Interview by Anthony Thomas
In an intriguing conversation at BIGSOUND, Tom Spender proves he is as intelligent in thought as he is talented onstage.
Belated congratulations on the EP, have people been enjoying it?
People have enjoyed it, yeah. It was a surprise. Well not a surprise, I was hoping for that but it’s sort of likewhen you throw a birthday party and you’re kind of scared because you don’t know if your friends are going to come. Then they come and you’re sort of surprised but you knew they would.
I understand you have an inclination to the production side of things. Do you still enjoy being on stage?
Absolutely. I’ve spent more time onstage performing than producing. Actually, that could be argued. I’ve probably spent a lot more hours in a little dark room than onstage. But from a young age I have performed in various different bands, toured and played quite a few different instruments. That’s where I got my grounding in music.
People see names like Gotye on the EP and must think, “Woah, who is this guy?” But they don’t understand you’ve been working in the industry for X number of years.
More and more we have a shorter attention span, a shorter memory and there’s more on offer. When things come apart, we’re all very in the moment. I like the feeling of having a clean slate and being like, “Yeah! I’m a brand new artist, this all just happened so easily,” even if it didn’t.
I get the impression creativity comes naturally to you, even beyond music. Do you have a philosophy you bring to creation?
It’s a battle for honesty. It’s the pursuit of creating something that is authentic to who you really are. Not just who you like the idea of being. It’s a very fine line between doing what you do well creatively and speaking with an honest voice. That’s what I strive for and wrestle with. I’ve found that the music that has connected the most with people is when I’ve been the most honest and sincere. I might think people will love an idea or something is really great but it’s sincerity that makes people thirst for more.
Do you have to be very self-aware to project that authenticity?
You have to, at some point, step outside of yourself to see your music from a different perspective and not take things so personally. It’s sometimes really challenging, especially in the cycle of releasing music because you don’t get that reflection time. I fortunately have had a bunch of time to do that because I’ve spent ages chipping away at this, out of the public view. I decided I wanted to do new music so I allowed myself a couple of years to work out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. It’s now to the point where I’m happy to step away from it.
Performing isn’t your only musical endeavour, you also have your Donut Beach Music project. How did that come about?
I have a young family and I reached a point where it’s all well and good to be writing these songs and taking that risk of not knowing if an audience is going to enjoy your music but I actually need to earn an income. A lot of my music had been used over the years, through a publishing deal I have with Sony, in various advertisements. I built up a nice little backlog of commercial work and started focusing on that. It’s really good money when it works and the payments come through.
I think it’s refreshing to hear that you’re willing and able to do what you love through these different channels. It’s the ideal situation, right?
To fully paint the picture, I’ve had to diversify to make a living as a musician. I can’t just do original music, or just produce music for advertising, or just produce other artist’s original music. I’ve also got to teach music. Essentially, I’ve had to split my time between four income streams to be able to support my family.
So music is a lifestyle after all!
[laughs] It’s a full on lifestyle.
It seems like a lot of people don’t see it that way and it’s just this fleeting thing to them. What are your thoughts?
That’s a really good question. I think I’m too close to being 100% music to understand or empathise with anyone who is doing music with that mentality. I’m surrounded by people who give every inch of their body to music, down to the molecular level. When I work with younger artists it gets misconstrued with enthusiasm and optimism. Everyone’s excited about music no matter how long you’ve been doing it. I guess it’s about trying to get deeper into an artist because it’s hard to tell from the outset if someone’s 100% committed or not.
When you’re producing, is it easier with some than others to get to that commitment?
The great thing about producing, and like I said before it’s taken me a long time to realise, is that what people want to hear is people being themselves. As an outsider, that’s the greatest gift of being a producer. I can sit in front of someone and they can play me a song on acoustic guitar and I can tell within five seconds on instinct whether they’re being true to themselves or not. It’s really amazing helping people on that journey trying not to model yourself on anyone else and committing 100% to you. It’s actually quite hard to do as an artist. We’re caught up with popularity and entertainment, which is when we look for gratification from others.
Do you feel people still appreciate music as an art form?
We’re both artists and entertainers and you can’t take either too seriously. If you feel like you’re an entertainer and that’s all you’re hear to do then you’re not going to be true to yourself. If you feel like you’re an artist and that’s all you’re here to do, then you’re probably not going to get that far. Eventually, you do have to create a spectacle. People need to be captivated. Whether you’re a painter, a dancer or whatever, it’s about pulling people out of their lives and taking them on a journey.
With so many projects, do you find your focus skews toward one?
The focus shifts weekly. Unfortunately, often it does boil down to a financial matter and I have prioritize work that will create an income for me. If I was to weight it, it would probably be 80% income related and 20% original work.
A musician’s got to eat right?
Absolutely, that’s right!
Have you been working on anymore music for yourself?
I’ve started doing a lot more remixing. It’s one of my secret joys, working on an artist’s material when they’re not there and trying to surprise them.
I’ve been giving the Private Life remix a spin. It was nice.
They were surprised to say the least. I said to them I was going to turn it inside out. I thought as long as I committed to the quality of the production then, whether you liked it or not, it would be undeniable that it was a good piece of music. That’s my goal with remixing and I’m really enjoying it at the moment. I’ve also got a new EP nearly finished coming out next year. I’m just looking for a couple of different collaborators to do vocals.
Why do you want to get those extra vocalists on board?
I love the collaborative nature. We’re in a community, so we should make use of that and I’m always conscious that I am an emerging artist who is working with artists who are way higher up the ladder than me. It’s been a huge help. In all fairness though, it’s not something I set out to do. I recorded Hotel Home with Wally (Gotye) a couple of weeks before he had even released Somebody That I Used To Know because I deeply respect him as an artist. Now the next bunch of people I’m looking at are people that I’ve always wanted to work with. Hopefully, I have a little more leverage in getting my letter in the letterbox so to speak.