28 Feb Hard Work & Accidental Success – An Interview with Tourist at St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival 2017
UK Producer William Phillips has had a busy few years, contributing to songs for artists like Chvrches, Låpsley, and Sam Smith (for which he earned a Song of the Year Grammy for ‘Stay With Me’). On top of that, his debut LP U for his solo project Tourist has seen him touring pretty extensively since its release in May last year. He made his way back to Australia for the third time this summer, and we were lucky enough to catch up with him backstage before he played St Jerome’s Laneway Festival in Melbourne.
Georgia Hamilton-Myers: How are you finding touring with Laneway?
Tourist (William Phillips): Great. Amazing. Yeah, Brisbane we played.. When was that? It would have been, fuck maybe Saturday? Friday? I don’t know. What day are we on? Saturday. Maybe last week! Anyway, it was amazing, like it was absolutely amazing. That same kind of psychology of the crowd and the headline show in Melbourne was like times ten, and ten of kids in Brisbane, so it was amazing. Laneway is great!
Do you find that’s the attitude of the crowds here generally?
Yeah, for some reason they’re super enthusiastic. I don’t really know why, but its great. I’m not really used to that. I think London — and Paris, and New York — its like kind of, people are a bit cooler, less… they’re way more self-aware. I think they’re really concerned with how people think of them, but I think Australian shows, people really just let up and do what they want.
They’re there to have fun.
Yeah, it’s good.
Do you find having been here before you’re more comfortable this time around?
Massively, yeah. I think the first time I came here I was really like, wow… What’s going on? I think I came here in like 2014, at the end of 2014 and I was super jet-lagged and I was here to play these two festivals, like… no one really knew who I was or anything, and not that they do now but even more so then. Then the next time, coming for those headline shows last winter was really cool, and now I’m back again, it’s great.
Are you still writing while you’re touring this record?
Yeah, I’ve just finished a new bunch of stuff actually. I had this kind of slow, dawning realisation… I think before I was out touring my album I was like cool, I’m going to write an album, tour, write an album, tour. But I think you only get to do that on the first album you make.
Because I think on the first album, I had the luxury of time to just sit and do whatever I want in the studio for ages, which I did. And for the second one I’m realising I’m having to tour the last album, as well as writing the second one so… it just changes where you write, it means you can’t write in your safe space, which for me is my studio in my second bedroom in our flat. In a way I kind of started embracing the fact that I have to write in hotel rooms or on aeroplanes, and it’s kind of coloured the music slightly. And I’ve started to embrace it. At first I was like no, if I’m going to write more, I need to be at home. But I think embracing the fact that I have to be in transit whilst trying to be creative is quite a good mental trick to help me be successful creatively.
So I did a lot of writing last year whilst touring and I had a bit of time off earlier this month, so I took it all into my studio and finished up all the ideas. It’s quite a cool thing because you do feel quite constantly inspired being on the road. Sometimes it’s fucking hard — you’re knackered, you’re tired, so just everything’s annoying. You don’t get to appreciate what you’re doing. You just look at it as a hotel room. Sometimes when you’re well rested, you’re in a new place, you feel super inspired, yeah.
I guess you’re seeing different things than what you’d see at home
Yeah meeting different people and seeing the results of people’s ideas that manifest themselves in the cities, like, even just going to Fitzroy this morning it was really interesting.
Yeah it’s a cool area.
Yeah, I mean it is cool. And you know you see the kind of people that hang out there, yeah it’s interesting. We were saying that like, we always try and go “Oh this is like Williamsburg” or “Oh this is like Shoreditch”, but I was saying it’s funny how we can’t just say its Fitzroy. Why do we have to kind of compare everything…
Back to something you already know.
Exactly. It’s strange isn’t it? Why cant it just be what it is?
When you’re playing songs from your last record, you wrote those how many years ago now?
The last song I wrote was ‘Run’, and that was like 2015, sometime before November 2015.
Because it’s so associated with that time in your life, do you find your relationships with the songs change as you’re playing them?
I think as you listen to things enough, you cant be objective on them anymore. You’re completely influenced by the fact that they’re so ingrained in you. I would love to listen to my album for the first time and think about it, ‘is it any good?’ I don’t ever get that luxury. Everyone else does. And I think the immediate absorption of art is really critical in how you think about it. You don’t get to see the process that made it so you don’t get to see the choices. You know, and I think critics especially forget that they have the privilege of the first view of something. They get to experience it in its entirety. And I think because I’ve involved myself so much, in the songs, they don’t.. I don’t even know if they have any meaning to me anymore, in a way because I don’t know if they’re.. I know they came from an honest place at one point, I don’t know what they mean to me anymore, because I’ve seen the reactions so many times, yeah, it was about, you know… At that time a breakup was an important thing for me to write about, so I did. But it feels so long ago in my life, I can’t relate to either the relationship or the art; the kind of “art”, whatever, that then came out if it you know.
I guess the audience is seeing it though, and feeling it as you’re performing…
They are, and they’re feeling it for the first time, many of those people. So that’s why you can’t be a fucking diva on stage, you know, because you can’t take away the meaning. If you demean what it means to them because you’re bored of it — which is not their fault — you know, that’s a massive douche move isn’t it?
You didn’t work with many collaborators on U. Are you looking to do that more for your next release?
Yeah. I think everything I do is a reaction to the last thing I’ve done. So if I haven’t collaborated for a while I probably want to, subconsciously, collaborate again. Not out of any kind of strategic move, but out of a need to keep things different, you know? I’m very scared of being mediocre, that’s my biggest fear — doing things that don’t feel difficult when I do them.
So in lieu of a particular strategy, do you have broader goals for what you want to do with music, commercially?
I really want to buy an old Porsche one day… [laughs] No, I’m joking. I think. No, I have a goal to reach as many people as I can. I’m not scared of being… I wrote fucking ‘Stay With Me’, do you know what I mean? In a way, the weird thing there is that I didn’t intend to do that. People can argue, they can say that was a really cynical move of you to be successful, but that was by accident. I mean I had to embrace the success because otherwise… Not embrace the success, but I had to deal with the success of that. I admire people who are massively successful but also take massive risks. So I want to do those two things. I want people to know my music and enjoy it. I don’t want to be you know..
Pretentious about it?
No, not pretentious! I just, I want to kind of do whatever I want and if it speaks to people, great. I want to try and push myself in as many ways as I can and I never want it to feel easy. I would never write music with a kind of goal for a [particular] listener, I write it for myself. I’d never say ‘This has got to be played on Radio One, Triple J’. I just, I would never do that. I just make what comes out of me, and I deal with the results.
Did you always feel that way? Or after ‘Stay With Me’ did you feel a pressure…
No — because it was by accident. It was completely by accident. If I’d gone ‘cool, I wanna be nominated for a fucking Grammy’, What kind of person would say that in the studio? This has to be selling, you know, however many copies that record sold. I’m just not interested in being that person. I think my music speaks for itself, it speaks for how successful I want it to be. Does it sound like big music? Probably not. The last album was like a bunch of instrumentals about relationships, I mean it’s very specific, quite niche music that I’ve made. But you know, if I could sell 500 albums, for me that’s a really big deal. If I can sell 500 tickets in Melbourne, for me that’s a fucking big deal. That means more than people think it does, and I couldn’t give a shit about having a medal in my… About the success of my career, I’d rather look back and feel proud — as any artist would, or hopefully would. And I don’t really think the Grammys are a big deal. I think, you know, the Muppets have a Grammy… and they’re probably better than I am.
Do you guys [Ed note: his partner, Kat, was with us for the interview] usually travel together?
Yeah, no its weird because like, I’ve toured the most I’ve ever toured and we thought why don’t we just go and do it together? So it’s been mental, but fun.
Have you had a chance to have fun then, in between shows? Or will you hang around or travel after?
We’re going to yeah, we’re staying in Melbourne for a week. My mate is getting married at the Botanic Gardens. And it’s also my 30th birthday the day he’s getting married, so we’re here for a week around then. And I’m gonna cry and drink champagne and think ‘where’s my youth gone?’ That’s fine. Life is temporary.