Despite Dog Bites, Cancelled Shows And Escaping COVID-Ravaged New York, Tom West Has Delivered One Of The Best Albums Of 2020

Published in Music  
Tom West's new album is titled 'Antarctica'. Tom West's new album is titled 'Antarctica'.
Update - 14 July, 2020: Tom will launch ‘Antarctica’ with a home-town show at The Gov (Adelaide) 13 September.

Adelaidian singer-songwriter Tom West has spent the better part of the past three years living in Brooklyn, NY, while travelling and touring North America.

The indie-folk, Americana musician, whose new album 'Antarctica' is out today (19 June), was on tour when the coronavirus first began affecting event cancellations in America.

After he was bitten by a dog (that required stitches) and missed a flight out of Denver, before hearing SXSW (which he was scheduled to play) had been cancelled, Tom made his way back to New York.

As things worsened with the pandemic, it wasn't long before Tom ditched his NY plans and abode, booking a flight to Australia to ride out the virus. By the time he arrived home two days later, New York was in lockdown.

Now, as Australia slowly unfurls itself from the enforced slumber, Tom's 'Antarctica' album is a soothing listen of cozy Americana mingled with rustic, campfire folk musings, and topped off with some damn-fine song writing. Highlights include opening track 'If This Is Longing' and feature single, the sublime 'A Folk Singer From Outer Space'.

Firstly, you’ve crafted a beautiful album of music; the songwriting is heartfelt (goosebumps throughout) and the melodies are like a soothing balm. Are you happy with the final result or are there still elements you wish you could tinker with?
Thank you!

I think with any project, as time goes by, you’ll find something that you’d love to change but the real trick is to be able to let go of it in a timely way, compromise with your expectations, if necessary, and accept that you’ll never be able to make something that’s perfect. Having said that, some of the songs definitely took more energy than others and were harder to 'let go' of.

‘If This Is Longing’ went through three, pretty different variations from scratch over the year that we worked on the album before it got to a place where I was happy with it. After listening back to the original version of it, I just couldn’t live with the too-slow tempo and my over-performed vocals – we got there in the end though despite one or two moments of frustration!

Was the creative process as you collected new songs relatively painless; or did you have to grind and graft to get to the finished product?
It never felt like a grind to get the collection of songs together. I think maybe that’s because I had plenty of time and plenty of material to play with. So in that sense I guess the song writing itself was fairly enjoyable and even cathartic at times with the craziness of life and touring going on around me.

Influences with lyrics etc. How much does the outside world filter through to the words that end up on your songs?
For this record, probably quite a lot.

Most of the songs are derived pretty directly from experiences over the last few years, so in that sense most of the imagery or themes in the songs are naturally very reflective of the outside world. For the songs that aren’t rooted in a more literal kind of experience, such as 'Emiko', 'Stuck On Repeat', 'Paradise' for example, the themes are a bit more universal, or something, but still for sure informed by what I’ve observed.

The album was written over an extended period of time; did you have a pretty fair idea of the type of record you were going to create?
I had a bit of a concept early on, but it is fair to say that that changed quite a lot during the process. Initially, we only set out to make a four or five-track EP but when an offer from the label AntiFragile came through, it was upgraded to an album.

So that changed things a fair bit and I brought a few other pieces into the picture to build on the songs we already had. Part of the original idea was to make a piece where the songs would work whether performed as a band or whether performed as a soloist, so that was a bit of a guiding thread throughout the process.

You worked with producer Allen Tate on ‘Antarctica’; what did he bring to the project that allowed the songs to further develop?
I crossed paths fortuitously with Allen who was, luckily for me, keen to produce these songs. He was behind the concept of letting the songs speak for themselves as simply as required and then building up from there.

I can be really manic at times, especially when it comes to producing and arranging stuff myself so I think he brought a great measure of calmness and calculation to the project to keep things on track in a practical and conceptual sense. He also opened up the door to a great, great network and brought in a bunch of session players with incredible touch and intuition who did really great work all over the record.

Speaking of which, Tyler McDiarmid (SNL) mixed and mastered the record; how did that come about?
Tyler and Allen go a long way back, having worked together in a band called San Fermin, so that was Allen’s call and I think it worked out great.

You made the move in 2018 to head to the US, to base yourself there as a touring musician. Aside from being a life-altering moment, how has that decision impacted your career as a musician?
My bread and butter is performing live music in the contemporary folk, Americana, folk-pop kind of wheelhouse.

The big difference is that there is a much bigger, viable scene for this outside Australia, especially in parts of the USA. Spending a significant amount of time there has opened up opportunities that would never ever have materialised otherwise. I’m definitely happy that I took the path less trodden a few years ago, even though it was not at all easy.

Three years later, what personal growth have you achieved that will shape the future Tom West?
It was refreshing and confidence building to step into that world where people were really responding to what I was playing. It really gave me a big boost of confidence, which is obviously an extremely precious and important thing to performers.

I have met so many new friends and collaborators, and really got a taste for the wider musical world out there. I think my perspective has been refreshed a bit and I’ve got a (slightly!) clearer vision of where to go next and can see the beginnings of a new path of how to get there.

Do you have any techniques, tricks to maintain your singing voice; or is it the opposite spectrum where you gargle with salt once a year?
I’m a bit lucky and I think I tend to fall into the latter category here. I try not to speak before shows, especially in loud band rooms but sometimes it’s hard to avoid sometimes. Generally, I’ll try not to dehydrate too much before shows via booze or salty food, but I don’t always achieve that.

It also helps if the audio system is set up nicely; if I’m playing solo I like the mic to be pretty sensitive or gained up, and compressed – which means I don’t have to push my voice as hard to get it sounding impactful. If the system is a bit flat or weak, I can end up having to sing pretty hard which can really tire out the voice.

I’m trying to establish a better routine for when on the road. I think having good, general practice when it comes to health and well-being helps for the voice, big time.

In the age of digital music and music released mainly as singles, where do you see the art of the album belonging in the current world?
A great song is awesome, but I still think of classic albums stacked with great songs as being the pinnacle of achievement.

To have a series of great songs that stand up on their own, but then also fit in to a bigger narrative like puzzle pieces is really cool – fun to make and rewarding to listen to. Having said that, I don’t know that you really need to release albums anymore. I think a pretty good strategy is to keep feeding out singles, even if they don’t necessarily fit into the bigger picture.

You’ll keep your listeners engaged and interested, and over time you might be able to see where the mud sticks best, and maybe then you can use that knowledge to create your eventual album when you finally feel like time is right to commit to something bigger. I don’t know if that’s exactly the approach I took before setting out to make this album though, ha! Next time.

You were based in Brooklyn prior to COVID-19; what were those weeks in the lead-up to the craziness that enveloped the western world in mid-March and your attempt to get home?
In the weeks before I made the tough decision to bail out of New York, I was actually on tour and it ended up getting pretty crazy.

I missed a flight out of Denver (which I never do usually!); consequently missed a house concert that night. The next day I got bitten by a dog, got my arm stitched up in hospital before that night’s gig, the next day found out that SXSW had been cancelled – so that all kind of sucked.

When I finally got back to New York I was watching the news out of Europe (I think it was Italy and Spain at that time that was really getting hit) and it looked like the writing was on the wall a bit. I stuck it out for a few days while things were being rescheduled. After another day or two the news looked really bad and there were cases of the virus in Upstate New York.

However, on the ground in the city itself the subways, restaurants and everything was still busy like nothing was happening – so it was kind of surreal.

All the events of that week had got me pretty wigged out, and I was stressing because my cash flow was about to blow up, so almost in a panic I booked some new flights back to Australia and left the very next day, which was tough because there were a few bookings and things at that time that hadn’t yet cancelled, which I felt absolutely terrible to pull out of.

By the time I landed in Australia two days later, everything was cancelled indefinitely. Without income from shows, I couldn’t pay rent so had no choice but to come back to Australia to live with my girlfriend and reset for when things come back, hopefully later in the year.

Obviously the current situation related to the protests surrounding the George Floyd death is volatile. What are your personal thoughts as you see the vision beaming in from the US, given it was your home for the last three years?
I strongly support everyone out there struggling for justice and equality. I am working to acknowledge my privilege and I’m continuing to try to dismantle my ways of thinking and reconstruct them to better align with the movement for change that I support.

People would often ask me about what it was like to travel around 'Trump’s America' and I have to say that, with a few exceptions, all the people I came across were passionate, progressive, inspiring, very decent people, many of whom have taken to the streets over there.

I also saw a lot of commentary from people here in Australia along the lines of: “Wow, the USA is f...ed up” and, yep, the police brutality and systemic, institutionalised racism towards people of colour is absolutely heinous. However, Australia is equally tarnished with a long and ugly history of oppression – if anything, it has been more successfully swept under the rug for longer.

Folk music has always been central to protest movements going back to the 1950s; as the next generation forces its way through, do you see young songwriters adapting to new ways to engage listeners to make a more meaningful impact?
Young, upcoming songwriters will be excellently placed to make a meaningful impact.

Young people are as engaged as ever politically when it comes to these existential issues like BLM and racial equality and justice for deaths in custody, climate change, wealth inequality. That passion coupled with an ability to adapt to the rapidly changing contexts around us, technological and otherwise, looks promising I reckon.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for the time, I really appreciate it.

Tom West plays The Gov (Adelaide) 13 September.



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