On a Tuesday night at the York Barbican I sit in an audience awaiting KT Tunstall’s “special guest” with that familiar apprehensive curiosity often adopted towards opening acts. A lone figure with shaggy black hair quietly shuffles across the stage and pauses:
“Hi, I’m Billy Lockett.”
And the atmosphere transforms. With a cheeky smile yet a sincere attitude he introduces each song, explaining the web of stories which feed his writing and composition. Everyone is invited to share in the meaning and sentiment of the music while he expertly executes complex riffs and rhythmic progressions on guitar and piano. And he keeps us all smiling. After his set he prompts a mad dash to the merchandise stand to sign copies of his homemade EP. A huge percentage of the auditorium empties, phones are whipped out to purchase tickets for his UK solo tour in the New Year, and an excited buzz is in the air. We have witnessed the birth of something special indeed.
It is a few months later from that moment when I interview Billy, since then he has released his second EP, ‘Your Love Hurts’, which stormed the iTunes singer-songwriter charts, peaking at number 3, and has increased his following by the thousands through his live set. All through his own hard work and without a record label. Billy is justifiably proud. “‘Your Love Hurts’ had a lot of success and I was honestly blown away by it, although I was always confident in the song – it means a lot to me. It’s all about the problems between me and my dad that many people face with their parents. I personally feel like it is the best thing I have done so far”. The title track is a beautifully layered piano-guitar ballad with the memorable refrain: “your love, love, love, love it hurts… but it’s still love”. In its circularity it possesses a universal resonance, and a reminder that family relationships are not perfect all of the time.
Originally from Northampton, Billy is skilled both on the guitar and on the piano. He lives with his Dad but spends most of his time “hiding in the cellar making music”. That music is a fusion of “hard-hitting indie/folk/pop songs” but he finds his inspiration in everyday occurrences and struggles whether cancer, broken relationships or domestic violence (“all happy things!” he jokes). Being on tour has just fed the song-writing fervour and upon getting home he was “gagging to start writing again”. The inspiration also comes from listening to other musicians. Among his influences are Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, Neil Young, KT Tunstall, Paolo Nutini, Cat Stevens and Tom Waits.
It is KT Tunstall who, this year, has perhaps changed the course of Billy’s career. After an exchange of tweets she invited him to come on tour with her – “It felt incredible! KT’s been a huge inspiration to me most of my life so it was amazing to have her just say that she liked me songs… but to go on tour with her was pretty much a dream come true. We didn’t really get to jam as we were always so busy but just watching and studying her on stage taught me a lot.” Both certainly have a charm and gentle charisma which makes it easy for audiences to love them. “I want my fans to know ME,” Billy explains, “in my shows I try to bring across my personality as much as I can so that the audience feels they are a part of something more than simply playing my CD… as a true supporter of me and my life… music is just part of it.” Despite the hectic schedule he betrays little sign of weariness: “I’ve been touring for years so being on the road is very normal for me now, I probably feel most alive when I’m touring. I love not having much of a home and waking up in a different city every day. If I could do it all year every year I honestly would”.
The title track of his previous EP, ‘Pathways’, is about the struggle to make it in the music industry as an artist (“another office, another boss / another dream they’re selling off / you’re seduced by shiny shoes / you’ll be a star, you’ll go far, just forget about who you are”) but is also a loving tribute to the fans who have stuck with him and propelled him into the charts regardless.
He admits that, “even now I think that I won’t make it. Music is a worrying business because you can never be sure of when you’ve actually made it. I don’t think I’m there yet by any means. I just have to try and see, as long as I’m growing it’s okay. You just have to keep building and building… I have no backup plan at all – I literally HAVE to succeed!” he laughs, “I guess that’s a good thing though… it gives you more drive.” So is he eager for a record label to swoop in? “I would love to have a label… but the right one hasn’t got in touch. If I can keep hitting the top fifty or higher with self-releases then at the moment I don’t feel I need a label. All I need is Facebook and Twitter so all my fans know about it and are able to support me. I like the feeling of having complete control in everything I do”.
In the meantime he cites his immediate goals as completely selling out his March tour, so far half the shows are sell-outs, and having the chance to play on the Jools Holland Show and on a Radio 1 Live Lounge. Holland’s show has become a great platform for artists just breaking into the industry, launching the career of KT Tunstall herself. Concerning platforms of another kind Billy was once invited to be on The Voice but turned it down. “I don’t know about The Voice. We’re all different and you can’t compare a sheep to a cow.” Instead he has worked at his dream from the moment he realised he wanted to be a music at the age of nine. He does not have a musical background as such but his father is an artist.
I ask him if there are any fun facts or quirks he wants to share: “I love dipping cheddar cheese in my tea…”
And with that supreme piece of trivia we conclude. Hearing Billy perform his songs is a unique experience. His lyrics are simple and heartfelt but it is his endearing manner, humour and skillful storytelling that really draws you in. His tender soulful voice is accompanied by catchy and novel riffs on guitar and piano that only affirms his talents. He has shown immense strength and initiative thus far with remarkable chart feats for an unsigned artist. 2014 is sure to be another pivotal year in the blossoming career of Mr Billy Lockett.