I wasn’t particularly interested in music when I was a child. It became my life as a teenager. In my twenties, I became disillusioned. In my thirties, it is defining me once again.
Guest writer Tom Stephens discusses the ups and downs of a life making music, and of making music his life.
Like so many others, it would take teenage alienation and not fitting in at school to attract me towards music. Finding people who expressed the feelings I felt and seeing that those people had become successes was inspirational. I got my first guitar for Christmas four months after my thirteenth birthday. Being able to imitate, appreciate, and ultimately create music was a gift. And, of course, alienated teenagers flock together…
Stomping on a distortion pedal and making noise with my friends was all I needed.
The following years of my life would see me featuring in bands with names such as ‘Nice Ape’, the definitely powerful and clever ‘Oceanburn’, and ‘Pigeon 01984’ (featuring our local area telephone code). Vocally flat, drums out of time, every song a rip-off. Who cared? Stomping on a distortion pedal and making noise with my friends was all I needed. I remember Nice Ape getting an ill-advised booking at a folk festival in a tiny Somerset village. My first gig. Unfortunately, during the last of our six songs, our vocalist decided he was Jim Morrison… In front of a crowd of approximately thirty people who could be safely categorised as either members of family or members of the local farming community, he proceeded to repeatedly shout the words “rape the children”. That was Nice Ape’s only gig.
Of course, over time, things got better. You learn how to at least disguise your rip-offs, consider listening to the other people you’re playing with, and really use songwriting as a means of expressing yourself at an age where that feels an incredibly important outlet. In my late teens, I fronted a band who performed at Glastonbury Festival, and I was selected to be part of a small choir to accompany Elbow at the Royal Festival Hall. I was also lucky to have grown up in a country where I could study for Music GCSEs, A-Levels, and two degrees, turning my passion in to knowledge.
But in my twenties, it felt somewhat like ignorance would have been bliss. For all the personal improvement, the more I understood the technicalities of music, and the more I worked alongside far more talented people; the more I would beat myself up for tiny mistakes, not believe in myself, and overanalyse what was once an entirely innocent, unknowing, and uncommercial pursuit. I didn’t rise to any occasion, I actively avoided them.
I never truly gave up on music, of course. Soundtracking my every day, obsessively buying records, and going to see my favourite acts live were still proud and defining aspects of my personality. As a performer, however, I stayed very much in the background for years: backing a vocalist as part of a duo playing cover material in bars, and although I did form an alternative duo who recorded an EP, for one reason or another, we only gigged once before disbanding.
When it transpires that your biggest successes occurred just before you turned twenty and the next decade doesn’t quite pan out how you thought it might, it is somewhat disillusioning.
It’s certainly not specific to music, but the industry often feels like a young (wo)man’s game. When it transpires that your biggest successes (on paper at least) occurred just before you turned twenty and the next decade doesn’t quite pan out how you thought it might, it is somewhat disillusioning. Attitude may have a lot to do with it. Without the construct of educational deadlines, living in metropolitan areas, and being surrounded by other musicians of your age, you have to work hard to remain at the same level of activity. And that’s before the small matter of the myriad pressures and distractions of adulthood.
At the age of thirty, I decided to focus on being a solo artist. I had recorded a few EPs in my early twenties but had long since stopped gigging or promoting myself in this way. Part of it was to do with an undying love of acoustic, solo-leaning music, but much of it was down to personal frustration. I no longer wanted to rely on anybody else to allow me to be who I wanted to be.
Meeting with a friend, we ended up discussing our mutual frustrations. He suggested that I should challenge my anxieties around my musical ability by, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, record an album live. No edits.
Basically, I have decided to take myself seriously.
Over one weekend last April, I showed him and another friend my songs and we recorded them in ever-developing live takes. The result is ‘Metamorphosis’ (click here to listen). The finished product, which features small errors, pitchy notes, and background noise, is so much richer than any recording I’ve ever made before. The tracks have a consistent and warm room sound, there is a natural energy in the performances, and I feel the freshness of the songs come across. I found that letting go of expectations that were predominantly set by my own insecurities was incredibly healthy, and since ‘Metamorphosis’ was recorded I’ve been writing what I feel are the best songs I’ve ever written. For the first time, my music is on major digital music platforms, I regularly update my social media accounts, I’m gigging more, and I am in the process of making my first ever music videos. Basically, I have decided to take myself seriously.
… if even 0.1% of the world liked what he did, he has millions of potential fans in the world…
An old friend reached out to me recently to catch up and ask how I distribute my music and where he should start. I was in awe of this guy’s talent when we were in college, however he has gone through a similar period of inactivity and self-doubt. Even though I was going through the same thing as recently as a year ago, when he told me “I think my music is too niche”, I pointed out to him that if even 0.1% of the world liked what he did, he has millions of potential fans in the world and he would be grateful for every single one that he connected with. It wasn’t until I spoke those words to somebody else that I recognised that fact for myself. It’s why I started. I’ve always been a music fan.
That’s not to say that musicians are in it for the admiration – maybe he simply meant he was considering a change of direction – but it’s not egotistical to want to be recognised. Feeling so inspired by something that you turn your life to that craft must be seen as a quest for understanding, happiness, and involvement – giving back to what gave you so much. To have even one person admire what you do is a privilege and the biggest compliment you can receive. Ultimately, that is coming full circle.
Believe me, the 364 plays on Spotify I got last month mean more to me than the £1.16 I got paid for those streams.
In this competitive age I’m coming to realise that working with likeminded people (as opposed to against ‘rivals’) to find and form communities feels like the most logical route to get towards where I want to be. While artists certainly appreciate it, being a fan doesn’t have to mean spending money: I try to tell people I enjoyed their set, follow them on social media, and listen to their music. Believe me, the 364 plays on Spotify I got last month mean more to me than the £1.16 I got paid for those streams. As a musician, I am still fully aware of what it feels like to be a fan and hold on to the feeling of why I started playing music in the first place. I hope it becomes my full-time job, but it will remain a passion. I am determined to be true to myself, to accept my limitations, and respect the family, friends, and complete strangers who support me in what I do.