There are seminal moments in each person’s life, where a fork in the path they are following presents itself. The situation will arise quite unexpectedly and may arrive due to tragic circumstances such as the death of a loved one, the crumbling of a close relationship or the loss of a job, but what comes next is most important. What path you choose will have a knock-on effect to the rest of your existence, and when it comes to making a decision between the two forks, you have to trust your basic instincts.
Tom Baxter understands this better than anyone. In the past year he has dealt with heartbreak and the crumbling of a marriage. His path left to him contemplating a withdrawal from music, and took him around the world to South America, Spain and India, where he met a Russian gypsy musician playing flamenco guitar – it was he who made Tom realise that recovery meant choosing the path that kept music in his life. Several months later, in March of this year, Tom Baxter released the first part of a double album. The influence of his travels, including the people he met and the guitars he played, can be heard on The Uncarved Block and ahead of his performance at the London Acoustic Guitar Show, Acoustic talks to Tom as he prepares for a show in Tuscany, to find out exactly how the path led to where he is now.
‘I felt like my career had run its course,’ Tom say, clearly ebullient that it hadn’t. ‘It’s like a rollercoaster. You struggle with things like writer’s block and it can be quite isolating. It takes walking down a lot of blind, dark alleys, and quite often having to turn around and walk down a new one, to make a record. I often felt like I didn’t want to make another album at the end of each process, but I don’t feel like that having made this record.’
With the combination of a fresh dose of Indian inspiration, the support of an iconic, loving family of folk musicians who felt his pain, and the unfinished business of having to follow up part one of a double album with a second, there is a feeling that Tom Baxter is utilising his near 40 years of life experience. He has developed a new sound, and a new concept for his latest and most ambitious effort.
‘I was 36 when I left for India, and I was interested in seeing what else was out there. I didn’t take a guitar, but I saw this amazing gypsy guitar player who inspired me to pick one up. I got hold of an old battered Spanish guitar and started learning a few different techniques and realised I needed to reinvent the guitar for myself and make it interesting again. I started using new tunings and practically needed to relearn the entire instrument. I didn’t really have much understanding of Latin guitar playing before I went out, and I’m still only using it as an influence, I would never claim to be proficient in flamenco or Latin but it’s a very different discipline, just like classical guitar is a different discipline. The gypsy had been influenced by South American, Mexican, flamenco, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern music, and infused all of that into his playing. When I watched him playing it inspired me back into music.’
You can hear a mix of styles on The Uncarved Block, Tom writes both fingerpicking laden and traditional chord-driven songs, but enjoys playing each one equally. ‘There’s a lot of intricate playing, particularly in Latin and flamenco, that’s very hard to play because you have to have nails on, and the right hand technique is quite complicated. To keep it going you have to be very delicate with it, because as soon as you put vocals on top they take up a lot of the space. I think the beauty of playing the fingerpicking stuff is you’re keeping a bass line and the melody going and then you’ve got to fit the vocals around that. With more traditional strumming songs it’s much easier because you’ve got lots of space, so both styles have their own beauty. Strumming is definitely a much easier process.’
Tom specifically thanks several luthiers in the sleeve notes of The Uncarved Block as they helped define the new sound and direction he wanted to take.
‘I’m not much of a guitar geek, but I am passionate about the ones I’m using. I know bits and bobs, but I’m not going to be able to tell you about this brand or that model, I only really know the ones I use. Steve at Avalon Guitars has been very generous in providing me with great guitars over the years but I used a few others to make The Uncarved Block. The flamenco guitar I played on the second track ‘Hosanna’, came from Granada in Spain. I said to the owner of the shop that I wanted to spend €400-500, but after trying out about 20 different guitars I asked him to pass me one that he liked. It was about £1,500 and I couldn’t really afford it at the time, but when you find one that you like it makes a world of difference. I decide what guitar I play on each song during the recording process, playing different ones until you find the right sound. ‘Boy Beneath the Stone’ is on an Avalon and a Gibson Americana copy guitar and it gives a good blues sound, and the odd tuning on the flamenco guitar of DAEBC#D enables me to hit some notes that I wouldn’t be able to hit normally. On ‘Lift Up My Wings’ I played a beautiful George Lowden L25 guitar, which is about 30 years old.’
Tom’s travels inspired more than just the guitar sound heard on the album, the whole concept is linked to an appreciation of foreign culture, and particularly an admiration of India and Daoism, otherwise known as Taoism.
‘India gives you freedom, and it’s great to see people in such a gentle place, yet it’s very conflicted and developing very quickly out there. We’re very lucky over here in that we know how much we’ve got, but in having so much we also eradicate a lot of things, there’s simplicity in the way that poor people live out there. India’s rate of development makes the world feel like there will not be many separate places, and pretty soon every country is going to be part of one system. In 150 years you’ll struggle to find a corner of the earth without a coffee shop in it.’
The title of Tom’s album is a quote from Dr William B. Stewart – the same quote appears on the front cover of The Uncarved Block – who was inspired to create a medicine programme after working at Sankara Nethralaya, the world’s largest eye hospital based in India. ‘It’s a Daoist concept, a Chinese philosophy and way of living. It’s like Buddhism of Zenism. Daoism isn’t a religion; it’s just a process of stripping back everything to its simplest form and following a basic instinct. The idea is that the uncarved block is how we begin life, and as we go through society we chip away at our inner beauty and ourselves. That’s basically the whole album; it’s just my guitar and me, back to basics. The decision to make a second part to The Uncarved Block was because I really liked the idea of having two different versions of the same song. If you’re listening in you car, or out and about, or just at home, you can listen to a more upbeat record or a mellow one. The songs deserved to have different versions because you can have beauty in different ways. There will probably be more instrumentation, which I guess makes part two “the carved block”.’
Tom Baxter is a man of many talents. His second album Skybound was promoted with pieces of art that matched each song on the record, all made by the songwriter himself. The second part of The Uncarved Block will have much the same treatment, which, alongside performing a few shows with the Penguin Café Orchestra, is part of the reason for his visit to Tuscany.
‘I’m out here at the moment working with a sculptor called Emily Young, I’m trying to take inspiration from her work before starting my own process to create pieces of sculpture to match each song on the album. The associated art is something I enjoy doing because it makes the whole process a much more enjoyable experience. It takes the pressure off the music and makes it much more interesting. We’re going to do a few key shows in the autumn for the release of part two. We’ll be looking to release the album in September or October and we’re heading out to do a show in Berlin.’
Tom has also been a songwriter for others, a challenging task to take on, when you consider the mix of personalities he has been asked to write for, ranging from Matt Cardle, to actress Eliza Bennett. Shirley Bassey and Boyzone ended up covering his songs, too. ‘I’m not sure Matt even knows I wrote one for him, I don’t think they ended up using it in the end. It’s very much a compliment when people cover my songs. A lot of songs I have written had a different purpose, in the hope that specific people would cover them, but songs like ‘Almost There’, which was covered by Shirley Bassey, or ‘Better’, which was covered by Boyzone, are more traditional and it’s brilliant when someone wants to cover them. Fortunately for me, the Boyzone version didn’t become as big as mine, and a radio DJ in Ireland said to me the other day that it’s the most popular wedding song over there. I like the idea of people discovering my music, but whatever way they choose to do that doesn’t matter. Ultimately, it’s just great to have the opportunity to make music.’
Speaking to Tom Baxter, while he sits in a 17th century monastery in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, there is a notable elephant sat among the priceless artwork
and religious artifacts. Another notable reason for his return to music, aside from the renewal of creativity after travelling round the world, is hinted at throughout the pain-infused blues within the Latin-led compositions.
‘I was speaking to my brother Charlie (Winston) the other day, and we’re all musicians in the family (Tom is one of four offspring of Jeff and Julie Gleave, who regularly toured the folk music circuit in the 60s and 70s), but he’s been struggling recently. He’s suffering from creative blocks and I know from experience it’s very isolating and lonely place to be. He’s at a point in his life where he’s getting married and having a baby, he’s just bought a house, but before all of that, he used to roam around the world meeting different girls. It’s a big change. After I got married, I got a house and a dog, and two cars, but now I’m getting divorced, getting rid of the dog and the cars, and I will probably have to get rid of the house,’ he says.
‘Life changes, and it’s these unexpected moment in people’s lives that you can never foresee. You could be going through the worst experiences and not realise that a moment has arrived when opportunity, timing and luck all collide. What I have been going through with my wife is probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but I have faith in the universe that there is something beyond that for me. What I said to my brother is that when you’re not earning money, you might think everything is hopeless, or you start asking questions like: “How is this going to work?” All of that information will fuse and influence something. You might become an astrophysicist, or you might become a journalist, but it will influence your life somehow. Everything has a knock-on domino effect and you never know what’s going to be knocking into you next.’
The support Tom had through this point in his life came directly from the heart of his family. The bosom six grew up in Cornwall, and the laidback lifestyle of Jeff and Julie led to each of their four children chasing a life in music. Sister Vashti Anna has performed alt-folk around the country for several successful years, brother Charlie had great success in Europe, brother Jo Spencer was a drummer, while Tom left for London at the age of 19 in search of success.
‘We have all made a great effort to actively succeed in music, because you have to have that fire in your belly, but now that we’re a bit older I think we’re all there to support each other. The beauty of any art is to find out how can we show that side of ourselves. A lot of creativity stems from confidence, it doesn’t stem from you being better than anyone else, it comes from the first step. As a family we have always tried to encourage each other to take steps, or not take steps if that’s what needs to be done.’
Tom is clearly revitalised by the journey he’s taken and this is expressed in his willingness to look ahead. ‘The London Acoustic Show will be great; I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll probably talk people through tunings and the guitars I use, but I want to play a few new songs from The Uncarved Block. I’m interesting in meeting lots of passionate guitar players as normally I’m just playing for a normal public audience so it’ll be a bit different, and I can’t wait to see Martin Simpson, he’s great. I’ve also got a side project coming up with my sister. It’s called The Red Evening and we’re teaming up with a great drummer and bass player. We’ll be doing a show in September where I’ll be rocking out on a Les Paul or a Telecaster. I guess this is the first time we’ve told anyone about it. Acoustic could be breaking the next biggest band in the world, who knows?’
Tom plays the main stage of the London Acoustic Guitar Show on Saturday September 7. For tickets: lags.blazefuture.wpengine.com