If you’re a pop music stan and, like Black Phillip, you’re fond of living deliciously, then you need to dive into Tom Aspaul’s triumphant debut album. Black Country Disco, named after the singer-songwriter’s West Midlands origins, is a 10-track set full to the brim of relentless Italo-disco bangers, largely inspired by industry legends such as Madonna, Sylvester, Kylie Minogue and Daft Punk.
For the past six years, Tom has released a string of critically-adored pop anthems and written for the likes of Alex Newell, AlunaGeorge, Charlotte OC, Little Boots and Kylie – to name a few – but it wasn’t until this year that the star decided to craft his debut effort. Black Country Disco came to fruition following his departure from London and the breakdown of a long-term relationship. Although it chronicles his journey through heartbreak and loss – “I’m not really reinventing the wheel,” says Tom – it also delves into acceptance, freedom and most importantly, the joy of finding yourself again.
“For a lot of musicians, there has to be some kind of switch to flick,” explains Tom. “You have to have a bit of pain and a lived experience to make great songs, and I was competent. I was doing alright, but I don’t think it was really me. Working on this album, I felt energised. When you’re with someone, you melt together and you kind of lose elements of your personality because you’re trying to fit around another person. I’d forgotten lots of things that I love and things I’d like to do. When you’re on your own, you remember who you are a bit more.”
Over Zoom, we spoke with Tom about the story behind Black Country Disco, the connection between the queer community and disco, and the “student projects” he has lined up for the rest of 2020. There’s also a lot about Black Phillip, mentioned above, a goat slash devil who served as inspiration for the album’s most relentless track, 01902.
You’ve been releasing music since around 2013 – why was now the right time to release your debut?
With leaving London and my relationship ending, I just had this big life-changing thing happen, and I was faced with a lot of time to myself. Thinking helped me write a lot, and it just made perfect sense that there was this body of work for me. Until then, I’d always had a part time job or write songs for other people. I’d never really devoted all my attention to my artist project. Having something like that happen really shook me to my core, I guess, and made me realise that life’s too short and you just need to do it. If you don’t do it, then it’s not going to get done, and I think I was a bit too tentative with my own music. I always over-thought and over-planned everything, and was only releasing maybe one song a year for a very long time. I just thought, ‘Fuck it. I love doing this. Now is the chance.’ Logistically, as well, I had more time because I was at home. I’ve had to do everything from producing and the label stuff, creating the artwork… It’s been a full project. In a perverse way, lockdown and the pandemic helped because I had all of this time to get it done. I always release music based on how I’m feeling, and what I’m going through at that point, and because I was in a relationship for five years, my music wasn’t particularly… interesting? I was really happy and sort of coasting through life. So, I had all these things to draw upon with the lyrics and stuff, and a lot of people relate to heartbreak. I’m not really reinventing the wheel.
Do you find it easier to write for other people or yourself?
I find it a lot easier writing for myself. A lot of issues when I was songwriting is that I would go into the studio with someone I didn’t necessarily know, and we would have to write something super personal and meaningful to them, and it’s hard when you don’t really know the person. You only have a limited amount of time, you have like eight hours or two days or something, and I was feeling that pressure quite a lot. Rather than writing one amazing song, I was just writing five mediocre ones a week. I think it’s related to the fact that I was in a very stable relationship, and I was happy and nodding along through life. For a lot of musicians, there has to be some kind of switch to flick, for you to get your feelings out and express them. I don’t really take myself that seriously as an artist, I find it weird talking about it like that, but that’s what it is. You have to have a bit of pain and a lived experience to make great songs, and I was competent. I was doing alright, but I don’t think it was really me. Working on this album, I felt energised, and I could probably go and write a great song with someone else now. I had to go through this process… When you’re with someone, you melt together and you kind of lose elements of your personality because you’re trying to fit around another person. I’d forgotten lots of things that I love and things I’d like to do. When you’re on your own, you remember who you are a bit more.
Do you consider Black Country Disco a breakup album?
The first half of it is, yeah. It’s written completely in sequence, so the first song on the album is the first song I wrote and the last album on the album is the last song I wrote. It tells the story of me being unsure of the relationship, the relationship starting to end, it ending, and then the aftermath, me leaving London and having a step back from it all, going out, having fun and being a slut. It’s been a cathartic experience. I don’t want people to think it’s sad like Adele because there’s elements that aren’t really touched upon in pop music, like the fact that me and my boyfriend were allowed to date other people. I was really happy with that, but then when we did eventually split up, it makes that element kind of difficult. Not a lot of straight people have that kind of relationship. I touch upon that in a couple of songs. It’s more or less a breakup record, and a concept album in that sense.
Is there a better way to get over someone than with a disco-pop banger?
100%, yeah. It’s literally the most bog standard pop music trope to do a sad banger like Robyn or Kelly Clarkson. Maybe not Kelly Clarkson, I don’t know why that popped into my head.
Even Gloria Gaynor, right?
Exactly. There’s a sort of melancholy wrapped up in disco because it happened in the late 70s, early 80s, and there was a lot of hedonistic, very gay and very Black people that came up with it. It was the pioneering, creative generation that was cut short by the HIV and AIDS epidemic. It’s tinged with sadness when you listen to it because this hedonism couldn’t keep going, and a lot of them died. Sylvester, for instance, was an amazing Black, gay disco singer and everything’s tinged with, ‘It’s not permanent and nothing lasts forever.’ That’s why I’m really drawn to disco. A lot of the songs are really sad, where you can just dance the pain away-type thing. It’s all wrapped up in that melancholy sadness and people who were really lonely go to the clubs to escape all of that. I really connected to that. My mum used to play me a lot of that music growing up, and it’s a massive part of my life. There’s a lot of people sort of doing disco – what they think is disco – at the moment. I don’t think it’s sonically very disco, just aesthetically disco, whereas I’ve really tried to reference a lot of Italo-disco and some really crap German disco that I really like. I’ve really done my homework on it and I’ve always been drawn to flares! But like I said, it’s been really cathartic, and I hope people sense, not just the personal sadness, but the element of fun. You can dance and there’s no ballads – that’s the main thing!
The album reminds me of Madonna’s Confessions on a Dancefloor – did it serve as inspiration at all?
Yes! That was a massive, massive reference. It’d been doing this thing all year… It’s probably really boring, but since lockdown started, I’ve been reliving Madonna’s career year by year and listening to every album for a week in sequence. I got to Confessions as I was just finishing my album. I really wanted there to be a sense of consistency. A lot of the songs are influenced by her early stuff with Nile Rogers, and I like how with Confessions, she picked an era and stuck with it. It feels like you know what you’re getting. That was really important, so I’m glad you picked up on that.
Thinking back to the creation of each song, which was the most challenging to put together? And vice versa?
I worked with a producer called Gil Lewis on eight out of ten of the songs, and the one that took the most back-and-forth was Tender. We just kept changing the arrangement, and it never felt like it went anywhere. I knew it was a great little song and I didn’t know how to end it, and during lockdown, there were a lot of tedious Zoom calls and emails and we never quite got there. In the end I was like, ‘Let’s just stuck to the demo,’ and that’s the version we put out in the end. That took, I think, a year to get that done. Sometimes, the demo is the best thing because it’s the most pure version of the song. That was me putting my heart out there, and adding more to it was taking it away. That was the most difficult and laboured, but also because I’ve never been a producer before. Over lockdown, I learned how to produce, basically, which was a big deal for me because I’ve never been able to do it. The easiest ones… I think writing them was easy, for some of them it only took 20 minutes. W.M. was really quick. I did that over two days but in two really short stints. I was on a treadmill listening to Victoria Beckham, and I love her song Let Your Head Go, because it’s a disco-y sort of song. I was like, ‘Let your head go is a really good phrase, I need to get this into the song somehow.’ That summer, I had been dragging up as Victoria Beckham so I just thought it would be really funny to do that.
Victoria Beckham is a really unexpected reference. Were there any other left-field artists that influenced the direction of Black Country Disco?
Oh my god, the Nolans. They are really underrated. I’m embarrassed to say that, but they are. Victoria Beckham was a lyrical reference, just because I’m obsessed with her, but then in 01902, there’s a reference to the film The Witch. There’s a character in that film called Black Phillip, who’s a goat, and he’s basically the devil. He says, “Would you like to live deliciously?” and I’ve always loved that line, so I built a whole song around it which is basically about me going on a Grindr date. I went to a hotel because I was living with my parents at the time and I couldn’t necessarily invite someone round, so we went to this hotel and it was… wild. I’ve never done anything like that. It was really risky as well, but really enjoyable. After, I felt really naughty, so I thought, ‘Let’s put a quote in from a film about the devil, why not? Let’s do that.’ It’s mortifying because my sister reposted that song on Instagram just now and I was like, ‘Have you listened to the lyrics?’ I look back and I’m so glad I did it. It was really fun. I had a great time. When I was recording the vocals for it, I was like, ‘How can I make this really sexy?’ I was just in my spare room at my mum and dad’s house with a mattress and a cot, and I was breathing really heavy down the microphone and thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life? What am I doing? Are people going to like this?’ I’m kind of just taking the piss anyway. If anyone loves it, I just reply with a picture of Black Phillip the goat. I really want to do some Black Phillip merchandise. I might get done for it…
It’s just a goat.
It’s just a goat. It’s a goat. I don’t know what the significance of goats is? Is it the bible maybe?
Is the horns? Are they connected to the devil?
It’s the horns. I don’t know. Do I care? No, I don’t care? But yeah, Black Phillip is an interesting one.
You’ve worked on a short film to accompany Black Country Disco – what can we expect from that?
In my eight years as a recording artist, I’ve never done a music video. I actually tried three times. That’s like Theresa May isn’t it? ‘I tried three times.’ Each time, something horrendous happened. I got appendicitis the day before a shoot once, and for the first one, the director insisted on me having a girlfriend in the music video. I was like, ‘That’s not happening.’
How is this shit still happening?
Yeah, like sorry… Have you not met me? I can’t remember what happened on the second one, but I’ve had three misfires, and so I’ve always been like, ‘I’m cursed.’ But then, I did a photoshoot with this photographer Sam, who is super amazing, he’s gay and he gets my aesthetic. I floated the idea, and instead of doing one song, we did three. It has a little narrative about me moving back to the West Midlands. It was shot in and around Wolverhampton, on film, so it’s aesthetically very of the era. 01902 is in the music video and there’s a couple of dancers. It’s super gay. I was like, ‘Let’s just camp it up,’ because I was wearing short shorts and there’s a lot of lens flares. It then segways into Tender, which is me in a bath looking a bit sad, and goes into W.M, which is a love letter to Wolverhampton.
Were there any… complications?
This film crew came to stay with me and we just drove around West Midlands. It was really intense. There was thunder, lightning, rain… We got told to move off a golf course, and someone called the people who ran the golf club on us. They were like, ‘It’s a film crew! What are you doing?’ and we said, ‘It’s for a student project!’ It was just mad. I slept maybe four hours in three days. We were meant to shoot 7th August but I started to develop a stye on my eye. I’m going to show you because it was so bad. Again, I was like, ‘I’m cursed!’ In the end, it went really well. This is it, here’s my eye…
Bloody hell. Why is the universe preventing you from a successful music video shoot?
I don’t know! Maybe I just have a face for radio. Every time I tried, I’d be so stressed and heartbroken about it. It’s a lot of money! There’s so much riding on it, so the idea of your body failing you by giving you a fucking stye… I’m just like, ‘Not again!’ It’s horrible, but it’s done now. We’re in the process of editing it and it’s about 10 minutes long. I’ve never done a music video, so I’m just looking forward to having it out there and showing people that I can perform, dance and do everything. No one has any idea what I look like apart from stills!
So can we expect some hardcore choreo?
It’s full on choreo, yeah! I choreographed 01902 and it’s like… Do you know about that new Russell T. Davies series called Boys?
Is it the one with Olly Alexander?
With Olly Alexander. There’s a guy in the show called Omari Douglas and he went to school with me in Wolverhampton. We’re quite good pals and I know he can dance because he did performing arts at school, so I just got in touch with him and he managed to find another dancer to make it a trio. We kept it within West Midlands and the choreo is very camp. I could talk to you about it for hours because I was in Wolverhampton, wearing a cowboy hat and flares and this homeless person said, ‘Are you a cowboy?’ I was like, ‘It’s a student project!’ We just kept saying that. A lot of faces in Wolverhampton have never seen anything like it. We also got the Midland Metro! The tram company agreed to let me film on their platform and to put my lyrics on their announcement screens, which is incredible. Hopefully it will come out 28th September, fingers crossed. As soon as I get a rough cut, I will send it to you guys so you can take a look.
Please. I’m so intrigued. So, let me get this straight: not only are you a singer and writer, you’re now a singer, writer, producer and choreographer?
Oh my god, yes. I mean… My glowing CV! My curriculum vitae or whatever. The list is endless. Hopefully, in the future, I’ll be doing a remix album, which will be quite similar to Dua Lipa’s project Club Future Nostalgia. I honestly came up with it first, just saying! It’s going to be called Black Country Discotheque, which I think is quite clever. All the songs are going to be reworked and I’m going to be re-recording quite a lot of them. There will be shit loads of collaborations because this album was very important, that I was the only artist and there were no features, and one producer. I want to work with as many queer artists as possible, people like Bronze Avery. I rate him, we’re really good pals. I’d love to ask MNEK, but he just so happens to be number one so whether or not he will have the time… Then, I literally want to get cracking on album number two and release it in a year because I have so many ideas for it already. I’m not giving anything away but my rain reference for that is Gina G.
Will you be sampling Ooh Ahh?
If I get the rights then I’ll do that, definitely. 100%.
What about horror icons? Who will follow in the footsteps of Black Phillip?
I might do Hereditary. I think it has to be that to be honest. I have nightmares about that, to be honest. Or maybe the screaming and crying from Midsommar. Let’s just make it really witchy and horrible.
Black Country Disco is now available on iTunes and streaming services.