Tourist has come a long way since DJing in his bedroom.
Music these days is all about collaboration, pairing up two or more talented artists, get some hype going, guaranteed hit song, check. And William Phillips, the man that is Tourist, is no stranger to collaborations. The past couple of years has seen him team up with the incredibly silky smooth vocals of Will Heard and Lianne La Havas, to name a few. As the headlines will tell you, he also won a Grammy for writing Sam Smith’s song ‘Stay With Me’. But what comes first, William Phillips the Grammy Award-winning songwriter, or Tourist the artist? His completely featureless, instrumental album, U, hints at the latter—a polite thanks, but no thanks, to being anything other than being the captain of his own ship. And the result is incredible— an instrumental album of ten tracks that are raw, emotional and include actual recordings from his past relationship.
You’ve collaborated with so many incredible vocalists, why did you go down the instrumental path with this album?
Because it’s my first record, I wanted to try and doing something by myself and I think it speaks a bit louder. Features are a very new thing in music and I was a bit bored of them and logistically, they’re a pain in the arse. It’s not even the artists, it’s the managers and the labels, like, “We’ve got this plan so you can put out the single that you wrote with them in about a year or so, because they’ve got two coming out.”
I didn’t want to rely on them to dictate the narrative in getting out music to people, it’s really frustrating. If I can’t say something by myself as a musician, I can’t say anything. Why should you have to try and write a lyrical song to say anything? I thought why can’t I do it without chopping up words, and instead using melody to get across a story to someone? It meant that the process of writing was really singular, I’ve worked a lot with other people but it was just going back to me and myself. The responsibility felt enjoyable.
How do you get across the emotion of lyrics, by just using sound?
I think track titles. Electronic music doesn’t really do itself any favours a lot of the time, people just name their tracks after I dunno, their football team or something. I think some of my favourite artists who use electronic sound are the ones that call their tracks interesting things, like Four Tet wrote a song called She Just Likes to Fight. Instantly more emotive than being called oranges or something, you know what I mean? Secondly, I did a lot of stuff with field recordings, finding sounds with my phone. I record a lot of sounds in my life, like the first song of the album, that’s the sound of me walking away from an argument I had with my ex.
I don’t know why I recorded I guess I just like the sound of life. When you put it on top of music, you add this layer to contextualize it. Stepping away from doing featured vocalists probably would’ve been against the advice of any major record label but luckily we don’t really have a major record label so I can do what I want. I think I’ve written better with my album being featureless. I’m quite proud that we stuck to our guns and did something that felt quite cohesive and honest.
It took you two years to write the album, how you condense all your experiences into ten songs?
I think you try and pick up on things that felt meaningful and it’s a problem that I gave myself. I could’ve written a bunch of music that sounded really interesting, culturally important and a testament to house music, hip hop or whatever but I’m not really any of those guys. So I tried to do something that was personal and I think the last piece of music on there, For Sarah, probably makes sense a lot of sense.
I didn’t want to make it a bitter album, a calling someone out album. Like, ‘I’m using your emotional influence on my life to be successful and make a record out of you,’ that’s really not what I was trying to do. I was just trying to make a piece of music about what is was to be in that relationship.
So you used to hang out in your bedroom listening to electronic music were a really young kid, did you ever end up sneaking out to go to the people you were listening to?
I was too scared probably, I was quite a wuss. I just loved that world though, what I always enjoyed about electronic music is that it feels like people are pushing the edges of sound. As a twelve-year-old listening to electronic music I was like,”Wow I’m listening to the future.” The first time I listened to Daft Punk I was like, “What is this?” I was always a really keen piano player and I just loved melody and I would always lean towards dance music that wasn’t really clubby, that was more like Royksopp or Daft Punk, things that more rooted in melody.
Were they some of the artists you’d go and see if you could be a young kid again?
Yeah, there were so many different artists I loved like Royksopp and Massive Attack. I remember hearing Unfinished Symphony for the first time and it was just the most beautiful pieces music, it’s still one of my most favourite pieces of music.
That’s pretty deep for a twelve-year-old.
Haha, I think I was a bit of a sad twelve-year-old. My parents were divorced and music was my thing because the rest of my life wasn’t as pleasant as I wanted it to be. Obviously I was fed and I could sleep in a warm bed at night but yeah, people have problems in life.
Music was your outlet?
Yeah it was my world, my escape, and I’d just go and start making music because it was the happiest part of my day. My mates were going out, hanging with girls and skateboarding and I was like “I’m gonna go DJ in my bedroom for myself.” I still do that same thing.
Is that a weird progression, most electronic artists make music in a room and it’s a very insular process. What’s it like to go from that, to playing in front of thousands of people?
Bizarre. It’s as bizarre to me as it would be to you. It’s ridiculous, I find it very strange that these shows have sold out. That’s really intimidating for me, because I wrote Run in my pants, in my bedroom, by myself. The places that these things are formed, to the places that they are performed, is so different and it’s quite a beautiful thing, the idea that you don’t have to have a huge studio, you can just have an idea that translates. If you feel like you’re speaking to people that you don’t know and they agree with you, that’s a nice feeling.
Do you have a best or worst show?
So many bad ones. Luckily quite a few good ones. I had a really good show in Hungary and I had a really, really bad one in Austria because there was no one there. That’s just music festivals, sometimes people aren’t in the mood, you might be on early. I could never define myself or derive any sense of achievement based on how many people I perform to, because it varies so much. You just go up, do your thing, be yourself. You’re being paid to be in a country you’ve never been to before so you cannot moan about that. You’ve already won when you step off the plane as far as I’m concerned.
Do you always have the same setlist or do you mix it up?
There is a general narrative, with things like headline shows, I want to get across a kind of story. At festivals, you can play different music to adjust how people feel. I put quite a lot of time into working a good narrative for the live show and I try not to go too far from that. You want to try and say something and not just play your music loudly, I’m not really a DJ.
Do you think winning a Grammy for the Sam Smith song has helped or hindered you to be recognised as a solo artist?
I think it’s changed how people introduce me in interviews. People always introduce me a Grammy award winning songwriter. That’s fine, that’s not related to Tourist, but it’s a good headline and people love making headlines. I still find it very funny, I don’t think of myself as someone who has won a Grammy, I’m only reminded when I use the bathroom at home because I keep it in the toilet. I put it on the shelf, because when I went to my mate’s house when I was 11 and their parents made them put their medals on the shelf and I just thought it was weird. Like, “Oh look you must be proud of all your past achievements.” You shouldn’t define yourself by your achievements, you’re more than your achievements is how I view it. For a lot of people it’s the ultimate sense of recognition as a musician but for me, I think you win a lot sooner than that if you write a piece of music that makes you feel something, that’s as valuable as a Grammy.
It hasn’t changed how I think about myself. I probably could’ve gone and worked with Katy Perry, you have all these ridiculous offers from people. It opens all these doors for you to get into this strange elite club but I went, “Nah, I’m gonna do my own thing for a bit.” Working with more people, I don’t think that makes my work any better. I can’t look at my Grammy and find the answer. “What do we do? Consult the Grammy!” It’s a medal that is still very bizarre for me, I’m never going to win one for Tourist. It’s never the goal, just a nice compliment.
Is there anyone you show your stuff to, for a bit of honest feedback?
My friends are very honest. I think you know when it’s shit because people will be like, “Oh yeah that’s good.”
The high pitched voice.
“Good! Yeah!” But when people stop, that’s when you know. The job is to make people be a bit lost for words. If you’re not getting that, you’re not really pushing yourself as a musician and you’re just being lazy. Alot of people were tweeting me being like, “Why didn’t you do any songs on your album?” and it’s like because I didn’t want to, that’s my job to make that decision. It’s not your job to tell me what to do, if you like it, go buy it, but if you don’t then no worries, that’s cool.
People get really fired up on Twitter don’t they?
Really fired up. It’s like shouting from a crowd isn’t it, you can shout from a crowd because you don’t have to show your face. That’s why people heckle, a crowd you can hide in. But such is life.