How Louis Tomlinson had to find his purpose again to make Faith In The Future
Louis Tomlinson is playing tour guide in London. He’s not giving a rundown of the best pubs, highlighting where to snag the best tea sandwiches or which museums are a necessary detour, however — he’s showcasing a misty, cobblestone passageway that could have easily been a part of the set of any Harry Potter film. “Lovely, innit?” he quips, balancing a computer in one hand while waving a cigarette around in the other. Yet this one — behind the renowned Konk recording studios, to be precise — is where he happens to be filming a documentary about his life and his relationship with his fans. In fact, Louis has spent most of the day propped up next to a piano, trying to recall long-buried details about his life. So a few drags were necessary, but he’s admittedly “buzzing” — both from talking all day and from the thought of his sophomore album, Faith In The Future, due this November.
It’s taken a minute for Tomlinson, who was catapulted into being under the microscope of fame in one of the biggest boy bands of the world at just 18, to be genuinely at peace with where his career is headed. No longer is he letting the anxiety or fear of who others expected him to be — or who he thought he should be — define him. He is both a man at ease and one whose excitement about this very moment in life is so palpable it fills the room with a constant sly chuckle.
[Photo by Edward Cooke]
But becoming this version of Tomlinson — one who's so unrestrained — has been a challenging process for him. Getting to a place where he could even make an album like Faith In The Future, which is primed for the energy of a live show and shies away from much of the acoustic aspects featured on his first record, has been a years’-long journey of learning to tune out the noise from others about what he should do, of quelling his own self-doubt, of really reconsidering who he wants to be as an artist.
“If I'm being honest, I could have made a second record that would be a bigger commercial hit than this will be. I am confident in that,” he says. Yet he craves something more meaningful. “If I can pull off an album, like I think I have, that is something I would actually listen to, sits in line with the stuff that I love and has references all over it that I think say something about me, that's so much more fulfilling than having a fucking No. 1 record. Because I got loads of them in a band,” he says.
Getting to this stage has, inarguably, taken a lot of work. But to understand who Tomlinson is now — and who he wants to be — it’s necessary to return to January 2020 when he released his debut solo album Walls.
Of One Direction’s four members, Tomlinson was the last to release one. Truthfully, the Doncaster, Yorkshire-born musician had long struggled to figure out what he wanted to say, who he was as an artist because he’d never really thought about what a solo career would look like. “I knew who I was in One Direction, but I'd never thought of who I am on my own as [a] solo [artist]. I was so in love with being in the band that I never really had those thoughts,” he says, settling back into the studio after his smoke break.
He spent three years “just treading water.” But the record’s title track helped him find clarity. “That was a moment where I was like, ‘OK, I can see my lane now," he recalls. Walls, which evoked the soft, snarling tone of Oasis (Tomlinson even gave a songwriting credit to Noel Gallagher), attempted to stray from his mainstream pop days with hints of Britpop and pop punk — a callback to when he was 14 and singing Green Day and blink-182 covers in his first band. But just as he was beginning his first world tour, the pandemic forced everyone into lockdown, allowing him to perform only two shows in Barcelona and Madrid.
At the time, he recalls, it seemed “really unfair.” “I just thought, ‘Well, when am I gonna get a break?’ Because I felt like I'd worked really hard and deserved to have those experiences and those moments,” he stammers. He felt angry, frustrated, purposeless. “I wondered if this was going to be my narrative for the rest of my life, where I'm just constantly frustrated that life wasn't dealing me the hand that I wanted,” he adds. Still, it felt like another pain point in his life.
In the years since One Direction went on hiatus, Tomlinson had dealt with a series of family tragedies. In December 2016, his mother died from leukemia just a year after his son Freddie Reign was born; roughly two years later, his younger sister passed away from an accidental drug overdose. But the 30-year-old singer doesn’t like to dwell too much on any of that. Sporting a black-and-white colorblock hoodie and sweeping boy band hairstyle (the one visible reminder of his One Direction days), he’s a gregarious, larger-than-life personality whose eyes widen as if he’s unraveling a ribbon around a Christmas present whenever he speaks; he’s a self-described “not very serious guy.”
[Photo by Edward Cooke]
Tomlinson was able to really embrace that part of himself when lockdown happened. After all, there had been little time to actually take a break during his years in One Direction, what with their five LPs and four world tours; and the years since had been flanked by working on his solo music and parenthood. “I've never had a moment in my career, where I felt the pressure that surrounded me had been loosened, and that was a really nice feeling because my life in One Direction and even post-One Direction, I'm constantly thinking about what the next thing is, how I can better myself as an artist and how I can get what I want,” he says.
It helped that Tomlinson was able to spend some quality time with his son, journeying between the U.K. and Los Angeles where he lives with his mother. There, he could put his “dad hat” on and have a purpose. But back in the U.K., the musician was like the rest of the world “watching lots of shit TV and shit films.” (“I fucking hate Love Island,” he yells. “I got no time for that.”) His version of bad entertainment was actually watching something “amazing” — he became enamored with the 2003 Red Hot Chili Peppers concert film Live at Slane Castle, which he viewed five times throughout lockdown. While he admittedly didn’t learn any new skills during that time (“I didn’t do no banana bread!”), he was able to really look inward.
Gone was the knee-jerk reaction to the news that the tour wouldn’t be going as planned — he snapped out of it. Instead, he found gratitude for the two nights he had onstage. “There might have been an element had I not had those shows that, by the end of lockdown, I would have convinced myself that maybe I'm not going to be able to cut it,” Tomlinson admits. Luckily those two concerts he did do gave him somewhat of a foundation for what his live shows would look like. So he joined the many artists who had been forced off the road and decided to host a virtual concert in December 2020 — “Live From London” — that raised upward of $1 million for four different charities. The 18-track set, which was livestreamed on Veeps, sold 160,000 tickets worldwide and earned him a spot a Guinness World Record for “Most Tickets Sold for a Livestreamed Concert by a Solo Male Artist.”
[Photo by Edward Cooke]
“It was fucking amazing. It was a moment where I'm just like, ‘Well, maybe I'm gonna have a good year when everything comes back to normal,’" he says awestruck. For the first time since the tour schedule had been jilted, he felt hopeful — inspired. “It was that first moment of, ‘If I could deliver a good album and I could deliver a good tour, maybe I'll have a good year because it looks like I've got people's interest,’” he says excitedly. The performance — the support from fans from afar — finally made him feel a little less lost.
“I know every artist says this, but I've got a deep fucking connection with my fans. I think of it as one entity,” Tomlinson gushes. “I was 18 when I was first in the band [One Direction], and we've grown up together.” Self-doubt, worry and a lack of confidence have, at times, plagued Tomlinson, to the point where he’s become co-dependent on them. “There's genuinely been times in my career where I've really needed them, like the livestream,” he confesses. “To show their support on the level they did, to make me go, ‘I can do this at a high fucking level.’” The aforementioned documentary makes sense now: Truthfully, he might not have come to that conclusion on his own without them.
With Tomlinson’s confidence gradually returning, he was able to take a step back and objectively analyze Walls — what he liked about it, what he didn’t. He found himself focused on how heavy the record was and how it didn’t fully represent who he was. “Although that was what I was experiencing in my personal life at the time, and I've always liked to be honest and quite literal in my lyrics, there was a weight to it emotionally, and that's not really how I carry myself as a person. I don't fucking like people feeling sorry for me,” he declares. The opinions — that noise — that came from being tied to the music industry machine for so long, he realized, had prevented him from taking risks.
Take for instance his collaborations with Bebe Rexha and Steve Aoki, his two dance-pop crossover singles that came out after One Direction went on hiatus. “That was me doing what I thought I was supposed to do, essentially, and what maybe other people thought I should do,” he shrugs. Tomlinson, however, pauses — he wants to be clear how proud he is of Walls. He had, after all, spent years writing it. But he’s left with some frustration about how he played it safe.
“I just wasn't brave enough. That's the bottom line. I wasn't brave enough sonically, and I wasn't brave enough to follow my heart and what I really loved musically because I was so reliant on other opinions,” he sighs. Of the songs on Walls, “Kill My Mind,” the pop-punk-charged opener that happens to be his son’s favorite song, was what he felt was emblematic of his sound. “That was the first moment where I felt the kind of energy and intensity and tempo that I was looking for out of my music and out of my live shows,” he notes. From the livestream and the two tour dates he played, Tomlinson knew he couldn’t get onstage and play fans 12 ballads, even though, he hypothesizes, “they’d still be fucking dead loud.”
[Photo by Edward Cooke]
That critical lens was instrumental in helping Tomlinson shape Faith In The Future, a title which he casually teased on social media last March. His goal with the record? To match the sweaty, screaming, enthusiastic fans in the crowd. “The thing I wanted to get out of this record, mostly, was to create a great live experience on the next tour,” he asserts. To do that, he had to trust his gut, which he found to be a daily struggle.
Tomlinson decided he had to rethink the songwriting process for Faith In The Future, so he opted to collaborate more with artists than with professional songwriters on this record. “Some professional songwriters, their intentions are quite obvious. It's their livelihood, so they're looking for singles, and unfortunately, when you look for singles, and there's that intention, in my opinion, it can affect the song and the reason that you're making the song.” Working with artists, at least in his experience, Tomlinson was able to have more natural conversations and focus on the heart of the music. There was also more freedom and spontaneity to it—and most importantly, authenticity.
[Photo by Edward Cooke]
“Bigger Than Me,” his new project’s anthemic, arena-sized lead single, aligns with his vision, as he actively fights back against the noise that crowded his mental space during Walls. It had everything Tomlinson needed to reset — it was energetic, ambitious, had scale and a sing-along chorus. “The bottom line is I wanted it to feel like a statement of intent,” he says of the track. For him, it was always going to be what introduced the record.
But within the record, Tomlinson isn’t afraid to toy with genre. While he was resistant to dance-pop music following his singles with Aoki and Rexha, he found a new appreciation for it thanks to the Australian rock trio DMA’s. “When I heard DMA's latest album that was produced by Stuart Price, those sounds were all over that record, but it's done in a very authentic, very credible way,” he notes. The fact that it was created in a way that wasn’t for radio play gave him “real food for thought.” “There were sounds that I would have maybe disregarded for the wrong reasons,” he explains. But dressed up by Price, his perspective shifted.
That incorporation of dance melodies is something that erupts on “Out of My System,” a pulsating, punk-tinged Arctic Monkeys-inspired track that recalls the heyday of early aughts indie rock. The day Tomlinson made the track, he had been listening to “Teddy Picker” or “Dancing Shoes” (he can’t quite remember), but he knew exactly what kind of music he wanted to make. “I went in and said, ‘Let's try to write a song that is as punk as I can get away with,’” he recalls. And he led with that kind of intensity and energy from early Arctic Monkeys albums to craft the song.
Tomlinson’s focus on intensity doesn’t extend to every song on Faith In The Future — at least not overtly. While he would have left the listener (hopefully) wanting more with “a wall of sound” on a record’s final track, he approached Faith In The Future’s closer “That’s The Way Love Goes” differently. The song, which was his take on the vulnerable simplicity of the Streets’ “Dry Your Eyes,” was the only track he could end the record on — one about a friend encouraging another friend to get over the fact that he’s not in a relationship anymore. “It's not the fact that you're not sympathizing. You're looking after him from afar, but you're not necessarily a shoulder to cry on,” Tomlinson explains.
[Photo by Edward Cooke]
Of course, Red Hot Chili Peppers, even if indirectly, influenced Faith In The Future. After watching their concert film, Tomlinson is convinced it’s affected his subconscious when he’s gone into the studio. But it’s a little more overt than that. Tomlinson sweetly bursts out of his chair while detailing how bummed he was to miss them perform with the Strokes and how he’d dream of collaborating with Flea (“Imagine him playing bass!”) and “next-level guitarist” John Frusciante.
The latter, he actually spent lockdown, doing a deep dive on, he explains: “I've pretty much top-to-bottom educated myself about his life and his journey and find that very, very interesting.” While much of Tomlinson’s self-doubt has dissipated, he’s hesitant to move too quickly on those. “I feel like I've got to show my own individual identity, embrace that and really drive it home before I would think about anything like that,” he notes.
But identity is a funny thing. Tomlinson’s boy band roots are still very much in his thoughts. While the band doesn’t have a group chat (“We’re shit like that”), the musician is “really proud of what they're doing.” “We're all watching each other from afar,” he smiles. “When we do see each other inevitably, it feels like not a day has passed.”
[Photo by Edward Cooke]
For now, however, Tomlinson is much more focused on his future — even beyond his own personal music career. Back in March 2021, the singer tweeted he wanted to start his own music management company, something that he can envision for himself. “That’s long game for me,” he explains. “There's a lot of interest and excitement for me in that space.”
When he was in One Direction, he was told he could have an imprint through his label at the time, Syco. “It was a certain genre of label, let's put it that way,” Tomlinson says, carefully choosing his words. “So where I found frustrations was I'd have this long list of different bands, occasionally solo artists, and unless I was bringing a ready-made Taylor Swift through the door, their ears weren't that interested.” Ultimately, many of the artists he believed in were scooped by other labels. But Tomlinson’s artist perspective, he believes, makes him uniquely adept in this area. In fact, he just hosted a competition for a new band to open for the festival he created and curates, Away From Home.
“I can look a little bit deeper, and I can also trust that maybe the future is going to look more exciting than it necessarily does right now on paper, whereas unfortunately, often record labels want to see the finished product,” he explains. Tomlinson remains on the lookout for new artists, but for now, the venture will be something he works on behind the scenes: “Are you going to see anything from me in that space in the next two, three years? Probably not. But in the next 10 years? I fucking hope so.”