A student of voice from age 4, his vocal endeavors have included classical technique, various choral ensembles, even barbershop and doo-wop quartets. He has sung in, directed and arranged for many such projects and has gained a deep understanding of vocal harmony. Tony began guitar at seven years old, double bass at age 10, furthering his understanding of instrumentation and song composition. TLT’s wealth of performance experience lends him the ability to connect with audiences spanning a multi-faceted scope: from intimate and poignant solo performances to momentous full-blown commanding vamps with his rock band, the Tony Lee Thomas Band.
Imagine the energetic strumming of Richie Havens and the intricate finger work of Bert Jansch. Add a vocal style that summons Stevie Wonder and Martin Sexton. Then take a songwriting vocabulary as poignant as Ani DiFranco, playful as John Prine, and add commanding stage presence. There’s Tony Lee Thomas!
While I’ve always been compelled to express myself creatively, my motivations to write come from the collection of ideas based on study and observation. I heard Eric Clapton commenting on the inspiration behind his writing, and his perspective resonated with me as a similar approach. The gist was that one can not write anything of true substance until after assimilating the expressions of others and then responding as if in conversation. While of course, the Einsteins and Mozarts of our civilizations come out blasting new, ground breaking ideas from a very young age, the rest of us must draw upon study and experience for our material. The greater the experience, the more authentic the expression. My study in writing has focused on American literature and poetry, theology and ontological philosophy. Authors like Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Frost, St. Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbs, Plato and Rene DesCartes sit at the top of the list. My experience and observation has spanned most American socio-economic demographics, military service, education, and travel; people watching my way through our generation from coast to coast and abroad. I cant imagine anyone seeing as much as I have and NOT having something to write about.
When your 4 year old child turns everything you say into a song, believes the only important part of catholic mass are the hymns, and begs for the wooden spoon that resembles a microphone to be the performance prop while standing atop a chair at every family gathering, you might want to consider beginning musical study with that child – at least, that was my story. Of course, my family was working class, and certainly could not afford tuition for music schools, let alone, instruments. Therefore, my mother opened avenues to every possible musical outlet available to toddlers. By age 4, I was singing in the Mount Carmel church choir, the Pittsfield Community Music School kids choir, and taking regular voice lessons there as well. She volunteered there whenever she could to offset the cost of attendance. By age 7 I began studying folk guitar at the music school, and then double bass by age 10. It was such a struggle for us to purchase a guitar that I didn’t even get one of my own until I had been studying for years. When we finally found one that we could afford, I prized it more than my life, took it with me everywhere I went, and still have it today. Maybe this experience helps to explain how someone could love classical, choral, popular, folk, bluegrass, metal, funk, and blues musics, to name a few.
When asked how I write songs, it seems I am usually met with surprise that there is not one approach. I suppose there are a lot of writers who have their style, but I have experimented with too many to use just one formula. When I have a specific concept I want to write about, I’ll outline it lyrically and musically. Other times, I’ll have a specific lyrical idea that I have to write music for specifically – and vice-versa. Sometimes the rhythm of my footsteps or snowboard turns will inspire a groove, other times a memory. Sometimes, the pop format of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus is perfect; other times not, and then I get a through written free verse. The only question that remains consistent is: “How do I best express this idea?” My job is to not limit myself with a single approach, and to allow the piece to develop into the most succinct and effective version of itself that it can be. Not unlike raising a child, I would imagine.
If there was one of my songs that represented me best, it would be “Be Here Now”. It is built around the vocal harmony of the chorus, which is one of my favorite things in music, but it also addresses some of the metaphysical ideas that I agree with the most. Only presence in the moments we find ourselves can allow us to truly realize our most full potential. We change so much from year to year, day to day, moment to moment, that one could not even really know themselves without being able to exist in the present. Think about what that would truly require in order to do! When you react negatively to someone or something because of the tragedy that defines you, you are living in the past. When you can’t enjoy a beautiful day because the rent is due and your wallet is on your mind, you are focused on the future. These experiences are relevant, but should not control your destiny. Fate has led you to where you are by no accidental means. You are where you should be. All we can truly do is to understand why.
I know what compels me to the music I’ve written are the musical combinations and progressions of notes and chords, melodies and harmonies; but I would guess that what may draw in others is simply that it feels good. I think it was Maya Angelou who said that no one remembers what you said, and no one remembers what you did, but people always remember how you made them feel. I sing about love, and I tell stories. I think that no matter how bad things get in the world, there’s something about love and storytelling that will always feel good, and that’s really all I’m trying to do, at the heart of it.
I was playing an outdoor venue in the afternoon a few years ago, when I saw a mother holding an infant. The infant was learning to clap along with the music. When I looked around, I noticed that there was not a single child who didn’t dance when their attention turned to the music. It was then that I realized we are born knowing how to dance. We are born with an understanding of rhythm – our hearts depend on it – indeed, our very lives depend on it! Somewhere, however, on our way to adulthood, we are taught to NOT dance. That being said, and to answer the question of “who are your most vocal fans?” everyone is, potentially. What decides it is who I can coerce to forget the lesson “Don’t Dance!” Everyone can dance, sing, participate in and experience something fundamental about music – and they do. It’s just a question of who it’s going to be that gets out of their own way enough to have a good time. Sometimes its kids. Sometimes its seniors. Sometimes it’s the twenty-somethings catching a buzz. That is the thing I like about my music the most: that no age or race is excluded from our good time. Everyone can relate and participate – if they let themselves.
If I could be any band it would definitely be Rage Against the Machine. Of course I love the music, and the lyrical content is sharper than a hot knife through butter. They are unique, and they have a message that I LOVE. The vocals are snotty, dynamic, and precise, with the rhythm, speed, and power of a fully automatic machine gun. The guitar is menacing and nasty, but also, NOBODY plays like that. I heard Tom Morello say that he didn’t model some of those sounds around the guitar, but rather a DJ. Who would even think of that?! Pick any Rage song and ask a guitarist how to make those sounds. If they even realize that it was made by a guitar, I’ll bet even money they knew it because of some YouTube video pickin’ it all apart. AND I bet that if there was no such thing as the Internet, no one would EVER know how he does it. And the politics! “I’m inferior? Who’s inferior? We need to check the interior of a system that cares about only one culture, and that is why we gotta take the power back!” Yeah, I would be Rage. I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t want to scream “FUCK YOU! I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!”
Storytelling is not only our oldest form of art, but also, the stories we tell will outlive us by generations. History is written by the winners. I think we can all agree (at least those of us with some kind of sense) that the early American colonists and the natives never sat down around a European dinner table to carve up a turkey with smiles on their faces and gratitude to dole out like confetti. Yet we still celebrate “Thanksgiving”. The truth of our age will not be told in history books. It will be told by the songs we write and the stories we tell our children. This is the legacy of the troubadour. What will future civilizations be able to tell about us from a song like “Call me maybe”? Nothing beyond a generalized lack of substance, ignorance and fatal apathy – the same apathy that is driving our society right off an economic cliff. These attributes are not represented by songs that tell a story. However, songs like “Hurricane” or “Tambourine Man” will tell the story of not only it’s protagonists and antagonists for ages to come, but will also communicate an era of blossoming drug culture and social injustice to anyone who hears it. If I have the choice, I choose to leave behind ideas conveyed by stories that have both meaning and value.
While politics are not my material focus, I do occasionally try to point to them indirectly with a song that tells a story as a product of said politic. ‘Owed To Silver Lake’ is just a story about a community that surrounds a body of water destroyed by pollution. That story, in turn, begs certain questions: “How do we let that happen?”, “Who is responsible?”, “What are the effects?”, “What are we doing about it?” – the answers to which can all relate to politics. I try to avoid standing on the proverbial soapbox; yet another luxury afforded me by the art of storytelling.
We are in a dangerous time for music. We live in a culture that does not support creativity, but rather its antithesis – conformity. The result is the homogeneity of popular media. This is why we have stopped promoting new songs and new movies en mass, and focus our efforts as a culture on recreating the things that have already worked. For every new film idea, there are ten Batmen. For every new song, there are ten Wagon Wheels. This is, of course, due to our dependence on commerce and the marriage of capitalism and democracy. I suppose the creative fix we’re in was inevitable. There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Our commercial dependence has fortunately led to great technological gains in miniaturization and digitization. What does this mean for those of us who love new ideas and independent thought? That access has been put back in the hands of the masses. Whereas 30 years ago it cost $30,000 to make a record, and another $100,000 to promote it, now any kid with an iPad can download GarageBand, make all the songs they want, however they want, and send it out into the digital world of the Internet. All free. No longer are the gates to stardom guarded diligently by Sony and Warner Bros., (the few organizations with the financial means to make and sell records) anyone can take their shot. The problems we face now are that with this new over saturation, its getting harder and harder to cut the through the noise because people’s interest in and attention to the arts in general is going the way of the dinosaur. Not to mention that our culture no longer encourages the pursuit of creative vocabulary for any other purpose than material gain and social status. I think that in years to come we will supplant art with commercials unanimously if nothing changes. For the few artists that remain, they will be hard pressed to find audiences who appreciate or understand their craft. I could see this drought of artistic expression create a subconscious thirst among the public, at which time, opportunity will be ripe for the reaping. Until then popular songwriting will continue to be about the party and teen angst, while popular music events will continue to be a platform for substance abuse. But maybe, just maybe, all this will allow us to fall back in love with the real art that we’ve missed for so long. Only time will tell.