Spotlight Interview with Tom Moriarty ~ Musician.
Interview by Davina Baynes.
Imagine, if you will, that you are an emerging singer-songwriter and classically trained guitarist (who knows, perhaps you are, in which case no imagination needed). Your songs reflect life, your passions and interests; you perform and record them, releasing a number of albums. One of those songs is called “Me And The Sun”. One day you receive a message from no other than David Crosby (Crosby Stills & Nash- and sometimes Young) who tells you that it is ‘beautiful…real fine…made a great record of it too.’
The singer-songwriter is Tom Moriarty, British born, with a voice that sounds like the love child of LaMontagne, Morrison and Cocker. I recently had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Tom who is, at present, living in la belle France. The interview which follows explores his musical background, influences on his music, the creative drive and process, performing live and a serious head injury. Finally he shares with us his thoughts and feelings about his forthcoming album, “The Shore”, which is due for release in February 2017.
DB: What are your earliest musical memories? Have you always loved to sing?
TM: Wow! Getting my first electric guitar for Christmas which was a really bad Gibson SG copy but it didn’t matter; the image of seeing it for the first time is imprinted on my mind, as is the sound of turning it up to the max and playing my first power chord. Another one would be playing the piano when it first arrived, when I was five. And yes, it’s like breathing, my earliest memories have singing in them.
DB: When did you first start writing and singing songs? When and how did you start learning to play the guitar? Do you play any other instruments?
TM: I started writing tunes and melodies pretty much as soon as the piano arrived, and then when I started playing guitar, when I was five. It’s not really conscious songwriting but that’s where it starts, just making stuff up. It was an outlet for me, like it is for so many. I grew up in a broken home so it was my island, my solace. I got more in to songwriting when I became a teenager, all that teenage angst and the welcome smell of rebellion. Getting into music and songwriting became more important to me from the moment I said, ‘Fuck, this, I’m not gonna follow the rules anymore.’
DB: What do you see as the influences on your music?
TM: Man, that’s such a massive question and you also have influences that you’re not even aware of. I was influenced by John Martyn before I knew it was John Martyn, although I did know it was Dylan the first time I heard Dylan.
Being classically trained at an early age has an influence I guess, whether it’s about melody, composition or technique. I remember the first time I came into my guitar lesson and asked my teacher, ‘What do you think of this?’ It was an instrumental piece, pretty simple, but it was the beginning of that style of playing and you can hear that in my playing today on tracks like: “Where Are You Now” and “Fire in the Doll’s House” on my first album; or “By Your Side” on the last album; “The Road” and “When Tomorrow Comes” from the new album “The Shore”.
In terms of other artists, it’s a long list: all the great songwriters like Joni, Van, Waits, CSN, Neil Young etc. One of the best messages I’ve ever received was from David Crosby who really liked “Me and the Sun”. I’ll never forget his words: ‘beautiful…real fine…made a great record of it too. Hope we meet somewhere sometime.’ Next time I head over to the States, I’ll look him up.
In terms of the sound, I guess it has its origins in Ireland where one half of my family are from. Moriarty is a pretty popular name in Kerry in the south west of Ireland. I used to visit my grandparents in Dingle Bay when I was a kid, and that’s when I would hear the sound of a traditional Irish session drifting out of a bar down the street. I guess you mix that up with my blues rock influences like Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn and the singing of Vedder, Martyn and LaMontagne and that gets you closer to where I’m at.
I should say that when it comes to lyrics my influences go way beyond musical influences, it’s everywhere: in the forest, in the river, on the news, in the people I see fleetingly on the street, a look on someone’s face. The front cover of the EP “Snapshots of Reality” has this picture of a guy begging on a street in London but he’s kneeling with his hands together like he’s praying. He’s influenced my music. Martin Luther King has influenced my music, along with the cheetahs I saw in Africa and my dog Watson who’s with me every step of the journey. There’s a song on “The Road” about unconditional love and loyalty called “By Your Side”. Watson showed me what that is.
DB: To what extent are your political views reflected in your music?
TM: All over it. Not in every track but I talk about it in my music like I talk about other things. How can you not? There’s so much hatred and injustice in the world right now, with a few crazy people holding the reins, paid for by more crazy people who do not give a shit about anything else, or anyone else, on the planet. We truly do live in a plutocracy with a lot of control in the hands of megalomaniacs. Politicians don’t represent the people anymore, they represent their paymasters; I can’t think of a time when I have despised them more and respected them less.
DB: Which musicians do you admire and which have influenced your music?
TM: Well I guess I’ve mentioned a few already. I haven’t mentioned Joe Cocker, who is an influence when it comes to my singing, and the Buckleys and Waits and Otis Redding and Ray Charles and Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers. There are musicians out there now that I admire, not so much as influences, but as good musicians, like Michael Kiwanuka, Ben Howard, Bon Iver to name a few.
DB: Does your Irish heritage influence your music at all? If so, in what ways, do you think?
TM: Ah well, as above. And yeah, and it also probably gave me a healthy appetite for ale.
DB: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it? What is your musical style?
TM: You know, it’s always difficult but folk rock singer songwriter with a Dylan/Martyn/Vedder/LaMontagne vibe.
DB: Could you describe the process you go through when writing a song? What inspires you to write?
TM: Well it’s never exactly the same. I often sit down and just jam away, playing the first thing that comes into my head and following it to see where it takes me, or I’ll hear it as I’m walking in the forest and record it on my phone. Sometimes you don’t even think about what you’re playing, you just kind of let your hands stray across the guitar doing something. Lyrics can come at any time. Sometimes I’ll have some profound (or not so profound) thought and note it down or when I’m talking with someone. It can come from anywhere. It’s like your creative mind is whirring away, saying stuff and you listen.
When I’m deep into a song it’s more focused. As you understand the song more- what it’s about- then I’ll concentrate on that one song and I’ll live and breath it. I’ll play it first thing in the morning, last thing at night. I don’t listen to any other music, no radio, not much TV. That way the song is playing in my head most of the time, and every now and then, you’ll come up with a thought, a line, and maybe it won’t work or scan but then a little later your creative mind will work it out and throw out the line. This can go on for weeks. Sometimes a line has come to me years after I started a song, or a chorus to a riff I’ve had running around for years. Some songs come at night, when I wake up at 3am with a lyric or a chord progression. “Chasing Angels” from the album “The Road” was a 3am arrival.
DB: Which of your own songs are your personal favourites? Do you have stand out favourite songs by other artists?
TM:… ha ha, that’s like asking someone to pick out their favourite child. Someone once said that a songwriter’s favourite song is always their last one. I dunno, but I’ll say that there are some that mean more to me like: “Fire in the Doll’s House”, “Me and the Sun”, “By Your Side”, “Take Everything From Me”, “Finding a Better Way”. And from the new album: “The Promise”, “When Tomorrow Comes” and “Us Against the World”.
DB: How does performing in front of a live audience compare with studio work? Do you have a preference and if so why?
TM: Two different things, I enjoy them both. Being in the studio is a magical process, and it’s always good to put these songs together that you’ve spent so much time thinking about and writing. And performing is great, it feels like home, it’s where my soul feels at home. On stage is where my soul feels free, there and in the forest; the rest of the time I’m protecting it.
DB: Since your serious head injury, has your approach towards your music and life in general altered in any way?
TM: Yeah, for sure. I don’t think it’s changed my approach to music although I am sure the experience shows itself in my songs and my lyrics. It did make me realise how bad things have got when it comes to caring for the sick and the injured. And with the current government in place, that is just gonna get worse. As far as my life is concerned, yeah, in many ways it’s best not to talk about it and that’s very much down to the dangerously ignorant, and dangerously arrogant, doctors I saw when it happened. Arrogant stupidity is one of the most dangerous things on the planet and there is way too much of it around at the moment. Weirdly it’s almost as if it has become acceptable. Anyway, many doctors don’t actually know what concussion is but let’s call it what it is, brain damage. We have to be careful, when the world is so full of bullshit, that people prefer to talk shit rather than talk truth.
DB: You have a new album being released in February 2017, can you tell us a bit about it? What would you hope someone listening to it would get from it? Do you have a favourite track?
TM: That I’m being honest, I guess that’s what I hope they would hear first. I’m telling stories, just me and guitar and I’m talking about my life, our lives, their lives. I hope they would relate to the words and know that maybe they’re not alone. Maybe what they would hear from my words and my voice, is that I’ve been through some hardship, so I know about that and I can empathise with their own hardship. I hope they would feel hope.
It’s a live album, solo acoustic performed in a tiny wood-vaulted chapel in a hilltop village in Southern France, near to where I’m currently living. It’s a collection of new songs, some of which have been with me for years, some of which I wrote since moving out here in June last year. I just felt it was time to put some songs out there in a stripped back form, just me and guitar. I guess I came out here to heal after a serious accident. I think some of the songs I had carried with me for a while also needed to heal. So there were some songs that needed time and contemplation to finish them. You have to wait, be patient, wait for the song to talk to you, give them time. Gradually those songs came together and I wrote new songs, all part of the same vibe.
They all have this fingerpicking guitar thing going on that provides the accompaniment, the rhythm, the foundation and I sing melody over that. You can very much hear the John Martyn/Richard Thompson/Bert Jansch influences on the guitar work and, I guess, also the influence of my classical training as a guitarist. I always had this thing going on as a guitarist, it was instinctive.
Vocally well I often hear the observation that my delivery is a cross between Vedder and LaMontagne so I guess you can hear that. For me it’s about using everything you’ve got to convey every emotion, whether it’s love, sadness or rage. My voice is a function of me and my journey, that is it. I learn more about it each time I sing and always strive to sing better.
Lyrically, I’m telling these stories. A lot of the time I write from above. Like, if I’m telling a story of some guy or some girl I’ll see them from above in a bar or in the street or on the sea, or if I’m telling a story about humanity then I’m flying like an eagle, looking down and writing about what I see, looking down at the big picture. That’s one of the reasons there are wings on the front cover of the album “Fire in the Doll’s House.” Anyway, I write about love and war and peace and justice and sadness and joy and people and nature and hate and hope and courage and fear and pain and suffering and redemption and glory, you know, things like that. Each song has a story behind it: characters, places, images; I see them when I sing the songs.
I actually really like all the songs on the album. They all have their stories and I gave them all so much time and I’m pleased with the way they came out. If I had to pick one then I’d probably say “Us Against the World”, one of the reasons being that structurally it’s not a song, it’s a hymn, a hymn for the times we’re living in.
DB: Writing and performing music must take up a great deal of your time but have you also had other jobs and do you have other interests outside of music?
TM: I’ve had other jobs in the past, just a means of paying the rent and mostly a waste of time. I did work for the World Conservation Monitoring Centre years ago, that was cool. I was helping to map the world’s rain forests; I hate to think how much rain forest has gone since then. Outside of music, I dunno, it’s all music. I like trekking and camping in the mountains but that’s just another place to write. Photography, I guess that’s my main other thing right now. After I had my accident a few years ago I got into it as part of my recovery, my rehabilitation, now I take photos most days and try to capture the beauty in nature. If we all appreciate the beauty of nature we might all think more about protecting it. To revere nature is to preserve it. Seems a good note to end on.
To conclude this spotlight on Tom Moriarty I will be taking a brief look at his albums and EPs, picking out some of my favourites from each. This I will say- before I even begin- is no easy task. It is rather like being presented with a wonderful selection box of chocolates from which it is incredibly difficult to choose a favourite because each is delicious in its own way; different textures and tastes, some bitter sweet, some smooth, some slightly salty or spicy and others with a lingering aftertaste. Anyway, enough with the analogies…
Protest and political songs, songs about first encounters to those filled with a history of love and loss, songs which are infused with folk and country and others which are rocking. From upbeat songs that make you want to tap your feet and dance to those with an evocative sadness. All of these delights wrapped up in a distinctive vocal style and musical creativity.
FIRE IN THE DOLL’S HOUSE- 2012- 12 tracks
‘If you can’t see the madness, you might as well be blind.’
The title song is an unflinching critique of society. Starting with glorious fingerpicking guitar and focussing on voice and lyrics with drums and non-instruments coming in after the first section. Preacher, teacher, justice, minister, leaders and generals are taken to task in turn. ‘Hey mister minister you’re telling me that I cannot be free, whilst you talk of my right to liberty.’ A clear image of a burning down of artifice.
Dance With Me~
‘So let’s pretend that we’ve just met
No remorse and no regret
They can’t see what we can be
so take my hand and dance with me’
This song paints such a clear picture of the effects of the breakdown of a relationship when the couple meet up again. A couple, perhaps at a family gathering, meeting after divorce or break up. A man who thinks his past love has left, that someone has told him that she has left. That he thought she had tired of the excessive shallow conversation of about weather, the children, whatever. Then he expresses how happy he is that she is staying. The chorus talks of no remorse or regrets, that the hope of love still remains. An emotionally affecting song with a gentle melody and ‘slow dance’ delivery.
Sundance your way back home to me
From distant shores
And the world’s a better place
When the sun shines on her face’
This is such a warm, moving, uplifting, joyous song with just a hint of a storm coming in. From the hissing of the snare to the delicate guitar and backing vocals. This song paints a moving picture with sound: a girl, long hair, dancing alone and oblivious to all else, a floaty dress, the sun, the sea all created from the snare and the assonance of the words used. So melodic and soothing in its repetitions with a sense of longing for a moment to never end and yet for the girl to leave and return home, away from the beach and the sundance.
THE ROAD- 2015- 10 tracks
‘I’ll keep on walking though the road is so long, and I’ll keep on talking ’til the words are all gone and I’ll keep on marching for what I see wrong. Help me to carry this load and I hope we’ll meet on the road.’
The title song is about continuing with your convictions to the bitter end but needing the help of others to do so. That no matter the adversity and obstacles the road will continue to be the one travelled. There is an appeal for others to join in on the way to aid, help, support and protect. The fiddle, drums and guitar combined with the vocals are so effective in this song. This can be a very lonely road.
They Sing For You~
‘Save your sorrow
Baby don’t you cry
The birds they sang
For chosen few
They sing for you’
Such a pared back and powerful intro, voice and simple guitar which really focuses on the lyrics. Goes very quiet just prior to other instruments joining in. Strong drumming drives the sing along and then is intersected by contrasting quieter interludes. There is great production on this track with lots of depth to the sound.
Wake Me Up~
‘If this is dreaming
Hell won’t someone wake me up
Our children screaming
Whilst they’re drinking from my cup.’
This track is driven along with a crazy, wild yet lyrical fiddle and super fast tempo on drums and guitar. Reminiscent of Dylan (Blood on the Tracks era), you can hear the Irish and folk influence very clearly in this. The lyrics are highly political and very powerfully delivered with an undercurrent of real anger. Towards the end the harmonica enters to add yet another dimension. I defy you not to tap your feet to this one!
SNAPSHOTS OF REALITY- EP- 2013- 5 tracks
Finding A Better Way~
‘Finding a better way
Before we all just throw it away
The progress of our kind
Just a way of seeing
A state of being
Maybe we can find
A life less ordinary
That means a better day
With a feeling of Crosby Stills and Nash (with hints of America), driven by the drums and guitar but with soft vocal harmonies. The message here is clear: that our world, the planet we live on, is precious and that without a change, a ‘better way’, it is doomed. It is refreshing to hear lyrics that are challenging in this way.
I SHALL BE RELEASED- EP- 2016- 4 tracks
This EP contains 4 Dylan tracks. All are duets with Tom and Katey Brooks.
Blowing in the Wind~
It was a challenge to choose just one track (as I am a massive Dylan fan) however after much consideration I have chosen Blowing in the Wind. Its resonance with me on a personal level- very much the first protest song of which I was aware as a child- and it just seems so relevant today. This is very much a simple acoustic version, no dissimilar to the original In feel. Having the two very different voices works very well on this track. The fingerpicking of the guitar and immediate vocals after a short guitar intro is perfect. The harmonica solo part way through is so simple and yet so effective. The saddest thing for me, listening to this track now, so very many years after it was first written and performed is that the answer of:
‘How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they are forever banned?
How many years must a people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
How many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?’
‘The answer is blowing in the Wind.’
You can find out more about Tom here:
https://youtu.be/jqHI6ZXftHk ~ Take everything from me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.