The guy who always makes it rain
The major record deal might have come and gone, but the past decade has still left a smile on the face of a singer often dubbed Mr Melancholy. Not many of us share a bill with Dido and Tori Amos, or earn a Brit Award nomination as Best Newcomer. Steven Russell catches up with former Suffolk schoolboy Tom McRae
TOM McRae’s visiting his alma mater for the first time in 23 years and feeling just a little discombobulated. “It’s very weird to be walking about with my shirt not tucked in and thinking of excuses like ‘The dog ate my homework’,” he smiles. “I’m 12 again, walking through the door, with all that fear and tumultuous emotions you’re dealing with at that stage in your life. They come flooding right back – and I love moments like that, because they’re moments you thrive on. That’s what you want out of life and art: you want things that come at you in a rush; so this flash of emotion stays with you.” It’s a perfect vignette encompassing the trademarks of Tom’s songs: introspective reflection, a bit dark, lightened with some gentle humour and realistic optimistic. The singer-songwriter, nominated nearly a decade ago for the Mercury Prize and as Brit Award Best Newcomer, has returned to Thomas Mills High School in Framlingham to talk to GCSE media studies pupils about the music industry and the dilemma of illegal file-sharing. “You won’t know who I am,” he tells the X Factor generation. The son of a vicar, he explains he left Thomas Mills in 1987 after scraping through his A-levels, studied politics and government at City of London Polytechnic and started playing in bands. (Meeting sound engineer Roger Bechirian, who had worked with artists such as Elvis Costello and Squeeze, proved a turning point.) In 1999 he signed with indie label db Records, only to find it became part of the Sony empire. Along the way, Jeremy Thomas McRae Blackall morphed into the hipper Tom McRae. There were three albums between late 2001 and 2005 (Tom McRae, Just Like Blood and All Maps Welcome) – and a move to California in 2004 – before a parting of the ways with the label. “I failed to make them enough money,” he says, candidly. Mind you, he supported Tori Amos on a 2005 tour and has appeared with the likes of Paul Weller and Dido.
Fourth album King of Cards appeared in 2007, and a few months ago came The Alphabet of Hurricanes. Touring – America, Europe and other countries – keeps Tom busy. He does about 100 shows a year, playing to up to 2,000 or so people a time. His diary for spring showed tightly-packed dates in the UK, Holland, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland and France, and towards the end of July he’s opening for Amos at an outdoor theatre in the Netherlands. Just goes to show a singer can have a rare old time without a big label behind him. In fact, Tom tells the Year 11 media studies class the digital revolution has blown a hole in the industry because people can easily share songs, even if it’s technically piracy.
He shows a YouTube clip of him singing You Only Disappear. It’s been viewed 107,000 times. In the old days, if those clicks had meant album sales, you’d have grossed more than �1million. Today, everyone clicking on the clip is getting the music for free. Tom explains how Coca-Cola might pay YouTube millions for its advert on the page. After the video-sharing company takes its cut, the bulk will go to big-hitters such as Coldplay. Tom’s last share: 26p. “I am not going to get my guitar-shaped swimming pool any day soon.”
But don’t lament, he advises during a self-deprecating and insightful talk. Digital file-sharing might mean that particular horse has bolted. But rather than see it as a threat, creative folk should embrace the internet as a tool for putting their work in front of a global audience of millions. With luck, a goodly proportion will like what they see. OK, they might not buy albums in droves, but they will go to concerts – hence touring is crucial – and buy T-shirts. And they want to know more about you, so interactive media is important.
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“We are half way between the ‘old way’ and the future, and no-one really knows what that future will look like,” he says. “That’s slightly scary, but there are also 1,000,000 opportunities to spread your writing or music across the world.”
TWENTY minutes later, the pupils having said “thank you” and moved on to afternoon lessons, there’s time to sit down and dissect the past decade. With his rounded manner, you imagine he kept his feet on the ground during the initial hoohah.
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“I was 29, so I’d already given up on the idea that I would ever get anywhere,” he admits. “And I was just so relieved to finally have a record deal. You’re not in your first flush of youth, and you’re more than anything relieved to be paying your rent! You start off and everything you do is new, and a version of everything you’ve dreamed of: your first tour . . . you find an audience . . . and then you’re flying off to America and Japan. You almost have a mental checklist and you’re ticking them off as steps on your road to glory. (The last three words imbued with irony.) It was fresh; and even with the downsides of being signed to a major label – the issues of politics and artistic integrity – it was still a blast.”
Nowadays the 41-year-old might not have the promotional muscle of a major label pushing him, but he’s doing nicely, and has control over what he does. He doesn’t have to worry about executives wanting to ‘position’ him, for instance. “They’d be saying ‘Your hair’s wrong; you’re wearing the wrong clothes; we’ve got to shoot you like this because you look too old . . .’” Image meant shedding years. “I was 26 here; I think I was 24 in France. Literally, territory by territory, before every interview I’d have to ask ‘How old am I supposed to be here?!’” Did he baulk? “It made me laugh; and if at any stage it felt really wrong, I just said ‘No.’ I was told this once by someone older and wiser: ‘You have one power, and that’s the power of No.’ So I said there are some things I can’t do. I think if you take seriously the art and the making of the music, then the rest you can take really lightly. Who cares what you look like in a video? Those were frothy things. I thought if I got the music right I’d be judged on that.”
Tom’s got committed fans in the UK, but mainland Europe has really taken him to its heart. His mum and a sister recently crossed the water from Suffolk to watch a concert abroad. “They saw the big venue and the crowd queuing up, and I got to pretend I’m the big rock star for the day. They got to think ‘Ah, he’s really successful.’ But then you have to drive 500 miles to some tiny town and play to 200 people . . .”
He adds, twinkle in eye: “There are a few places I can’t even get arrested: Spain and Italy. The sun shines too much there. I had fun in Hollywood, too, but I’m not sure I made too much impact: my music only works in darkness!” Indeed. Peruse articles from the archive and a “Mr Melancholy” label crops up time and again. A national newspaper review for All Maps Welcome, for instance, said “Ol’ Misery Guts is Back”.
Does he mind those tags? “I think I wanted to be taken seriously, so I didn’t mind being called melancholy, because the music is. But after a while it becomes an albatross around your neck. I thought my music was hopeful: it was sad, but it led you somewhere and it ended slightly more optimistically. But I’m ‘the miserable guy from Essex or Suffolk . . . The guy who always makes it rain when he comes to town.’” (Which explains his cryptic look when we met and I remarked he’d brought good weather with him from London.)
A sly grin. “I was on a bill a few years ago. I was opening; then came Tori Amos and Nick Cave. I thought ‘If anyone is still alive at the end of this it’s going to be a miracle!’”
I mention a line from the Dr Who episode Blink, the one with stone angels, about a liking for a slight sadness equating to “happy for deep people”. “Wow. That’s true. Here, melancholy is seen as something that’s easily dismissed, whereas if you speak to someone from a Latin American country they have a concept of duende: of something being both sad and beautiful at the same time – something that wrings every last drop of your soul but leaves you happier because of it.” Tom was born in Chelmsford and spent his first years outside Stowmarket, before moving to the Sudbury area and then the Suffolk/Norfolk borders. He loved singers like Kate Bush and Bob Dylan, and took advantage of having two older sisters with records. “I scratched then, listened to them, hid them. That was my introduction.” Mum played guitar, piano and cello. “It was her guitar I ‘stole’ to learn my first songs”. From 1979 until 1987 he lived at Hacheston, near Framlingham. His mother was a teacher who became one of the first women to be ordained.
Much has been made about how he felt suffocated in Suffolk and couldn’t wait to escape. Now, he recognises it’s a common teenage feeling. “It’s never about where you are, it’s about who you are in that place. I could have grown up in London or New York and still thought ‘I have to leave.’”
Years ago, asked to describe himself in five words, he offered “Angry, angry, angry, angry . . . and tired.” And today? “There’s definitely a few more ‘tireds’ there! I don’t think I’m angry. I grew up slightly angry about things: not my life or anyone in particular. I’m very conscious of rules being restrictive, and wanting to know why they were there. That makes me slightly questioning, and I still use that as energy. ”
Is he happy?
“I have a problem with ‘happiness’ as a term. It’s different for every individual. For me, I’d take adventure and I’d take fulfilment, and I’d take the excitement of life way over the notion ‘Does this make me happy?’ There have been times when I’ve been miserable, alone on the other side of the world and not knowing who I am or what I’m doing, and that’s been more ‘alive’ than any other time in my life. So I think ‘Don’t tell me what happiness is; this is an experience – all the same continuum.’”
Tom married painter Amie in New York in 2009, after being together many years, and just about now is upping sticks from London to Somerset. “I’ve decided to get out of the city and want to build a studio. Because you have to spend a lot of time out there promoting and playing live, you need a bolt-hole. Instead of going back to London or New York, and leading quite busy social lives, now I want to run away and work and write and make records – and store up the energy to go back out again.”
So what’s he angling for in the West Country? A converted watermill? “ . . . would be lovely. More likely to be a semi-detached . . .”