There are two major things that – in some strange, unlikely way – paved Tom Grennan’s way into music: the first was an impromptu performance at a teenage house party, the second a traumatic incident that left him hospitalised for days.
Born and raised in Bedford, the 21-year-old’s childhood was a fairly typical one. He played football, went to school, got a moped at 16 and “was cruising with that for a bit.” Aside from an MP3 player his mate’s brother loaded up with grime, music was never a big part of his life growing up. Until, that is, he had a little too much to drink at a party, and demanded that everyone listen to him sing. “I was just going around like, ‘Oi, listen to me…’ just being an annoying guy,” he says now - but his performance, bolstered though it may have been by a generous dose of Dutch-courage, was clearly impressive. His friends, unaware before that night that he could even hold a tune, roped him into joining their A Level band, where he discovered an untapped knack for performing.
Without that, he says, there’s no way he would have ended up performing. But it was something altogether more traumatic that prompted Grennan to turn to songwriting. At the age of 18, a group of strangers attacked him on the street. He’s inclined to play the incident off casually – “just wrong place wrong time I think” – but it left its mark, and not just from the metal plates and screws he’ll have in his jaw for the rest of his life. “When that happened,” he recalls, “I was in a mad dark place. It hurt me mentally. I had this build-up of emotions.”
So, without much intention of ever showing anyone, he started writing about it. Influenced by the likes of Ray Charles, Kendrick Lamar and Amy Winehouse, he poured his trauma, his pent-up pain and frustration, into songs, “and then I just found I could escape from it. I just loved doing it, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Now, anytime I feel anything, I write about it.”
Something In The Water, the title track from his debut EP, showcased Grennan’s gritty, soulful vocals. After a scat-like, staccato verse, it gradually builds up to something rapturous: “I can see the light now, as I'm stepping out the door / Well there's something in the water, calling my name.” The song, he says, “was like coming out of the dark. I felt sorry for myself for a minute, but I’ve got to just pick myself up.”
And pick himself up he did. After that EP came a Chase & Status collaboration, All Goes Wrong, and a spot on the BBC’s Sound of 2017 longlist – but the best was yet to come. His subsequent single Found What I’ve Been Looking For, a song he says “came out of nowhere,” was included on the FIFA 18 soundtrack, and bolstered by a video directed by Skepta collaborator Matt Walker, amassed over 14 million streams. After a few more singles (the artwork for which came courtesy of award-winning grime photographer Olivia Rose) and a feature on the Bugzy Malone single Memory Lane (a silver record in the UK), Tom found himself on the cover of NME and in The Guardian’s ones to watch for 2018 list. But it wasn’t until he was writing in LA at the start of this year, and found himself at a party chatting to Dave Grohl and Stella McCartney, that Tom freeze-framed the moment and realised how much his life had changed.
Things are set to get even bigger from here. Tom’s debut album, Lighting Matches, reached number 5 in the Official UK album chart- he has embarked multiple sold-out tours, playing venues such as Shepherd’s Bush Empire and in October a sold out 5,000 capacity Brixton Academy in October.
“You only live life once, so you got to make every bit of it count,” he says with an infectious enthusiasm. “I want to put a stamp on my life, and I want to put a stamp on the world. I don't want to be here to be forgotten. [My music is] fiery, it’s real life and it’s passionate.” Lighting Matches reflects that passion. “Lighting Matches is just igniting the flame,” he says, “and igniting the dream.”