"Sex and death," Will Phillips says to me five minutes after we've met. "That's all there is to life, really." While I've come to his studio in Hackney to talk about the fact that he's just been nominated for a Grammy for his co-writing credit on former FADER cover star Sam Smith's mega-hit "Stay With Me" (along with songwriter Jimmy Napes), Phillips is always thinking on a much bigger scale. He's quick to zoom out and flip a question on its head, talking about his relationships, his values, and about humanity at large. The fact that he's about to head out to L.A. to one of the industry's most prestigious awards ceremonies is almost the last thing on his mind.
His distraction is understandable. Today, Phillips been holed up in his windowless studio composing a piece of piano music for his grandmother, who passed away this week, and whose funeral he's going to miss while he's away. He wanted to stay with his family, he tells me, but his dad was insistent: "My dad's quite stubborn. He was like, 'you're not going to miss the Grammys.'" So instead, he's sending a piece of himself to the service in musical form.
While the success of "Stay With Me" has rocketed Phillips to a platform he'd never dreamed of entering so quickly, he only really lights up when we get talking about the debut album he's been writing for his solo project, Tourist. Full of soulful 2-step, field recordings and introspection, U is an album that falls distinctly between the bedroom and the dancefloor, made for meandering journeys. When we chat about his Grammy nod, he seems almost distant, but once we listen to some music and get our teeth into sampling, Impressionism and, hell, the meaning of life (slightly more than just sex and death, he concludes in the end), that's when Tourist comes alive.
What does being nominated for a Grammy mean to you? It doesn't mean anything. I mean, it's lovely. But you know, honors that people bestow upon people, they don't mean anything. It's a compliment, of course, but I don't define myself by those compliments. I didn't set out to get nominated for a Grammy. I think it's hilarious. I'm intensely proud of Sam, and intensely proud of Jimmy, but I don't care about people giving me Grammys—I care about writing good music. [Institutions] don't mean much. They're great, but people love them because they help define things, and they help define achievement and quantify excellence. That's cool. But, you know, Leonardo DiCaprio has never won an Oscar.
Tell me about the writing process of "Stay With Me." It's very strange. Because I never had the intention of being a songwriter. I know the Disclosure guys, I know their management—they publish my music—and one of the people they also manage is Sam [Smith]. So they said to me, do you want to go and write a song with this guy Sam? So I did. It was half an hour. We had a Pizza Express in between. That was it. It was not a big deal, it was just a raw distillation of an idea. I just played the piano.
"They said to me, do you want to go and write a song with this guy Sam? It was half an hour. We had a Pizza Express in between."
Jimmy Napes told me that the album sessions with Sam could get pretty emotional. Yeah, Sam is an intensely emotional person. He feels a lot. I think I'm quite emotional too—I have three sisters, and I think I'm quite well-versed in not being afraid to be emotional. I think I was always quite scared of my emotional side, growing up. Because it was always so prevalent in me, and I thought, "is that wrong?" But actually no, it's fine to cry at a song, dude.
Tell me about the album you're working on—will it make people cry? I've been writing this album for about a year. Well, I started writing it, and then it changed very drastically, because I felt as though I was almost pushing myself in the wrong direction. My life in the last year has changed: I was in a relationship for four years, with the first girl I ever fell in love with. We broke up in April last year, and I had started writing my album towards the end of our relationship. I'd written all this music, but it wasn't honest. They were good songs—they could be marketable songs—but ultimately I get one chance at writing a first album, so it might as well have some emotional resonance with me. So I wrote all this music and then I went, yeah, this isn't right. I then started completely changing the album, not into a break-up album, but it's reflections of four years of being with someone.
If you're not interested in honors, what does make you feel proud or accomplished? I'm proud that I didn't write the album that I was almost going to, because it really wasn't honest. You can cobble together a bunch of songs, post-Disclosure and pop-house, and you can say, "he's the new Disclosure guy!" But I'm not interested in doing that. I want to do something that's meaningful. I can't write house music, I can only do 2-step. I would be so ashamed of myself if I'd gone and written a record that was like, feature, feature, feature. That worked for Sam and Disclosure, but I've tried not to be that guy—not because I don't respect it, but because it's not really me.
Are you very involved in writing the lyrics on your songs? Yeah! Olly [of Years & Years] came to the studio, and we wrote this really lovely tune, but it was just a bit boring. I think I was trying to write "Get Free" by Major Lazer, which is one of my favorite records. I tried to write that, and it didn't work. Olly came in the next day, and I said I wanted to do something bright and colorful. So we wrote "Illuminate" [listen above], and that song's about how I always used to feel like I'd pissed off my ex-girlfriend, and I'd never know what I was doing wrong. And that was so frustrating. The lyrics are obvious, because I can't be Mr Metaphor. I'd rather be straight up. Robyn is one of my favorite artists. I love her—she has a way of saying the obvious, but not obviously.
"I can't be Mr Metaphor. I'd rather be straight up."
It seems like you're comfortable expressing yourself non-lyrically. I love making a collage that becomes more than the sum of its parts. Like Matisse, man. I love non-linear ways of communicating, I love sampling... The first tune on the album has the sound of me walking from my old flat to my studio. It's about me walking away from things, and reflecting. One tune I did, I found this sample of me and my ex talking when we were on holiday together, and we were drunk, and I was just recording us chatting in a bar. I found this snippet of us just giggling. I wanted to write a song about the better times in our relationship, and I made it the interlude on the album.
You mention Matisse—what are your main non-musical influences? Yeah, in fact when I was at uni, I really enjoyed Impressionism. I was so stupid, I was like, "yeah, I'm gonna try and do music that's Impressionist." I was such a student. I also love Christopher Hitchens. I like people who write about the fact that there's no God, and that life is precious. Science. The history of humans. I'm really interested in all that stuff—it's something about the perspective it gives you. Knowing that 4.6 billion years ago Earth came about, and humans have been around for about 150,000 years. And about 2000 years ago we made religion. It just gives me such great perspective, and it makes me enjoy life so much.
How does that perspective affect your music? When you get to the point of realizing that life is—I sound like a wanker—life is right now, the past doesn't exist, it's just now, you kind of evaluate what's important. I think one of the most supreme things humans can do is create art that helps people question and understand life. Music is a wonderful bridge between commonality and singularity. There's no monopoly on ideas. That's such an inspiring thing. I love the idea of all the songs that don't exist yet. That's such an amazing thought. There was a point when Shakespeare didn't exist, and I bet people were sat there like, "everything's so boring." Imagine the things that can be expressed. I love that. It makes me want to wake up and sit here and play the piano, and be a self-indulgent loser.
Photo credit: James Lyndsey