With his gravelly voice, soulful songwriting and trademark Burberry coat, Tom Grennan might seem naturally cut out to be a pop star.
Yet a few short years ago, he was at university studying acting.
“I did that because I wanted to move out of where I was living in Bedford,” Grennan, now 23, explains.
“I knew I wanted to do music at that point of my life but I’d never studied music at school and I didn’t have a clue about music either. I needed to study something to be able to live in London so I studied acting and then taught myself who to play guitar and started writing on my own at uni.”
He played his first gigs on his own when he was a student. “In my second year of uni I started going round all the pubs in London,” he remembers. “I did that every night, trying to get a gig.”
The first song he wrote that made him feel he was really onto something was called Something in the Water. “I wrote that in my bedroom. I was like, ‘wow, this is kind of doing something to me that no other song I’d written before was doing’.”
It captures this thing of maturity and becoming a young man and figuring stuff out.Tom Grennan
It’s one of the stand-out tracks on his debut album, Lighting Matches, which comes out tomorrow.
Grennan sees songwriting as a way of figuring out the world. “It’s more of a meditation than anything,” he reflects. “It’s more like a stress relief. If I’ve got something on my mind I will definitely pick up a guitar or try and get into a studio and try to write something.”
Collaborations with the likes of Charli XCX, Bugzy Malone and Chase & Status have helped make him a name to watch. When he made All Goes Wrong with Chase & Status, it was his first time in a professional recording studio. He says he remembers thinking it was “mad that Chase & Status wanted to work with me”. “I walked into this massive studio, I’d never done anything like that before so my experience of doing that collab was new, but I enjoyed it.”
The key to a successful collaboration, he now realises, is “if you get on with that person, more than anything, and if you’ve got a spark with the person”.
“Luckily every feature that I’ve done me and the artist have had a connection and we’ve got on. I loved the experience, it was wicked.”
In one early interview with a national newspaper, Grennan said he thought contemporary pop music had become “too nice”. It seems he’s here to shake things up. “The time that we’re living in, with social media and all that kind of stuff, everyone’s just a bit too nice, I think; everyone’s just a little scared to say what they really want to say,” he says. “I’m not going to lie, sometimes I’ve been not scared but you have to watch what you do and what you say. But I’m definitely here to shake things up, I want people to know that I mean business...without sounding like an arrogant pr***.”
That said, he also intends to be a “rock ’n’ roll star with manners”.
“It’s what I’ve always been taught,” he says. “And manners cost nothing, so always have them.”
He had a close empathy with his audience from an early stage in his musical career. “I tried to stay as close as I could to them and I still try to do that,” he says. “I try to always reply, always talk to them so that they know I’m as normal as they are.”
As things build to Lighting Matches’ release, Grennan expects to feel a mixture of emotions. “If I didn’t have nerves I don’t know what I’d do,” he says. “I’ve got nerves already, but they’re good nerves. I’m so excited. It’s mixed emotions. It’s my first ever thing that’s like a big body of work that’s going out. I’m nervous but more excited than anything.”
He thinks the album has captured a turning point in his life. “I’m a 23-year-old young man. When I started writing the songs and throughout the album it changed and I changed. It captures this thing of maturity and becoming a young man and figuring stuff out.”
He has strong chart ambitions. “I’m not going to lie, I want to be the biggest artist in the world, so of course I’ve got ambitions,” he says. “But I’m taking every step as it comes and not rushing anything.”
A busy week of release will see Grennan play several gigs, including at Brudenell Social Club in Leeds on Sunday (for fans who’ve pre-ordered the album from Crash Records).
In August he’s due to play at Leeds Festival. “I’m buzzing about that,” he says. “I went last year for the first time and the kids are always up for a good time so I’m ready for it.”
Lighting Matches is out tomorrow. Tom Grennan plays at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on July 8; at Leeds Festival on August 24, and O2 Academy Leeds on October 11. www.tomgrennanmusic.com