In 2015, Will Phillips won a Grammy for co-writing Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” He’s also penned tunes for other English singers that dabble in soul – Jessie Ware, Lapsley – but his own work, released under the moniker Tourist, adapts house music principles to pop song structures.
After a series of EPs – one a piece in 2012, 2013, and 2014 – Tourist unveiled his debut album, U, last month. “You get one chance at your first album,” Phillips explained recently over Skype, “so you might as well take time.” Today he’s revealing the video for “Too Late” exclusively on Billboard. The clip hints at Tourist’s bright, stark live set-up, and it comes along with an announcement of a slew of new tour dates (see below).
Phillips spoke with Billboard about the importance of narrative on U and his decision to work without the help of big-name vocalists.
Was the release of this album delayed?
We just wanted to get it right. An album is never finished; it’s just abandoned. I thought it was finished, but it wasn’t. It went through a few revisions. That’s just me being a pernickety artist. Whether I annoyed my five fans or not, I don’t know. It’s my own label – I’m my best friend and my worst enemy. But I was alright with it. Having that freedom affords you the ability to be a bit self-indulgent when you put out records.
I spoke with you before you won your Grammy, and you talked at that time about how a bunch of the songs you wrote for the last EP were based around a breakup? Did that extend into the album?
A lot of those songs didn’t really make it onto the album, because I was looking around, and I just thought, there’s so many songs out there at the moment, and if I want to make some kind of statement, it might be nice to not have other people singing about my relationship. I suppose it’s an instrumental album, but I think of the music on there as songs. Even though there are very few lyrics, I’m trying to express a story lyrically. Doing it in the way I did – sampling my own voice and chopping up samples – it just felt a bit more interesting than trying to write songs with other people who maybe couldn’t relate to what I was going through and maybe didn’t want to be forced into writing about my breakup. That was the decision to make it more instrumental than about big songs and singles. I feel like what I tried to say, I said it a lot better.
What story were you trying to tell?
The arc of the album is about the story of meeting someone and then feeling in love and then feeling as though that’s slipping away and accepting it’s not right and moving on. I felt an impulse to try to make an album that was a story. I don’t know if my next one will be so narrative driven, but this one certainly was.
What’s the process like recording your voice and splicing it up?
I’m not a singer; I don’t have a great voice at all. The benefit of technology is that you can make your voice into something else. A lot of the album started with real sounds, and then I changed it into something slightly more digital and warped and strange. I’m not gonna be the guy that sits and plays the piano and has a beautiful voice that resonates with people. I wanted to find a few phrases that were meaningful. Things like “run,” “too late” – sing those, warp them so they didn’t sound like me but it still felt like they were coming from someone real.
I like how technology can change the feeling of a voice. You can make your voice sound like a male or a female, and that adds a sense of anonymity and a sense of inclusiveness to everything. I love messing around with sounds – it’s basically the reason I wake up in the morning. When you work for yourself and by yourself, you’re afforded such an indulgence in time. It’s about knowing when to stop a lot of the time. Going yeah, this is right, or no, this is wrong – those are the hardest decisions that any musician makes, whether to put energy into something.
How do you generally build songs?
“Run” I wrote the main synth melody on the piano. Then I sang the lyric in my bathroom. I sampled it, changed the piano to be a synth, and built the beats around that. There’s really no system. The goal is to make myself feel something. The one restriction I set on myself is that I want to feel something interesting, induce some kind of adrenaline in myself.
What was the revision process like when you pushed the release back?
A lot of the most important parts of albums are not actually the songs. It’s the transitions and how it moves. I still listen to albums in their entirety because I like the experience of feeling something over the course of 40 minutes instead of four. When you go back and change the track listing, you’re changing the story of how you feel. It’s difficult to trust your instincts, but my instincts always seem to work out. I took things off that I thought were really good, and I put some things on I wasn’t sure about. The creative process is such an elusive, scary, and beautiful thing at the same time. You just have to trust you’ll get there in the end.
Did you also write and produce for others while you were making this?
Yes, and that’s perhaps why the album was delayed as well. That’s always something I’ve enjoyed doing. I’m always busy – it’s nice. You have to keep working on different things. You never know what might end up inspiring you for your own thing. It’s always valuable. There’s never a right or wrong time to write an album. You just have to get on with it. I’ve started writing my second already, and it’s exciting me more than my first one, which is a strange feeling. If I’m not gonna write it now, when am I gonna write it?
Check out Tourist’s full list of live dates below.
June 12 – London, England @ Field Day
June 19 – Dufur, OR @ What The Festival
June 24 – Milan, Italy @ Episode #1
June 25 – Perk, Belgium @ Paradise City Festival
June 30 – Sibiu, Romania @ Airfield Festival
July 02 – Amsterdam, The Netherlands @ Pitch Festival
July 14 – Scranton, PA @ Camp Bisco
July 15 – Louisville, KY @ Forecastle Festival
July 22 – Oro-Medonte, ON @ WayHome Festival
July 23 – Seattle, WA @ Capitol Hill Block Party
July 24 York, NY @ Panorama
Aug 04 – Charlbury, UK @ Cornbury Park
Aug 06 – Oxfordshire, UK @ Wilderness Festival
Aug 10-17 – Budapest, Hungary @ Sziget Festival
Aug 18-20 – St Pölten, Austria @ FM4 Frequency Festival
Aug 25 – Sydney, Australia @ Oxford Art Factory
Aug 26 – Melbourne, Australia @ Howler
Sep 10 – Isle of Wight, UK @ Bestival
Sep 14 – Chicago, IL @ Bottom Lounge
Sep 17 – Montreal, CAN @ Belmont
Sep 21 – Washington, DC @ U Street Music Hall
Sep 22 New York, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
Sep 23 – Cambridge, MA @ Middle East
Sep 24 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Foundry
Sep 27 – Atlanta, GA @ Aisle 5
Sep 29 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
Sep 30 – Austin, TX @ The Parish
Oct 01 – Dallas, TX @ RBC Speakeasy
Oct 06 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
Oct 07 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey
Oct 08 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
Nov 29 – Brighton, UK @ Patterns
Nov 30 – Leeds, UK @ Wardrobe
Dec 01 – Bristol, UK @ Marble Factory
Dec 02 – London, UK @ Oval Space