Toby’s music is like bottled perfume, enveloping you in a richly cinematic atmosphere with a single spray. We talk through several of his songs, and when describing nearly each one, he mentions a precise place. In many of his songs, he captures a flooding euphoric feeling, one being in “Hamliar,” title song from his 2019 EP, written about tasting intoxicating love in Morocco. He tells me details behind his upcoming single, “Too Good,” which pulls him right back to Jakarta on his first film set surrounded by beautiful faces he felt his own could not match. In his music, Toby hopes to strongly evoke the essence of what he has felt in each layered note. I can feel his passion seep through the screen as he looks forward to presenting this most proudly in his upcoming album.
While he describes himself as a routine-focused person, Toby seems to also crave the wild spontaneity and freedom of childhood when summer felt like it would never give in to the fall. This sentiment is one that echoes through the wide-open space in much of his music. He is looking forward to sharing that space with others as he embarks on his first tour spanning four UK cities beginning the 19th of April. We chat excitedly about his UK tour, nostalgia, future dreams, and music’s impact.
Toby’s single “Too Good” releases 12 April 2023.
I know Coffee Wars has just come out here in the US - it’s on my watch list! We are focusing more on your music in this conversation, but I wanted to start with a few fun questions related to the theme of the film to get us settled in. What do you consider your “cup of joe” in life?
Well, I’d have to say, I love the outdoors and I love music! It’s a weird catch 22 - if I don’t have enough time to digest stuff and daydream then I can’t make music or create and if I can’t do that then I can’t be happy.
Are you the type that’s constantly soaking in inspiration for creating, or do you find that you’re able to shut it on and off?
I’m always on - I wish I wasn’t, but I’m always thinking about creating and my work in not just music, but also acting. I think to be able to be real in either art form, you need to bring a certain amount of yourself for it to be authentic. So, I feel like being aware of everything around you all the time is the closest and fastest way to be able to absorb those little bits. You can form an opinion on things you like and don’t like. In acting, you can think about what you like about someone’s performance and what you don’t like. Music is a little bit simpler for me. I can listen to an artist that I’m not a big fan of, but I might think, I LOVE this part of the song, even if I don’t love the rest of it.
Absolutely. I think so many creatives can relate to that. Back to our Coffee Wars theme, coffee is a ritual that starts many people’s days. What else in your life do you consider almost ritualistic in terms of helping to get you into a routine?
Yeah, I need a routine. If I don’t have a routine, I go a bit stir crazy and I don’t feel very happy. I left school when I was seventeen and obviously as a kid you always have a routine, but then I got a record deal and spent a lot of time alone in London and America recording. When I was in the states I wasn’t old enough to go drinking, and I didn’t know many people so I spent a lot of time on my own and I think that’s when I cemented a routine as a normal thing for me - if I don’t have it, then I feel anxious. I do let go if I’m on holiday! But because acting and music jobs are so out of your control, I try to have as much control in whatever small ways I can. So, for me, my get-up-and-go is running for twenty minutes or working out.
It sounds like I’ve got it all together, but I don’t! [both laugh] I still have to force myself to do it in the morning. I need to get up and get my heart going a bit. That’s normally after reluctantly getting out of bed and having a tea and one or two coffees. If I don’t do that, I start to feel a bit anxious and a bit blurred, you know?
Completely. I like what you said about not having much control in acting and music so it’s really important to find control in your daily life elsewhere - that is a very good point. You talked about spending many years alone, so do you feel like you are now quite comfortable being alone or are you more extroverted?
I think from seventeen to twenty-three or so, I was really good at being alone, whilst I was working. I would go for long walks, read something, write songs and watch movies. There was a period when it would get to the weekend and all my friends would be going out but I was really focused on music and being in my own world. I’m not quite as good at being on my own now, I kind of get a bit fidgety. I like to be around people, but I do still need a couple hours of day alone though, for sure. I can start to feel quite claustrophobic if I’m always around people, however I do feel that the extrovert has grown in me over the last couple years.
It’s a fine balance for me. I’d say I’m fifty-fifty between being an introvert and an extrovert. I bet you most people who know me would never think of me as an introvert, but if I have plans every single evening for the next week, I can start to feel stressed about not having enough time to relax. But because work can be so out of my control, when friends ask to hang out during the week there's also a guilt thing…obviously if I’m on holiday, that’s very different because you’re there to let go, and I like going out and having a bit of a party.
Wow, yes, I know exactly what you mean about that guilty feeling. Creative jobs aren’t nine to five Monday through Friday so it’s difficult knowing when to just stop for a bit.
Last question based on Coffee Wars- if you had to enter a championship competition for any random skill of yours other than acting and singing, what competition would you feel confident entering?
[laughs] Winning a championship? My friends are going to laugh at me! [both laugh] I mean, if there was a competition for making tea, I’d definitely win that! Every Brit would probably say the same! I reckon something to do with cooking or a competition for making up really bad jokes.
I know your family has a restaurant in which you filmed the “Midnight” music video, so that’s a good transition for getting into family and childhood a bit. Can you paint a picture for me of a day from your childhood that felt almost cinematic?
We lived in Spain for three years when I was about seven. Those three years feel quite cinematic when I look back on them. When you’re seven, everything feels so much bigger and time is longer. Summer feels like a year. Where we were living, it was quite safe to get on a bike and ride to your friend’s house half a mile down the road. We were really lucky, there were lots of lovely people in our neighbourhood. There were so many exciting adventures as kids - we’d go fishing and motorbiking, and spend hours on the beach. It was a very outdoorsy, wild life - a free life.
Visually, do you remember certain things about the way it looked? I’d like to picture it.
Lots of sunshine and big open skies regardless of the season. It felt exotic and exciting, there are so many scents that take me back to that place, the plants and flowers, the jasmine at night time and of course the sea air and the smell when it rained. I’d say smells and all the sensory memories of Spain make me feel so nostalgic. I think that scent can make you travel to a place, like when I smell orange blossom it reminds me of being in the US, I mean I love the states, It’s an alien world compared to where I’m from. I love going to American supermarkets, actually I love all foreign supermarkets. When I go to a Spanish supermarket, I can smell childhood.
I really like that you’re bringing up the senses and smells because there are such vivid memory links to smell and sometimes you’re just taken right back to a moment in time. It’s amazing.
I think smells are even stronger, for me, than music and songs. I could go into a bakery in Spain or a chiringuito, which is a restaurant on the beach, and could smell fried fish and be right back there.
You’ve travelled a lot for films and music. Do you tend to be more nostalgic for places away from your home?
Yeah, I think so. I bring up the senses because, for me, there’s something so powerful in being immersed in a place- it’s like, Oh my god, I’m home or I miss home! I think that even a place that you didn’t enjoy so much at the time, years later something will remind you of it and you start to feel a certain amount of nostalgia. I feel that way everywhere. I’m looking forward to going back to L.A because I haven’t been there in a few years. I think I love it because it reminds me of my childhood in Spain.
I love tapping into things I’ve felt in the past. That’s part of why I think music and films are so powerful. For music, in particular, when you’ve written songs at a certain time and end up playing them a few years later, it can transport you back to those feelings - it is quite extraordinary.
When I listen to your music, I almost always feel like I’m moving, almost like I’m on a road trip and really experiencing my surroundings. When you are creating a song or an idea for a song, do you think about an immersive atmosphere you are trying to create?
That’s a really good question. It’s been a few years since I started releasing music, and I had been kind of ticking off either new ideas that I had to get off my chest straight away or an idea that I had for a few years that I felt like I had to get out right then or I would never get it out. But generally, when I’m writing songs, the things that make me tick are the things that feel like movie moments in life. I love to listen to music when I’m travelling on the train or in the car. When I’m happy, for example, there are visuals to happiness. It could be the greatest rom-com movie if we are thinking about happiness in love as an exaggerated version. If you can’t provide a visual, then for me, I think, how could I give that feeling of euphoria and love and happiness in a song? I have a song called “Hamliar” which is probably in the top three most proud works I’ve ever made. It’s about a car journey and about falling in love in the desert in Morocco. The song is a journey. At one point, the song sounds like it’s going to end but then suddenly it builds into this euphoric moment of horns and strings which is literally an explosion of joy and happiness. For me, when I listen to that song, I visualise that moment of being in Morocco and in love.
For “Midnight” too, when I wrote it a few years ago, I had the idea of trying to create a moment in a song where two people are excited to be in each other's company and they want more from each other, but they’re too shy to express it. So there are these long periods of time when they are waiting glued to their phones to see if the person messaged, I think we’ve all been there. They think, oh, they do like me? “Midnight” is such a warm song. It was never meant to be about how well these two people know each other, it’s just supposed to capture that feeling of those first moments. They’re thinking, can we dance? Can we be honest?
That was the aim for the music video. It was to show two people going about their lives and one of them - the girl in this case, being a bit more confident. Then the guy is sort of sitting around thinking, oh god, oh god as he’s waiting for her to message him. Then she messages him and they meet in a bar, dance and share a beautiful intimate moment.
I love that music video so I’m very happy to hear more about the intention behind it, it’s very beautiful. Speaking of intention, I know you love David Bowie and I was very curious about the choice of showing his album, Low, in the music video when she is looking through the record store.
Do you know what? Obviously Bowie is mentioned in the song, one because he’s one of my favourite artists and two because he will never become dated. He will travel with us forever, he’s an anomaly. I’ll tell you how that happened. When we came to filming the music video, we were at a place called Truck Records and we wanted to get a shot of her flicking through records. I just didn’t want the obvious choices for me which would have been Hunky Dory or Aladdin Sane. I wanted to choose something that wasn’t in your face obvious, I didn’t want it to be a cliché in it being one of the most famous albums ever or Ziggy Stardust. I wanted it to be a bit more alternative.
Yeah, it really did make me pause and wonder why you chose it!
It’s a great album, but my favourite songs are the songs that have been a part of my daily life soundtrack for my whole life.
You’re mentioning a lot about creating cinematic moments as inspiration for your music, but I also want to get to the opposite end of the spectrum too. While there are days like that, there are also “lazy Sunday” type days when you are just comfortable even in the mundane. What does your perfect lazy Sunday look like as an adult?
It really depends on where I’m living. I’m in London at the moment, but for a lot of my life I lived in Oxford and would be coming back between L.A and Nashville. Now, my favourite Sunday is one when it is not raining. I actually love not really having any plans, but having a few hypothetical options with people who might be around later to meet for drinks. I love just strolling around London, there’s so much to see. And if the weather is nice then I can go to a pub garden for a beer, and I'm in heaven. But London being London, there are times where it’s like oh do you know what? Fuck it. It’s about to rain, let’s go to the cinema! Or I might think, my mate lives two stops on the tube from here, they're there now, I'm going to pop by! I love that spontaneity, that kind of makes me tick. I don’t like having too many plans, If they’re casual things, I like things to be fluid.
Yeah so you like that in-the-moment feel which is what “Midnight” feels like. Everything gets better past midnight - food, conversation, dancing. Are you a “past midnight” person?
I’m actually a morning person. If I’m not going out, then I don’t really like staying up late. I like to be on track with everyone around me. If the rest of the world is going to bed early and waking up early I want to be with them. I don’t know why, but I get this weird feeling of being left behind. [both laugh] I’ve got loads of friends who are night people and they love waking up at eleven and working all day and then being up until four. For me, that is my absolute hell! Unless I'm going out and partying with friends or family, then the rule book goes. If we’re on holiday and everyone’s up until six in the morning, then I just roll with it, because I know we’re all suffering the next day together. But my day-to-day life has never been what I would call upside down for me - being up at night and sleeping late in the morning. I hate that! If I wake up too late in the day, I just feel like I’m not with it and my anxiety gets the better of me. I have always loved going out with friends and having a dance, but we all know that feeling when the sun starts coming up and you’re like ah, it’s going to blind my eyes [covers eyes]!
[laughs] Yeah, you can’t be casual about it right? We talked before about you loving David Bowie so I was wondering, what do you tend to admire in others music?
I like the merging of genres over an album. It doesn’t have to be too drastic. I’m currently working with a producer called Matty Benbrook, he’s worked with so many talented people like Paolo Nutini, Dido, Jack Savoretti and he also drummed for Faithless for years. We have almost finished my next album but there were a couple times where one or two songs were sticking out, but we knew we had to use them because they were so strong. We had to think of a way to connect them to the rest of the album. In this case it was about finding the right song to put between songs with slightly different genres. This helps to create something that sounds a bit more cohesive. There are definitely certain chords that I love and patterns in some of my favourite artists that may be a certain progression or register that really works for me. Ultimately, there are melodies that I love and some that I don’t really like. The ones that I love, I can’t explain, they just connect to me in the same way that senses do. You can’t explain why you love it so much. I love a melody and some knock me for six regardless of the genre.
Then what do you hope those who listen to your music admire about what you have created?
I feel like I’m so certain of stuff I like and don’t like. I like journeys, basically when I listen to music I want to feel something. If I don’t feel something, I don’t have much interest. I love music that gives you something, it can be sadness or happiness but ultimately I just want to feel something. The only thing I want from my music is that people experience those feelings in my songs. If I have a sad song, I want people to feel that, as much as I did in creating it.
In music, there’s so much out there, and I feel like the odds are quite high that if you are working all the time and you love what you’ve created, at least a few people are going to connect to it. If there are fifty die-hard fans, then my hope would be to increase that each year, then maybe there’s a couple thousand people who feel the same way about me as I do about some of my favourite artists.
Do you have an example of music that really struck your soul?
I’ll give you an example - do you know Tom Odell? When his first album came out I was actually recording myself and things weren’t quite working out for me in that project. He released that album and I had decided quite quickly that I didn’t like it at the time - or at least that’s what I thought. The truth is, I can’t remember if I properly listened through the whole album and I was mistaken. There was loads of hype around him and I just thought at first that it wasn’t my thing despite him being incredibly talented. Then when his second album came out, I was doing a film in Rome, and I basically listened to that album on repeat alongside the Bon Iver album for nine weeks. I was so obsessed and had so much respect, to the point where I then went back to his first album and realised that it was absolutely brilliant and he had made an album for like-minded people. He was speaking the same language that I speak. There are songs where I think, I would love to make music like that. And of course, I do in my own version that’s authentic to me.
I saw Tom Odell a year or two ago - my girlfriend bought me tickets to his concert. He’s brilliant and then I listened to his most recent album and I feel like he’s speaking to me in every single song. I get him. In his lyrics, they might not be things that I have gone through, but to me it all makes sense. So, I’m making an album with the intention that when people listen to it, every single song is a great song with a different type of energy or feel and you can keep clicking through the album and there’s no weak link.
I got the chance to listen to four of the songs that will be on the album, and I just wanted to let you know that I genuinely really loved them. I kept playing them over and over again.
That’s really, really sweet and such a lovely thing to hear because it’s early days so that’s the best thing I could hear. Thank you for telling me. I’m hoping that you will love the rest of the eight tracks as much as you did those, I think you will.
Of course, I am really excited to hear it fully. Your next single, “Too Good” will be released on the 12th of April, so I want to get into that song a bit! For “Too Good,” was the process similar to “Midnight” in terms of being a song that you kept coming back to over the years or was it much quicker?
“Too Good” is a song that I wrote a few years ago about my first ever film when I was nineteen. I had actually always wanted to go to drama school, but when I started doing music professionally that went out of the window. So I sort of circled back into acting, and I got this film that was shot in Indonesia. The film had about twenty beautiful girls and boys all aged between seventeen and twenty-three. I was nineteen in Jakarta and I’d never done a film before. Honestly it just felt like a holiday. Everyone was just so gorgeous and I remember I felt so out of my depth. The guys were such hunks and I thought, oh my god, how do I stand a chance? [both laugh] So the song is about feeling like they were too good for me. It’s about young Toby looking around and trying his luck and having a crush on someone and just being surrounded by beautiful people all the time - and they’re all movie stars!
There’s a bit after the second chorus that I start talking and it’s kind of distorted. The lyrics are…[recites lyrics]. There is an idea in it that everyone has nice clothes, and I’ve got a fake Rolex. The lyrics reference where we were filming too.
I love learning the meaning behind song lyrics, and at that distorted part I was really curious to know what you were saying, so thank you for that! When I was listening to “Too Good,” and the other three songs, I really felt like I could vividly imagine how they might be performed live. When you are creating music, do you think about how the songs will live on stage?
Never. I should, probably. Then you start rehearsing and you’re like, oh my god, there’s only four of us! Last year has been a bit of a wake-up call with what the music deserves to have production-wise and making sure that it sounds good live too. I’d rather make the music as good as it can be and if it requires twenty things then I’ll do it and deal with the problem after.
You are having your first UK tour in April. You must be so excited!
Yeah, it’s my first tour. I’m super excited to be doing multiple shows instead of doing one show, having all the euphoria, then the next day it’s just over.
I’m sure it will be such a lovely experience. You have a tour, but looking into this whole year, what do your highest hopes look like going forward?
My highest hopes are that I work as much as possible next year. I went to a venue in London recently to see an artist called Andrew Bird. When I was there, I decided that my end of year aim is to headline at that venue. It’s super ambitious [laughs], but that’s what I want more than anything. I want to get a few singles out, play some festivals and release the album.
I love getting in front of a crowd. When everyone is singing my songs back to me, as an artist, those are the moments you live for. But yeah, my hopes going forward are just that people continue to love the music. I have a couple of films in the works and I’m also writing a TV show but that’s a whole other story for another time.