One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson: ‘I’ve been to rock bottom’
As the singer launches his solo career, he reflects on a series of personal tragedies
Louis Tomlinson: ‘I’ve turned something dark into something that empowers me.’ Photograph: Stephen Lovekin/Getty
After Louis Tomlinson’s recent show in Madrid, some fans got the chance to meet him. One girl wanted to talk to him about his song Two of Us , which he had written after the death of his mother. The girl had lost her dad, and wanted the singer to know how much his lyrics had meant to her. He’d never had that in his band One Direction, he says. “We wrote cool songs, but they were love songs. It only goes so far, and to have someone say that I could help them with my …” He pauses. “It blows my mind, that shit. I was proper proud.”
It has been a hard few years. Tomlinson’s mother died in 2016, just as he was about to launch his first solo single. In March this year, his 18-year-old sister was found unconscious at her flat in London and couldn’t be revived. We will come to that, but, professionally, Tomlinson was struggling too. One Direction – that supernova of a boy band – broke up in 2015. Or announced they were taking a break. Or “‘hiatus’ or whatever word we use”, he says with a smile.
At the time, Tomlinson, now 27, was finding his place as a songwriter. “I wasn’t singing a lot, I wasn’t the frontman. Without being a sorry little bastard, I thought: ‘How do I do better, how do I make something of myself, an identity?’” In the last 18 months of One Direction, he says, “I felt like I knew who I was in the band, and I felt a real worth for who I was.” The break up, he says, “rocked me. I wasn’t ready for it. I felt like I was getting to be a better songwriter, singer, a more confident performer, and all of a sudden, when I felt I was finally getting some momentum …”
After I lost my mum, every song I wrote felt, not pathetic, but that it lacked true meaning to me
We meet at a bar in north London. Tomlinson greets me with a hug as if I am one of his fans (I am not, particularly, although I am by the end). He seems open but not vulnerable, and more self-aware and modest than you would expect from a man who was once part of the biggest boy band in the world. He is friendly and relaxed, dressed in a black tracksuit, with a beer in front of him.
Tomlinson’s personal tragedies also meant his solo career has had a bit of a stop-start quality, but now it looks as if there is focus and momentum. He released his single Kill My Mind earlier this month; an album will follow next year. Kill My Mind is an indie-pop delight, not so huge a departure as to alienate his fanbase, but it sounds like the music he grew up listening to – Oasis and Arctic Monkeys – and his South Yorkshire accent brings more than a hint of Liam Gallagher-style northern vocals. He sounds confident on them, more so than on the previous singles he put out, a couple of fairly forgettable collaborations. “I think, in hindsight, that was me trying to find my place in the industry and making music I thought I had to make to get on radio.
“I had this epiphany when I was thinking about the music I grew up with,” he continues. “I kind of had a bit of a word with myself and worked out what I want – to be happy and proud of what I’m doing. I love those early singles, but I never really felt proud of them, because it didn’t feel too true to me.”
As a child, growing up in Doncaster with his mum Johannah, who raised him alone until she married Tomlinson’s stepfather, he loved performing. “I liked to be the class clown, I liked to make people laugh, to show off, all that.” When his younger twin sisters were cast on TV dramas, he would sometimes go along as their chaperone, earning £30. “Where I’m from, we don’t have anyone who’s been on TV or anything like that, so it was super-exciting,” he says. He ended up picking up work as an extra. “The pinnacle of my acting career was one line on an ITV drama. I don’t even know if they used my scene,” he says with a laugh.
When he was 15, he joined a drama group in Barnsley, which his mum would take him to when she could afford it. “I think I was confused, thinking I wanted to act when actually what I wanted to do was perform.”
At school he joined a band, where they sang Oasis and Green Day covers, and when X Factor came up, he made it on to the show in 2010 on his third attempt. He queued from 3am to make sure the producers wouldn’t have audition fatigue before they saw him, and he got his goal – to get in front of Simon Cowell “and just have a professional opinion on how I am as a singer. I was so flustered. Going from school performances to performing in front of professionals, TV cameras, a 3,000-strong audience. I wasn’t present. I sang terribly. I remember coming away from it thinking: ‘I wonder if I’ve got through as one of those lads who looks all right but isn’t really a good singer.’”
Yet he ended up in One Direction, the band the show put together in its 2010 series. For six years they sold tens of millions of records, broke America and each made a rumoured €50 million-plus fortune. Their fans, Directioners, are another level of devoted. I don’t know how he coped with the attention, or the pressure.
There were really only a few times when it got too much, says Tomlinson. They were in Australia and a local news station had got a helicopter and a photographer was trying to get pictures of Tomlinson in his top-floor hotel room. “I think I was naked, or just in my boxers, and even in my hotel room there was no escape. I could feel the pressure.” He tweeted about it – “your standard bratty celebrity tweet” – and was attacked. “At times it did stress me out but never was I allowed to whinge, allowed to be a human and say: ‘Today has got too much for me.’ I found that difficult at first.”
But he is keen not to sound as if he is complaining. “There was much more positive that outweighed that.” And he never blames the fans for their intensity. Theirs is a special relationship, he says. “So many people have bullshitted about what they feel about the fans, but they’re like family to me.”
Even when Directioners have got a bit too ardent – there is a conspiracy theory, for example, that he and his bandmate Harry Styles have long been in a secret sexual relationship – he seems more bemused by it than annoyed. Although he is wary, he says, of adding “fuel to the fire” by talking about it. “I know, culturally, it’s interesting, but I’m just a bit tired of it,” he says. The HBO drama Euphoria recently showed an animated sequence of Tomlinson and Styles together, as imagined by a smutty fan-fiction writer. Was it annoying that a show had taken something fairly niche and given it new mainstream life? “Again, I get the cultural intention behind that. But I think …” He trails off, trying to work out what he wants to say. “It just felt a little bit … No, I’m not going to lie, I was pissed off. It annoyed me that a big company would get behind it.”
Why does he think he never went off the rails during the band’s heady period? “My mates and my family, really. It’s from my upbringing and where I come from. If I went back to Doncaster and I was dripping in Gucci or whatever, I’d probably get whacked. I’m always very conscious of not acting too big for my boots. It’s the people around me who keep me sane and normal, because they give me insight into real life.” He lives with his girlfriend, Eleanor and his best friend, Oli. “Some celebrities, in pop in particular, only surround themselves with amazingness, and all they see is good, good, good, which is lovely, but you don’t understand the real world then. I have the luxury of my mates around me, just reminding me how fucking good I’ve got it, really.”
The day of One Direction’s final concert in November 2015, Tomlinson and his bandmate Niall Horan sat together “and had a little cry, because it was such a journey we had been on. That day in general was so poignant. As much as you try and prepare yourself, it’s a whole other thing when it comes.” Because they had worked so much with few days off, he assumed that a break would be exciting. “But it wasn’t like that. When you’re used to working however many days, it’s all that more evident when you’re not doing something. Especially in the first six months.” He spent time in Los Angeles with his son, who was born in 2016, after his relationship with a stylist, Briana Jungwirth. “My life became –and I don’t mean this to sound derogatory – very normal, from being a life of pure craziness.”
At the same time that Tomlinson was trying to work out what to do with himself, his mother, to whom he was intensely close, had been diagnosed with leukaemia; she died in December 2016. He performed his first single on The X Factor just a few days after her death, then seemed to half-heartedly continue with his solo career, releasing another single in 2017. It would be another two years – during which he became a judge on The X Factor – before he released Two of Us, a raw and beautiful (and under-rated) song.
“After I lost my mum, every song I wrote felt, not pathetic, but that it lacked true meaning to me,” he says. “I felt that, as a songwriter, I wasn’t going to move on until I’d written a song like that.” He knew he needed to get it out of him, but there was a lot of pressure – he felt he should be an experienced songwriter before he attempted it. Two songwriters he worked with played him the chorus. “It was like the song I always wished I’d written. I went in and put my personal touch to the verses. It was a real moment for me in my grief, and as part of the creative process, because it felt like it was hanging over me.”
Earlier this month, an inquest found that his sister Félicité had died of an accidental overdose; she had been taking drugs, including anxiety medication, since the death of their mother. He has been through some terrible times, I say, which must put a perspective on a pop career. “Exactly,” he says, a little quieter than before. “That whole dark side I’ve gone through, it sounds stupid to say, but it gives me strength everywhere else in my life, because that’s the darkest shit that I’m going to have to deal with. So it makes everything else, not feel easier and not less important, but, in the grand scheme of things, you see things for what they are, I suppose.”
His fans have been crucial, he says. “I’m sure every artist says this, but I do believe it. We’ve been through some dark times together and those things I’ve been through, they carry a weight, emotionally, on the fans as well. And I felt their love and support. I remember really clearly when I lost my mum, that support was mad.”
We’re not texting each other every day, but what we do have, which will never go away, is this real brothership. We’ve had these experiences that no one else can relate to
What have the experiences of loss he has been through taught him about himself? He thinks for a second. “I keep going back to it, but I don’t know if it’s a combination of where I grew up and my mum’s influence, but I just have this luxury of being able to see the glass half-full no matter what.” He is the oldest of his mother’s seven children, which is grounding and means, he says, “there’s no time for me to be sat feeling sorry for myself. I’ve been to rock bottom and I feel like, whatever my career’s going to throw in front of me, it’s going to be nothing as big or as emotionally heavy as that. So, weirdly, I’ve turned something that’s really dark into something that empowers me, makes me stronger.”
He gets up to go to the toilet, which I think is his polite way of asking me to move on, although when he gets back he says, by way of a final word on the matter, “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. That’s not how I feel for myself. Somehow it fuels me.”
One Direction will get back together one day, he believes. He still speaks to the others. “We’re not texting each other every day, but what we do have, which will never go away, is this real brothership. We’ve had these experiences that no one else can relate to.”
Styles has become quite the superstar. The others seem to have steady solo careers. Tomlinson says he’s embarrassed to admit that, when he first went solo, he would have been devastated had his album “only” reached No 3, so used is he to everything he did with One Direction going to the top. Is it hard not to measure himself against his former bandmates? “Oh, naturally,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. I’ve never been competitive like that, but, naturally, you think: ‘If they’re getting this then I deserve that.’ I think, the longer time goes on, I can see it for what it is and just be proud of them.” And success means something else to him now. “It means I’m happy with what I’m doing.” – Guardian
Kill My Mind, by Louis Tomlinson, is out now on Arista. His debut album will be released in 2020