Blokes aren‘t supposed to be capable of multi-tasking, but Tom Williams has pulled off something of a highwire balancing act while juggling spectacularly this past couple of years. There are definitely no regrets at turning his back on the music business though. In fact, he’s positively thriving in his new dual-identity.
I best get some of you up to speed first. A few years ago it was Tom Williams and The Boat, a folk-rock outfit signed to Moshi Moshi, beloved of BBC 6 Music, a support act to Adele, and as Tom put it, ‘nearly making it in the business, but not quite’.
A big decision followed, Tom chucking it all in and turning to teaching, with no plans to make any more records. But then, last year, he made the album of his career, All Change, his fifth long player, put together in practice rooms across Kent in breaks from teaching guitar and songwriting to primary and secondary school children, the lyrics coming to him on long daily drives from his home on the South coast, backed by a band of music tech students.
Many plaudits followed, the LP made on a shoestring yet sounding anything but, described as a reflection of his ‘life-long love affair with 1970s American rock, showcasing a new refinement to his songwriting, and a more commercial edge’. Or as the man himself added, it was, ‘A celebration of the big chord-change and the emotional sucker-punch line’.
The previous band was formed with friends from his hometown, Tunbridge Wells, with 2010 debut album Too Slow leading to support from the likes of Lauren Laverne, Steve Lamacq, Cerys Matthews and Huw Stephens. Yet those early gigs were seldom easy – not even for Adele, with whom he shared the stage supporting Late Of The Pier. He said, “Everyone faced the other way and talked while she sang. It’s brutal when you start. I tell the kids now, don’t let anyone tell you if you’re good you get noticed, because it’s bullshit!”
Contemplating his original change of heart, he gives a matter of fact, “The stars just never aligned for us. I was about to turn 30, I was getting married, and I was teaching and I really love it. I’ve got a mortgage. I’m not that fussed. And I was content.
“I spend most of my time with these kids. I absolutely love teaching seven year-olds their first chords, and helping teenagers get into writing their first songs. Songwriting can make them feel better. It’s like shouting into a balloon.”
What’s more, being forced to bond with his pupils by playing the latest Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift singles led him to look at songwriting in a new light, his methods becoming quicker and more refined. And with no expectations, no plans and no management looking over his shoulder, he just happened to enter the most creative period of his career.
It was in January 2016 that his new songs came to life during a week-long artist-in-residence role in the music department of Leeds Beckett University, getting involved on the proviso that they provided him with a band, which turned out to be the six 19-year-old music technology students who appeared on the LP.
He added, “They were the best band I’ve ever had. I was there pretending to be a success, and they were there pretending to be a band, and we met in the middle and bluffed each other, and it worked.”
The band recorded two songs a day – 20 takes before lunch and 20 after – and Tom persuaded them to stay on during the Easter holidays for a second three-day session. Every one of the seven tracks they recorded made it on to the album.
And what an album, ‘a feast of rock and folk songs drenched in strings, Hammond organ and rich ‘70s harmonies,’ mixed in June by Ian Grimble (The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Mumford & Sons), with additional guitar and backing vocals.
Tom reckons, “The whole album has a magical feeling – it feels like I did it in my sleep. After 10 years trying to make records and chase the industry I was happy and wasn’t chasing it – and for some reason I made a record I loved. Because I’m not worried in it, I’m not self-conscious, and I’m not embarrassed.”
It seems that he’s never been one to take the obvious road. A former student of abstract art, as a teenager he ran away from home to avoid a place studying at Oxford’s prestigious Ruskin School, deciding instead to run away and be a musician, inspired after hearing Mumford & Sons, chasing the romantic notion of being ‘in a warehouse with no heating, throwing paint around’. He eventually took up his place though, and retains a love for abstract art, something arguably reflected in his attitude to music and his zig-zagging path to success.
And teaching – in Kent and East Sussex – is now at the heart of what he does. There’s even a song on All Change co-written with a 15-year-old student. Meanwhile, three of the Leeds students on the album still get out there with him when they can, when their mutual timetables allow it, including a string of six low-key shows starting next Thursday (March 15th) in Stroud, Gloucestershire.
Tom was catching up on lessons when I got in touch earlier this week, after a week of snow, “Back in schools and songwriting workshops,” and, “Also in the middle of finishing a new album – it’s all go, go, go!”
“Absolutely. I love everything I do. I love teaching and tutoring and also love writing, recording and touring with the band. I count myself very lucky and don’t feel like either takes second-fiddle to the other. They’re all equally important parts of my life for sure.”
Tom and his partner Sarah, an illustrator, live in St Leonards-on-Sea, ‘one mile down the seafront from Hastings’, his base for the last eight years. Is fitting the band around work a difficult task then?
“It’s the way I like it. I like being busy. I have lots of friends in bands who are signed to major labels and I see them come off big tours and just shuffling around at home, bored out of their mind. I couldn’t do that. I like that I tour, record and play but also teach and work. Works for me anyway!”
Are your Leeds student friends in the band for this next handful of dates?
“Yes, the band on the album was big, seven or eight, but I’ve taken the core of that band – bass, drums and keys – out on the road with me for this past year. I also have Anthony Vicary, who was in Tom Williams & The Boat. I’ve played and sung with Ant for about 11 years now, so he’s essential.”
You had a lot of interest in the past from the likes of BBC 6 Music, and that still seems to be the case.
“That’s always been vital to us. Even on this last album we were put in 6 Music’s top 10 albums of 2017, which was mind-blowing.”
It was a big decision to make, going into full-time teaching. Was there a catalyst?
“It’s just the way life was going at the time. I really enjoy teaching and like keeping myself busy when I’m not touring or recording. I had no plans to make a new album but then the opportunity to record at Leeds Beckett came about and a new album emerged. A little miracle!”
I get the impression All Change was a ‘no pressure’, ‘doing it for the right reasons’ type project. It certainly comes over that way. Did you find yourself in a creative frame of mind, with that pressure off?
“Absolutely. No label, no management at the time, no band and no songs! Blank canvas, an amazing experience.”
I was very impressed with the result. Were you pleased with the reception?
“We were all thrilled. The album ended up coming out on Caroline International/ Universal, so to sign a major label deal of sorts in your second decade as a musician is pretty weird. We had no expectations at all. It was all a total thrill and a surprise.”
Has the day-job opened your eyes to refining your ideas of what makes a good tune? Because there are some mighty melodic touches on the last album.
“Absolutely. I think teaching pop music to kids of all ages has really helped open my eyes to different ways of singing and writing. It’s been an education for me, not sure my pupils would say the same – ha! It’s certainly exposed me to music I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise.”
The label ‘folk rock’ was brought up in past descriptions, but All Change goes far beyond that. There are elements of the best of Mumford and Sons, Noah and the Whale, and so on, giving an indication of where this all started, but much more. How would you describe your sound?
“I think it’s sounding quite classic rock at the moment, or dare I say it, dad-rock! It’s difficult to describe your own sound. I may be able to describe what I think I sound like but what actually comes out may be a completely different thing.”
I’ve heard you allude to Bruce Springsteen and mention Tom Petty, Nick Cave, Tom Waits … all suggesting a broad church. Who would you say were your biggest influences over the years?
“Bob Dylan never fails to surprise me and blow the cobwebs off. There are still albums I’ve never heard that are amazing. I got into a big Infidels phase in the last six months. Elliott Smith, Ryan Adams and Nirvana were all massive as a teenager and What’s The Story? (Morning Glory) was my first love as a nine-year-old, bought on cassette from Sainsbury’s. I remember seeing War On Drugs at Concorde 2 on the Slave Ambient tour and their solos were so long people were going into trance-like states, it was like a rave. That was amazing. To see guitar music so classic but so contemporary and energised. It was inspiring to see people doing new things with old tools. Not always chasing the new shiny sound.”
All Change was among the cream of the albums of 2017 for this scribe. The single Get High quite rightly got a lot of airplay, Sometimes would sit well on a Lloyd Cole album, and I felt proud on your behalf hearing the album’s opener, Everyone Needs a Home, used as the play-out music on an episode of Cold Feet last year. You’re in good company there over the years.
“That was certainly surreal to say the least. I’ve never had so many texts!”
There’s just a handful of gigs coming up this time. Is it a case of fitting in shows where and when you can?
“We’re just keeping our eye in with six shows now, festivals through the summer, then hopefully a new album before the end of the year. But who knows, eh. ‘Every day is a winding road,’ as a wise woman once said!”
No need to Crow about it, Tom. Actually, my main excuse for speaking is the Lancaster Library show. Erm … a Sunday matinee performance?
“Yes, that should be interesting, getting the band up and awake so early. Let’s see what happens – ha!”
Let’s hope it’s not a case of Sleep Tight Saturday Night, eh. Actually, at the same venue I’ve seen cracking sets in the past from The Thrills, The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, then James Walsh and Ian Broudie (in a double-header). And I see you’re also playing Oldham Library. It’s a splendid idea and a great concept. Besides, anything that keeps libraries open in these days of major Government austerity cuts and a lack of cultural funding has got to be a good thing.
“Absolutely, libraries are sacred spaces and I’ve wanted to play these gigs for years. First time though, can’t wait.”
Talking of alternative venues, I enjoyed your set at St Philip’s Church, Salford, for Sounds from the Other City last May (with a review here). Other acts seemed to struggle with their sound, but it sounded pretty good where I was for you.
“That’s good to hear, thank you. We were first on, so got to sort our sound before we went on – always an advantage. Churches are a nightmare sonically. They were obviously built to amplify acoustic music, so when you pump thousands of watts of amplified sound into them it’s fairly cacophonous. Everyone sounds like the Jesus & Mary Chain!”
Finally, no pressure but you best get on with that new album. Is it a case of fitting recording around school holidays?
“It’s all recorded already. It needs mixing and mastering and it’ll be with you soon. Watch this space!”
Tom Williams and his band visit Stroud’s Marshall Rooms (Thursday, March 15th), Oldham Library & Lifelong Learning Centre (Friday, March 16th), Sheffield Regather (Saturday, March 17th), Lancaster Library (Sunday, March 18th, 2.30pm), Reading’s South Street Arts Centre (Thursday, March 22nd), and Bexhill’s Albatross Club (Friday, March 23rd, already sold out). For ticket details and all the latest from Tom, head to his official website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.