Behind the Music: Interview with Tommy Ashby

‘I love diving inside both my memories and my imagination. They can really help bring a song to life.’

Following the recent release of his debut album ‘Lamplighter’, I chatted with Tommy Ashby to discover more about the stories behind the tracks within it, why his personal approach to songwriting is so important to him, and what impact nature has on his performances.

Hi Tommy, thanks for taking the time to chat. Please briefly introduce yourself to those who don’t know you yet.
I’m a Scottish singer-songwriter, who started in academia experimenting with acoustics, spatial audio and
soundscapes before falling into being a guitar session musician and then an artist.
This series of events has led to a blend of contrasting musical textures that contribute to my sound.

Describe the music you create in no more than 5 words?
Scottish atmospheric indie folk pop 🙂

What/who would you cite as your biggest musical/non musical inspirations?
My dad is a singer and guitarist and I grew up playing in his blues band. He and that band are definitely one of my biggest influences. They were also my first experience playing on bigger stages and were always very supportive of my music.

‘Sometimes when recording you can start to feel insular and wonder whether the music you’re making is relevant. Gigging removes those worries.’

Turning to your phenomenal debut album, ‘Lamplighter’, what made now the right time for you to release it and what’s the story behind the title?
I just felt I had more to say and felt confident enough to say it, so making an album was the only option. Lamplighter is based on a poem by the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig’s, which says: 

“He went through a company like a lamplighter

see the dull minds, one after another,
begin to glow, to shed
a beneficent light.”

It describes how a person can influence those around them and really resonated with the meaning of the album.

I understand there is an incredibly personal centre to many of the tracks that feature on the release. How do you feel this impacted the overall narrative of the album and the connection it will have with those who listen to it?
I’ve always found it easier to engage with songs that get into the minutiae of personal details and
observations. When you hear something in the lyrics that you can relate to, it feels like the songwriter is
speaking directly to you as an individual. Those kinds of songs are always the most important to me; they’re also the kind of songs I want to write.

Which one of the tracks tapped in your personal memories in the most surprising way?
Track No.2 ‘Moonflowers (Best Friend)’, took me right back to being a kid growing up in my small village in the Scottish Borders. It looks at how friendships change and develop as you grow from your small childhood world in the intimidatingly large world of adulthood. I love diving inside my memories and my imagination when writing songs, especially verses. The images that these imaginings conjure up can really bring a song to life.

Throughout the album we get to hear the diversity of your sound – such as how the folky lightness of ‘A Beautiful Day’ follows the more soulful atmosphere of ‘When Love Goes Dark’. What were the compositional processes behind achieving these contrasts?
I think the root soundscape of a song often starts with only a few key ingredients. For ‘A Beautiful Day’, I had a mandolin riff on the chorus, which was influenced by Scottish folk and traditional music. This encapsulated and drove the rest of the sounds on that song. ‘When Love Goes Dark’ was first written on an old bashed up electric guitar and was much more blues influenced. It just takes one seed to inform the soundscape of a whole song.

Turning to recording, who was involved in the wider aspects of what we hear and what led to you working
with them?  
I have been working with producer Sam Okell for a few years now, and the album felt like the next step on our journey. He is a Grammy winning musical prodigy who can turn his hand to so many different forms of music – from huge Hollywood film scores recording to remixing The Beatles – and I always felt like I was in safe hands. He is a calming inspirational force in the studio and I couldn’t have made any of the record without him.

And which of the tracks went on the biggest musical journey from first take to final master? 
When Sam first heard ‘Not That Far To Go’, he was adamant that we hadn’t got the initial ingredients quite right and that we should strip it back. We asked my friend and drummer Toby Couling to come in and have a play on it. He instantly added a driving groove to the track that transformed it on the spot.

You’ve recently completed a tour supporting BANNERS. How did it feel to get out on the road and what was the response to your tracks like?
It was incredible. Sometimes when you are in the middle of recording you can start to feel insular. You are left wondering whether the music you are making is relevant. Will it resonate with people? Touring with BANNERS got rid of all those worries and reinforced my love for writing and recording music.

‘I’ve always found it easier to engage with songs that get into the minutiae of personal details and observations. They’re also the kind of songs I want to write.’

Ahead of the final gig, you posted on social media about heading out into nature beforehand. What makes this the best way for you to prepare for your performances?
I try to get out into nature before every gig. It completely transports me, helps with performance anxiety, puts everything into perspective, and gives some pattern and meaning to my day outside of music.

To what extent have those you’ve performed alongside – either recently or in the past – influenced your own stage presence?
Every single person I have played session guitar for in the past has had a huge influence on my own stage presence. They each have something special, something that makes the audience want and need to connect with them. I sometimes feel like a magpie, going around observing and collecting these interactions; wondering whether they could help with my own performance.

And finally, what 3 things that music has enabled you to do that you would have never thought possible?
Travel to out of the way places. The two main places we recorded the album were Zennor in Cornwall and a tiny village in Pembrokeshire, Wales. These are both incredibly beautiful out of the way places that I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t been making music. This extends to travelling the UK, Europe and further afield, all through the connection of music.

Meeting and connecting with other musicians all over the world. Every time I meet a fellow musician I learn something. Communicating via music is another language, a universal one. This extends all the way from playing in a wee pub jam up to playing stadiums.

Having a positive impact on the people listening to my music and hearing their stories. When you write a song, you pour yourself into it in the hope that it might mean something to someone else. If someone has taken time out of their day to write and express that meaning then it makes my day, it really means the world.

Thanks Tommy Ashby for chatting with Listen to Discover
Tommy Ashby’s debut album ‘Lamplighter’ is available to hear everywhere now.

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