It’s been quite a year for pianist and Britain’s Got Talent winner Tokio Myers. He spoke to Duncan Seaman.
Tokio Myers isn’t joking when he says the past 12 months have been “beyond anything” he could ever have imagined.
Some £250,000 in prize money for winning Britain’s Got Talent, a debut album which went straight into the top five, selling more than 60,000 copies in the process, plus an appearance at the Royal Variety Show cemented his reputation as one of 2017’s biggest breakthrough artists.
Such success, he says, has been “especially” gratifying for an instrumentalist. “I don’t rap or sing,” the 33-year-old pianist from north London notes. “I don’t think this is something I could have ever dreamt or planned for, so just to find myself here, with a top five album, is beyond anything.”
He believes his album Our Generation could be a “game-changer” thanks to its eclectic musical approach. “Just bridging all of these types of genres together has never been done before,” he says. “You’ve got Jools Holland who’s a jazz pianist, maybe Jamie Cullum dabbles with commercial music next to jazz, but I think if someone listens to this record every track is pretty much different.
“You’ve got solo piano tracks which are very much cinematic, like Polaroid and Limitless, and you’ve got To Be Loved which is drum and bass mixed with piano and then Children, the Robert Miles cover, and then Angel and Bloodstream – they’re all so different. I don’t think anyone’s put an album out like that before and that’s not just coming from me, that’s actually coming from the public and people who’ve been messaging.”
The first taste that the public at large got of Myers’ music might have been during three performances that left Simon Cowell open-mouthed on Britain’s Got Talent but the pianist had actually been developing his act while performing in London shopping malls.
“When I started playing in shopping centres originally it was just me and a piano,” he says. “I was doing a lot of commercial covers and stuff that people recognised. I also included some popular classical pieces as well. Maybe a year or so into playing shopping malls I discovered the drum pad and I bought this equipment. I didn’t have a clue how it worked or how I was going to get from two hands on a piano to doing something else – playing piano’s quite hard as it is – but I just had fun. It took me a year or maybe two to get my head around it but all I was doing was covers, there wasn’t much original material.”
Myers credits his music school teacher Joe Morgan with nurturing his musical talents.
“He was the type of teacher to really go the extra mile and get to know the pupils’ parents and stuff. He wasn’t just about turning up to work and doing a nine to five and going home; he made the effort to know the families and understand what issues we had and what our strengths and weaknesses were. I think I speak for everyone at that school, we all felt the same way, he was the same with everybody. He definitely played a crucial part in making sure we all found the thing that we enjoyed and just did it.”
I feel as human beings we’re all brought onto this Earth to create in some way, shape or form. Humans we get bored quickly. We love to make things or design things or create... If you want to take that away from the kids, I just think it’s ridiculous.Tokio Myers
It left Myers with a keen appreciation of the importance of music in schools and inspiring children to be creative. In an era of cutbacks and an increased focus on exams, it’s something that the pianist feels is being stifled. “I can’t imagine myself if I didn’t have the chance to be creative and find that thing I loved,” he says. “I don’t understand that. I feel as human beings we’re all brought onto this Earth to create in some way, shape or form. Humans we get bored quickly. We love to make things or design things or create; I think to take that away from kids especially, that is the age where they need to create the most and that is the age where all the ideas come and are birthed from. If you want to take that away from the kids, I just think it’s ridiculous, it’s really very stupid and shouldn’t be happening at all.”
In his teens Myers’ piano playing abilities had earned him a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. For a young man – born Torville Jones – from working-class roots, who was educated at state school, the experience was eye-opening. “For such a long time I was always the best pianist in my school and all of a sudden you turn up to a place where all of the other guys had been to music school and they were amazing at what they did,” he says. “Maybe there was an initial shock but it made me decide to work even harder than before because I wanted to be at the top of my level. It was actually a good thing to experience.”
After college he worked as a session musician, playing at major festivals and touring Europe at one stage with pop/soul band Mr Hudson and the Library. Myers says his decision to go solo was prompted by a feeling that he’d “gained as much as [he] could as a session player”.
“I’d played with the late Amy Winehouse and Kanye West, supported Sting, there wasn’t anywhere else to go; I’d performed with the greatest that I could at the time. I just felt the need to express myself as a solo artist.”
The journey led all the way to Our Generation, a record that’s as striking in its emotional impact as its technical accomplishment. Myers says finding the balance is “something that’s probably taken my entire life to get right”.
“I think as musician it’s very easy to just go off on one. I could do all my double thirds and octave runs and play all the fast passages but what I’ve gathered from experience is that only gets me so far. If you want to cross over I learned very quickly the majority of people haven’t got time for that. The challenge with making the album was to get as much of the classical vibe and the energy and the beauty and the storytelling throughout the music but not make it too personal and about me at the piano going nuts.”
Tokio Myers plays at O2 Academy Leeds on April 17 and O2 Academy Sheffield on April 28. www.tokiomyers.com