Tommy Emmanuel, the award winning Australian guitarist took time out of his day last week to talk us through his writing process behind the songs on his new record Tommysongs, including Song For A Rainy Morning. He's been keeping very busy during lockdown, writing for a film and making videos for his fans to teach them how to play some of these songs on this album. He discussed his mid-gig thoughts with us and shared some advice on how to be a songwriter!
So I know you started playing and touring at a very young age with your family, can you tell me a bit about what that was like?
Yes I was the youngest, my eldest brother Chris was on drums, my sister played the lap steel guitar and my brother Phil who was my closest brother was the lead guitar player and I was the accompanist who played all the rhythm and bass parts on the guitar.
So I guess you knew right from the start that you wanted to make music for a living?
I never wanted to do anything else and I still feel the same today. I’ve never had any training, I trained myself, I’ve been around some good people and I’ve stolen a lot but I’ve made a life out of music, music is everything to me. I don’t read music, I can write you a song and tell you what modes and scales go over it but I can’t write it out. I do everything by ear.
Growing up what did your parents play to you and what are you choosing to listen to now?
My earliest influence as a guitar player would have been The Shadows, they’re from Newcastle Upon Tyne. Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch. To my brother and I, they were our idols, we played all their music, it was on the radio all the time in those days. There was lots of instrumental music on the radio in those days, something which you don’t hear anymore. We were listening to Country music as well, Hank Williams, Kenny Rogers, people like that. American and British music were big influences for us. When the Beatles came out, so many of their songs were memorable and popular, so my brother and I learnt a lot of their music and put it in the show. We were always trying to learn something new. We listened to the radio when we could, in the outback and there’s 400 miles from the next town, there’s not a lot of signal, so when we had signal we’d pull up, make a drink and listen to the radio.
When it comes to your writing process where does it start for you, do you try to write to a title?
Well as an instrumentalist, I do have lyrics for most of my songs just in my head, I’m not a good lyricist at all and I admire those who are. Touring with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell was eye opening for me, just to see how meticulous both of those people were with their ideas and constructing a song. I do it in exactly the same way just with musical ideas instead of words. A writer like me, I never ever write thinking that it’s just for me on guitar, I always assume the position that I’m writing a song for a singer in a band so the melody has to be singable and there has to be things about it that you want to her again so it has to be repetitive. I’m using the same ideas as any pop writer, if I have a good theme I’ll repeat it, I might change the chords underneath the melody the second time round. However I need inspiration, I could write you a song right now but I bet I wouldn’t remember it tomorrow. It has to come from a deeper place and have a reason. That’s why when I get an idea at home, on a bus, train, on stage, backstage, wherever, if it gets me excited I have to follow it through.
I’m particularly interested in Song For a Rainy Morning, can you tell me about the writing process for that song?
Well I had a dream and my dreams are always in such brilliant colour. In 2018 I lost a sister and a brother a month apart and I saw them in my dream, it was really calming and reassuring to see that they were ok. When I woke up the window of the hotel I was at in Italy was wide open and the smell of the rain was just gorgeous and I started writing that tune as soon as I picked up the guitar and in about ten minutes I had the whole song finished. Whilst writing I’m always trying to tie things together and do things to keep the listener engaged, for example, if you listen to the composition of that song the intro and ending are the same. The first verse goes straight into the second verse, it skims away anything you don’t need and keeps the listener engaged. Its telling a story, taking us on a journey. The thing is Zoe, the simpler the song, the harder it usually is to write. Those are the ones I labour over, I want them to be as perfect as possible.
Tell me about the process of writing and recording this new record?
There’s some new songs and there’s some old songs. Over the course of last year I wrote six new songs for this record, Fuel, Rainy Morning, Wide Ocean Timbaland and I re-recorded a few of the old ones which was nice to revisit them as they’re like my children! The album’s called Tommysongs because they’re my songs, it sounds like me. I was inspired by Jerry Reed, he had a song called Reedology and it was unique, you knew it was Jerry Reed so it inspired me, no one sounds or writes like me so the title had to sound like me too! It’s not easy to stand out as a guitar player. I recorded the album in Nashville, TN, it took three days to record 26 songs, all original. We mixed and mastered in LA with Mark Desissto. It was a joy to make and we’re releasing two new videos each week.
Recently I saw you at the transatlantic sessions, where you looked so happy and enthusiastic to be up on that stage, do you ever get nervous? Are you completely focused or do you let your mind wander?
It’s a big mistake to let your mind wander on stage, you’ll mess up. I try to be 100% focused with the music and the audience. I approach everything in my life with enthusiasm, sometimes people love it and sometimes they don’t. Some people are very serious and want to be taken that way, that’s not me, I’m very serious about what I do but I want too have fun! I’m not afraid to be a child out there. I had management when I was back in Australia years ago, two great guys. I did this show where I was having the time of my life, cracking jokes and running around the stage and when I came off stage they said, how can anyone take you seriously if you’re doing that, why don’t you do what Eric Clapton does and just stand there and play? I said I’m not Eric, I love him but he’s a very reserved type of guy when he’s on stage but that’s not me. You’ve got to be yourself. I’m myself 24 hours a day, doesn’t matter if I’m on stage or on the toilet or on TV, I am always myself and it’s like a secret weapon!
How have you been keeping busy during lockdown?
I’m about to launch a new site called up close and personal and I’ve used this time to video all the songs from the album, not only playing them but teaching them too. I do a talk on how to change strings, how to tune the guitar, how to use a capo properly. How to arrange music. What life is like on the road. I’m trying to give people something that’s from deep inside me.
You also mentioned before we started this interview about a film that you’re writing the music for, I’m keen to find out more about that. I’ve tasked myself with writing a musical so perhaps you have some advice?
Well you need to study the people who are really good at it, people like Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, study what they write! I look at films quite a bit and I love listening to people’s ideas of music in a film. There’s so many great people out there that I’d not even heard of. There was a film that came out recently, an Australian guy was the lead actor, it was pretty violent but the music was so creative. If you go back to the Wizard of Oz, that’s a masterpiece in film writing, the lyrics of If I Only Had a Brain, how brilliant is that? So there’s so much we can choose from, there’s some great writers in London so I’d suggest studying what they do first. The film I’m writing for is a Children’s story, we’re about 3/4 of the way through.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to do some live from Tommy’s place performances and I’m going to have a guest, they’ll be in their home and we’ll take it in turns. I’m going to launch my new site and keep writing for this film and then I’ve got to learn how to cook better!