Thomas Oliver…the name has always seemed familiar…suddenly I realise that its Cromwell hovering over both names…I’m reading The Mirror and the Light ( the third in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell). I must ask him next time, but it’s also a good name for a song…
Anyway, last week I was offered the opportunity to talk to Thomas Oliver and take a look at the new album. I said, give me a week, I need to listen to the previous one as well, which has been languishing in my “not quite getting through” bin, for want of attention. And so I immerse, firstly from a distance, in the background, not too deep.
Then, I take a more critical view. And I like. More than like. I tell him the average age of his fan club has just gone up a notch. He laughs, but is sceptical…apparently there are other old farts like me who dig this kid…and yes, now I remember, it was a friend of mine, same vintage, who told me a couple of years ago to watch out for this young man who first went solo with a guitar album celebrating the Weissenborn guitar. An instrumental. Like Bill Frisell. Who would have advised him to do that? I expect, now that I’ve met him, no-one. He’s his own man.
And that album actually surprised him in the way it internationalised his audience and laid a base for the all ages phenomena which characterises his considerable and growing following.
The Brightest Light was released on March 6th. Thomas and his New Zealand band had done a few release gigs in Europe before he came home to do Homegrown and got locked in for producing too good an album. Cos it’s a beauty. Defined by its breadth and depth, his voice, his range of influences, his lyrics and his guitars. And the one before is good too, but this one is better. How much better? A notch. Make up your own mind how big a notch. For me it’s four stars. The prior one is called Floating in the Darkness. Buy them both. Because it’s unfair to punish the poor guy for being too good. Happily, it’s only home detention, and Mum’s a good cook…and the tui sing in the back garden…and he’s got his guitars…and time to reflect…and no pressure to write….maybe the song will come, maybe not…
This is more of an interview, an exploration of the artist, than it is an album review. So I thought I’d get my feelings about the album out up front. And, besides, there is a very detailed track by track you can look at while you listen, which has Thomas’ own views about each song.
And if you want to listen to the interview, you’ll get even more, so fasten your seatbelts, adjust your manacles, and ride with me into level 3 and beyond, to the time we can hear the album played live in some form or fashion…
Song writing seems to happen to you spontaneously, at least that’s the impression I get from reading the track notes. Songs like She’s Mine, Bulgarian Mountains, Time in Tokyo. If not spontaneous, not much time between idea and execution. Is it always this way?
Well, his life is all about broadening experience, which in turn informs his muse. So yes, “some songs kind of fall out, and others you really have to fight for.”
What’s interesting to him, is that there’s no clear winners and losers between the songs which arrive spontaneously and the ones he fights for. Whether it’s the lyrics, the melody or the production. To his surprise, there’s no formula falling out, he just knows when he’s nailed it, whether it’s in 24 hours, a week or a month.
Tell me about Berlin. Why have you ended up there?
Well, he was touring in Europe, thinking about a new record, and commuting to and from New Zealand wasn’t an option. Change was also good. Berlin popped out for a number of different reasons, and so he made the decision to move, excess baggage and all, and gradually set up a studio. By that time the new lifestyle and new location had woken the muse, and the record started to flow. Managed spontaneity.
And Berlin is a cool city, inexpensive, dark and grungy but at the same time liberating. A place where you can be who you want to be and no one else cares.
Steel on the Strings is a beautiful song. (It’s actually a homage to the lap slide guitar and within that, a homage to his late grandfather who was one of the Rats of Tobruk during World War II). Tell me about the Weissenborn and your journey with lap slide.
His fascination with slide guitars began at high school, and he ended up trying to figure it out all by himself with a normal guitar on his lap in open tuning, and spent a year holding the bar wrong. Finally he managed to buy a lap slide guitar and it became a love affair. I mention Nashville as a place for inspiration and he acknowledges that he needs to expose himself to bluegrass as opposed to his current blues roots to expand his range. As well as learn lap steel. He uses a resonator on Steel on the Strings, which he now informs me is one and the same as the Dobro which Jerry Douglas is renowned for. Every day is a school day. But it’s the Weissenborn for which he is renowned
Who else uses one? I think Ben Harper was playing one when he was here recently?
Yes, Ben Harper is probably the most famous Weissenborn player, but others play it. The ubiquitous David Lindley uses one, as has John Butler and Xavier Rudd from Australia.
And in Future Child you play ukulele? Is that deliberate, symbolic?
Turns out that Weissenborn guitars* are made in New Zealand by Tony Francis and a million pennies drop. Tony made a ukulele once and Thomas played it and out popped this song to his future child. Magic.
* The Weissenborn is a vintage guitar originally made in California in the 1920s and 30s. So Tony Francis is reproducing them for artists all over the world. World class in Paraparaumu!
The new album is The Brightest Light, as referenced in the single You Shine On Me. There’s another song about love, Amsterdam Bender. Opportunistic love. And of course, She’s Mine is about lost love. Are you unlucky in love? Or conversely blessed with plenitude?
I get deep and personal, and he doesn’t tell me to fuck off. Fair question, he says sportingly. But he feels blessed rather than unlucky, in an unconventional love life. And tells the story of She’s Mine, the opening track, which arose from a phone call he got from his former partner while lounging in a field in Berlin, to tell him she was seeing someone else. He was totally fine about it…yeah right…even the most laid-back lover has testosterone fuelled anger over rejection…Great song!
But I sense you’re at least subconsciously looking for the one, the one who enables the future child?
No, not really, not yet. The world is being good to Thomas Oliver right now, he’s enjoying his career, he’s enjoying seeing his numbers grow. So, not yet, but it’s out there…
I love Boy, from the previous album, Floating in the Darkness. Slow build, guitar crescendo. Pink Floydish. But what really interested me was you at 15 holding 6 beers inside you. Man, when I was 15, three beers and I was gone. No legs. But that was 1969. Was it really 6?
I have him here, poetic license. Relief, I wasn’t such a wuss after all…..
How do you classify yourself genre wise? I get confused, happily, I would point out, but you make a couple of references to Gary Clark jnr, then there’s Motown, and Jill Scott. And there’s folk. And the song Alive Again, with that rambunctious sound which Troy Kingi sometimes gets, but then you really get it on the outro, sounding like Santana and Supernatural. Of course, there’s Boy. Terence Trent D’Arby is also present.
He’s happy not to be labelled, but he’s also happy about the references, because they are all true influences. He just wants to go where his music and inspiration takes him, and if that keeps his audience on their toes, then so be it (I think it’s more likely to delight). Besides, he has a fanbase for his Drum/bass work, another for his slide guitar work.
When he is pressed to say, he usually defaults to his instagram bio, which has him as a “soully, rootsy, singer-songwriter and drum/bass vocalist." What does that mean?
He wants to be eclectic, but not labelled so. Eclectic is a word which musicians are wary of, because it is usually used by people who don’t really know what it means. That’s a rant, he apologises. (he doesn’t know what my show is called). I’m not offended. I know. And he doesn’t know that Van Morrison has over 50 albums to his credit. Take that!
What’s your best work? Is it now, in the past, or yet to come? And why?
“I want to keep searching the deepest pockets of my inspiration and imagination and keep getting better.”
He doesn’t want to do the same thing twice, and to date he feels everything he has done has been the best so far. He feels that The Brightest Light fulfils that ambition in the way it varies and jumps from song to song, style to style (I agree). If he were to pick one song from the album which approaches his view of perfection it would be The Time in Tokyo, in that everything falls naturally into place, without filler, everything contributes. But of course, “best” is a word to be used carefully and warily in the context of art. Wise words indeed. And commendable ambition. Oh to be young again…
And what does life look like when we get through this initial fight against the virus? For Thomas Oliver specifically, and the life of a musician in general?
He knows that international touring is going to be a long way off, but is hopeful, that, if here in New Zealand the strategy for containment if not defeat is successfully executed, there is an opportunity for an early recovery locally. A Kiwi revival for survival. Will it be streaming? A lot of people are doing it. The challenge, as I point out, is how to monetize for the artists. He thinks that’s an issue, but for him the main thing is that live performing offers a way to connect unlike any other, in terms of the emotional ricochets between artist and fan. That’s what he would miss more than the money. And that’s what he is waiting for…
At this point my daughter Nicole pops in to ask her questions (which are not on the recording). Suffice it to say she is delighted that Thomas likes pineapples as well as coffee, and as a consequence he has a new fan.
David Byrne did it on Stop Making Sense, and Delaney has also built it into his shows, so I’ll just borrow the technique and ask you if you have any questions?
Thomas: “What do you think is exhibited in The Brightest Light that you haven’t heard exhibited by anyone ever before?”
(Bugger, he’s playing from my songbook………..and so absolute……..)
So this is my reply: “What comes to mind is the bridge between modern pop and the music I like, the bluesy, rootsy Americana. Because you have music which appeals to my 11-year-old daughter, and music which appeals to my 66-year-old soul. I would call that eclectic, in a positive way. It’s your breadth and depth that impress me."
Thomas Oliver. A very bright light. Going places. Stuck in Hawkes Bay. Let his music take you everywhere.