After years of playing catch up, Louis Tomlinson is finally two steps ahead of himself.
The former One Direction member’s solo career thus far has seen him adopting a trial-and-error approach to discovering the exact formula that would bring out the best of him as a leading musician. He tested the post-band waters early on with collaborations that adhered more to what he thought was expected of him, then packaged his understanding of grief, resilience, and romance into his self-reflective debut album Walls. He only got to perform two live shows after the record’s January 2020 release before the pandemic sent him packing, but those stops in Barcelona and Madrid were enough for him to realize that was the secret ingredient: the fans, the volume, the energy.
Tomlinson kept the prospect of presenting his follow-up, Faith in the Future, to an audience at the front of his mind while creating the album, but he also gave himself the grace to allow the record to come to him in creative waves, rather than racing to an impending finish line. He didn’t need to catch up to where he, or anyone else, thought he should be: It was more a matter of coming to an understanding of a clear, cohesive goal and mapping out a blueprint to achieve it.
What emerged from Tomlinson’s intuitive writing and recording process was a pop/rock-oriented collection of songs that the singer says refueled his confidence and added layers of depth to the musical presentation of his mind’s inner workings. With the sophomore solo set arriving today (Nov. 11), the singer-songwriter answered Billboard’s 20 questions about communicating his creative vision to new collaborators, maintaining an authentic connection with his fans, and leaving ego out of his songwriting and live shows.
1. You’re in the process of filming a documentary – do you have a favorite music documentary that you’ve seen?
They’ve done two or three, but there’s an amazing Red Hot Chili Peppers one on YouTube, forget what it’s called. They’re making one of the albums. As a music fan, [it’s] just really, really interesting to watch through the process — and especially, you know, a band that are very different to anything I’ve ever experienced. So really inspiring and interesting.
2. How does the process of capturing your life on film contextualize how you reflect on your growth and progress?
It’s funny, really, because any time I’ve been watching different edits of it, you look at it in quite a clinical manner. You’re very aware that it’s you and it’s your story. But I think at the moment, because it’s kind of not finished, you’re looking with different eyes. So I’m sure once it’s finished and I really take all those emotions in, that it will be interesting, definitely. But at the moment, yeah, I’m just a little bit more clinical trying to work out exactly how to mold it.
3. How has using emotion and honesty in your songwriting gotten you to the point of being able to write a song like “Chicago,” or to incorporate reflections on platonic relationships like on “That’s the Way Love Goes”?
That’s always been like me bread and butter, really – honesty within lyric. But I suppose I’ve used it in different ways over the years. I think for me, especially on this record, I didn’t want to make everything feel like a romantic love song. And there’s a way of talking about love without feeling so soppy and f–king romantic — like, look how we do on “That’s the Way Love Goes.” You’re talking to a friend who’s going through something about a relationship and still there’s an element of love in there, you know?
But I think it was just about me expressing myself and trying to think with a little bit more depth. I think it’s the easiest concept to come up with, probably – love songs. But I think I wanted to be broader on this record. I wanted to say more. I wanted to have more interesting concepts. But I do think honesty, it’s always kind of come naturally to me. What I did a little bit different on this record was I tried to write a little bit outside of myself and looking at other people and people’s situations, or imagining a different situation. So not writing completely from personal experience, trying to be broader with that.
4. What was the experience of creating Faith in the Future like in comparison to Walls?
I think that was a lot of me working out who I was coming out of the band. And it’s not to say I wasn’t true to myself in the band, but I was in that band and I was part of that band – it wasn’t just me. It took a second to me to work that development stage out, whereas I think I did have a clearer picture on this record. And writing the first album, I can’t remember the period of time that I wrote it, but it was a long period of time from when I wrote the first song, which I believe was “We Made It” to the last song, which was maybe “Only the Brave.” That was a long time in between that, and it meant that I didn’t really build up any momentum.
I’m immensely proud of those songs, but at times when I listen to the album, it kind of lacks that consistency and fluidity. And that’s because, you know, when I was writing the songs, it was over a big chunk of my life. Lots of stuff happening to me. So at times it was moving around conceptually. Whereas I think this record, every song is about something slightly different. But I think there is something, there’s the element of change that keeps coming back. There’s definitely a lot of nostalgia in there, because I’ve been thinking about getting older and all that kind of thing. So I think there is a kind of invisible concept that ties it all together, if you know what I mean.
5. Who are your dream collaborators?
I think it probably wouldn’t be a traditional collaboration. I mean, maybe like, a cool guitarist on the record or a co-producer who produced some of the albums that I love. I mean, Mike Crossey, he was kind of that guy – he produced “Bigger Than Me” and a few of the songs, you know, he’s worked with a lot of the bands that I grew up listening to. I’ve never really got me eye on collaborations, I think, ‘cause I did a bit at the start of me career. Now, it’s more about showing who I am. I’m sure I’ll come back around to that, but my brain’s not really on that wave at the moment.
6. Tell me about how you chose your collaborators for this record. What’s the most important aspect of an artist-producer relationship for you?
Well, first, I wanted to work with people who make the music that I really love listening to, and that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve also not been lucky enough to be in those rooms before this album, mainly. So the benefit of working with artists and producers that work within the space that A) I want to be in and B) that I listen to, obviously just everything just feels more natural. And also, even getting in the room with these people, it builds your confidence. You feel good about what you’re doing. And so in terms of the process, it wasn’t quite as regimented this time around.
When we wrote “She Is Beauty We Are World Class, “Saturdays,” “Silver Tongues” — it was over like three or four days. There was no rushing around for anything. Just when we wanted to write, we wrote. Because it’s difficult sometimes when you sit down in a session and you’re working from 9:00 til 5:00 and you think, “I need a song by the end of the day.” It kind of stains the air creatively. So it was nice with this album having the flexibility of taking the time with each song and not forcing and just letting it come naturally.
7. Because you had that space to experiment, were there trial and error moments where you tried something out that you thought maybe might work but didn’t as well as you thought it would?
For me, it was more in reverse. It was more about taking a risk musically, listening back to it and thinking, “Well, at the time that felt like a risk, but actually listening back, I think I can go further and further and further and further.” And that’s kind of the way that I worked with this record. There wasn’t necessarily anything that we tried that didn’t work out. I haven’t really thought about it, but I suppose I’m pretty lucky.
I think it’s because there was an element of trial and error — but it was much more trial and error on the first record. Whereas this, I had a clear idea of what I wanted, and because I had the live show fresh in my mind, I’m trying to create these interesting live moments. So I just had a much clearer picture in my head.
8. How do you go about communicating that idea of the live show to the people that you’re in the studio with in order to bring that to life?
It’s another massive benefit of working with artists. They know what it feels like to be on stage. They know about that connection, they know how important it is — they understand a setlist, they understand different moments in the show, etc., etc.. It’s a really natural thing. And also, you know, even not as artists, we’ve all as music fans had great experiences going to watch live music. So it’s just drawing on all those memories, really, and trying to capitalize on the unbelievable atmosphere of every show. The crowd. I’m so f—ing lucky to have such a great crowd at every show, so I wanted to make a record to match that.
9. Does that more live-oriented, industrial, Brit-rock sound communicate something through the music that a more structured kind of pop couldn’t?
For me, it goes back to what I kind of grew up listening to and still listen to today. I think on my first records, I was slightly closed-minded in terms of the sounds that I used. And I think it was important for me on this record to be more interesting sonically. And also, you know again, that serves the live show, that’s going to give more depth to the live show. So it was definitely a conscious decision while still trying to maintain an identity that kind of runs throughout the record.
10. What was the last song you listened to?
Let me have a look, I think you’ve got a history these days, don’t you? On your Apple Music? This better be f–king good now. Oh, “Notion,” Kings of Leon.
11. What’s your favorite album to listen to from top to bottom?
AM [by] Arctic Monkeys has got to be up there. Probably [their] Favourite Worst Nightmare, as well. Those two albums were absolutely massive for me growing up, so yeah, let’s go with them. Trying to think of a more recent one. The Snuts’ debut album, I absolutely loved. I loved their follow up as well.
12. You’ve gotten some pushback a couple of times from bands and artists in the more “alternative” or “indie” space for championing that music and trying to make space for those artists where you can while coming from a pop background. How do you think about the role that ego plays in an industry like this?
Maybe that’s just the nature of the beast. You know, I could sit here and say, “I wish it wasn’t there,” but I think it’s maybe always going to be there, to a degree. And there’s times where it frustrates me, but there’s also definitely times where it really f–king motivates me, you know — definitely gives me something to work towards in breaking down these perceptions and preconceived ideas that people have. Just because I was in a band then doesn’t mean that that’s me now. And you know, [there are] definitely times where it does my head in, but at the same time I like the challenge.
13. What does authenticity mean to you, and what do you think it means to your audience?
I think musically it would be hard to put it down to one thing. I think where it’s easier to kind of see is when there isn’t authenticity. Sometimes you can’t put your finger on exactly what that is. You know, it’s kind of a collective intention. It’s within the lyrics, it’s within your concepts, it’s within the way you dress. And that kind of builds up this image. I would even say that the authenticity stretches as far as my relationship with the fans – it’s incredibly authentic and incredibly rewarding, I think, for both of us.
I think it’d be hard to really just explain it in one thing, but I don’t really know any other ways. It’s kind of like, if you’re brave enough, it’s the easiest way to operate. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s sometimes a challenge. There’s definitely days where you get kind of tested. But you just kind of got to stay strong-willed and stay authentic. I think that’s the most important thing as a musician.
14. What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?
Probably [playing] festivals. I have a lot of great memories there as a music fan. Love spending time there.
15. Faith in the Future feels very conversational at times, while also maintaining a sense of introspection. How do you carve out a space for yourself while also leaving room for your fans to find themselves in the music, too?
That was important for me. I mean, conversational lyric – honest and conversational – is what comes naturally to me, lyrically. I wanted to write a little bit more metaphorically at times, like there’s definitely lyrics within “Silver tongues” that I think sound kind of random, but they meant something to us at the time. The first record, I explained what everything was about – but I also made it specifically only about me and my experiences. And exactly what you just said, I wanted to open up and give the fans room within these concepts that of course I can relate to, but so they can as well and it doesn’t just become completely autobiographical. Because, to be honest, that’s a little bit ego-driven, innit?
16. How are you approaching blending the worlds of Walls and Faith in the Future for the live shows next year?
Speculatively thinking about what this set might look like, I imagine it’ll be about 70% new songs, 30% Walls. It might even be more new songs than that and less of Walls. I like to do a long set anyway, but I’ll probably still do a One Direction tune — I enjoy doing them. We did a different version of “Night Changes” recently. It’s fun to reshape those songs and make them kind of fit in line with where I’m at musically.
In terms of the show, for me, the crowd do all the heavy lifting and I’ve just got to do a bit of singing and just enjoy it as much as I do. It’s my favorite thing to do. But honestly, the show is going to feel like a level-up this next tour. Musically, it’s going to be better. But honestly, the show lives with me and the fans and that connection. I imagine if I was, you know, a friend or a parent who came to one of the shows, that’s what they would come away from it thinking, and that definitely makes me really proud.
17. Which artists, dead or alive, would you love to see live?
Well, I mean, it’s really generic and obvious to me to say, but I was never lucky enough to see Oasis together. And I would have absolutely loved that.
18. When you’re looking backwards, there’s grief, and regret, and memories. But when you’re looking forwards, there’s a lot of uncertainty, but also optimism, hopefully. What keeps you grounded from spending too much time looking in any one direction?
I’d say I am an optimistic person, so my optimism probably helps with that. Because I think, you know, even when we get emotional on this record, I think there’ll be something within the sound of the production, there’ll be a lyric, there’ll be a melody that just kind of is there to inspire hope. So even when it gets a little bit darker emotionally, there is that hope at the end of it. And that was important for me across this record, really. In terms of staying grounded, I’ve just got a good group of people around me. I’m lucky for that. It makes everything a little bit more bearable.
19. When you think about legacy and impact – when you look back on your career years and years down the line – what do you want to be the most defining element of all that you’ve done?
I think actually, as much as this album is about the fans and about those live moments — when I listen back to this album, even today, what makes me proud is this is the record I want to make and I always wanted to make. So if I still have that feeling in two years, which I imagine I will, that’s how I want to remember it individually. That will definitely give me confidence for the rest of my career. And it already has. I really feel comfortable in what I’m doing and again, it all comes back to the fanbase. They’re the people who allow me to do what I want to do.
20. You have a 31st birthday coming up soon. What have your thirties taught you about yourself so far?
F–king hell, I’ve only been thirty for some months. What’s it taught me about meself? Maybe that I need to grow up a little bit.