Meet Tom Walker, the Scottish Singer Who's Gone From Idolizing Ed Sheeran to Following in His Footsteps
The Glasgow native recently won the Brit Award for breakthrough artist of the year, which Sheeran won in 2012.
When Tom Walker arrived at the 2019 Brit Awards, he remembered his competition for the coveted breakthrough artist of the year award -- Ella Mai, Jorja Smith, IDLES and Mabel -- and couldn’t help thinking, “How the fuck are we going up against these people?”
While Walker knew he had the talent (he was also nominated for British single), the singer-songwriter was more concerned he didn’t have quite the same wide-reaching appeal as his co-nominees. “Sometimes music can really seem like a popularity contest with beautiful people,” admits Walker, a burly redhead with a scruffy beard. “I’m not saying I’m not a beautiful person, but Jorja Smith is endorsed by all these amazing brands because she’s very beautiful.”
The 27-year-old Scotland native walked out of this year’s Brits with a breakthrough artist trophy in hand. Initially shocked, Walker quickly realized the most important part of his victory: His music is making an impact. "I thought it was interesting that we seemed to win everybody over just based on the music," Walker adds. "It’s really gratifying."
Walker released his debut album What a Time to Be Alive -- inspired by a lyric from album cut "Blessings," not Drake and Future's 2015 collaborative mixtape -- a 14-song collection of heartfelt lyrics, striking guitar and striking vocals, on March 1. As his Brit win proved, Walker has already established a loyal fan base in the few years he’s been putting out music, but not without effort: Last year alone, Walker recounts 120 flights, two U.K. tours, two Europe tours, and trips to Australia and Mexico. He had a total of seven days off -- but he’s not complaining: "When you work that hard and get something like a Brit Award, it makes every second totally worth it."
The singer has wanted to make music his career since he was 9 years old, when he saw AC/DC in Paris with his dad. “I saw Angus Young running around in a schoolboy uniform shredding on the guitar and just thought, ‘That looks like a cool job,’” Walker recalls with a laugh.
His dad bought him a guitar when he turned 11, and when he could play every AC/DC solo almost immediately, Walker had a feeling music was in his future. He bought himself a Gibson SG at 13, and played music with his friends whenever he wasn’t in school or working in the kitchen at his local pub. He applied to a guitar program at the London Centre of Contemporary Music, but the school thought Walker wasn’t quite right for it. Instead, they placed him in a three-year songwriting course -- which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“That was when it all started for me,” says Walker. “I was writing songs before that, but never thought they were any good. I had to have someone to sing these songs, because you had to hand in like 45 songs per year. If you can’t get someone to sing them, you need to sing them -- so I just started singing, and my teachers were like, ‘Wow, you’re really good at this,’ and encouraged me to do it.”
Yet, Walker still had doubts about his future as a full-fledged artist. Then he saw Ed Sheeran’s breakout one-man acoustic performance of “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” on Britain’s SBTV YouTube channel in 2010.
“I just saw this pale ginger kid who played acoustic and [had] really amazing songs cutting through at a time when that just wasn’t a thing. It was only beautiful pop stars that fucking dressed in Gucci making their way through the industry. I remember thinking, ‘Well fucking hell, if this guy can do it and get so much traction’ -- because [fans] went crazy for him after that video -- I was just like, ‘Why can’t I fucking do this?’”
His experiences at London Center of Contemporary Music (including living in a house with 12 other musicians) helped him find his gritty, yet soulful sound. Walker met his manager Simon King in 2015, who helped him land a deal with Sony Music UK imprint Relentless Records later that year, and then a deal with Universal Music Publishing in 2017.
That October, Walker released the poignant, piano-tinged “Leave a Light On,” which documents his experience with a friend who was struggling with drug addiction. While it was impactful to Walker because of its inspiration, he says he didn’t expect people to connect to such a personal song. But they did. “Leave a Light On” has racked up more than 214 million Spotify streams, reached No. 7 on the U.K. singles chart, and earned Walker the British single Brit Award nomination. He's not a one-hit wonder, either: Walker has seen subsequent success with his follow-up single -- the charming love song “Just You and I,” dedicated to his fiancée Annie -- which just reached No. 3 on the U.K. singles chart.
His story-like songs have clearly won over fans in his native Scotland and overseas, and with What a Time to Be Alive -- which debuted at No. 1 on the March 16 Official U.K. Albums chart -- adding 12 more tracks to his arsenal, Walker is now looking to captivate American audiences. The Glasgow native recently had the chance to meet Sheeran at Steve Mac’s studio in London (Mac produced “Leave a Light On”), where the “Shape of You” singer advised Walker about breaking in America.
“He said, ‘It’s so big, you have to come over here and put the time in,’” Walker remembers, adding his own interpretation. “It’s just a different ballgame out here, you’ve got to pay your dues. If you want to make it in America, you’ve got to work for it. And I kind of like that.”
Though he’s bracing himself for a longer road to success in the U.S., he’s already broken onto American soil: “Leave the Light On” reached No. 20 on the Adult Top 40 chart in May 2018, and What a Time to Be Alive hit No. 18 on the Americana/Folk Albums chart and No. 17 on Heatseekers Albums chart (both dated March 16), respectively. He also just made his American television debut on The Late Late Show With James Corden on March 26, before kicking off a brief West Coast tour on March 27, which includes a stop at Los Angeles' famed Roxy Theater on April 1.
If you ask Walker, he’s just letting the songs do the talking -- and it’s working. “I think I’m just coming in with good songs; I’m not coming over here trying to steal the hearts of America,” Walker laughs. “I’m not trying to appeal to anybody. I just try to do my thing and make the best music I can make."