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While many artists would jump at the chance to tell you how lockdown has been a fruitful opportunity for self-improvement, full of pseudo self-help books and pompous podcasts, former One Directioner Louis Tomlinson is adamant that he has done, well, nothing.
“I’ve just watched loads of s___ TV,” he says after a long pause. “The Undoing is decent, isn’t it?”
Twenty-eight--year-old Tomlinson from Doncaster was always the down-to-earth Directioner, frequently describing himself as fringe member who spent more time analysing the band’s contracts than singing solos, known for chain-smoking his way through several packs of cigarettes a day and swearing like a trooper. A rarity, these days, among millennials who’d rather suck on a stem of kale and tweet about their #blessings.
Far from aimless, however, today the singer is full of beans, cheerily shushing his barking dog as he potters about his North London home where he lives with his best friend from home, Oli, and his girlfriend, the model Eleanor Calder.
He's getting ready to rehearse an exciting one-off gig that will be live-streamed from a secret London location on December 12, announced today exclusively via the Telegraph. The proceeds of the night will be split across four charities: The Stagehand Covid-19 Crew Relief Fund and Crew Nation, Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice and Marcus Rashford’s charity FareShare, to help end child poverty. Tomlinson will also be donating money to his own touring crew, many of which have been out of work since March. “I've been incredibly worried about them and felt incredibly powerless, so wanted to give something back.”
The gig also means a great deal to Tomlinson on a personal level. His first ever tour as a solo artist, to promote his debut solo album WALLS, was cut short back in March after just two concerts in Spain and Mexico. It was an album he’d spent five years working on: a guitar-led project that ruptured with the preppy pop anthems of One Direction, inspired instead by Tomlinson’s love for Britpop.
No doubt he was anxious to get it right following a decade “grown in test tubes”, as Harry Styles once described the band’s formation on the X Factor, where they came third before going on to make a reported $280,000 a day as the most successful band in the world. The pressure, too, was intense: all four bandmates had already released their own solo debuts.
Was he left reeling, I ask, unable to perform at such a crucial moment?
“The thing that I always enjoyed the most about One Direction was playing the shows, so my master plan, when I realised I was going to do a solo career, was always my first tour. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for the best part of five years now. I got so close, I got a taste for it, and it’s affected me like everyone else, but I’m forever an optimist,” he says down the phone, with what I can only imagine to be a rather phlegmatic shrug.
Sure, I say, but the last year can’t have been easy. Didn’t he feel like his purpose had popped?
“You know what,” he says, reflecting, “maybe because I’ve had real dark moments in my life, they’ve given me scope for optimism. In the grand scheme of things, of what I’ve experienced, these everyday problems...they don’t seem so bad.”
Tomlinson is referring to losing his 43-year-old mother, a midwife, to leukemia in 2016, and his 18-year-old sister Felicite, a model, to an accidental drug overdose in 2018. The double tragedy is something he has been open about on his own terms, dedicating his single, Two of Us, from WALLS, to his mother Johannah, while often checking in with fans who have lost members of their own family.
It’s not unusual for Tomlinson to ask his 34.9 million followers if they’re doing alright, receiving hundreds of thousands of personal replies. It’s not something he will discuss in interviews, however, after he slammed BBC Breakfast for shamelessly probing his trauma in February this year. “Never going back there again,” he tweeted after coming off the show.
“Social media is a ruthless, toxic place, so I don’t like to spend much time there,” says Tomlinson, “but because of experiencing such light and shade all while I was famous, I have a very deep connection with my fans. They’ve always been there for me.”
In return, Tomlinson is good to them. Last month he even promised some new music, saying that he’d written four songs in four days. Does this mean that a second album is on the way?
“Yeah, definitely,” he says. “I’m very, very excited. I had basically penciled down a plan before corona took over our lives. And now it's kind of given me a little bit of time to really get into what I want to say and what I want things to sound like. Because, you know, I was really proud of my first record, but there were moments that I felt were truer to me than others. I think that there were some songs where I took slightly more risk and owned what I love, saying, ‘This is who I want to be’. So I want to take a leaf out of their book.”
Fans might think he’s referring to writing more heartfelt autobiographical content such as Two of Us, but in fact, he’s referring specifically to rock-inspired Kill My Mind, he says, the first song on WALLS. “There’s a certain energy in that song, in its delivery, in its attitude, that I want to recreate. People are struggling at the moment, so I want to create a raucous, exciting atmosphere in my live show, not a somber, thoughtful one.”
He sighs, trying to articulate something that’s clearly been playing on his mind for a while. “You know, because of my story, my album was a little heavy at times and a little somber. And as I'm sure you're aware, from talking to me, now, that isn't who I am.”
It must be draining, I say, the weight of expectation in both the media and across his fanbase, to be a spokesperson for grief and hardship. To have tragedy prelude everything he does and says.
“Honestly, it’s part of being from Doncaster as well, I don’t like people feeling sorry for me. That’s the last thing I want.”
— Louis Tomlinson (@Louis_Tomlinson) July 23, 2020
The problem is, says Tomlinson, he doesn’t have the best imagination. “I have interesting things to say musically, but what’s challenging from a writing perspective is that I write from the heart, and I can’t really get into someone else’s story. And right now, being stuck at home, you have so little experience to draw from. It’s actually quite hard to write these positive, uplifting songs, because actually, the experiences that you're going through on a day to day basis, you know, you they don't have that same flavour.”
There is something that’s helping, though: a secret spot near Los Angeles, where he divides his time to see his four-year-old son, Freddie, whom he shares with his ex Briana Jungwirth, a stylist. “It’s remote and kind of weird, and I’m going to go there for three days and write. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to it. I found it via a YouTube video. It’s got some very interesting locals who live there, it’s sort of backwards when it comes to technology. It feels like you’re going back in time when you’re there. But I don’t want to give it away.”
Another source of inspiration for his second album is the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ back catalogue. “I grew up on their album Bytheway. And during lockdown I've been knee deep in their stuff. I’ve watched every documentary, every video. And I find their lead guitarist John Frusciante just fascinating.”
Has he spoken to Frusicante?
“I f______ wish,” snorts Tomlinson.
Surely someone as well-known as Tomlinson could easily get in touch?
“No, honestly, I think he’s too cool for that. He’s not into that kind of thing.”
Tomlinson’s passion for all things rock is also spurring on a side hustle he picked up as a judge on the X Factor in 2018: managing an all-female rock band via his own imprint on Simon Cowell’s Syco label. While the group disbanded before releasing their first single, and Tomlinson split from Syco earlier this year, the singer is keen to nurture some more talent.
“I'm not gonna lie, my process with my imprint through Syco, it became challenging and it became frustrating at times,” Tomlinson says a little wearily. “The kind of artists that I was interested in developing – because I genuinely feel through my experience in One Direction, you know, one of the biggest f______ bands, I feel like I've learned a lot about the industry – they weren’t ready-made. So I had lots of artists that I took through the door that were rough and ready, but major labels want to see something that works straight away. I found that a little bit demotivating. I love her and she's an incredible artist, but not everyone is a Taylor Swift.”
Tomlinson spends much of his free time scouting new talent either on YouTube, Reddit or BBC Introducing – he’s currently a huge fan of indie Brighton band, Fickle Friends. His dream is to manage an all-female band playing instruments. “Because there's no one in that space. And I know eventually if I don't do it, someone else will!”
Before he drives off to rehearsals, we chatter about how much he's been practising his guitar playing, and how he can't wait to take the whole team working at his favourite grassroots venue, The Dome in Doncaster, out ice-skating after he performs there on his rescheduled tour. “Because I've got skills,” he says, and I can hear his chest puff.
And then I ask the question every retired member of One Direction has been batting off ever since they broke up in 2015, after Zayn Malik quit. Rumours that his bandmates saw him as a Judas went wild after some eagle eyes fans noticed they’d unfollowed him on Instagram. Payne, Tomlinson, Horan and Styles have barely mentioned him since. Recently, however, they re-followed him, and Payne has teased that a One Direction reunion is on the cards.
So: might 2021 be the year of resurrection?
“I thought you were going to ask something juicier!” say Tomlinson witheringly. “Look, I f______ love One Direction. I'm sure we're going to come back together one day, and I'll be doing a couple of One Direction songs in my gig. I always do that, so that's not alluding to any reunion or anything. But, I mean, look, I'm sure one day we'll get back together, because, you know, we were f______ great.”
Tickets for Louis Tomlinson Live In London are on sale tomorrow from 4pm