A Conversation With Scottish Folk Artist Tom Houston
As Lockdown eases, I catch up with Tom Houston, music-making veteran, to discuss his new
album ‘Gap In The Fence’ and explore his revised version of ‘I Am The River’.
Talking with Tom, I am struck by his effortless ability to discuss the creativity behind
his music, as he gives me a more in-depth picture into the context of his life than I could
have imagined. Immediately, he begins to ask me about myself with a refreshing humility that puts me at ease. As we discuss his own career in more depth, he is calm and
collected, providing me with friendly insights into his musical backstory as well as that of his
Where did the #33 come from?
I could make this more intriguing than it actually is, but the first thing was to distinguish it as
a separate entity from the first one. A lot of people would have had ‘I Am The River (Album
Version)’ and it was Neill (MacColl the producer) who suggested: “Well why don’t you make it like Bob Dylan, more intriguing; ‘I Am The River #17’ or something”. I just said, “Oh what the hell”. It was to induce curiosity and intrigue, but I think it’s mainly bringing confusion.
You mentioned Bob Dylan; during the creative process, do you draw a lot of inspiration from artists you listen to? Where do your artistic influences come from?
It’s a good question; there’s certainly nothing too direct. I think one of my first interests was
creating soundtracks to film, not in a commercial sense, but not in a television way, just the connection between the film and the soundtrack. I suppose there was an instant belief that I could do it, without any musical ability whatsoever. In terms of bands I grew up listening to, I listened to the likes of The Beatles, and I think their sense of belief that they could create songs, and experiment, there was a bit there where I think I got that idea ‘Oh I can do this as well’. I just grew up with that being a part of life, creating songs out of nothing with, at the start, belief rather than musical ability. I’ve worked a lot on musical improvisation and creativity, and a lot of us feel that we can’t or have no imagination. One, I don’t believe that, and there are certain tricks for working on it and how you release your imagination. I think I’ve found songs as a way of doing that, so rather than modelling myself on particular individuals, it’s more accessing imagination and a vehicle for consolidating it, and a song was a good way of doing that. That’s how it started, but you would say the way The Beatles transformed Pop music into something much more abstract, was a kind of signpost on what can be done.
Thinking of abstract concepts, would you say as an Artist you see yourself operating within a certain genre or that there’s something more abstract?
For me I’m mostly limited by technical ability. I don’t read music. I wouldn’t see myself as
technically proficient on any of the instruments. But certainly, my approach isn’t genre-driven. I was involved in doing the soundtrack for quite a few community shows - this is
going back a bit and it was driven more by the atmosphere you created. They were pretty
weird pieces, but they worked. One of them was the ‘Snow Queen' of which one of my
favourite pieces I had to create was for this ‘battle of the ice’ at the end. It was quite a
dramatic piece; it wasn’t scored at all. It was just me improvising with synthesizers and
layering them on top of each other. It wouldn’t stand up to any great scholastic scrutiny but it
really worked for building an atmosphere, and I wasn’t trying to follow any particular genre. I suppose I’m drawn to people who work across genres. For the last ten years, I've been in a band (davesnewbike); the lead guitarist’s go-to zone was Punk, the drum and bass are Folk-Rock, and then we had a sax player who was way out there and trying to replicate John Coltrane all of the time. We all had a different base and we could touch those bases in one song. One of the things I love about Neill is that although he was brought up with his parents being real icons in the Folk revival, Neill’s references are across all aspects of music, and he’s got much more mastery across those. So he can draw on aspects of that in the production of the songs. He brings that, I don’t; I just bring the idea.
Do you find either lyrics or composition catalyse the musical process; what might lead the way?
It’s an interesting point - you mentioned influences earlier and you’re not going to get a
direct answer from me. There was an interview with Leonard Cohen where he gets asked a
similar question and he goes “Oh we’re moving into dangerous territory here”. I think it’s
that thing about the artist trying to articulate the artistic process. There’s also a thing about it
being in the ‘eyes half-open, eyes half shut’ zone, where the best material is. The one’s that
don’t bear so much analysis but come from that zone. In terms of music and lyrics, over the
years, I would say it can happen both ways. A lot of the time with me, it will be based
around improvisation, a chord sequence, and then the words may come. But when I’ve
worked in theatre, there’s been a specific scene or situation that has required either a mood
or a song, and then I’ve created around that. It can work both ways. In ‘I Am The River #33’
specifically, it started with the chord sequence and a melody line. I suppose I felt it was a
good song and the idea deserved some sort of presence, and so I held onto it for 4/5
months. I saw a video about a river in New Zealand that had been given legal status as a
person, which is quite a philosophical proposition. It kind of was a way of representing
the Maori tradition of honouring the elements. In contemporary society; we don’t give a shit
about stuff like that but maybe if it has legal consequences we do (laughing). It was the
poetry of the Maori phrase “I am the river, and the river is me”, and I thought ‘that’s the
idea for the song’ and the lyrics came quickly.
Is there anything specific you want to come across in your music?
I think there are two or three things; one is I think I want to make it open enough that they can bring their own reality to it, and that can sit alongside mine, but other times I don’t mind
being absolutely direct. I would say there’s not one road to the writing, but a lot of the time
I’m trying to keep the reality loose enough that people can bring their own world into play.
I’ll give you a specific example; I wrote a song called ‘Cocooned’, which for me was
kind of representing the feeling of unease about the end of the world, long before
extinction rebellion was putting a name to it. So I wrote it about 12 years ago, and when I
sang it in Canada at a house concert, I introduced it as a bit of a dark song but didn’t say
what it was about. Then a woman came up to me, very moved by the song, and said “It
reminded me of our son. He has schizophrenia”. You know, when I sat and wrote the song,
there is no way that I would have said ‘Oh I want to play this in Canada and get a woman to
think warmly about her son’. So I’m not trying to direct things like that, but the fact that it
evoked strong feelings – that resonates with me, and so it’s worth me playing this song. It’s
not that I’m trying to dictate what the music evokes, particularly the more abstract ones, I’m
just trying to make a connection with people and let them bring their own significance to it.
There’s other that are more direct, so it isn’t ‘one size fits all’.
Talking about making your music accessible, do you think that as an up and coming artist that is something that is potentially missing from the music scene right now? What is something you would like to add?
I’m an old dude, but I’m also a bit of an old and unknown dude so I totally see that as far as
being conspicuous in the music industry, I’m probably best to be seen as up and coming.
There’s that, but I’ve been around the block a bit, not just in music but in other aspects too.
In the one sense, I have nothing to add to the music scene whatsoever; there’s so much
talent out there, but also so much mince as well. It’s full of stuff, and the last thing anyone
needs is another Tom Houston song (laughing). But what I can bring to it is, I suppose, that I
have nothing to lose insofar as that I’m not trying to be young, cool, and hip. I’m not trying
to be the next sensation, or get signed. It wouldn’t be true to say I don’t give a shit about
what people think, but it is like I do what I do and it appeals to me. So if it appeals to other
people, then I feel grateful about that. It's for other folks to talk about where the music industry is it at the moment, the vast majority of it is probably run by algorithms whereby if people can write ‘don’t turn me off’ music then it’s going to be popular. So, on the one hand, I certainly don’t bring that to the table - I bring my weird perspective on reality. One thing I like doing is making connections between one or two things that probably shouldn’t be connected, and holding them together in a song, then just getting away with it; doing it in a way where it seems to mean something.
I find it striking to hear you talk about that idea of competitiveness in the music industry. Would you say there’s something in your music that’s very authentic, and a true reflection of the music you want to make?
Yes is the short answer, but there’s also something about the stage of life regarding what sort of music you listen to at a given age. As you move through your life and have kids, do you change your style? Some folk don’t and keep on singing the same stuff, The Rolling
Stones might be an example. But others kind of morph and the lead singer might become a
bit of a crooner, and start playing more mellow stuff. So what do the writers do? Some of
them become a bit obsessed with death, which young folk may not relate to unless it's someone like Bowie or Cohen. As you move to that stage in life, you’re writing about different things; you’re not saying ‘I want to make a woman marry me’ or something like that. There are different things to write about. My perspective isn’t one of teenage angst, but perhaps old-fart angst. The Drummer in our band, Simon, his son is in his 20’s roughly and has an old head for a young man, and I was saying to him "I wish I had my grasp of music now when I was your age" and he looked at me and said "Yeah Tom but you wouldn’t be writing the same songs". I thought there was a lot of wisdom in that, in terms of the space you’re in and the songs you write.
In the new album, ‘Gap In The Fence’, there’s quite a lot of songs that cross the
generational divide, that goes from adult to child. I’m almost exploring the energy of both, the childish energy and the old dude energy, and do it with a sense of youthful optimism and mischief. I think what I’m trying to bring with the new album is that sense of youthful
mischief with a sense of elder wisdom (if I can be so grand).
When someone comes away from listening to your music, what is something you want them to be struck by and take away with them?
I think the lyrics are important and those within context, so I suppose there’s a sense of
receptivity and not being so busy that they don’t have time to listen to it. I wouldn’t be so
grand to say there is anyone particular message. I could go in a political way, but in a way
that’s not supposed to be in the music, it’s supposed to be up for interpretation. There’s 12
tracks on the album and they all have a different starting point, so depending on the starting
point, the kind of journey I take lyrically, and therefore the listener, is different. Some of
them are as serious as getting an ice cream and going for a walk in the park, and other is a
bit deeper and require a bit more travel time. But each one is a sort of experience in it’s own
right. There are four spoken word pieces. There’s one that is totally different from the others
and has a drum machine and bass playing over spoken word again, and I’m going ‘Don’t
drop it, Dexter’. It’s following the thoughts of someone in a DIY shop. You’ve then got ‘I Am
The River #33’ which follows a traditional wisdom. So, each piece has a different journey, and hopefully, that variety is of interest. Each one can potentially take you to a different area of yourself.
‘I Am The River #33’ was released on July 31st, with album 'Gap In The Fence' to follow October 2nd
Keep up with Tom Houston on his website HERE
Check out Tom Houston's music on Spotify HERE