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Interview – Sandi Thom – November 2013

| 7 February 2014 | 5 Replies

Interview – Sandi Thom – November 2013

By Shane Pinnegar

Sandi Thom 01

It’s a little cloudy in Malibu when Sandi Thom answers the phone, but as she says, “it’s all good here in Malibu – can’t complain.”

We’re on the phone to talk about Sandi’s new album, a collection of cover versions called, unsurprisingly, The Covers Collection. Thom says the album took form after she started making impromptu videos for her social network fans.

“The fans were asking, maybe you could cover this or cover that or I’d love to hear you sing this,” she says in a thick Scottish accent tinged with Mallibu sunshine. “It was really just like, me responding to their requests in the most simple format, which was me sitting with a guitar or at a piano and playing it for them. And then we got such great response, and I think we really hit the nail on the head with November Rain [Guns n’ Roses], and we just kinda… there was just nothing intentionally thought out about it, it was just me sitting and playing it acoustically, and you know, that was at its most basic form.

“Because we had never intended on releasing it or making a record of covers, it was just in the end when ten, twelve, fifteen of them accumulated, it was like, ‘oh well okay, maybe we should actually release this.’

“So I picked the ones that I really liked the most and I put it together. I think the one I enjoyed the most to record was November Rain, and then I enjoyed the challenge of playing The Rain Song [Led Zeppelin] as well, especially on the piano, which was really kooky. So you know, it was really good fun, it was probably the coolest thing to do to take these songs that you’re so familiar with, them being these enormous productions, and tearing them right back to the basics – I think that was a nice contrast from the original.”

Sandi Thom 02

Some of Thom’s renditions of these classic rock tracks are stunning, and she explains that the songs she chose to cover are all special to her.

“You know, you take just as much joy and pleasure in singing someone else’s song as you do singing your own material,” she says. “Each of the songs has particular significance to me – they’re songs that I grew up with, in the 80’s and 90’s. They’re all songs that have sort of come into my life at certain stages and stayed with me, so I love playing them and it’s great when you go out and play them live – it sounds just like the record, just me sitting there with a guitar!

“November Rain was the moment that I realised I wanted to be a musician,” Thom elaborates, “when I saw Slash out there in the desert [in the video clip] in his leathers playing his guitar it was like ‘oh my god that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!’ So that was like the song that made me want to be a singer and an artist.

“Then More Than Words [Extreme] was a huge hit when I was young and that was played every single day and I loved it so much – it was my favourite song.

“Then Black Velvet [Alannah Myles], I think was the first song I ever sung on karaoke, you know – that was like, the challenging song for a singer to do ‘cos Alannah Myles is such a good singer. So they’ve all played some kind of part in my life.

“The Rain Song was the first song I ever discovered of Led Zeppelin and made me fall in love with it, and also Jimmy Page,” Thom laughs, “Yeah, you know – they’re all songs… I mean, Songbird – growing up I was a huge Fleetwood Mac fan and Christine McVie fan, and that was a huge song to me… so yeah, they’re all really songs that I love and played a part in the soundtrack of my life, if you like.”

Thom goes on to explain what she looks for in a song before she tackles a cover version.

“I think sometimes singers don’t always sing every song great, so if it complements your voice, that’s a good start. So that’s what I kind of look for – songs that I can really get some emotion behind, because I think a lot of people like me because the way I sing really affects people and touches them.

“It has to be a song that I really connect with, otherwise I can’t really do it justice, I can’t really sing from the heart, you know, so when I listen to a song, if it has that impact on me – the original – then as long as it complements my voice and I can do it justice, then I can really cover the song with passion and feeling. That really is the one stipulation.”

On her last album, Flesh & Blood, Thom did a striking cover of Leadbelly’s In The Pines, making it her own, even to my generation who grew up with Nirvana’s lauded version. Is it all about stamping your own identity on a cover song?

“Exactly!” she agrees. “And if you’re gonna cover [a song], especially if they’re really, really well known and extremely famous for the original version, then you’re really gonna have to knock it outta the park. And every single one of those songs I just love to do and like I said, I had to really put my heart and soul into the singing more than anything else to showcase the song in it’s purest form, to showcase someone else’s songwriting abilities and just be the voice behind it.”

Sandi Thom 03

The sparseness of the recordings on The Covers Collection, along with the uniqueness of Thom’s interpretations, really bring to mind the Johnny Cash American Recording sessions. I ask Thom if she had a specific goal or message in mind for the record.

“I think that it’s a way to connect to people that you may not already have connected with.” She states with alacrity. “Because it’s such a wide variety of songs from Bonnie Raitt to Fleetwood Mac to Led Zeppelin to Guns n’ Roses – it’s a really wide genre, and I think it was for me a way to connect with people who ordinarily wouldn’t bother listening to my music.

“And again I think it’s this connecting through the voice, you know a lot of the time I read the comments and things on YouTube for the videos, and a lot of those people would be like. ‘I don’t normally like covers, especially covers of this song, but this one I really love’. I think it’s because in that simplistic form you’re showcasing with your voice and also the emotion behind it and just connecting with people. And using very familiar songs like these ones, which are very familiar to a lot of people in different genres of music, kind of allows me to connect to people who would never have listened to my music had they not heard this version of this song because they like the original and they like the original artist. So you know really for me it was a way for me to widen my horizons a little bit and connect to people who would never have heard of me unless I covered these songs.”

Sandi Thom released her first album, Smile… It Confuses People, in 2006 after being ‘discovered’ webcasting from her Tooting basement flat. The backlash from those who thought she was a pop construct of some record company mogul was instant and venomous.

“Yeah” she agrees. “What would I say to them now?

“Fuck off!” Thom laughs loudly.

“You know,” she continues in her beguiling accent. “It’s hard because I was young and very emotional and very sensitive, like, [in my] early twenties, and I didn’t know who I was yet. Of course, I took a lot of it personally, it was hard not to.

“I think the proof is in the pudding… but to use another well known phrase, ‘actions speak louder than words’ and I think [if] you go away and you do what you need to do, then people will eventually watch and see and you prove those [original] people wrong. So, you know, from the first record to now, this will be album number 5 and I’m working on number 6 for next year’s release. It’s like, where the hell did all that come from – how are we up to album number 6?

“But in that time I stuck around, I dug my heels in, I got back and I drove the van. I made myself sick ‘cos I worked so hard. You know, I worked my ass off. And I made good music and won respect, and people who are very well respected played on those records and endorsed my name, and worked with me, and I’ve built that up. And really, the only way to change the perception that maybe people have because of the way the media reacted to the first record, is to just quietly and consistently change that perception.

“And what I noticed is that now, the last time I toured in the UK, even though most people will find that it’s where they’re from they get the most flak, but for me it’s not the Scottish papers, but for me the British media was the hardest. But now when I go and I tour the reviews are awesome and nobody says a WORD any more… I guess probably because they go ‘well fair enough, she’s stuck around’ and I’ve built up a business, and the distribution deal I did for my label was unheard of because I had no sales history, and normally people don’t get those deals any more. It was just me grabbing up my balls and marching into the NBC Universal building and going ‘right, let’s make this happen’.

“I think that after you prove those people wrong, then they don’t really have anything to come back with. I mean, I’m the one sitting here chuckling away to myself ‘cos I’ve earnt my stripes in this business and so far in terms of the graft that’s gone into just getting up to this level, I’ve done a shit ton of work so I have NOTHING else to prove. And people know that and finally respect me for that. No-one says anything [negative] about me now, you know, so… it’s a good feeling actually, having proved a lot of people wrong.”

Sandi Thom 04

Phew – here’s a girl who believes in herself and what she does!

I, for one, am intrigued how Thom balances the mixture of people in her audience, from the pop of her earliest work, her more folky acoustic stuff, and some for the raunchier, ‘70’s rock chick stuff that was on Flesh & Blood.

“Mmm… “ she ponders, “well I guess… the way that I do a show is just me on stage, so it’s very much in it’s very basic, stripped back form. There’s still energy, there’s a lot of energy and it’s really entertaining and people really love it, so I ‘spose really everything is back in it’s original form, and kinda transcends the different genres that I have tapped upon throughout the records.

“And people, I think, like the newer stuff as much as the older stuff – plus the older stuff is interpreted differently now live, you know, in that I’m older and I sing better and I’m a better musician because I’ve developed and grown and gotten better at what I do. So you know, it probably sounds VERY different now to what it did originally on the record, because I was much younger and not as mature as a singer… so the show sort of has a good continuity to it, and I don’t think people really even notice the differences in the styles of music.

“Because I really interpret and deliver everything in the same way, and people just… for me, they come to hear me sing, you know. They don’t really come to watch me play guitar, you know, some people dig [that] and are more into the playing, and that’s cool, but they come to hear me sing. And that’s why they leave feeling satisfied – because they’ve heard me sing and that’s really what they came for. So, yeah, it seems to not really have any kind of effect, the different styles.”

A short while before our interview, Sandi posted on her Facebook page about her lyric books. Interestingly, she stated that a different lyric book influences the lyrics you are writing in there… so with that in mind, where does she feel the next batch of songs is going?

“Well I think the reason I posted that up there,” Thom explains, “was because, you know, I do keep them all and it’s really funny to read back through them, and try to remember your frame of mind at the time when you read some of those lyrics, and it makes you laugh – ‘ha ha, that’s funny, what a douche’ or whatever.

“You know, there’s moments when… and [even] the old scabby one that I just put into retirement… it kinda reflects your state of mind. And it was all made with hemp paper and organic and it was all very much like going back to your roots. And then the first couple of ones I have were all sort of girly pop, and pink and shiny, sort of stuff. So it totally reflects the record, because the record is a reflection of you at the time. So what you buy and what you choose to represent yourself, are very much reflective of the way the songs turn out and the record.

“I dunno, this is why I went for this sort of very classic, black leather [journal] with a little tie on it. So I guess, I dunno, maybe this… for the next record I really do have a very specific project in mind, which I don’t normally do in a conceptual way – I usually just let the juices flow, but this one I really do have a concept for – which is all under wraps – so maybe that’s why I went for this very plain, simple looking thing with these, little subtle details that I’m gonna want to share on this next record, production wise? I think they’re really gonna jump off the pages! So, I dunno – ask me in a year!” she laughs.

“[Then] I’ll tell you what it sounds like!”

Sandi Thom 05

Thom agrees wholeheartedly that she is on a musical journey.

“Oh yeah! Absolutely! I don’t think it’ll ever end – that’s the thing. You don’t ever get to the end of the road. There’s never any end to the journey, you just keep going… and if you get to a point where you say to yourself, ‘you know what, I just don’t enjoy this any more’, then that’s when you hang up your boots and say ‘that’s it’, you know.

“But I don’t know if I’ll ever do that, or if that’ll ever happen to me… it’s definitely a journey – and so what!? You are yourself, and your thoughts and your feelings and what really matters to you as well, I think you learn that. And the songs that you write, you kind’ve realise what you really care about in this world. So yeah, it is a very interesting journey and musically you can never stop discovering stuff, you can never stop finding new songs and finding new inspirations in other art and in records, and I think that’s why it’s so rewarding as a job – you just CREATE!

“And that’s a great feeling,” Thom continues, “to create something, and to share that with people and for it to have some sort of impact on them, it’s a very, very great feeling. Yeah, it is a journey, and you know, all these people… there were people at the beginning who came and went, and you know, I built my Facebook page back up from the ground up, when Sony and I went our separate ways it was like, back to zero, you know? So now we’re like 30,000 – it’s [only] 30 thousand – but they’re a LOYAL 30 thousand, and that’s the difference. Maybe it was a hundred and whatever [thousand] before, but it wasn’t real, you know.

“So those people come along with you on that journey – and they’re so important – and their lives impact you, and your life impacts them… I really like to have a sense of community, people perceive the person that I am, you know, I’m not under cloak and dagger – I’m not Lady Gaga, there’s no mask, this just is [me] and people know that – they see me, and my soul, and I’m sure a lot of people have watched me growing up as well! The ones that have been there since the beginning have seen me change and develop and grow and mature, and it’s like watching your school friends grow up and everyone gets older – and it’s great, that’s the most important part of it all, is the journey.”

Thom gets thoughtful when I ask if she recalls the first moment that music struck her as something she NEEDED to do.

Sandi Thom & Buffy St Marie

“Well it was two songs,” she says. “One was Buffy St Marie – and we addressed that on the fourth record [Thom released a duet with St Marie on the latter’s track The Big Ones Get Away on the Flesh & Blood album]. And the other one was a song that my mother played me, I think it was a Steve Earle song, and it’s called My Name Is Billy Austin. It’s about this guy who got tried for murder, and he got the chair but he was innocent. It’s this horrible, bad tale of this guy’s life. I remember listening to it and right at the end they have this really loud, drumming noise – like a military drum you would hear at like a policeman’s funeral or something.

“It just had such a huge impact on me, that you could write something that powerful. It definitely stuck in my mind so it must have had an impact… so that song, that’s really why, you know, the Buffy song and that song, where they both have a really powerful message. I always knew that I wanted to address stuff and talk about real life situations and stuff that’s gone on in the world, and knew that that would be somehow incorporated into what I write, and it still is.

“It’s kind’ve a rocky road to take, that one, because some people get pissed off and think you’re preaching, and some people really dig it and like the fact that somebody can put these things into words and make a song out of it, when they maybe can’t, so they want somebody else to do it. But I don’t really care, at the end of the day. I don’t really care, because some people may not really like and some people may do, but I don’t really care.” She laughs, before continuing.

“I knew that I wanted those songs to say something strong, to have a message, to say something personal. So from that respect for me, from when I was young, it was never about the stardom or the fame – I mean, I love pop music, you can call me a blues singer, but I like pop, [and] I always knew I wanted to say something important, so I’ve always tried to include songs like that in my music.”

I may not entirely be a coincidence that Thom’s music has gone in a more organic direction since her early pop success with the likes of If I Was A Punk Rocker. For some years now she has been in a serious relationship with blues guitarist Joe Bonnamassa, a man reknowned for working on a dazzling array of projects and collaborations. They’ve sung on stage before, and Thom released the This Ol’ World single in 2012 which featured her boyfriend, but it doesn’t sound like there’ll be a collaborative album coming any time soon.

Sandi Thom feat Joe Bonamassa This Ol World cover

“Well, I mean, the thing is,” she starts, not cross, but leaving us in no doubt that this is the final word on the subject…for now. “Obviously a lot of people ask that, but we are very careful to separate the two things, and not ‘cross the stream’ as Ghostbusters would say.

“I think that’s what actually makes for a long lasting relationship when you are both musicians, both songwriters, both making records – I think that if you make it all about you, all about the job and the work, you can forget why you fell in love with that person. We always joke about it, and we’re like, ‘we’re not Sonny & Cher!’

“You know, you already have Derek & Susan [Trucks & Tedeschi] – you don’t need Joe & Sandi!” she laughs comfortably. “You know, if it ever comes about it will be the most organic, unplanned thing on the planet – it’d have to be completely out of the blue, not planned whatsoever, just happen to be sitting round the studio somewhere and start hashing something out, and somebody tapes it… it won’t be ‘let’s make a record’ – that’s never gonna happen! Because we’re just not that way with each other when we’re behind closed doors sittin’ in our house. We’re just not like that, you know – he sits around playing guitar all night on the sofa, and sometimes it drives me mad because the headstock’s in my face!

Sandi Thom & Joe Bonamassa

“But apart from that, that’s about as far as it gets you know – we’re just gonna be Joe & Sandi. He’s a very different person onstage, and offstage he’s just good old Joe – and that’s what I love, and we’re very protective of that. If we started to force the collaborations on one another, you might think that we were in it for other reasons, which we’re not. So I think for now it’s definitely NOT on the cards, but like I say, one day maybe it’ll just organically happen…

“I know what happens when you get too caught up in your business,” she continues after a brief pause. “I would never want to work with my partner – some people do very successfully, but I think in the music business, you know… I don’t think you could be with another person who toured that much if you didn’t do it yourself. I know that much, ‘cos you’d never understand, you’d never conceptualise that, you’d be all neglected or whatever. So you need to understand that that’s the job you do, that’s the life you live, and obviously that works for us ‘cos we DO understand that about each other, but when it comes to who we are in our personal life, we’re very much, very careful to just be ourselves and love one another for who we are without any of the guitars or gigs or front pages of Classic Rock [Magazine] or any of that stuff. You fell in love with that person, so…”

Wise words. Sandi Thom’s The Covers Collection, featuring intimate acoustic versions of songs by Guns n’ Roses, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and more is out now.


Category: Interviews

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Comments (5)

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  1. Stacy B says:

    “I would never want to work with my partner”, she says. What a bunch of bullocks! She worked with her former fiancé!

  2. Leslie says:

    This is all BS. She just left Bonamassa. Owing a shit ton of money as well. The lady is a clever opportunist.

  3. Hi Leslie, just heard about Joe and Sandi breaking up. What is the real story

  4. Dar says:

    I believe Stacy, Leslie and Susan know the truths about which they write.

  5. Blues Lady says:

    She break up the relationship with Joe Bonamassa because he is an selfish guitarist!

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