Everyone knows how ruthless the music industry can be, so you wouldn’t blame someone from falling at the first hurdle. But Tom Gregory just doesn’t know when to quit. “I’ve always been the underdog,” the 25-year-old says with a shrug. “If there’s a closed door in front of me, I’ll keep knocking. And if the door’s not open, I’ll just ram it down.”
Raised in the small coastal town of Fleetwood, Blackpool, Gregory has already asserted himself as one of the UK’s most promising new artists. His debut album, Heaven in a World So Cold, is a breathtaking collection of soaring pop anthems and heartfelt ballads, including the rousing single “Fingertips”, which has already racked up more than 50 million streams. And while it’s easy to see why Gregory has drawn comparisons to chart-toppers such as Lewis Capaldi and James Arthur, his music offers an additional, rock-influenced edge.
“A lot of the music I heard growing up was CDs handed down by my dad, from Keane to The Killers, and a lot of Britpop,” Gregory explains. In this extensive collection, he also discovered classic American singer-songwriters such as James Taylor and George Benson – artists who weren’t afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. “I’d just listen to these guys for hours, absorbing it all.”
He was a shy teenager, and initially struggled to express how he felt about music to anyone. For a long time, singing was a hobby he kept to the confines of his bedroom, where he also began writing his own song lyrics. But everything changed when his dad signed him up to audition for The Voice when he was 16 years old. Gregory impressed showrunners enough that he made it through to the live audition round in London, where he was plonked onto a stage in front of the celebrity judges. This was his moment “I got knocked back!” Gregory says, laughing. “No one turned around for me. I thought it was the end of the world.” Coming from a rundown seaside town, he’d convinced himself that this would be his only chance to make it as a singer. “I wasn’t an academic kid, but I was streetwise, and I was smart enough to know that people from Fleetwood don’t become pop stars,” he says. “They’ve got about as much chance as becoming astronauts.”
Miserable at school and with The Voice setback still fresh in his mind, Gregory went through a bout of depression as a teenager. “I had a lot of problems with my mood, which is why I’m really open now talking about mental health, especially among men,” he says. He was forced to repeat his final year after failing his exams, and watch the rest of his friends head off to university. Desperate for a new outlet, he swiped an acoustic guitar from his school’s music supplies.
“We didn’t really have much money at the time,” he says, referring to the period in 2008 where many families came under heavy stress due to the financial crisis. “I’ve still got the guitar now.” He used it to write what is, to date, his biggest hit: “Fingertips”, a propulsive piano-based number that manages to recall both the classic soul of Aloe Blacc and the slick pop charisma of Niall Horan. Gregory plans on signing the guitar and returning it to his old school. “I’ll say sorry for pinching it, but also tell them it changed my life,” he says. “I think I would have gone down the wrong path if it weren’t for that.” The song is currently hitting the top 10 in countries around Europe; at the same time Gregory is also the voice behind the EDM smash “Never Let Me Down”, from Berlin-based production duo VIZE – the most successful dance duo in Europe – which is about to surpass 90 million streams.
Gregory’s road to success has been filled with setbacks and unexpected detours. He tried a brief sojourn in a band, named Kiings, and received some airplay on Radio 1 from Huw Stepens, before deciding he wanted to pursue a career as a solo artist. After finishing school, he signed up for a course in music production, only to quit after a week when he realised it was the wrong choice. “I didn’t think it was going to get me to where I wanted to be,” he says. “I needed to take a risk.” Fearful of telling his parents about his decision, Gregory was standing in the university carpark when he received a call from a casting agent. Inspired by his cousin, Coronation Street star Lucy Fallon, he thought he’d try his hand at acting. And now the BBC was offering him a part in its drama series, The A Word. “Unfortunately, I hated acting,” Gregory says, laughing. He has nothing against the people he worked with, and feels grateful for those experiences on set. “But I didn’t like pretending to be someone else, or having lines written for me. I didn’t like conforming to a character.” Acting career over, Gregory was back to square one. He flew to Germany to see a mate, and found himself in a club speaking with that friend’s older brother, who offered to be his manager.
A chance conversation inspired him to start recording his own music, in between his new job, working on the admissions stand at The Grand Theatre back in Blackpool. He uploaded his songs to Soundcloud, and managed to catch the attention of a dance label back in Hamburg. They paired him with a producer, who happened to be from… Fleetwood, Blackpool. “I couldn’t believe it,” Gregory says. “All the producers they could have found, and they had this guy who lived five minutes down the road from me!” That producer was Matt James of the electronic duo M22; James, his partner Frank Sanders, and Gregory wrote “Fingertips”, and a number of other songs that ended up on Heaven in a World So Cold.
“It feels like we’re on the edge of something,” Gregory says of his rapidly growing fanbase. “It’s a crazy time.” It doesn’t hurt that he just signed to Milk & Honey management – the team behind some of the most successful acts in the world, and who help drive hits by artists from Drake and Justin Bieber to Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Not bad for a kid who started out writing songs in his bedroom. One thing is clear – Gregory’s sincerity and authentic nature are connecting with fans all around Europe. Before the pandemic hit, he was playing to thousands as the support artist for acts including James Morrison, and Norwegian pop star Astrid S. He performs with a live band, and is keen to give his audience the same kind of experience as a classic rock band. “There’s a lot of big musicianship in the live show and I want the audience to hear that,” he says. “Playing songs exactly the same as they are on record… you might as well sit at home and pick your belly button. I like to change things up and give people something to remember.”
Crowd favourites include the heartbreaking album closer “Sink or Swim”, which Gregory describes as “the most honest song I’ve ever written”. “I grew up looking out at the sea for years and it became a good heartbreak analogy,” he says. Building slowly over stark piano notes and Gregory’s wrenching vocal delivery, the song deploys stunning visuals with the lyrics: “Floating alone in deadly waters/ Hoping the tide will pull me in/ You left me to sink or swim/ When you let the water in.” Writing the song saved him from another bout of depression, he says, as he found it proved to be a kind of therapy.
The breakup inspired another of Gregory’s biggest songs, “Rather Be You”, which was written at the start of this year. “I felt my ex was dealing with the breakup quite easily, when I was really struggling. I didn’t want to write another bog-standard love song, so I wrote about that feeling of wishing you could swap emotions with someone.” He used to get nervous before going onstage, “because I wasn’t used to playing to hundreds, let alone thousands of people”. But now he’s pretty much fearless. “It gets to a point where you’re not scared of anything anymore.” Tom Gregory is ready to take on the world.