The Bedford born 22-year-old has kept hairs on end with a half hour set in our tiny Torch Songs tent at Secret Garden Party, after a main stage performance earlier that day. He belts out four tunes that sound big and catchy on first listen. With a satisfyingly smoky and soulful voice he spans blues, indie, reggae, northern soul and R&B.
I fell into music randomly after the football didn't happen. I got fucked for the first time and just started singing.
Although the tent is fairly quiet to begin with, people trickle in, lured by that voice. By the time he starts his third song, the uplifting single, Found What I’ve Been Looking For, a rowdy crew has congregated at the front, they're devoted Grennan fans that have just about managed to locate our tent, and seemingly football fans too – evident from vaguely familiar chants that ripple around the crowd, egged on by Tom.
After the set he gives me ten minutes before he has to dart off to another stage. I offer him a warm beer in the back of a white van and tell him his voice just blew me away. It must be the big lungs from many years of competitive football. As a teenager Tom played for Luton Town, Northampton Town, Aston Villa and Stevenage. The fella only took up singing three years ago, after his football career didn’t turn out as expected luckily for us.
My head was turned by music and people saying I had a voice.
“I was close to playing over in the States but something was telling me not to.” At a house party to celebrate his decision to stay home he "got fucked for the first time", leading to a singalong session where he startled the party with his singing, even getting offers to join a band. It's a stand out example of one door closing and another opening. "My head was turned by music and people saying I had a voice."
So he went all in on this music thing, and after moving to London for university the gigs came thick and fast. His debut EP, Something In The Water was produced by Charlie Hugall (Florence and The Machine, The Maccabees) then Chase & Status caught wind of his emotive rasp and got him in for the radio friendly D&B When It All Goes Wrong, winning Hottest Record on Annie Mac’s Radio 1 Show. After that it was Radio 1 Live Lounge, BBC Two's Later with Jools Holland, and now ... the CALM Torch Songs stage!
I explain the idea behind our Torch Songs campaign, celebrating the power of music to lift us out of life’s low points, with UK artists covering the songs that have turned things around when things got tough, be that depression or writer’s block. I wonder if someone that comes across so confident ever finds the extra attention and pressure difficult.
The fact that people take it back to their rooms and sit with it and relate – it's cool.
"At the moment no. I’m a very... "he hesitates, before smirking "I love it. I like people looking at me. And I’m doing this because I love making music. I’ve always thought that I’m here to put a stamp on the world I’m living in. Im here to put a message out. The fact that people relate to my message, me just sitting in my room and saying what I’m feeling, and then they take it back to their rooms and sit with it and relate – it's cool. I enjoy people knowing what I’m about. I've made a connection with fans, I feel like I know them and they know me. I’m very privileged. I’m very blessed that I’m not, y’know, working in Costa. I used to work in Costa, but now I’m out here meeting people like yourself, making people smile. I'm loving my life right now."
That’s clear from his stage presence. But I wonder if he ever gets performance anxiety. Is the swagger a front?
He shrugs it off, "Nah. When I’m on there doing it it’s not me…” describing a ‘flow state' when on stage, the phenomenon of ego dissolution and a warped sense of time and space when fully absorbed in a creative or technical activity. "I don’t see myself do it. I come off and its like, wow, fucking hell! I’ve just done that.”
Off stage he does get anxious at times, “something happened to me a couple of years ago, I won’t go into it now, but something changed my life and sometimes when I’m in certain situations like big crowds for example, I go 'woooow’." He waves his hands up signalling 'I can't handle this'. "Everyone experiences anxiety in some form and everyone deals with it in their own way, sometimes people let it get the better of them and sometimes people can’t control it."
I've found something in myself that I can’t explain. It’s like meditation, it’s my release.
I wonder if these moments can be fuel for creativity. Can life-changing or traumatic experiences be an inspiration for art?
“Inspirational shit comes from family and friends. That’s where my writing comes from. My voice comes from... not pain, its not hurt but... I've found something in myself that I can’t explain. It’s like meditation, it’s my release."
So what song would he cover if he was to do a Torch Song for CALM? "Amy Winehouse Back To Black.” he says without hesitation. "It's very real. She’s speaking to someone, for me that song talks differently. That’s why her music is so sick, because the music is for someone, it’s direct."
I'm a very emotional person. I'm a cryer.
I wonder if the song format allows him to be vulnerable in a way he wouldn't otherwise be. Does simply talking to someone about how he feels come so easily? “Yeah man, I’m a very open person. I’m a very emotional person. I’m a cryer. A cry is proper good for you."
He's not wrong.
His girlfriend shouts to him from our tent, signalling that his mates want to head elsewhere and enjoy the festival. “Two minutes!” he shouts, and I have one last question: what’s next?
"My album. My album's gonna be different. There's not been an album like it for a while. The songs are sick. Fact."
We look forward to it. And with that he’s off.
Tom's new single Royal Highness is out now. His debut album Lighting Matches lands in March. Pre-order here.
Follow him @Tom_Grennan