The Boileroom presents:
+ Tom Gortler
Entry Requirements: 14+
“Most music today is cheap. I don’t want to write a nursery rhyme which sounds like it’s being sung by a 14-year old. I found a strength in music which used to be a fear. Now I want to be an icon for people like me, from my background, from those communities, who feel like they’ve got no prospects” – Louis Berry.
When Louis Berry was growing up in a troubled household and heading into some more of his own, his grandfather took him to one side and gave him a banjo.
“He had a guitar there and I’d started playing it,” remembers the young singer, “but he said, ‘Everyone plays the guitar, they’re ten-a-penny lad.’ Get on the banjo and do something different.’”
The banjo eventually gave way to the guitar – and Louis only returned to music after a long period of going seriously off the rails, but the likable lad from Liverpool’s Kirkby district has barely had a moment to look back. He signed a publishing deal at his first gig, a record deal at the second, and has since recorded in the country capital of Nashville and learned his craft in Hamburg, just like the Beatles 50 years before him. Along the way, there have been rapturously received shows and festival triumphs, while his debut EP, Rebel, received Radio 1’s Zane Lowe’s coveted honour, “the hottest record in the world today.” Louis’s fiery, uptempo, social commentary-filled rock ‘n’ roll music is delivered in a Liverpudlian Dylan rasp and acknowledges his key influences – Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke and Tupac Shakur – without sounding one bit arch, knowing, stylised or retro. His story isn’t a typical one of a modern rising star, either. It’s one of incredible hardship in Liverpool’s “Smack city”, drifts into criminality and high speed car chases – but one in which the self-confessed “lonely rebel with a revolutionary mind” has made it through and now intends to make a difference. When he was growing up, Louis’s father was a heroin addict. Like many in Liverpool of his generation, he’d drifted into the drug that suddenly flooded the streets in the 80s and equally suddenly, found himself addicted. The effect on the family was devastating. Louis’s mother became first depressed and then anorexic, and her son remembers times when she was so painfully thin that he’d snuggle up to her to try and keep her warm.
Other memories are no less harrowing: seeing his father turned blue on the living room carpet, or rubbing water on his lips to try and revive him. Gradually, Louis became “parent” to them both, eventually understanding that while he hated his father’s behaviour, it was being caused by the drugs. P.T.O “My mum used to hide any money we had,” he explains. “The reality of heroin addiction is that if they don’t get what they need, they’ll be vomiting blood, their heart will give up and they will die. So he was like ‘Just give me the money’ and he’d beat her up and I’d try and stop it and I’d get beaten up as well. I wouldn't get fed. I think other parents had an idea what was going on, and they fed me, and I remember those people and I won't forget what they did for me.”
He also saw enough of his father’s other side – the kind, gentle person who, when stable, would read science and history books with him for hours – to know that he wasn’t a lost cause. “It’s a weird thing, loving someone and hating them at the same time.”
Feeling conflicted, with as few prospects as his Kirkby peers but having to take care of the family and fend for himself, Louis fell into “selling drugs and doing all sorts.”, with all the accompanying risks.
“There was a high chance of me being killed, as there is for anyone in that game,” he admits, venturing into the territory which inspires his startling brink of death song, Man Down. “It terrified me into panic attacks. I think it was because I’d lived on adrenalin my whole life – not knowing if my own dad would kill me, high speed police chases, serious altercations. It started to overwhelm me.”
Fatefully, one night he found himself watching a singer-songwriter at a local session, and hazily remembered the childhood thrill of playing music at his grandfather’s.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going out there, putting mine and other people’s lives at risk, and he’s getting more respect than me, and he’s just writing songs’,” he explains. “So I thought I’d write some songs as well.”
He did just that, for months on end, and was surprised at how easy they were coming – perhaps because he’d bottled his thoughts and feelings up for so long, they suddenly erupted in a blaze of words and melody. He came up with as many as five songs a day on an acoustic guitar. After initially trying to play a form of Irish traditional music but not getting it right, he strapped on an electric guitar and Louis Berry’s “new old” rock ‘n’ roll sound was born.
Cue another fateful twist, when Louis was put in touch with an engineer who’d worked with Rihanna and Coldplay, but who’d never produced anyone. The pair clicked, and they started recording. When the results of these sessions found their way to BBC Introducing, Louis found himself hurriedly getting a band together and playing his first ever gig at the Cavern, for the BBC, to a riotous reception from a crowd including all his mates from a life he was about to leave behind.
Although the second gig was a year in coming – the little difficulty of putting together a permanent band – things have just rollercoasted. There’s been other well-received singles, ‘45’ and ‘Nicole’, and three headline UK tours. P.T.O
In Hamburg, too, Louis found himself blowing the crowd away when he got up after a procession of identikit modern pop groups and hit the crowd with “straight up rock ‘n’ roll”. The place just erupted – as they often do, when faced with Louis’s raw, heartfelt songs which come from somewhere slightly deeper and more genuine that most of the pop fluff.
“I can’t write a song because it rhymes,” he considers. “Most music today is cheap. I don’t want to write a nursery rhyme which sounds like it’s being sung by a 14-year old. I found a strength in music which used to be a fear. I used to be afraid to expose myself in songs, but now it’s a strength to sing a song to a woman in that way, and tell them how I feel.”
Many of the songs on Louis’s forthcoming album concern relationships, and the struggles in them, which may be an legacy of that childhood – including 25 Reasons in which he lists the reasons why a girl is wrong for him, “And one of them is that I’ve got another 24!”. More seriously, others, such as the haunting Rumours Of War – a title lifted from the Bible - stake his claim as the only real protest singer of his generation. Louis is not religious in the conventional sense, but describes Man Down as “a prayer. I’m dying and my spirit is leaving my body to go to the next world. The line ‘I feel the holes in my body Lord but I feel no pain’ was because I imagined myself getting shot. But I was only doing those things in my life because I felt they were necessary. I had no pain in my body, but my pain was my soul.” He brightens. “It’s not your average pop song, no.”
If Louis Berry has entered an afterlife, it’s musical, not spiritual. He may have left the old life behind him, but he will always carry it with him, and it is making him determined to make his mark.
“I want to be an icon for people like me, from my background, from those communities, who feel like they’ve got no prospects,” he says. “I pull up in the street now in a car and there’s kids running over, going ‘Louis, Louis’, but I want to give them something. Some hope. I’d like to live long, but if my music lives longer than me, than I will be happy.”
Surrey based singer/songwriter, Tom Gortler, is an up and coming artist currently gigging up and down the country.