Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you’ve heard Sam Smith’s ubiquitous smash “Stay With Me”. Sam Smith may be the face of the track, but he wasn’t the only one who created what would go on to be one of the biggest hits of last year. William Phillips, also known as Tourist, co-wrote the heartbreaker with Smith, and is currently nominated for the Song of the Year Grammy.
In Los Angeles for the awards, Tourist sat on the roof of the Ace Hotel and chatted about working with Sam, how the two met, and how he’s prepared to lose to Sia.
Congratulations on the nomination! How does that even feel?
It’s surreal. It’s not the kind of thing that happens to people like me. Bizarre. It’s ridiculous. I haven’t been able to comprehend it, and as soon as I do, I turn into this bumbling mess. It’s something I can tell my grandchildren when they think Will isn’t a cool grandad. I can say “Well, you know, I was once nominated for a Grammy.”
Where were you and how did you find out you were nominated?
I was on tour with Annie Mac, and we were going around England to a number of satellite cities. We were in one called Bournemouth, which is on the south coast. I was at a service station on a motorway and I saw that Pitchfork had announced the nominees. I looked at it and was like “Fuck!” I couldn’t believe it. I bought a bottle of prosecco from the gas station, which felt like the right thing to do. We drank it on the tour bus. I would have liked to say I sat on the rooftop in Los Angeles like we are now, but you’re not always doing that, are you?
It seems like many artists find out that they’re nominated in very unfashionable ways, especially when you consider that these are the Grammys we’re talking about.
It’s kind of poetic. I quite like it. You might be nominated for a Grammy, but you still need to get gas.
Exactly. You must know by now that most critics are saying that yours is the song that’s going to win, right?
No, I didn’t. I haven’t paid attention to that actually.
Well, sorry to have ruined that for you.
Critics and whatever, all I care about is that Sam has a career. I love writing music, and that’s what matters. A Grammy is a bizarre, bizarre compliment that I can’t get my head around. I’m preparing my gracious loser applause. I’m assuming I’m going to lose, so either I’m right and I lose, which is cool because I was right, or I’m wrong and I’m surprised.
How long have you been practicing that face and clapping?
I think it’s actually a fairly big part of my ingrained personality. I’m quite good at it, as I’m pretty used to it. It’s very self-deprecating.
That’s a British thing.
Absolutely. It’s the least LA thing in the world. How do you feel about being in the same category as your fellow nominees? Sia is one of my personal favorites. She should win. “Chandelier” is an unbelievably wonderful piece of music. I’d be incredibly happy for her if she won it. The whole thing is crazy, as is Sam’s rise. It’s meteoric. We wrote that song about two years ago in about half an hour in a little studio in London. We grabbed pizza before. That song came from the most humble place. From there to here is just crazy.
How did you two meet?
I do my songwriting stuff, but I also put out my own music as Tourist. I had put out an EP from my label, and Disclosure’s management got in touch with me. They had just started working with Sam on “Latch”, and they said they loved my music and asked if I wanted to come work with some of their artists. It was Disclosure, Sam, and Jimmy [Napier]. Jimmy and I had worked on my third EP Patterns, and we became really good friends. He’s a really good dude.
After that session with Jim, they wanted me to work with Sam. There were no expectations, because he already had a load of really good records for his album. It all came about because of my Tourist music. It was a really enjoyable day of writing.
Since the song blew up and became one of the biggest in the world, I’m sure you’ve had quite a few people reach out about writing with them.
The funny thing is that because I have this double life, both as an artist and a songwriter, I’ve been too focused on my own project that I haven’t had a chance to do many songwriting sessions. I’ve been trying to finish my own record. Being here in LA for the last week or so, I’ve been writing with loads of really cool people.
Anyone we might know?
No, not really, and that was a conscious effort on my part. Some really exciting young people. They’re already fully-formed musicians in their heads.
So you’re not really trying to necessarily make more global hits then?
I love writing songs. I think if the goal is hits, then the game is quite difficult. I mean, who doesn’t want to write a successful record? It’s more about the way you achieve it, and all I care about is working with people who are meaningful and who have a clear vision for what they want to do. If that’s Rihanna, great! If that’s some unknown rapper somewhere, that’s also great. It doesn’t matter. There’s no monopoly on ideas or talent and that’s the really cool thing. I’m always going to want to write music that then allows me to write more music.
If you could choose anyone in the world to write with, who would that be?
I really love Robyn.
Now that would be a hit record.
Oh, who knows! I feel like I know her, and that’s the true test of an artist. Real artists give a piece of themselves that makes you feel like you know them. She’s done that to me. I feel like I could have a really good conversation with her. Her music speaks to me so much. Stylistically it’s really similar to the Tourist music I’m making.
Was “Stay With Me” influenced by anything in your life?
The concept of that song was really Sam and Jimmy. I think Sam feels on a whole other level. His job is to feel.
He seems to feel quite a bit.
Yes, yes he does. I was talking to him about Irish folk music and the chords in it, and he said the chord change I played was beautiful. My job there was the music stuff. The concept of the lyrics for “Stay With Me” was not based on anything from my life. That was definitely Sam.
So he came in and was like “I had this experience, and now I need to get it out.”
I think most people can relate to the vulnerable side of being human. That feeling of needing someone and of just wanting to be with someone. I think it’s a beautiful moment of fragility.