Versatility has never been more valuable for musicians than it is now. If you can thrive in pop’s mainstream and also work on its fringes, you’re all but guaranteed to have a long and vital career.
William Phillips is one of these adaptable figures. On Sunday, he’s up for a Grammy award: Phillips co-wrote Sam Smith‘s “Stay With Me,” the track that helped propel the lithe-voiced Smith to a whopping six Grammy nominations, and one of a tiny handful of songs that defined 2014. Phillips is also credited as a writer on Jessie Ware‘s “Pieces,” a tender number from Ware’s excellent Tough Love album.
But writing for stars isn’t Phillips’ only gig — under the name Tourist, he also makes compelling dance music. The most recent Tourist EP, Patterns, came out last year. Songs like the title track and “Together” rifle through a potent mix of vocal house, UK garage, and a touch of gospel. The sound is lean and hungry, but nourishing at the same time.
Billboard caught up with Phillips before the Grammys to talk about his work with Smith and the first Tourist album, entitled U — which we can exclusively reveal is coming out this summer on Polydor/Interscope.
Are you excited about the Grammys?
It’s funny, I’ve kind of not been thinking about it, because as soon as I start thinking about it, my head goes a bit crazy. I have to start thinking about it soon because it’s approaching quickly! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I can’t wait to see Beyonce and Pharrell.
How did you get your start in music?
The only thing I can do is life is music. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been A) interested in or B) had some mild success in. All my earliest memories are of sitting and playing the piano. We had a rubbish old piano. I started playing when I was 3. A natural progression was just to start writing my own music — I started doing that when I was like 10 with a little keyboard that my dad got me for Christmas. I just sat there with my keyboard being a little anti-social early teen. I enjoyed it so much I just kept doing it. Music is everything to me. I just kept on doing it, and if you do something for long enough, you’re probably not going to be shit at it. [Laughs.] I think the fact that music’s my job now is solely a result of me having done it for so long. I think it would be embarrassing if I wasn’t doing it as a job now!
And when did you get into dance music?
I would listen to pirate radio stations on the Internet as a 12-year-old in Cornwall. I couldn’t go out clubbing, I listened to dance music in my bedroom — not usually the place that you [listen to that]. It spoke to me in less of a visceral, clubby way and more of a melodic, emotive way. I think that was an important part of defining the kind of music I write: listening to dance music in my bedroom as a 12-year-old.
And how did you end up meeting Jimmy Napes [the third writer on “Stay With Me”] and Sam Smith?
I had been writing music as Tourist for about three years. Someone wanted to manage me, and it turned out the people who wanted to manage me also managed Sam. They were like, “Before we manage you, why don’t we do some sessions? We’ve got this guy Sam Smith and this guy Jimmy.” So we sat in a session. I’d written with Jimmy a couple of times before I met Sam. Jimmy helped me write my third Tourist EP, and we really bonded over that. I got put in the studio with Sam and Jimmy — we didn’t have any expectations. We just wanted to meet each other. Did [“Stay With Me”] in about half an hour.
It seems like with “Stay With Me” and with your Tourist track “Patterns” that you’ve got an interest in gospel?
That’s an interesting observation — I think I’m doing that subconsciously. There probably is. Soul music! That’s what I love. In “Patterns,” the backing vocals are Sam Smith singing. Not many people know that. I always try and go for things that move me, and there’s not much more moving than a gospel choir. I’m like the least religious person on this planet. Maybe atheistic gospel music is something I could start doing. Maybe that’s my second album.
What’s your plan for the first full Tourist full-length?
I’ve been doing it for the last year or so — it’s been one hell of an experience. Each EP is an exploration — I responded to my surroundings. The first one, I just met my now ex-girlfriend. You can hear it; it’s happy and full of bright sparkly noises. My second EP, I’d moved back up to London and I was living with my mom, so I was kind of depressed. It’s a darker, weirder EP. There’s more at stake because I went separate ways with my manager so I was out on my own doing it. I set up my own record label and did it all myself. The third EP I wanted to write some songs!
My album is the best opportunity for me to show off all of those three sounds. The last thing I wanted to do is go and be like “Tourist Featuring –,” “Tourist Featuring –,” and write 12 pop records. I wanted to have a narrative, a story, something meaningful to me. My album is about my relationship that I had — the relationship that I thought was going to be forever. I started writing one album and I was like, this is wrong. So I took the step to tear it all up and go back to the drawing board. I’m recording the final bits of the album now over here in L.A. Sam’s meteoric rise has been unbelievable to watch, and while that’s been going on I’ve been doing my own record — it’s been such a funny year for me. Then you break up with your girlfriend of four years which is like the shittiest thing in the world. Ups and downs.
What felt wrong about the first attempt at the album?
I was just writing songs that could exist but didn’t really have any root in any meaningful place. I don’t think they were coming from Will Phillips. I don’t think I was really being honest with myself. I was not bold enough to write what I really should have written. It just didn’t feel write. I knew I was convincing myself that it was better than it was, and that’s a sinking feeling.
You’re playing Coachella this year, are you going to play some of the new stuff?
Absolutely. The next big record we’re putting out is one I’m excited about. That should be out and on the Internet and on the radio probably before the end of this month. We’ll be doing a little American tour. Lots and lots of new music. There’s so much I can’t wait to share with people — its just been sitting on my hard drive, and it deserves to be on other hard drives as well.
So if you win the Grammy, what are you and Sam going to do?
I cannot comprehend that. If I can win a Grammy, then literally anything can happen. I’m like the biggest loser on the planet. What am I going to do? I’m probably going to get quite drunk. Either way, the result is going to be getting drunk. I’m expecting I’m going to lose. Either I’m right and I lose or I’m surprised and I’m wrong, which is good.
A win-win situation.
Exactly, a win-win. There are very few situations in life where that’s the case. I’m looking forward to it for Sam, because he’s had such an unbelievable year and he deserves all of it. I don’t care about me winning — I hope he wins.