Tom Emlyn’s former alumni, Bandicoot, celebrated 2022 with the release on Libertino of their accomplished debut album Black After Dark, then hit indie industry big deal SXSW…and then split. Surprised? I was. And, then, not such much by the release not long thereafter by former ‘coot Tom Emlyn - who I had the pleasure of seeing perform live solo at Swansea’s Jam Jar, playing songs new and old, and finishing winningly with a great cover of Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright - of his own debut album, News From Nowhere. Born and bred in Swansea, Emlyn’s songs draw on a deep tradition of storytelling and journeyman songwriting, with a modest lyricism and intimacy, observational inflections and melodic richness making his debut notable.
OL: Your debut album is notably different from your work with Bandicoot, long in preparation in parallel with the latter’s own creative journey. Has it been fulfilling to loose your own voice on us, as compared to as part of Bandicoot?
Tom Emlyn: Yes it's very fulfilling! I have been doing my solo stuff for much longer than I was in Bandicoot, and I have several solo albums coming soon. Ultimately it's the most important music I could be involved with, and it's going to be very rewarding for me to unleash some of this material. Bands come and go. That's life.
OL: I note you cite Dylan as a major influence. As a major Dylan junkie myself, tell me more about his impact on your music and mind. What is your favourite album by The Duluth Bard?
Tom Emlyn: Dylan is like the mountains and the sea, the wind and the rain. A figure so powerful and ubiquitous, it's hard for a songwriter to grasp. He's been my biggest influence since he got into my mind at about 15 years old or so. But this is why he's so important for anyone who wants to write songs. He's like Shakespeare - his monolithic, titanic 60-year career has been vastly influential and incredibly varied. I actually prefer his later stuff, that's the most moving and inspirational to my ears, and I actually think it's underrated. It's like he's become the world-weary, ragged blues man he tried to sound like as a 20-something. Anything from the 80s to the present day is endlessly fascinating to me. Albums like Time Out Of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times and especially Rough And Rowdy Ways are the work of a uniquely brilliant 21st century artist and performer - postmodern, intertextual, and mysterious. I also love his early stuff, of course, and every period he's been through. My favourite, for some reason, is 1989's Oh Mercy. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it has an amazingly atmospheric, smoky late night New Orleans feel. I can't really explain why, but it's very precious to me. I love how he sounds around this time, like a fugitive, on the lunatic fringes. There is literally nobody else on his level, or even close.
OL: Colourless could be a track from some long-lost Sixties psych’ album, right down to the proto-Eastern solo! Love this mesh of sounds: Can you break it down as an example of how you write, what inspires you, and so forth?
Tom Emlyn: Colourless is a kind of blues-influenced jam, all built around a haunting minor key riff. I like to take bits from old bands and see where it ends up. I'm happy with the lyrics on that one, they were influenced by working various dead-end jobs and they capture that in an ironic way. My favourite bit is where I go “climbing over your garden wall, I look at the moon and I feel very small, sometimes I feel I'm being squeezed in a vice, not much to say but I'll give you my voice”. I think it sounds like The Doors meets 13th Floor Elevators. Although I'm referring to the past of rock n roll, I hope I manage to make it into something new and vital in the present moment!
OL: There’s an intimate, observational aspect to the songs, the lyrics a sort of word camera? Are you a writer by nature, as well as a lyricist? Who and what do you read and why?
Tom Emlyn: I've always been a writer and reader, and an observer. I like to take scraps of observation from around me - bits of conversation, films, fragmented images. The songwriter should be a connoisseur of these things, an active listener, and strive to elevate language. I always aim for an imagistic style, as well, trying to paint pictures in the mind of the listener. I like writing music reviews and prose, but I can't really write poetry, probably because I'm used to writing song lyrics. Although these can sound poetic, it's a very different beast. Song lyrics only do half of the work - music is the other half. I read a wide range of stuff, at the moment I'm reading The Crimson Petal And The White by Miche? Faber, which is a devastatingly clever piece of neo-Victoriana. Some of my favourite books are Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie, Stoner by John Williams, and America by Franz Kafka.
OL: On Empire you use a stripped-down acoustic sound to good affect. Have you considered recording an acoustic album? The style does seem to suit you well.
Tom Emlyn: I actually do have one, or maybe more, stripped acoustic albums waiting to be released. I spent lockdown learning to record myself, and getting down some old and new tunes for posterity, some going back to my teenage years. So keep an eye out for those, coming very soon in summer 2022. I like the vulnerability and intimacy that the style allows for - and in a live sense, I really enjoy the freedom for improvisation while playing solo allows. That's something I'd like to develop more.
OL: So: Ex-Bandicoot - whatever the circumstances of that band’s split a proud tag - and now what does the future hold for you as an artist?
Tom Emlyn: I'm aiming to release a lot of my solo stuff this summer, as I've sat on this music for ages and it's time to get it out there. I'd also like to play with different, new musicians - that could be inspiring I think. I'll be doing a few summer festivals including Nozstock. There's a lot more exciting stuff to come!
OL: Swansea. A love affair? Tell us about your relationship with the city and how it has fed into your art.
Tom Emlyn: It's a bittersweet love affair if it is a love affair. A strange place, Swansea. Something to celebrate, but something melancholic as well. It's been an inspirational place to grow up and live. I think of it as the 'old, weird Wales', out there at the end of the line. I love the short story collection Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog by Dylan Thomas, it really captures it for me. I've tried to map the city in a psychogeographic way, so it will be good to get some of those tunes out there.
News From Nowhere is available on Bandcamp