bottlemen — and “Kill My Mind” and “We Made It” wouldn’t sound at all out of place shuffled alongside those Britrock luminaries.
Tomlinson is well aware that going in a rock direction is a risk, though he believes “music definitely works in cycles” and rock ‘n’ roll will “definitely be back.” In terms of why the type of music he heard on mainstream radio as a kid — like Oasis and Amy Winehouse — has fallen out of favor commercially, he speculates, “Well, we're in a in a very, very PC era, and some of those bands were a little bit reckless, a little bit crazy.” Regardless, it’s possible that Tomlinson could educate the “super-f***ing-dedicated” One Direction fans about ‘90s/early-2000s indie, the same way Styles’s debut album was a gateway to ‘70s glam and classic rock or Horan’s was an introduction to more mature singer-songwriter sounds.
“That's why it's important for me to make those playlists, because I do often get messages from my fans saying they hadn't heard of this band or this artist before,” he says. “And I think that's really important. That's really cool. That helps them get to know me even better. … Harry, I think in terms of the music he's making, I think that's incredible and I'm sure the fans have then gone to look at other bands that have influenced him on his album. And I actually saw it firsthand when I went to watch Niall live — it must have been like maybe over a year ago now. There were some really great musical moments in that show, and I was thinking about the contrast of that show with a One Direction show. I was watching the girls at the front just absorbing this musical moment, and I thought that was really cool, really interesting. I think that is important, for all of us.”
Tomlinson knows “there is definitely a bit of music snobbery” when it comes to a former boy band star doing rock ‘n’ roll — he once joked to the BBC that Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys would be mortified to be cited as one of Tomlinson’s core influences — but he says, “I think you've just got to kind of earn your stripes as an artist, and be honest and be real — and whoever likes you, great. Whoever doesn't, well, it is what it is, I suppose.”
Tomlinson has been pleased by the initial response to his new sound. “I was feeling really, really f***ing proud about ‘Kill My Mind’ and the reaction on that. It makes me feel really good to do something that is true to my influences and get a good reaction. Some people were a little bit shocked, but that's exciting, you know what I mean? That's the way it should be with music.” Still, he doesn’t seem too concerned if his music doesn’t reach the commercial level of One Direction in their post-X Factor heyday.
“In terms of kind of chasing radio, I feel like I've done a lot of that. To be honest, out of all the songs I've got on the [WALLS] album, ‘We Made It’ probably is the best equipped melodically for radio, so we'll see how that goes. But I'm not as precious as I used to be about all that,” he says. “To be fair, I fell out of love with music a little bit, and I actually kind of come back ‘round to finding bands that I used to love, and finding new bands. I had a bit of an epiphany with music — and with my music. I thought, instead of making music for other people, I should start making music for myself and what I really love. So it feels really refreshing to be able to do that.”
Tomlinson’s debut album will feature production from both longtime 1D collaborator Julian Bunetta and Ben’s Brother frontman Jamie Hartman, who has worked with Lewis Capaldi, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Rachel Yamagata, James Bay, Andy Grammer, Joss Stone, and Parachute). “Jamie is just an amazing producer, and I think he really understood me musically,” Tomlinson gushes. As for what to expect from WALLS, he says, “I'm always trying to be as honest and as relatable as possible, and sonically, I always want it to feel as live and as authentic as possible. It's been a long time in the making now, but I'm really happy with it as a body of work.
“I'd been used to releasing an album a year with [One Direction], and I didn't realize until I got into it just how much of a perfectionist I was going to be about my first album, and what it says about me and what it represents. I've been maybe at times too much of a perfectionist, and it's taken a little bit longer than it should have. But I'm kind of all right with that, because I'm really, really proud of where it is now. I never want the feeling of releasing an album and feeling like there's two or three fillers on there. I'm really happy with every track on the album now. So I think it was hopefully worth the wait.”
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