Tom Powell: Seeking Truth In Music
BY JASON LI
Like every single one of you avid music aficionados out there, Tom Powell takes great pleasure in writing, arranging, and performing his work. Be it swing, blues, pop, rock, or EDM, 'truth' has always been the most important thing that Tom Powell seeks in his music. We were very lucky to have Tom come to our office in London and share his distinct approach of picking the right music to arrange and his experience of dealing with every performer's common headache, a tough crowd.
On your Headliner profile, you have uploaded numerous renditions of classics like ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode', is that the type of music you favour as opposed to the more modern songs?
I love music on a non-preferential basis. I do not stick to any particular genre, type, or era. Yes, I listen to people like Nina Simone, Ben E. King, and Chuck Berry often, but contemporary musicians like Disclosure are also fantastic and very skilful artists, so it is not as simple as ‘I only listen to old stuff or new stuff’.
However, I do think that there are a lot of fine elements in older records missing in the modern genres. The former tend to have a better narrative and story line. As messages in a particular record tend to get forgotten over time, the songs that tell a truthful story are those that will linger long in people's memories. For example, Meat Loaf told great stories through his songs, and now he has just got his own stage work in ‘Bat Out of Hell The Musical’, 40 years after that album was released; I am positive that there will be a Tom Jones musical not before long. With everything considered, it is all this great storytelling in old songs that allow them to prevail over the newer ones and live for ages.
Take your Hello/Sorry mash-up for example, how do you normally arrange a song for your gigs?
It differs depending on the genre. For the Hello/Sorry mash-up, I was merely plunking down chords on the piano, then I realized that the same phrases from ‘Sorry’ fit as they do on ‘Hello’, so I thought I should give it a go… and it worked! Frankly, a lot of my arrangements come down to experimenting. You have to be playful and not take yourself too seriously. Even though I am not a huge fan of Justin Bieber and a few other artists, I can still play around and work with their songs when I find them applicable.
Do you simply choose any type of music out there and experiment?
It is a bit more strict than picking any type of music. To begin with, the songs I pick have to consist of a good melody and lyrical value. Disclosure's ‘Latch’ featuring Sam Smith is a great example, because it has got a fine tune and meaningful lyrics, which enables me to play around with it acoustically. I believe, as artists, a very important thing we should be seeking in songs is the ‘truth’, or the 'message', regardless if they are electronic or acoustic. My favorite musicians, such as Frank Sinatra, Freddie Mercury, Amy Winehouse and Passenger, speak the truth in every single one of their pieces; they are able to communicate and perform them really well. So, when I pick a song to arrange, I have to assess if the song has well-written lyrics and melody, as well as a meaningful message, which can differ between people's interpretations.
Many artists on our platform perform covers, while some mainly write original work. Do you prefer covering famous hits or performing your own music?
I actually enjoy them both equally, albeit they are very different. I love displaying my interpretations of classic smashes that everyone is familiar with, and watching the audience’s reactions as they get up and dance to them. Some have even come up on stage and done duets with me. These are the sort of buoyant party vibes I can create when covering classics.
However, there is something particularly gratifying about performing my own music. When I did a gig at the Whole Foods Market in Kensington, I taught the audience the chorus of my song, 'Songbird', and got them to sing it along with me. No words could describe how happy and grateful I was when there were dozens of people still singing my piece after the entire gig, and then receiving congratulatory messages and videos on my Facebook page the next morning.
After all these years of singing and performing, do you credit ‘experience’ as the prime reason for your success?
Yes, it is definitely one of them. I would say my success stems from an amalgam of different criterion, which are skill, energy, talent and of course, experience. One of my oldest friends who supported me right from the start said, 'you are like a jukebox with 17 hours worth of backing tracks'. After all these years, I have almost become a cruise-liner type of singer who can sing every chart hit there is on command. When someone taps me on the shoulder during halftime and says 'you should sing Stereophonics', I will put on the song for them.
I think it was Ed Sheeran who came up with this music parallel, which I personally refer to as ‘the tap water analogy’. When you turn a new faucet on, it runs dirty water for a little while, which resembles the early gigs you have when things may not go quite the way as planned. The more gigs you do, the cleaner the water becomes. Now I am at a point where I have done lots and lots of gigs, and now I am able to get any audience going. So if you are just starting out, bear in mind that the more gigs you do, the better you can handle an audience.
Can you describe your approach of working with potential clients?
If it is a wedding, I will congratulate them first. A lot of artists view these events as a business, but they often forget that someone is asking you to perform at potentially the most special day of their lives, so you should always congratulate them and make it personal for them.
Likewise, always speak to the clients in a patient and courteous tone. At the end of the day, until the booking is completely secured, everything is subject to change, so you should respect your clients' decisions. I would not try to be self-important, because that does not really help anybody.
How important do you think bookers’ reviews are for you as a musician in terms of obtaining bookings?
Very, very important. I have quite a few reviews on my Headliner page, and I think they constitute a good artist profile, which increases the likelihood of getting bookings in general. It costs quite a bit to produce decent headshots and showreels, but it does not cost much at all to get good customer reviews.
Can you describe your toughest crowd and how you eventually turned them around?
My toughest crowd was at a social club in Ipswich. After I set up the equipment and started singing, it took forever to get the crowd going. The vibe was very awkward, in that no one talked throughout my songs, so I could not tell if they were enjoying them or not. Then in the middle of my performance, a fight between two men broke out, and children were running around. It was already eleven o’clock at night, and I was in the middle of singing 'Proud Mary', so that was a pretty unpleasant moment...
I believe it was just time that turned them around eventually. No matter what the occasion is, I try to be as friendly as I can with the audience, because even though they are not paying my wages, their feedback are what matters, not just to me, but also to the booker (club). On that particular night, I went around the audience at halftime and chatted with them, making sure everyone was feeling good. Fortunately, I had a few anchors in the audience who were with me the whole time, and they praised me for how I dealt with the aforementioned predicament. At the end of the night, the crowd was on my side, and I recevied some of the most generous comments I have ever had. It is inevitable that, as artists, we experience things out of our control, but then we have to leave them behind and move on.
You have been very active on our platform since you joined Headliner a few months ago. What is your advice for your peers in terms of securing bookings more frequently through the platform?
Be responsive to emails. When you get lots of them, take full advantage of them – they are there for a reason. The fact that you can personally tailor what emails and events you can get as a performer means that you can make sure that the only emails coming through to you are relevant. So reply to them all!
Also, have a definite idea of what you are asking from them. If you make yourself very clear right from the beginning, they will know what you are getting at. Essentially, it is very important that the clients understand everything you are offering before the booking is secured.