When One Direction went on hiatus in late 2015, everybody figured Louis Tomlinson was poised for instant pop success as a solo star. After all, he co-wrote so many of the group’s most beloved tunes. But he’s just finding his voice now. His hotly anticipated solo debut, the excellent Walls (due out Friday), is worth the wait. “It took me a second to get here,” Louis says with a laugh. “So it’s a bit of a relief. Because there was a lot of treading water.”
With 1D, Tomlinson was always famed for his cocky wit and his combative “Sassy Louis” bravado. But in recent years, he’s had to face intense heartbreak. In 2016, his mother died of cancer. Last year he released his poignant tribute “Two of Us” — but just two weeks later, his family was hit by tragedy again when his teenage sister suddenly passed away. Walls is full of personal reckoning, but it’s also the sound of a pop artist hitting a new creative breakthrough, as in the Oasis-style Britpop guitar blast “Kill My Mind.” Gearing up for his first solo tour, Louis took a break to discuss life after One Direction, dealing with grief, feuding with indie boys, turning 28, starting over in public, and how it feels to hear his ex-bandmates’ songs on the radio.
Congratulations on the new album. It sounds like you put a lot of heart and soul into it.
Yeah — I feel like I’ve been swimming against the tide a little bit. When I took the leap of faith to go, “All right, I’m going to do something on my own,” it took me a second to work out exactly what that was going to be. A lot of people, when they’re first starting out, they develop in the background, trying different things. But obviously, I had to do that a little bit more publicly. That’s been definitely been challenging at times. So I’m relieved to have an album that I’m really proud of.
People expected you to bang out something fast for a hit. Why did you want to take your time?
I definitely could have made a quick record, a more trendy record. But I think it’s a big thing for me as a writer that it’s got to be believable coming out of my mouth. So lyrics are really important to me.
You wrote so many classic tunes with One Direction, going back to “No Control” and “Midnight Memories.” But as a solo artist, did you feel like you needed to do something different?
When I first started my solo career, I did an electronic track with Steve Aoki. He’s a fucking legend. And I did a track with Bebe Rexha — she’s cool as hell. But when I look back at those songs, I don’t think they really represent me. So it took me a second to work out that I just wanted to follow my heart. Because I have the luxury of having been in a band like One Direction. And luckily, I saw a lot of success with the band. But instead of focusing so much on numbers and chart position and radio, I thought, “I’m just going to follow my heart.” And, hopefully, it’ll be a more authentic record that way.
You made that big public statement last year, where you said you needed to stop trying for Top 40 hits and rethink “what success means to me.” Where did that come from?
My only experience is being in a band the size of One Direction. So naturally, as much as you try and stay humble and realistic, that’s your experience. And that experience is based on something that isn’t real life, really. So it took me a second to be at peace with that.
You really changed gears last year, with “Two of Us.” It’s such a bold song emotionally.
For obvious reasons, that is definitely one of my proudest moments to date. As a songwriter, I’ve never written a song that had as much weight and importance, from my own perspective. But then when I was chatting to friends, people would pull me aside and they’d say what that song means to them. Maybe they had lost someone recently and they’d share their story with me. And I’ve never really had that with music before, where it goes deeper than just being a love song. That carries a different kind of weight. That’s one of my proudest moments.
It was funny because around that time, for obvious reasons, I felt really redundant creatively. I was really struggling. When I look back in hindsight, it’s because I needed to get that song off my chest. Other concepts lacked significance, until I’d fit in that song.
These days, people aren’t necessarily used to hearing male songwriters open their hearts like that.
My mum had a massive influence on my life, so there’s more of a female perspective there. And I do find it easy to speak about my emotions. I realized in my writing process, that was my ace to play — to lean on emotion and honesty. And talk about things that sometimes you’re not able to talk about.
How did you go from a song like that to a rocker like “Kill My Mind,” just a few months later?
That was written deliberately as a statement of intent, really. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, so I didn’t want to keep writing emotional, heavy stuff. So I thought it was a great opportunity to just completely switch it all, and really go in on my inspirations.
It has the pop-punk vibe of “No Control.” I loved something you said on Twitter a couple of years ago: “Remember if it’s by One Direction and it’s a banger I probably wrote on it.”
Do you know what? It’s not often I blow my own trumpet, but I thought, “Fuck it! I’m having it. Because it’s true.” So yeah, I did enjoy that.
How’s it different doing it in your late twenties, as opposed to your early twenties?
I feel like every song I write, I get better. But I tell you what, man, I am fucking conscious of my age. I’ve just turned 28 — I’m like, “Fuck me now. I’ve been doing this for 10 years.” If I do it all over again, I’ll be fucking 38, mate!
It’s an old cliche that when you go solo, you’re supposed to complain about your band and renounce them. But you haven’t done that.
Well, two things. First, I absolutely fucking love the band. I’m super proud about where I’ve come from. At the end of the day, I’m from Doncaster, and the band gave me such a nice opportunity. But also, there’s a big history of that, people coming out of bands and chatting shit. I just think they just look so obvious. It’s such a desperate attempt to try and get cool points. So I don’t think it’s authentic. I fucking love the boys, and I love everything we’ve done together. And I still miss my time with them. I think any of the boys would be lying if they said otherwise. It was a special time in our lives, definitely.
In the music you’re making separately, you’ve each got your own voice.
I think that’s a testament to this strength of us as a band, really, and what we all brought individually. And we do all have a different range of inspiration — that’s what made it interesting, both on a personality level and on a music level. I think we’re all making really fucking good music as well. So, yeah, it’s nice for me to turn up the radio and hear the boys with another banger.
What’s in store for your solo tour?
Listen, I’m so excited — I’ve definitely had my eye on the tour. Because it’s one thing being in the studio, or a rehearsal space or TV studio or whatever. But it’s another thing literally going to see the fans, being able to look into their eyes and see what certain lyrics mean to them. And just feel the energy of the room. There’s nothing like that.
With One Direction, you always made that direct connection with the live audience.
I think, to a certain degree, we were lucky in the time that we were living in. You look back to some of those Nineties boy bands, and they had to be a certain way. But we were always able to be ourselves, and I think that makes it easier for fans to connect to us. And you always want to make people feel as included as possible — everyone.
Do you have any heroes you dream about collaborating with?
Obviously, I fucking love Liam Gallagher. He’s such a incredible lyricist. Most of the time when I’m playing music in the car, honestly, I’m not that diverse. I’ve just got Oasis on most of the time.
Any other music you’ve been enjoying lately?
I really love fucking Catfish and the Bottlemen, which is ironic, because they chatted some shit about One Direction. Basically, I listened to the first album, and I’m like, “This is fucking amazing.” So I tweeted, saying, “I love this album.” And they tweeted back, trying to do the typical indie boy thing of trashing the fucking pop boys. I got a bit sour because they were chatting shit, trying to be clever, so I just boycotted them. But enough time has gone by, so I can listen to Catfish again. They do make fucking good music.