Migrating to NYC in the 80's, Tom spent much time at legendary Bell Sound studios, as well as a number of other now-defunct big studios, recording a string of soulful and sometimes quirky pop songs, which eventually landed a contract with Emergency Records. Despite critical accolades and wide early distribution, Emergency declined to release the single and dropped out.
In the early 90's, Tom played guitar and contributed songs to Hipster Dufus, a popular Pittsburgh alt-rock outfit, before retreating to his home studio to record a collection of original songs that culminated in the 1999 indie release Stone Tablet. Essentially demo quality, these songs nonetheless garnered attention on college and indie radio for the intriguing songwriting and arrangements. One of them ('Can't Feel Sad') landed on Starflower, a Silver Moon Records tribute to the spirit of Brian Wilson that included songs from artists such as R. Stevie Moore, XTC's Dave Gregory, and Utopia sideman Moogie Klingman.
Sometime in the mid to late 00's, Tom went back to the home studio to record a set of reflective songs and haunting melodies written over the years that cried out to be properly captured. With the help of engineer and friend Jeff Buck, much time was spent polishing these into a shiny collection called Looking Glass that is gaining a lot of early attention.
How do you describe your music to people?
My tagline is: "Folk pop in the tradition of acoustic Beatles and soul searching Beach Boys, with great songwriting, lilting melodies, and nice guitar work."
My latest collection, "Looking Glass", is an attempt to catch up with the quieter, more reflective material that I've written over the years. Somehow these songs kept getting put on the shelf while I tried to focus on other stylistic directions. After years of playing them around the campfire or on the piano on Sunday mornings, my wife convinced me that my next release should focus on these tunes. They range from pure instrumentals to concise song poems about life, love, and dreams.
Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
As a kid, I listened to the Beatles and watched the Monkees on TV, and finally begged my parents to buy me an electric guitar, amplifier, and microphone; they did - all from Sears, I think. I started to write juvenile songs with titles like "Mod Man" (a satirical piece about a dork in junior high), but I think I always had some inkling back then that there was some very important music being created. I wrote a bunch of songs as a teenager, but they were mostly immature and inane. It wasn't until I began to appreciate the true genius in Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren and others that I knew my goal was to develop songwriting as a craft. I also studied jazz guitar and spent a lot of time honing my skills as a guitar player. I learned to play the piano by ear on my Dad's 1910 Steinway Baby Grand, and the piano has continued to be a very important part of my songwriting efforts.
In the early days, my friends and I used to gather around a Wollensack reel-to-reel tape recorder and sing and play stuff we made up on the spot. Around 1974, my friend bought a Teac 4-Track 1/4 inch tape recorder, and suddenly I realized I could start putting things together the way Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder did. I always felt that this was the only true way to express the total of a song as it seemed to present itself in my head. I followed this same friend to NYC in the early 80's as he became an accomplished sound engineer, and we took it to the next level with down-low late night sessions in professional 24-track studios. Eventually, multi-track recorders started becoming more affordable, and I put my own studio together in an outbuilding out in the little pine barren on my property. So this has been the evolution of my craft, from Wollensack to ProTools, trying to write the best songs I can and record them as true to the original vision as possible.
What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
Snorkeling in the Caribbean (which I'll be doing again in June!). It's sort of like being in an isolation chamber in paradise - all of your senses are focused on absolute beauty and natural wildlife, and you just want to drift around forever in unity with it all. It's the perfect escape from the "real world".
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
Time management. There is a hell of a lot to take care of in life, and only so much time. And the way I go about my business is very time-consuming. My modus operandi has always been to carefully overlay tracks, mostly on my own, until I have the essence of a production, and then I act as my own producer during mixing. I've finally enlisted the help of some talented engineers to facilitate the knob-twiddling and sound polishing parts, which I was never very good at, but it still takes quite awhile to get the final product together. For a glimpse at another artist using a similar model who has made her painstakingly slow and careful craft quite public, check out the videos that Imogen Heap puts out.
When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
A teacher (like my Dad).
But the part of me that never wanted to grow up wanted to be a musician.
In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
When I was playing in public more often, I really enjoyed the experience of feeding off the energy of the crowd. But being on stage can be good and bad - good because you're connecting and sharing the excitement, bad because you can feel a bit like a caged animal - you're there to perform, not just be one of the crowd. And that can be a bit alienating.
When the online community began to take off, this really changed a lot for me. I was able to connect on a much broader scale, and often with musical heroes and other people who were closely aligned with my musical interests. I began to understand that I could much more easily share my music with others that I felt a certain sense of trust and camaraderie with - a different feeling from being up on stage in a "scene" that I may or may not understand well.
The more I began to know about some of my musical heroes, the more I realized that I could learn from them, rather than simply feeling in awe of them. This helped me understand that the most important thing I could do was continue to develop my craft and follow my own muse, without regard for popularity or "coolness". The tyranny of the hip should not get in the way of artistic integrity and authenticity. Stephen Foster, the pioneer of modern songwriting, died penniless but his songs provided the world with true riches. To me, that seems more important than personal fame and fortune.
What other artists out there do you love?
Recent: Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, The Weepies
Less Recent: XTC, Ben Folds, The Story, Robbie Robertson
Classic: Beatles, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne
What does your future hold?
I knew you were going to ask that! To quote Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
All seriousness aside, I was recently asked the following question on a podcast interview: "If there was a movie about your life, what would the title be?" My answer: Bonsai Tree. The reason for this odd choice is that my artistic career never did follow the path of quick bloom - fantastic rush of incredible beauty, followed by autumnal wither. I've just tried to keep a steady course, compelled to keep the artistic spirit alive, prune it carefully over time, try to make it something that keeps getting more beautiful instead of dying on the vine.
So this is a long-winded way of saying that I really don't have any idea what my future holds in terms of specific accolades. But I can guarantee that I will continue to write and perform great songs and produce quality recordings of them, and there is a lot more of that to come.
I've more or less retired from the live performance circuit in favor of concentrating on recording. But that doesn't mean I've ruled it out altogether. There is a good chance I'll at least be doing some select "unplugged" performances in conjunction with online interviews. Fortunately, my latest material lends itself pretty well to sparse arrangements.