We meet Toby Sebastian at Kazbar, Clinton Pugh’s legendary bar just off St Clements. For those who aren’t in the Oxford know, Clinton Pugh is the unofficial King of Cowley Road. Owner of Kazbar and Café Coco, he’s also Toby’s dad, but we won’t get too bogged down in surnames…In fact, Toby Sebastian was born Sebastian Toby Pugh and it is his sister Florence (yes, Florence Pugh) with whom he has recently collaborated on the song, Midnight. The video stars both Toby and Florence performing at the Kazbar, making it a glorious family affair.
We dive straight into a photo shoot in which Toby gamely straddles chairs, balances on ledges, suffers clothing adjustments and works with some of our more outlandish suggestions, all in the name of art. After two hours, he has to leave as he’s due at the BBC. We’ve learned he is very photogenic, very easy going and he makes a great cup of coffee, but we need to know more about Midnight, music and his forthcoming tour. Luckily, he suggests a time the following week to meet again. See what we said about being easy going?
Let’s talk about your music – who inspires you?
So, I’ll give you three names that spring to mind. Bowie, because I grew up listening to Bowie. He’s my dad’s favourite artist and most of my childhood memories with him are listening to Bowie.
Favourite Bowie song?
Young Americans, because I like the soul side that Bowie also brought. He’s obviously rock but he also crossed at times with soul, so the next person I was going to say was Al Green because Al Green is what I share with my mum. My mum grew up listening to soul – well my dad did as well but my dad is more Bowie. She loved lots of people, but of those soul artists I love Al Green the most because I love his melodies and I love the string sections, they give me life. They make me happy and sad all at the same time and my favourite Al Green song is I Try to Tell Myself.
Then one other artist that springs to mind, Marc Bolan – whether solo or in T Rex. He's an amazing amalgamation between rock and roll and, once again, soft sensitive soul melodies. Whether there’s lots of people singing like in Hot Love and you’ve got those la la la’s [at this point Toby has burst into song] at the end, or Cosmic Dancer which makes you want to cry but it’s also so happy.
Tell us about the new album.
People are going to hear a blend of songs that represent me now, a couple of ideas I’ve had forever and a couple of things I always wanted to do something with, and now I’m in the position to be able to make them what they should be. I’ve had years of thinking and also, I guess, a freedom which I haven’t felt for a long time with music. The album will be coming out after summer, with a few singles coming out over the summer starting with a single on April 12, called Too Good.
Talk to us about Midnight; the song came out in 2021 and now you've released a video. Why the wait?
Just the ability to do it. It’s very difficult to get people in the same room let alone the same country – especially in this world that Flo and I are in, of film, TV and obviously music. It was never the right time because we both had three million things on. There was a gap in both of our diaries where we were both going to be in England for at least a month, so we knew that we could then push and pull within the month. It’s probably the first time in 18 months that we definitely knew we would be in the same country at the same time.
So it was always the plan to do a video?
Yeah – I mean the song happened kind of organically; it was never really planned that Flo would feature on it. I wrote it years ago and spent three or four years obsessing as to how I might record it one day because I wanted to do it justice. On the day that it was done, I was going to be flying to Ireland to do a TV show the next day. Florence was at home and I’d been given the green light to go and get the song mastered. My mum said I should get Florence to sing on the song. We were all in the car and she was singing it and I thought, wait; that is 100% a good idea. So, I was like, ‘do you want to do it?’ and she was like, ‘I do, but I don’t want you to feel I have to do it because mum said’, and I was like, ‘right we’re doing it then’. So we did 30 minutes in the studio, and that was it. With a song that you love, it's particularly important you do a music video, and if your sister’s involved – or someone close to your heart – then it’s even more reason to do something fun and creative because it's literally just that: fun.
Not much need for rehearsal, then?
There was no rehearsal. There were discussions and a lot of planning but Florence and I didn’t really require any rehearsal just because we were just singing the song, and for us, that’s like walking I guess. In our family we're always writing and singing and all that, and it’s just easy. I suppose what makes it easier is that we were in a location that we'd pretty much grown up in, on a street that is sandwiched between two restaurants we’ve spent our lives in and we were filming in one of them. We had my maintenance guy – a wonderful guy who works for my dad – running around helping. It was a real village, that ‘it takes a village’ mentality and that’s kind of the beauty behind it.
Does it ever get competitive in your family?
I wouldn't say competitive but it’s so normal that someone – or everyone – in the family has stuff going on. We are in all the best possible ways, mad. And, we're bohemian because mum and dad are.
You just thrive off each other?
I think so yeah. My older sister Bella has like three degrees. She's been an actress, a musician, she's an amazing songwriter, she's a voice coach, she's got a Master’s from one of the best universities in England. Then you've got my younger sister Raffie who is a genius costume designer, and she’ll be a star. She can do everything; she can sing, she can act, she could be a lawyer if she wanted to be, she is just a whiz kid. Then you've got Flo and I, who are both doing film and TV work. We're kind of used to all that stuff; we're always creating or jumping from one thing to the next. We've got a family chat and every single time something great happens it’s like ‘omg, you’re killing it!’
Let’s talk about your acting. You played Andrea Bocelli in The Music of Silence. Playing a living person must be quite daunting?
Yeah, it’s terrifying. It is sensitive and you've got to make it as authentic as possible. I was lucky he was very involved. There was a two-month period before we shot and he really wanted to spend time with me to give me proper insight. I had two weeks hanging out with him in Italy.
Before that, there was Game of Thrones which was a global success, and you have new projects out soon?
There are a couple of things I did pre-pandemic which are coming out now. One of them is a comedy, Coffee Wars, with Kate Nash. Wonderful actress and singer. It’s about barista championships – they are a real thing: people take their coffee seriously. I play Kate’s arch nemesis, her rival. She runs a vegan coffee shop and I’m Rudy who has his hair shaved on both sides and he has tattoos on his neck. He's just this terrifying character who is an anti-vegan, meat-eating, dairy-guzzling, crazy person who has gone out with vengeance to try and destroy her business. It’s got Sally Philips, Hugh Dennis, Saoirse Monica Jackson, Owain Arthur. It’s just totally bonkers and fun.
I also did a TV show called All You Need is Me about a band from London who sign a record deal in LA with Capital Records. They head out there in search of fame and glory and I play the lead singer called Jonny who basically makes their lives 100 times more complicated. That’s now out on ITV X.
Do you feel that when you’re performing your music you have to get into character?
Well, in acting you’ve got to find a version of yourself – or some of yourself – in whatever character you do, to make it real. When I’m performing music I’m trying to relax as much as possible. I guess the whole point is to be enjoying it like, you’re not performing in front of 1,000 people. That can be easier said than done. I can’t wait to play Oxford this year. There’s nothing like playing in your home town or city.
This is your first headline tour, right?
Yeah, so we've got Bristol, Manchester, Oxford, and London. I think the last show is the Oxford one and that’s the most exciting. Then we've got a couple of festivals this year but can’t say which yet – I’m not allowed to announce yet.
Finally, how do you spend your free time when you’re in Oxford?
It depends on the time of the year.
Let's go with April.
Ok, so countryside walks and maybe meeting some friends or family. Then Cowley road, which is a given because the two places that I spend most of my time in Oxford are the Kazbar and Cafe Coco. They are home and I think – without being too biased – they are two of the best places in all of Oxford and I absolutely love them.
We don’t think you’re biased.
I get all my friends to come here because this is where we want to be in Oxford. Up the Cowley Road, awesome places. Truck Records is an amazing place and actually, they’re in my music video as well. We shot in there a little bit. What else is good? Jericho. I love Cowley Road and I love Jericho. Oxford is such an amazing city because you can just walk around looking at the most beautiful buildings. All the independent businesses, going to the Covered Market with all those wonderful butchers, coffee shops, jewellery shops, chocolate shops. Ben’s Cookies was like the first place that I ever spent my own money, it originated in Oxford, which is why it’s so special.
Styling: Sophie Elkan @sophieelkan
Sunburst silk dressing gown in blue and silk scarves by Geoff Stocker geoffstocker.com
Lapis bead bracelet, Gold Wide Waterfall ring and True North gold pendant by Dower and Hall dowerandhall.com
Hats provided by Ballroom Emporium, ballroomemporium.co.uk
All other clothing and jewellery, Toby’s own, including suede jacket from Percival Clothing London percivalclo.com
Finally, we are very grateful to David Sullivan from Wilful Publicity, and also to Ian Wallman @ianwallman without whom this couldn’t have happened.