BY JASON LI
Having received formal vocal training in classical music and musical theatre since a young age, acoustic singer Tom Powell made a decision to move from his hometown in the North East to London before he was 20 years old. I spoke with Tom Powell in an exclusive interview on July 24 to hear how he built his connections in London and his thoughts on the values of acoustic and vintage music. The full interview follows below:
Can you describe any vocal training you received when you were young?
When I was around 12 years old, I auditioned for a musical, ‘We Will Rock You’, and I got the part of Galileo. My form teacher at that time was a music teacher named Nicki, who agreed to give me vocal lessons. Nicki taught me how to sing classical music, and I kept her as my vocal teacher until I was 16. After I completed my Grade 8 in vocal, I transitioned into singing musical theatre and achieved my performance diploma under Nicki’s tuition. We became really good friends, and I even sang at her wedding. During that period, I was also invited to join the school choir, which gave me the opportunity to do vocal performance on a very practical level. In addition to performing classical music, when I was 15, I formed a three-piece band called Sus2 with my school mates, and I started to do acoustic gigs regularly with them and write my own music.
how big a part did Nicki play in you opting to seek a career in music?
Had Nicki not taught me, I would not have gotten into singing at all. She pushed, encouraged, and trained me in skills that I still use on a day-to-day basis for recording purposes. Although I specialize in acoustic pop music nowadays, I still occasionally return to my roots in classical music like singing arias, which I still very much enjoy, thanks to Nicki.
Can you share a major setback you received in your music career?
My biggest setback was definitely moving to London before the age of 20. Previously I had built a lot of strong contacts and connections up in the North East, then I came to London and I did not know anybody at that time, so I had to try hunt down gigs weekly, which was quite challenging.
how did you start building connections when you arrived in London?
In 2015, during the summer before I came to London, I emailed every man and woman and pled them for gigs. I eventually got one at Café 1001 in Brick Lane, where I sang my own acoustic music. The same client also booked me for another gig at the Blueberry Bar in Shoreditch. Then I did a gig with a recording company from Yorkshire called Ont’ Sofa, and they helped create some really nice showreels of me playing my original music, where I used them to further promote myself around London. Ont’ Sofa has a really popular YouTube channel, so I believe the attention started growing from there.
Did you ever regret leaving your clients and friends IN THE NORTH EAST TO come to London?
Not necessarily. I really enjoy living in London, but I still go back regularly (three times a year). Whenever I am in the North East, I try to get as many gigs as I can. I do admit that London is very different from home, but now I have a really nice network of friends down here and some who share a similar theatrical background as mine. If I had not moved to London in the first place, I would not be the person and musician that I am now.
Nowadays, electronic DANCE MUSIC BY ARTISTS LIKE CALVIN HARRIS, DAVID GUETTA, and ZEDD dominate the music charts. Given that your type of music is very different from what they are doing, What is your take on this?
It is a genre that I have not really gotten into, and I do not know if I ever will. Frankly, out of all pop music forms, this is the genre that lacks lyrical and melodic values. Take Calvin Harris as an example: although I believe his earlier work was much better, the music he performs live on stage nowadays does not necessarily qualify as ‘live’ anymore. I am convinced that there is a lot of skills that go into creating electronic music; it is just that my skill sets lie in a different area and genre.
Having said that, I do believe electronic music can work perfectly under the right collaborations. Sia, who is an incredible artist, produces magnificent work with David Guetta, while James Blake integrates electronic and R&B beautifully. I think EDM has its appeal and strength, and personally I think it will be very interesting for me to collaborate with someone in that field.
do you think thIS type of music will disappear in a few years, because they do not have, as you have just SAID, lyrical and melodic values?
No, I do not think it will ever disappear, because there is so much technology or technical ability required in creating the music. As we move forward with technology, everything becomes more digital and electronic, unsurprisingly this means music as well. I recently wrote and released a song called ‘Songbird’, which is about a rock star who made lots of money in the rock ‘n’ roll era, but refused to alter his style as time went by, and is eventually forgotten by everyone. Nowadays, analog recording has completely vanished, and synthesizers enable one individual to play all instruments without physically owning and learning them. If singers and instrumentalists do not start utilizing technology more constantly in their work, they will be the ones that will get left behind, not electronic music. This is the way it is.
Does it bother you THAT the music you do, e.g. acoustics and VINTAGE, RARELY make it to the top of the charts and appeal to a larger fan base?
Not necessarily. Acoustic-wise, look at Ed Sheeran. He broke all kinds of chart records with ‘÷’, and that album was his silent statement of saying ‘people are still interested in authentic and acoustic music’. He was warned for sending all his singles into the charts all at once, but he did it anyway, and they ranked inside the top 20 overnight with over a billion of streams. If you at look at a few years back, Amy Winehouse and Michael Bublé revitalised the swing and vintage genre. More recently, Postmodern Jukebox brought back an even older form of jazz that dates back to the 1930s. Artists are still making vintage music, and there is an apparent demand for it, but the problem is that the people running the industry, i.e. PR companies and producers, are not interested in putting them out more frequently. If we have more of this form of music released, some of them will definitely make it to the top. I am never worried about the popularity of acoustic and vintage music, because there is certainly still a huge market and fanbase, but I do think electronic music seems to fare better with music listeners nowadays.
As an acoustic musician yourself, do you think classic genres like ROCK and swing still have potential to appeal to the younger demographics?
Based on my own experience, yes. When I do weddings or other events, I like to incorporate songs from past eras into my song lists. From The Jungle Book’s, ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’, to Queen’s, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’; from ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in the 1950s, to some modern-day doo-wop like Olly Murs’, ‘Dance with Me Tonight’, if there are young people in my gigs, I guarantee that they will be the first group dancing to all these classic pieces. I finish gigs occasionally with ‘American Pie’, and believe it or not, they know all the lyrics to it! Classics are ‘classics’ for a reason, and it is apparent that they have been passed down like heirlooms through generations. It is the young people in my gigs that listen to the first chord and go ‘oh I know this song’ and get engaged. So I think these types of music definitely have a place among the younger demographics.
DO you think it is very important to mix songs from the past and present in order to ENTERTAIN THE audience?
For sure. If you perform songs from different eras, you have a better chance of connecting with every single individual in your audience. In one of my more recent gigs, after I finished ‘Purple Rain’, a woman told me that my performance reminded herself the days of her driving a Cadillac in the States and listening to Prince on the radio. As live performers, WE are the radio and jukebox, so we have the commitment of bringing in a wide range of music to entertain and connect with as many people as possible.
SOME CASUAL QUESTIONS NOW. CAN YOU NAME Your most memorable music gig?
Can I name two? The first one I did was when I was with my first ever band, Sus2, where we supported Olly Murs at an open-air concert in front of a capacity crowd of 5000 people. It was an unbelievable experience, because not only was that my first time performing in a festival-like function, but I also met Diana Vickers and Amelia Lily, who were also supporting acts – can you believe we were on the same boat! My band mates and I got to do our own music, and it went down pretty well with the crowd.
More recently at a festival, I was one of the headline acts on one of the smaller stages. Apparently, the headline act on the main stage was not doing particularly well, so everyone ended up heading over to my tent. Their responses were fantastic! When I had physically walked out of the tent already, I could still hear them shouting for more, so I went back and did another song. That was definitely a moment of huge delight and satisfaction.
Type of event you like to play at the most?
Definitely weddings. What I love the most about weddings is that they enable me to offer my premium performing package: some laid-back swing during the drink reception, some classical music during the ceremony, some acoustic tunes during the meal, and rock ‘n’ roll in the evening. I am able to spend the entire day with the couple and guests, thus getting to know them better and ‘connect’ with them.
first music concert YOU WENT TO?
The first concert I remember going to was the Evolution Festival in Newcastle. The headliners were Ellie Goulding and Paolo Nutini, who have both just released their debut albums. Ellie Goulding’s first album was unbelievable, and Paolo Nutini blew everyone away; I especially love his song ‘New Shoes’.
Your go-to album?
‘Whispers’ (2014) by Passenger, who is one of my out-and-out favourite artists.
Your dream artist collaboration?
Passenger for sure. I often walk around the house singing harmonies to Passenger’s music, so collaborating and performing with him would be a dream come true. Even just supporting him at one of his shows would be beyond amazing!
Imagine yourself not working in the music industry, what profession would you be in RIGHT now?
Had I not pursued the creative arts, I know exactly where I will be working right now. After college, I worked as a customer service advisor for a firm called Marshalls, which sells concrete block paving and natural stones. It is a great company, and I would totally picture myself selling concrete to builders and merchants!
WHERE do you see yourself in 20 years?
Probably going grey as I imagine… On a serious note, I have not really thought about this, but I guess I would keep on doing what I am doing. As every gig passes, I like to believe that I have grown a tiny bit more. It is really hard to imagine that I started all this when I was only 15 years old. If I walk into a pub right now and see a 15-year-old playing, I will say to myself, ‘why are you playing in a pub? You are too young for this’. I have come a long way since leaving my hometown, and now I have grown a sizable audience in London. I am not ludicrous enough to think that I am going to be world-famous overnight, but making a living out of music is something that I definitely enjoy doing. If I can continue to write and play the music I love, I will be a happy chap in not only 20 years, but also for life.