Cary Baker of The Daily Country interviews Tom about his influences starting out, finding inspiration and songwriting for the new album “Voices”.
Did you have a musical mentor? If so, who was it and how did they influence you?
I’m easily influenced, so it would be just about anybody I’ve ever listened to. Main ones would be—Paul Robeson, the operatic baritone; I loved his voice and wanted to sing just like that. I was 10 at the time and my voice hadn’t changed yet, so that didn’t work out well. My (older) cousin Beau Beals, who taught me how to play the ukulele and, more importantly, taught me that music was fun, despite my horrible experiences with Piano Lessons. Josh White—I loved his songs, guitar style, voice. Eric von Schmidt, who was, in my mind at least, the mainspring of the whole Cambridge, MA, folk scene in the early ‘60’s; he had the songs, he wrote the songs, he had the style. I stole a lot from him!
With (please choose a song), what was the “a-ha” moment when you knew the song was completed and perfect?
I’m still looking forward to such a moment. Songs, unfortunately, don’t come with those pop-up timers you get with roasting chickens. (I’ve asked the Muse about it, but she hasn’t been returning my call for some reason.) Songs, for me, are very pliable, and tend to change even after I’ve recorded them. And, “Perfection,” as the wise ones say, “is for Allah.”
What’s the story behind your album’s title? “Voices” is, of course, one of the songs on the album.
It’s a pretty diverse selection of songs, and I felt that “Voices” represented the best overview. (I didn’t want to call it “If I Never Get Back To Hackensack It’ll Be All Right With Me,” for instance.)
Why did you choose to anchor the album with the songs you did?
This is the first album I’ve done where I’ve written all the songs (with the exception of two traditional tunes—I didn’t want to compromise my Folksinger credentials), and they happened to be all the songs I had at the moment. (In fact, Jim Rooney, the producer, was appalled to discover, on the second day of recording, that we only had 11 songs. “I counted one twice!” he exclaimed. I thought I had the ideal solution: we’d number the album the way Trump numbers the floors on his towers. “We’ll have songs 1 through 6, and then 8 through 12, see if anybody notices.” He wouldn’t go for it.I had to go back to the motel and write a song that night, and thus “Hackensack” was born.)
Where do you draw inspiration from when writing?
I have no idea. Different artists have different ways of expressing it, but my feeling is that the songs already exist somewhere out there, and my job is to tease them into this world without doing too much damage. It’s like listening to a distant radio station that fades in and out, catching a phrase here, a bit of melody the next time. (Arlo says it’s like fishing in a river—sometimes you catch a little one, once in a while a big one. But it really sucks if you’re fishing downstream from Bob Dylan.)
When/where do you do your best writing?
I get ideas and jot them down wherever I happen to be, then, if I can find that scrap of paper, work on them when I next have a quiet moment, usually at home—it’s just too busy on the road.
Do you write about a personal experience, the experience of others, observations, made-up stories, something else or a combination?
What’s the best advice you have ever gotten from another musician?
David Bromberg (a MONSTER guitar player, if you don’t know) once asked me to show him something on the guitar. I was dumbfounded. Me show him a guitar lick?!? He said (words to the effect of) “Everybody knows something I don’t know. I’d like to learn it.” Very profound!
What’s the best advice to give to a musician just starting out?
Play in front of a real, live audience every chance you get. You’ll learn more in 30 minutes than you will in a month of practicing in the kitchen. (Music is a bit like tennis—you need somebody on the other side of the net. Music without a listener is … kind of pointless.)
This interview originally appeared in The Daily Country published here with permission.
You can pick up your copy of ‘Voices’ in the TomRush.com online store.