Big Interview - Tom Williams has that touch of class

Tom Williams, who plays Lancaster Library on March 18, combines a burgeoning music career with teaching
Tom Williams, who plays Lancaster Library on March 18, combines a burgeoning music career with teaching
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Blokes aren‘t supposed to be able to multi-task, but Tom Williams has perfected a highwire balancing act while juggling roles this past year. And he has no regrets at fitting things around his day job.

A few years ago it was Tom Williams and The Boat, Tunbridge Wells-based folk-rockers beloved of BBC 6 Music and an Adele support act, ‘nearly making it in the business, but not quite’.

But, as he put it, “The stars just never aligned. I was about to turn 30, getting married, teaching, and I really love it. I’ve got a mortgage. I’m not that fussed. I was content.”

He chucked it all in, with no plans for any more records. Until last year, and the album of his career.

All Change, his fifth LP, was put together in breaks from teaching guitar and songwriting to primary and secondary school children, lyrics coming to him on his commute.

Many plaudits followed, the album made on a shoestring yet sounding anything but, showcasing new refinement to his writing, ‘a celebration of the big chord change and the emotional sucker punchline.’

“The album ended up on Caroline International/Universal. To sign a major label deal in your second decade as a musician is pretty weird. We had no expectations. It was all a total thrill and a surprise.”

Forced to bond with pupils by listening to Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, he started looking at songwriting in a new light. And with no management looking over his shoulder, he entered a highly-creative period.

“Teaching pop music to kids of all ages helped open my eyes to different ways of singing and writing. It’s been an education. Not sure my pupils would say the same – ha! It certainly exposed me to music I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise. I love teaching seven-year-olds their first chords and helping teenagers write their first songs. Songwriting can make them feel better. It’s like shouting into a balloon.”

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In early 2016, new songs came to life at Leeds’ Beckett University, taking on a week’s artist-in-residence role on the proviso that he was provided with a band, six 19-year-old music tech students subsequently appearing on his LP.

“They were the best band I’ve ever had. I was pretending to be a success, they were pretending to be a band, we met in the middle and bluffed each other, and it worked.”

They recorded two songs a day, Tom persuading them to stay during the Easter holidays for three more days, with ‘a magical feeling’ on the finished product.

“It feels like I did it in my sleep. After 10 years trying to make records and chase the industry I was happy and wasn’t chasing it – and for some reason I made a record I loved.”

A former abstract art student whose life plan took a turn after hearing Mumford & Sons, Tom lives in St Leonard’s-on-Sea with partner Sarah, an illustrator, teaching in Kent and East Sussex.

He was catching up on lessons earlier this week, after a week of snow, “Back in schools and songwriting workshops, in the middle of finishing a new album … It’s all go, go, go! I love everything I do – teaching and tutoring, writing, recording, touring. I count myself very lucky and don’t feel like either takes second-fiddle to the other. I have lots of friends in bands signed to major labels and see them come off big tours, shuffling around at home, bored out of their mind. I couldn’t do that.”

We even heard Everyone Needs A Home form the LP used as play-out music on ITV hit drama Cold Feet.

“That was certainly surreal to say the least. I’ve never had so many texts!”

There’s just a handful of gigs this time, three of his Leeds students out there with him.

“The band on the album was big. I’ve taken the core – bass, drums and keys – on the road with me this past year, and Anthony Vicary (The Boat). I’ve played and sung with Ant for 11 years. He’s essential. We’re just keeping our eye in with six shows now, festivals through the summer, then hopefully a new album before the end of the year. But who knows. ‘Every day is a winding road,’ as a wise woman said!”

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I enjoyed your set at St Philip’s Church, Salford, for last May’s Sounds from the Other City.

“That’s good to hear. We were first on, so got to sort our sound before we went on – always an advantage. Churches are a nightmare sonically, built to amplify acoustic music.

“When you pump thousands of watts of amplified sound into them it’s fairly cacophonous. Everyone sounds like the Jesus & Mary Chain!”

Talking of alternative venues, there’s a Lancaster Library show coming up – and it’s a Sunday matinee.

“Yes, that should be interesting, getting the band up and awake so early. Let’s see what happens – ha!”

I’ve seen cracking sets by The Thrills. Robert Forster, James Walsh and Ian Broudie there. And anything that keeps libraries open amid major cuts and a lack of cultural funding has to be a good thing.

“Absolutely, libraries are sacred spaces. I’ve wanted to play these gigs for years. Can’t wait.”

No pressure, but you best get on with that LP, even if it means fitting recording around school holidays.

“It’s all recorded already. It needs mixing and mastering and it’ll be with you soon. Watch this space!”

Tom Williams and his band visit Lancaster Library, Market Square, Lancaster, for a matinee show on Sunday, March 18 (2.30pm).

For ticket details go to www.tomwilliamsmusic.net