What a Time To Be Alive – Tom Walker

Just days before releasing this debut album, Tom Walker picked up the 2019 BRIT Award for British Breakthrough Act. It was an honour that recognised his gift for soul-baring songs—such as all-conquering singles “Leave a Light On” and “Just You and I”—that resonate with universal emotion and flashes of optimism. “I think a lot of my songs are a little bit depressing with an underlying kernel of hope,” he tells Apple Music. “That’s what’s music’s about—losing yourself in it and hopefully feeling a bit better about whatever situation you’re in.” Drawing on highly personal experiences and a rich musical brew that takes in folk, trap and reggae, What a Time to Be Alive upholds that philosophy. Here, the Manchester-raised singer-songwriter talks us through the stories and ideas that inspired each track.

“I wanted to shine a light on people who look after us. For the first year of my life, I was in and out of hospital because my kidneys didn’t work. If it wasn’t for the NHS, doctors and nurses noticing that there was something wrong when they scanned my mum before I was born, then my life could have been severely different. In these days of social media, we spend a lot of time worshipping celebrities and never really give the time of day to doctors and nurses, social carers, firemen and police.”

“Leave a Light On”
“It’s about my friend who was struggling with mental health and addiction. A good friend would tell his friend if he’s overdoing it, but I was finding that really difficult. My thing, if I’m struggling with something, is to write a song about it. And then my auntie very suddenly passed away, which was devastating. So I wrote this to wade my way through it and figure it out. It just seemed to connect with people.”

“Not Giving In”
“I initially had this drum and bass thing in my head, but it wasn’t really working. I went in with [producer] Mike Spencer and tried to make the rhythm section as interesting as possible while still sounding like a songwriter-y song—and I think we pulled it off. He’s just such an amazing producer to work with—he’s done everything from Rudimental to Jamiroquai to JP Cooper and he’s so sick at programming drums and beats and getting bass sounds.”

“How Can You Sleep at Night?”
“I’d been living with my girlfriend at the time in a house of eight people. I had a studio in the basement. I really wanted to stay because it’s really difficult to find a house in London where you’ve got your own studio! But she essentially wanted to grow up and I did…not…want…to…grow…up. She was being really nice, trying to find a solution, and I was just being a bit of a dick about it. I wrote this as a reminder that not everything’s about me, not everything’s about music.”

“Now You’re Gone” (feat. Zara Larsson)
“This was about 75% done and Zara came in and heard the track and wanted to do a vocal on it—and it sounded absolutely amazing. I never really thought our voices would work well together, but they sound wicked on the track. It’s about one of those relationships where you know it’s not good for you but you keep going back over and over and over again. And I’ve had a few of those in my life.”

“My Way”
“I was listening to a lot of Post Malone. I loved the beats he was making, the deep subs and trap-style drums. And I was having a lot of arguments with people in the industry and around me about the music I’m making. I’m going to take people’s advice on board, but it’s my music and I’m going to go where I feel is suitable to go with it. This is what ‘My Way’ was: Let me do my thing and experiment and embrace different genres and styles of writing and see where it takes us.”

“It’s about the house I was living in with like 12 musicians in London, and we never had any money. One night, we had this massive party because we didn’t have any money to go out. I wrote ‘Blessings’ the next day. I didn’t even have enough money to get the bus to the session—I had to walk for an hour and a half. But when I finally got there I was thinking, ‘At least we had the sickest night. We might be completely broke but at least we’re having a good time.’”

“Cry Out”
“One of my favourite songs on the album. We managed to get a really cool sound for it, smashing tea trays together and throwing chains over balconies. The song’s a personal one, something I’m probably not going to talk about because it’s a sensitive one for me and those around me. It’s a bit of a trouble to play live because it’s still kind of fresh in my mind.”

“It’s been a pretty tricky year for politics, not only in the UK but also abroad. It’s just a bit scary, all these right-wing people who want to take away basic things like healthcare… With this whole album, I’m not trying to preach and tell people what I think is what they should think—I just want people to maybe think about what’s going on a bit more.”

“Fade Away”
“I actually wrote this track when I was 19. It’s about a girl I was with for a number of years and it ended very abruptly and sourly.”

“Just You and I (Acoustic)”
“This has been a big one for couples, especially ones who are in a similar situation as I was when I wrote it—me and my now fiancée had been doing a long-distance relationship for ages. I was driving from Sheffield to London every weekend and it was just a bit of a mission. If I were to quit my job tomorrow and just do wedding dances with this track, I’m pretty sure I’d get a year’s work out of it—I’ve already done five for friends and family.”

“The Show”
“I went out with my mates in London one night. We were in this queue for a club and it was so long, I just thought, ‘This is a waste of my life.’ So I just walked around London for four hours on my own. I got ideas for the lyrics from all the things that I was seeing. It’s super, super wordy, but it really paints the picture—all the little bits in the story, like cabs whizzing past and people pouring out of kebab shops and arguing in the street. It’s just one of my absolute favourites.”

“Walk Alone”
“I vocalled this song [for Rudimental], like, three years ago and never heard anything back. I’d fully put it out of my mind and then they sent me the track again, like, ‘Can you have a go at vocalling this?’ I was like, ‘Are you guys kidding me? You sent me this song three years ago!’ It turns out that the one that I had vocalled had never even got to them, it had got lost in the ether of management and label. So we finally ended up doing the track together, which was sick.”