Tom Aspaul: “I’m trying to learn to care less about what people think”

Tom Aspaul reflects on the lessons he learned after leaving London. “There are a lot of people out there who are really, really unhappy, but they’re just pretending,” says the pop singer. “When I moved away, I got to see that for the first time.” If you had told him a few years ago that he was talking about the capital like that, he would have scoffed. The 35-year-old first moved there from the West Midlands to study architecture before turning to songwriting. Some of his earliest collaborations were with Mutya Keisha Siobhan (the reformed original Sugababes) and Kylie Minogue. For a pop fan, things didn’t get any better.

But with such highs early in his career, what followed was “disappointing”. Aspaul admits that he lost focus in songwriting sessions and was often late. His publisher gave him the boot. Around the same time in 2019, his relationship ended and Aspaul sneaked home with his tail between his legs. Almost three years later, he’s still here, speaking to me via video call ahead of the release of his new album. life in plastic.

Blending George Michael’s assertive sass with the swaying synth pop of The Human League, Aspaul’s music is uncompromisingly funky. His outfits usually match. Expecting to see the flashy silk shirts, ornate matador costumes, or flashy pink Speedos popular in his album cover, I’m surprised to find a far more relaxed Aspaul sipping tea in an all-black outfit (still with his signature handlebar moustache, of course). But he’s warm and open throughout our conversation, which continues long after his tea has gone cold.

At first, Aspaul panicked about leaving the music industry behind. But as the pandemic hit and the “s*** hit the fan,” face-to-face meetings turned into Zoom calls and he learned to produce his own music and recording at home. Without the backing of a big label, Aspaul has to be the manager, agent and promotion team all rolled into one. Still, he single-handedly managed to produce one of the biggest albums of 2020: the scintillating Queer Disco record Black country disco. The other iterations of the pandemic dance-pop renaissance (Dua Lipas nostalgia of the futurejessie ware What is your pleasure) might have had more commercial success, but Aspaul’s debut—with its tongue-in-cheek lyrics and rich seventies sound—was just as good.

It was inspired by his mother’s favorite artists including Chaka Khan, Prince and Diana Ross. You can hear these influences Black country disco, the glittering percussion of “01902” (a nod to the Wolverhampton area code) just a sonic step away from Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”. On “Carnelian,” ’80s synthesizers and a pumping beat underscore painfully overt descriptions of his own jealousy. Even when he sings about heartbreak, Aspaul does it in style.

It was indeed his homecoming that inspired the album. On the shimmering “WM” he weighs the ropey charm of his hometown. “So we go on the Midland Metro/Line 1 because there’s only one line,” he sings on the bridge, before describing his love for both the “grey skies” and the “neon lights” of the city. It has always intrigued Aspaul that his hometown — a place he describes as “grim and industrial and depressing” — could have produced the Electric Light Orchestra, Slade and Duran Duran, and a thriving black music scene. “Manchester and Liverpool also have such incredible musical heritages, but that’s what you hear about all the time…the Beatles and the Madchester music scene,” he says. “I thought the West Midlands didn’t get a strong representation in mainstream popular culture.”

On the second album life in plastic, Aspaul explores a different side of his taste in music. In case the reference to novelty bop “Barbie Girl” in the title wasn’t enough of a clue, the record is an ode to kitschy pop of the ’90s and early ’00s. The first sound you hear when you press play is the robotic gurgling of a dial tone. Counting Europop (he appeared on the UK Eurovision voting jury last year), Aqua and Steps as his inspirations, Aspaul pauses, rolls his eyes and murmurs, “Yeah, Jesus Christ.” It’s obvious, Aspaul comparable to Years & Years (especially as vocalist Olly Alexander is one of the few British openly gay male musicians), but there’s a distinct feel to the band’s second album, Palo Santoin the juxtaposition of bright instrumentation and dark lyrical themes.

life in plastic is a “pure Bubblegum Pop” record – but not without substance. It’s actually more of a jaw-breaker: the glossy production is the tough exterior, but sitting on it finds yourself in a “reflective, dark, almost existential” world where Aspaul wrestles with identity and the pressures of gay men . Yes, “Listen 2 Nicole” (as in Scherzinger) is a tune worthy of any pre-drink playlist, but it’s actually an anthem about connection culture and the quest for independence.

“There are a lot of people out there who are really, really unhappy, but they’re just pretending.”

(Justin Atkins)

Aspaul has concerns that people might dismiss the album as a bit “naff,” stating, “I was really worried that it would be too camp, too gum, almost too gay… I don’t think people would like me either.” would take that seriously if I had published this [album] First.” He pauses. “But I’m trying to learn to care a little less about what people think.” Music has always been Aspaul’s therapy, and never more than on life in plastic. “I’m pretty scared of looking vulnerable…so that’s my way of burying it in the lyrics but presenting it as this really shiny, plastic, funny thing,” he says.

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That doesn’t mean that things are suddenly easy. As an independent artist, Aspaul has full control over his work, but it’s a costly endeavor. His home is littered with vinyls from life in plastic He had to pay upfront while filming the music video for lead single “Kiss It” left him “barely able to afford the food” for the rest of the month. He shrugs. “But that’s how it is.”

He can’t see himself staying in the West Midlands forever, but “there’s no way” he could afford to work as a musician while also paying rent in London. “It’s a very sad situation when artists get an award somewhere,” he says. “But I actually feel relieved coming home from London now. I say, ‘Put me on this train.’”

“Life in Plastic” will be released on May 30th Tom Aspaul: “I’m trying to learn to care less about what people think”


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