Everything was looking up for Billy Lockett’s burgeoning career as a singer-songwriter. He’d dreamed of forging a life in music since childhood, when his father’s unconventional home stereo system would boom out classic records from Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens to every single room in the Northampton townhouse in which he was raised.
By March 2014, Lockett was truly making a name for himself with support tours with the likes of Lana Del Rey, Birdy and KT Tunstall which, in turn, saw his headline shows grow in scale across Europe. His schedule was hectic to the point where he hadn’t realised how drastically his father’s cancer had advanced. Fortunately being near home for a gig in Milton Keynes granted the pair a day to bond over songs, drinks and conversation.
But as Lockett recalls solemnly, “As soon as I left the house for the gig, I got a call to say that he’d gone.”
In keeping with his father’s wishes, Lockett completed the tour and then retreated into the basement of his childhood home. It was a setting that would only amplify the already indescribable sense of grief, given that each room was packed – not only with his artist father’s 600 unsold paintings, but also with countless other items that had been hoarded over the years.
For almost every day over a two-year period, Lockett would sit in the basement writing songs with only his piano and his producer friend Phil Clark for company.
“For the first three months, I was thinking I need to write a song about my Dad, and I kept trying and trying but it just wasn’t happening. So I gave up and just started writing what came naturally.” By the time he came to the end of the process, both Lockett and Clark discovered something unexpected. “When we looked back at the songs, we both realised that all of these songs were subliminally or accidentally about him. They’re love songs, but they’re all about missing someone.”
Soon enough, Lockett was writing about “moving on and starting again” while also going through the cathartic process of getting the house back in order. That reinvention extended to his music too. He deleted all of the tracks he had online, moved his focus from guitar to his father’s preference for the piano, and concentrated on developing his previously undiscovered falsetto. It’s a sound which uses the pure songcraft of Oh Wonder, Coldplay’s strident anthems and the economical style of Ludovico Einaudi as touchpoints.
His father’s influence even impacted upon a comparatively laidback new approach for his live show, which was debuted with a nerve-wracking yet ultimately spine-tingling sold-out headline show at St. Pancras Old Church.
“When I was young, I thought that a good gig was being an entertainer and everyone would be dancing and having a good time,” he recalls. “But my Dad always taught me, ‘You’ve got to make them laugh and make them cry.’ I think when you’re pouring your heart out, as long as you mean what you say, it doesn’t matter if it’s fast or slow. If people are engaged, that’s why they’ll buy a ticket and come back.”
Such engagement requires songs that move, astound and inspire in equal measure, and they’re something that Lockett has in abundance. And nowhere is that more striking than in his upcoming single ‘More’ in which Lockett ruminates on loss, longing and regret with a voice that can convey a spectrum of sensitive emotions.
“It explores the idea that words can’t really explain how much you miss someone,” he says of a song which relates a personal story to a universal experience. “Deep down it’s much more than just ‘I miss you’ or ‘I need you’. It’s a shame that all we have is words that can’t do justice for just how much that means.”
BBC Introducing are backing Lockett for big things, especially Huw Stephens who recently championed him as a Tip of the Week. Further support has also included Tom Robinson at 6 Music and the crowd-pulling rock ‘n’ roll club night This Feeling where Lockett laughs, “I’m like their token piano guy.” To maintain such upwards momentum, the blend of Lockett’s revealing songwriting with Clark’s intimate production has now been boosted with mixing courtesy of Mike Crossey (The 1975, Arctic Monkeys).
Despite the trials and tribulations of his story, the Billy Lockett that we see today is a young musician with a personality that contrasts the sombre tone of his music. On first impressions, his towering afro and eccentric sartorial choices make him a magnetic personality, while his animated and undeniable enthusiasm for his work is perfectly complemented by a cheeky, ever-present glint in his eyes. Three years on from where we first took up the story, Billy Lockett has battled tragedy and radically evolved his style. There’s no changing the past, but it informs a future rich with potential for the young musician.