Q&A with UK-based singer songwriter Tom Gee - relaxed, funky, bluesy music with thought-provoking lyrics

"Music is not a competition. I entered lots of battle of the band style contests as a young musician and it builds an unhealthy view of what music should be like."

Tom Gee: Say It Loud... Blues, Soul & Rock

Tom Gee is just about starting again. The 30 year-old singer songwriter from Bradford has been playing across the UK since the age of 16 and enjoyed blues chart success with his band and their EP ‘Better Things to Do’ in 2013 and album ’Swapping Stories’ in 2014. That all feels a very long time ago - probably because it is. From 2015 having gigged throughout the country extensively and a little bit world-weary from the trappings of the music scene Tom decided to take a break. Refreshed from the self-imposed hiatus since 2018 Tom has been writing again, recording with old friends and slowly but surely falling back in love with music.

It has been a longer process than anticipated but this year Tom will be releasing new music again. The first single - Say You Do (2020) is a blues-influenced song and will be released this summer. Grand plans of tours, EPs and albums have had to be changed but the current situation has presented musicians with new opportunities and new ways to interact with their audiences. The music is relaxed, funky, bluesy with heavy influences from John Mayer, Eric Clapton and co. with thought-provoking lyrics and a tight band behind him Tom Gee is, just about, starting again.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues, Soul and Rock music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Music has given me so many opportunities to meet other people from different backgrounds and experience things that have shaped my view of the world. It’s not always necessarily been all positive, but I think that it has made me value the exchanging of ideas and given me a respect for the creative process. Blues, Soul & Rock are ostensibly rooted in black, American culture. Much of the influence has traditionally come from struggle and, although my own life couldn’t have been further from those struggles, I hope it has imbued empathy and an appreciation for the history of the genres. By the same token, Blues, Soul and Rock music have always been a process of evolution and progression and I have always tried to just do my own version.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

In simple terms it’s guitar music. Lyrically I’m trying to hold the mirror up to myself and the world I see around me. I try to make the lyrics mean something to me as an individual otherwise it’s very hard to connect with songs when I’m performing them and I think people find you out very quickly when they realize you’re not singing/writing something like you mean it. I have a relatively simple philosophy for writing which is if I like it then that’s enough. If I stick my music on shuffle and one of my songs comes on, I generally shouldn’t feel the urge to skip it because the song wouldn’t have made it to the point of being recorded if I didn’t like it. I’m influenced by other singers and writers from all sorts of different genres. Sometimes I hear a line from a song when I’m driving in my car and it triggers a whole verse or chorus. Sometimes I have a guitar lick or chord sequence that I’ve been playing for years or months and it suddenly clicks with an idea I have when I walk the dog. I can hear a line in a film or a concept on a podcast and it can inspire me to write something in that vein. Recently I feel the world has become more chaotic, people seem to be fighting for supremacy in terms of morality, often at the expense of authenticity and I am conscious that it’s important to write music that means something to yourself first and foremost.

"Music has given me so many opportunities to meet other people from different backgrounds and experience things that have shaped my view of the world. It’s not always necessarily been all positive, but I think that it has made me value the exchanging of ideas and given me a respect for the creative process. Blues, Soul & Rock are ostensibly rooted in black, American culture."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

A few years ago, we played at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. It was an incredible gig, one of my favorite ever, and we were fortunate enough to gain access to the artist tent. I walked past a man with a hat on and asked him if the bathroom was down a particular corridor. He smiled and nodded pointing me in the right direction. When I came back out, he was gone but the rest of the band were all very excited as they had just seen Gregory Porter! It suddenly dawned on me that I’d asked him for directions to the toilet.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

As of right now during lockdown I miss live music. I miss playing it, but I miss watching it. I can’t wait to get back out and support other artists and seeing them perform. I hope to get back to live gigs soon but obviously there are bigger, more important things right now and it’s crucial we all stay safe. I think we could see some new ideas and approaches to performance with online gigs.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Inclusivity in the music industry. As I have alluded to, all modern ‘western’ music is a descendant of black music and black culture. Although many will point to the numbers of successful black artists the power is held by a select few in the background and, generally speaking, they are white and male. The lack of female and black voices behind the scenes limits the creativity of the industry we work in because there is a lack of nuance in terms of opinion. Although with the advent of streaming services, YouTube etc. it has never been easier to release music as an ‘unknown’ artist ultimately the general public like the major artists they like because those artists are the ones pushed out to us with major marketing campaigns behind them. We need more female and black voices to be part of the conversation when deciding what music should pushed out to the general public to enrich the choice people have and improve the music industry’s offering to the wider world.

"Lyrically I’m trying to hold the mirror up to myself and the world I see around me. I try to make the lyrics mean something to me as an individual otherwise it’s very hard to connect with songs when I’m performing them and I think people find you out very quickly when they realize you’re not singing/writing something like you mean it. I have a relatively simple philosophy for writing which is if I like it then that’s enough."

Make an account of the case of blues in the UK. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

It’s hard to say without having lived through a lot of the history. I realize I’m sitting on the fence with that one! I guess the most interesting period would have been the 60s and 70s. The UK has produced some incredible artists in blues-influenced style since then but an era that produced Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck is hard to beat. Especially when you consider the way they pushed boundaries and still exert such influence on modern day musicians. Having said all that, it’s a very exciting time now with incredible artists like Marcus Bonfanti, Jo Harman and Oli Brown making brilliant music and other new soul talent like Nii, Mali Hayes and James Sayer around it’s a great time to be making music.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I hope that people can enjoy music. Not every song is meant to change your view of the world but the ones that are supposed to challenge you should be good enough to do so. I risk repeating myself too much, but I think some of my favorite artists aren’t shy when talking about the wider world and offering their insights. Tim Minchin recently cited Bertolt Brecht’s quote that “art holds a mirror up to society” in his piece he wrote for the BAFTAs. I see people on social media criticizing artists for expressing an opinion - or failing to express an opinion on society and politics. I think if you’re passionate about something that’s happening and you’re an artist then it comes out in your work. Artists seem to be passionate about injustices that they see, and I guess art can only be successful and thrive if it is relevant. Political and social movements often have a soundtrack. It’s interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of Black Lives Matter protests were, not only peaceful but vibrant with lots of music and dance. I wonder if in years to come what the equivalent will be of The Specials singing anti-apartheid songs or Dylan or Simon & Garfunkel singing anti-war songs.

"I hope to get back to live gigs soon but obviously there are bigger, more important things right now and it’s crucial we all stay safe. I think we could see some new ideas and approaches to performance with online gigs."

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Music is not a competition. I entered lots of battle of the band style contests as a young musician and it builds an unhealthy view of what music should be like. If you’re sharing the bill with another band you should be out watching their set, supporting them, enjoying what they create on stage. If someone else releases music you shouldn’t be envious of what they’ve done. It should inspire you to create.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2013. I’d ask Gregory Porter for a picture rather than directions to the toilet.

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