Music interview – Tokio Myers: ‘I don’t think this is something I could have ever dreamt or planned for’

Tokio Myers
Tokio Myers
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Tokio Myers isn’t joking when he says the past 12 months have been “beyond anything” he could ever have imagined.

Some £250,000 in prize money for winning Britain’s Got Talent, a debut album which went straight into the top five, selling more than 60,000 copies in the process, plus an appearance at the Royal Variety Show cemented his reputation as one of 2017’s biggest breakthrough artists.

Such success, he says, has been “especially” gratifying for an instrumentalist. “I don’t rap or sing,” the 33-year-old pianist from north London notes. “I don’t think this is something I could have ever dreamt or planned for, so just to find myself here, with a top five album, is beyond anything.”

He believes his album Our Generation could be a “game-changer” thanks to its eclectic musical approach. “Just bridging all of these types of genres together has never been done before,” he says. “You’ve got Jools Holland who’s a jazz pianist, maybe Jamie Cullum dabbles with commercial music next to jazz but I think if someone listens to this record every track is pretty much different.

“You’ve got solo piano tracks which are very much cinematic, like Polaroid and Limitless, and you’ve got To Be Loved which is drum and bass mixed with piano and then Children, the Robert Miles cover, and then Angel and Bloodstream, they’re all so different. What I mean is I don’t think anyone’s put an album out like that before and that’s not just coming from me, that’s actually coming from the public and people who’ve been messaging. That’s the vibe – that it is definitely different to anything anyone’s ever heard. I’m quite proud to do that.”

The first taste that the public at large might have got of Myers’ music might have been during three performances that left Simon Cowell open-mouthed on Britain’s Got Talent but the pianist had actually been developing his act while performing in London shopping malls.

Tokio Myers

Tokio Myers

“When I started playing in shopping centres originally it was just me and a piano,” he says. “I was doing a lot of commercial covers and stuff that people recognised. I also included some popular classical pieces as well, like Für Elise. Maybe a year or so into playing shopping malls I discovered the drum pad – which is a piece of equipment for drummers, they use sticks to play it – and I bought this equipment. I didn’t have a clue how it worked or how I was going to get from two hands on a piano to doing something else – playing piano’s quite hard as it is – but I just had fun.

“With sample machines you have to put your own sounds in there, so I was just playing around. I would say it took me a year or maybe two to get my head around it but all I was doing was covers, there wasn’t much original material.”

Back in his teens Myers’ piano playing abilities had earned him a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. For a young man – born Torville Jones – from working-class roots, who was educated at state school, the experience was eye-opening.

“For such a long time I was always the best pianist in my school and all of a sudden you turn up to a place where all of the other guys had been to music school and they were amazing at what they did,” he says. “Maybe there was an initial shock but it made me decide to work even harder than before because I wanted to be at the top of my level. It was actually a good thing to experience and I had a great time.”

It knocked me out, it floored me – that’s how it felt. I couldn’t believe when my name got called and to have Britain, a nation like us, support what I do, I think it was definitely one of the highlights of 2017.

Tokio Myers

After college he worked as a session musician, playing at major festivals and touring Europe at one stage with pop/soul band Mr Hudson and the Library.

Myers says his decision to go solo was prompted by a feeling that he’d “gained as much as [he] could as a session player”.

“I’d played with the late Amy Winehouse and Kanye West, supported Sting, there wasn’t anywhere else to go; I’d performed with the greatest that I could at the time. I just felt the need to express myself as a solo artist, which I had no idea I had inside of me, maybe just a tiny bit. I knew I wanted to create music myself and I needed time out from touring to do that, it’s 24 hours round-the-clock kind of work. I had to move to the next phase in my life and I thought ‘Let’s compose my own music, let’s learn to be my own guy as opposed to playing in the background for somebody else’. I did that for eight years, that’s a long time, so I thought it was time to hopefully do something exciting and new.”

That journey led all the way to Our Generation, a record that’s as striking in its emotional impact as its technical accomplishment. Myers says finding the balance is “something that’s probably taken my entire life to get right”.

“I think as musician it’s very easy to just go off on one. I could do all my double thirds and octave runs and play all the fast passages but what I’ve gathered from experience is that only gets me so far – unless you want to be a concert pianist, then great, you’d better work hard and go down that route. If you want to cross over and bring that type of music into a more commercial world I learned very quickly it might be great for live but on record the majority of people haven’t got time for that. The challenge with making the album was to get as much of the classical vibe and the energy and the beauty and the storytelling throughout the music but not make it too personal and about me at the piano going nuts. It was about trying to find that balance, finding those sounds that people can communicate with and are familiar with today the combining that with the classical side.

“It isn’t easy, I’m not going to lie, it’s actually very difficult putting it all together, but after making the first album I think I’ve got a good idea of what needs to be done now, so I’m looking forward to making the next record – but not just yet.”

Myers says his long-term ambition is “to be recognised for my art and what I do”.

“I’d love to start scoring soundtracks for movies at some point alongside everything, but I think the main thing that I enjoy most is performing live. I just want to get better at that and put on the best live show that I can possibly do and for people to walk away and go ‘That is really cool’. That is my dream, really.”

Winning Britain’s Got Talent was certainly a good place to start. It was a result that literally bowled him off his feet. “You saw my reaction, I just fell to the floor,” he smiles. “It knocked me out, it floored me – that’s how it felt. I couldn’t believe when my name got called and to have Britain, a nation like us, support what I do, I think it was definitely one of the highlights of 2017.”

Tokio Myers plays at O2 Academy Leeds on April