BGT winner Tokio Myers: Simon Cowell flew me to his house in LA ... it was like being a kid in a spaceship
Ahead of a gig in Belfast in April, BGT winner Tokio Myers tells Joe Nerssessian why he loves surprising people.
Tokio Myers relishes being labelled an underdog. It worked for him when he rocked up to the prestigious Royal College of Music not as an aspiring rapper, as many expected, but as a pianist with a love for Frederic Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
It happened again when he brought his electrifying mash-ups to television screens across the country courtesy of Britain's Got Talent, sweeping to victory in the process.
From delicate piano constructs to full-on electronic sculptures, he mixed Adele with Beethoven, and Ed Sheeran with Claude Debussy.
People lapped it up, and now they're doing the same with his debut album, which fuses classical, cinematic, hip-hop, dance and Nineties soul.
The relatively new star will play Belfast's SSE Arena on Saturday, April 14 - and tickets are nearly all sold out.
Stretched out in a wide booth in a central London restaurant, the 33-year-old smiles widely as he reflects on a magical year.
"The more you put me in a place I'm not supposed to be, the more it excites me. I get a kick out of it because I know I can educate people," he says.
"I really love being the underdog, I don't like doing the obvious thing. I don't want to be put in a box."
His motivation to audition for the ITV talent show came from a fear of stagnation. After years as a session musician for Mr Hudson And The Library, where he toured with everyone from Kanye West to Amy Winehouse, Tokio wanted to flaunt a sound he'd worked hard to hone.
"I reached a point in my life and things were pretty static, and I hate static," he says.
"I woke up one morning and decided I was going to do it, just for the sheer sake of it. It was going to be super challenging."
A few days before we meet, Tokio teased the album, Our Generation, at an intimate showcase where he was introduced by broadcaster Reggie Yates, a friend since his Mr Hudson days.
The atmosphere was scintillating. A 360-degree performance space was created by keyboards, an electric drum pad and copious other pieces of equipment.
Tokio sweated his way round the instruments to flaunt his sound to journalists, critics and industry figures.
He was keen for it to not have a "soulless vibe".
"These people have seen loads of these things", he says emphatically, punching his sentences to make his point.
"They're going every week, week in, week out, so the challenge for me was to make things different."
His performance was all the more exceptional when because it was completed while he had the flu.
Tokio, who was born in London, was awarded a scholarship at the Royal College before going on to work with Mr Hudson. Kanye was a highlight, he says, recalling a backstage basketball match with the superstar.
"Within five minutes, we were off to play basketball," the musician explains. "They bring a net with them on tour and I'm there blocking Kanye, taking jump shots in his face, pulling faces at him... it was very surreal."
As a touring musician. Tokio also performed at Glastonbury in 2009. It's a platform he would like to return to.
"I want to take this to the top - this isn't just for my bedroom," he laughs, in bewilderment perhaps at his own rise from small crowds to the Royal Variety Show (BGT winners automatically play the event).
"I definitely would love to be a household name - that's a dream. The same as Hans Zimmer is... you say his name and you're like, 'Ah amazing, epic composer'.
"That kind of vibe - that's all I want, nothing much."
During his classical training, Tokio was surrounded by a lot of aspiring musicians from a rich, white background. It would be easy for him to say he wants to change that. And in a sense he does, but not at the expense of targeting his former peers.
"My fight isn't with race," he says. "My mum's white, my dad's black. I've got nothing against race, or money or wealth or any of that kind of stuff. Them kids didn't choose to be part of that - they were born in it. But at the same time, it should be for everyone. There's loads of kids who won't do it because of the perception it's not for them."
"I hope those kids will see me and say it's cool to play Chopin or Rachmaninoff."
He picks up the point again. He wants to offer escapism.
"I've been lucky to go away, and in certain places culture and nature is priority," Tokio says. "People live simply, they're not chasing a Ferrari or big house.
"I try and take people into a world and forget all about the c*** we have to deal with, chasing the rent money or their struggles."
Perhaps it's not exactly something you expect to come from an artist signed to Simon Cowell's Syco record label to come out with. But as we've worked out, Tokio is no ordinary artist.
He's adamant that despite his own hesitations about the world of shows like BGT, he owes them, and Simon, a lot.
"Simon's been massive," he says. "I spoke to him last night on the phone and he's just been there through the whole process.
"He flew me out to LA and I went to his house. We were just playing demos. I feel like a kid in a spaceship.
"The team, they are on it. They are really good, they're really excited. We recorded a 40-piece live orchestra in Abbey Road with full brass system... everything is real, nothing is cheap."
Tokio goes to these lengths because it is his job to connect with people, he says.
"I'm just choosing to do it through music, and the piano and music are my voice," he adds.
"I am here to connect - it's a crazy time that we live in and music is important to all of us when we're down, when we're happy, and when we need a little boost.
"What do we go to if it isn't music?"
- Tokio Myers' Our Generation is out now. He is playing Belfast's SSE Arena on Saturday, April 14, at 8pm. Visit ssearenabelfast.com/tokio-myers for details