Grammy Winning Songwriter Tourist Is Stepping Out on His Own

The British singer-songwriter William Phillips won a Grammy for co-writing Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” Now he’s taking the world — including New York, at this past weekend’s Panorama festival — as Tourist.

Emily Malan Photography

The British singer-songwriter William Phillips, who goes by Tourist on stage, has been on 25 flights in the past six weeks. And that’s not counting the one he took on Saturday to get to the Panorama music festival in New York City, or the flight he’ll take right after to return to his flat in London.

Although Phillip’s stage name seems apt for his current lifestyle, it wasn’t what he was thinking when he came up with it in 2012. Rather, he simply needed a name that would allow him to anonymously write and produce music of his own. Before stepping out as a solo artist, he worked behind-the-scenes writing songs like “Stay With Me” for Sam Smith, which won them both Grammys in 2015. But this May, after two years working in the privacy of his studio, Phillips was ready to release his first full-length album, “U.”

“Performing in front of an audience is equal parts daunting and exciting,” Phillips said on Friday, before his Panorama gig. “I’ve gotten used to it by now. But I’m not used to people enjoying it, which is always a nice surprise.”

The 29-year-old was born in Southeast London, but moved to the seaside town of Cornwall after his parents divorced at the age of six. “I spent my youth in Cornwall listening to music because it was a good distraction,” Phillips said. “Music kept me out of trouble.”

As a teenager, Phillips got really into electronic music and looked up to the likes of Daft Punk. “I was really inspired and just sat in my room on the computer making bad music,” he said. “I guess that’s still what I do.”

Phillips’ debut album is mixture of the smooth romance we heard in “Stay With Me” and electronic dance beats that make you want to jump up and down, or at least bob your head. But it’s not all rhythm — the album has a narrative arc, painting the picture of a relationship from beginning to end.

“It was my first relationship, and I wanted to write my first album about something that was very personal,” said Phillips. “I’m not trying to change dance music or pop culture, I’m just trying to make a bit of a diary, really.”

Unlike what he did for Sam Smith, Phillips makes his own music personal not with lyrics but with sound. For example, he went out and recorded environmental sounds at various places that were important markers in his relationship, like the fall of footsteps walking away from his London flat where they had a big fight, or the crashing of waves at Brighton beach where he and his ex-girlfriend first met.

Despite the inevitable urge to dance to singles like “Run,” Phillips says he didn’t intend for his music to be played at clubs. Rather, he thinks “U” is more of a headphones banger. “It’s a bit more personal when the music is closer to you,” he said.

And he’s already in the process of writing his second album, which will be influenced by his travels. “It’s really enjoyable because my life is taking a different shape,” Phillips said. “And I feel quite good about it. I’m not writing it in a studio this time; I’ve actually been doing it in hotel rooms.”