Tom Williams is troubled. Those sixth album blues? An empty feeling after his first major label release? Troublesome pupils in the five schools across East Sussex and Kent at which he teaches songwriting and guitar?
None of the above. The singer-songwriter hasn't written a song in – wait for it – six weeks.
By any reasonable creative measure, that's no biggie. But Williams is a songwriter's songwriter. It's a craft over which he obsesses, and the love of which he passes on with wide-eyed, fleet-fingered passion to his child charges. We could call him the inspirational captain-my-captain of a Home Counties Dead Songwriters' Society. But that would be cheesy, so let's not.
And yet: Williams' gilded facility with the form has seen him build up a passionate fanbase over the ten years in which he's released albums first as Tom Williams & The Boat, then under "just" his name. It's won him much love amongst the discerning ear-wranglers at BBC 6 Music, who voted his last album, 2017's All Change, one of the Top Ten of the year.
And it's also won him the support of another melody-loving craftsman: Tim Rice-Oxley, the songwriter at the heart of Keane. He's come onboard to A&R, produce and generally shepherd What Did You Want To Be?, Williams robustly melodic, richly emotional and, at two or three judicious moments, richly rollicking sixth album.
Considering all that – and bearing in mind that Williams has come up with 200 songs over the last 18 months – a month-and-a-half without putting pen to paper or finger to fret feels like an unconscionably long "dry" patch.
Seriously, though – 200?
"Yeah, but they're all shit!" Williams laughs. "Since 2012 I've written about 100 songs for each album."
One in ten, then, is a keeper, dredged from notebooks, scraps of paper and the depths of voicenotes on his phone. That's a pretty good hit-rate, albeit – by others' standards – one requiring a phenomenal output.
But Williams wouldn't have it any other way. He's always looking for songs, and songs are always looking for him. And equally, he's always searching for new ways to inspire and be inspired.
Take New House, the acoustic album he made with his pianist/cellist wife Sarah Maycock in 2014. Or take All Change. "That was made genuinely by mistake," he begins.
"I was at Leeds Beckett University doing an artist-in-residence placement and I had to be in a studio for a week, recording covers by way of showing students how to do a recording session. I got permission to bring my own songs in, and we ended up a making a record. Eighteen months later we got that nod from 6 Music. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before."
And now, for his next (ad)venture… Core to the thrill of What Did you Want To Be? is Williams' collaboration with Rice-Oxley. In his studio in the Sussex countryside he introduced Williams to his Twenty Song Day exercise: a 12-hour shift requiring roughly two new songs written each hour (and an hour for lunch).
Williams, who undertook three such days, admits that you quickly empty yourself of ideas. "You've said everything that's in your brain, and soon you're doing automatic writing."
But as Rice-Oxley explains, "it doesn't matter what you come up with – it's about being creative quickly. It's breaking through the voice that tell you what's wrong your ideas."
Three songs on What Did You Want To Be? arose in those session. Some Time is a stop-you-in-your-tracks acoustic song coloured with Mellotron about a childhood friend's battles with psychosis. Stay Afloat is a pacy, almost galloping number on which Williams' vocal is double-tracked, sounding higher and lighter, evoking the modern Seventies Americana of Midlake.
Then there's Keeping It In, placed purposefully next in the running order by this champion of the architecture of a two-sided vinyl album.
"Sonically, that and Stay Afloat songs have the most of Tim on them – all those synth sounds. We both love Lucky Town- Tunnel of Love-era Springsteen, Dire Straits and War on Drugs… You say, ‘I love the synth on Born in the USA', and Tim goes: ‘Oh, I've got that synth!' He's as big a nerd with all that stuff as me."
It's Dark Now is another of the punchier tracks, Williams' game attempt to rewrite Street Fighting Man, from the mean streets of Hastings.
"It's got an immediacy that the other songs don't have. It harks back to my first album, What's The Story, bought on cassette, aged eight. And it's got a bit of The Who, it's straight down the line, and it was written in about 30 seconds."
There's more synth invention – "an organ drone!" – on Early Morning Rain, the first song written for the album and pegged as the album's first single. It's an empathetic, not to mention killer-catchy, song about mental health, the worries of your thirties (Williams is 32), the pressures of family, the pressures of life.
There's a different kind of reflection on Rock'N'Roll, as in "I don't believe in rockn'roll any more…" It's the sound of Williams' love of Tom Petty and The War On Drugs in full bloom, and it stands up with the best of either of those artists.
"That's not me, that's my alternate universe," he explains of the lyrics. "That's everyone I was in bands with ten years ago who aren't in bands any more, and don't go to gigs. It's my story until the third verse – the guy sitting in the pub watching the new bands load in, saying all music is shit. He's wounded and heartbroken 'cause it didn't work out for him. I think about the Tunbridge Wells Forum when I think of that song," he says affectionately.
But that guy definitely isn't Tom Williams.
"I'm so grateful that I still get to do play music – not through success, but through bloody mindedness," he grins.
Pushed for a favourite track on the album, Rice-Oxley plumps for album opener Run Down – "for pure catchiness," he says of a song on which Williams was inspired by a lyric from The National. "It's still going round my head six months later. It's just a great pop song. One of those annoying ones where you listen to the demo and think: ‘Shit, I wish I'd written that.' That's always a good sign.
"And Dawned on Me Is a great song at the heart of the record," he adds of a track that features Williams' wife on backing vocals. Its a mea culpa, a love song, to his partner after he'd been so wrapped up in "all my music and tour shit". As Rice-Oxley says, "you can really build emotionally round that."
And as for the album title…
"It's a question I've been asked by kids I've taught," Williams explains. "What kids mean when they ask that is: did it go to plan? And: am I gonna be OK? So these songs have a lot of stuff about your trajectory, or how you're not on the one you thought you'd be on – even though I absolutely love my job and can't believe I get to do what I want to do."
Sparkling and insightful, inspiring and comforting, warm and tender, rocking and rolling and soothing, What Did You Want To Be? is exactly the album Tom Williams wanted to make. One week, one studio, a wingman-mentor, his five-piece live band – Jack Clayton (drums), Jake Mehew (keys), Igor Dall'Avanzi (bass), Ant Vicary (guitar) – and 11 pitch-perfect songs.
That adventure, and adventurousness, will further be explored in a podcast Williams is recording, to be released alongside the album. In it he discusses What Did You Want To Be?'s journey to life with the producers, mixers, musicians, sleeve designers and video makers who helped make this stoutly collaborative "solo" album.
"There's a bloodymindedness to this record," he says proudly. "It's the sound of a band making a recording quickly, with some good songs. It was just Tim and us, we knew what we wanted, we knew the references, we worked incredibly quickly, we recorded it all live, and it was all finished within eight months of the last record coming out. If you've got momentum, and the songs…" he shrugs.
"That for me is the romance of all this," Tom Williams concludes. "To teach, to work with someone like Tim, to write songs like these, to put it out on my own label. I feel totally blessed and fortunate."
‘What Did You Want To Be?' is released March 29, 2019 on Wire Boat Recordings
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