Tommy Emmanuel: Interview : Chicago:
by Dave Dalka
Recently, I attended two Tommy Emmanuel
shows on successive nights. The second one was radically different than
the first as Tommy Emmanuel injured his right index finger during the first show.
The second one was no less intense, it was just amazingly different!
Tommy Emmanuel played some slower songs, but he also ramped up the drumming part
of the guitar performance to compensate in other tunes. His ability
to improvise and change as conditions warrant, whether that is the type
of crowd or physical limitations is nothing short of one of the most
unique things you will ever witness. In addition to being an outstanding
entertainer, Tommy Emmanuel also shows a great compassion for people and warms
the heart of almost everyone he encounters.
For those of you who have never seen Tommy Emmanuel perform, no matter
what kind of music you think you like, quite possibly the biggest mistake
of your musical and entertainment life might be to not witness a Tommy
Emmanuel performance live and in person. It's just that simple.
MF: You have a current album "Only" on Steve Vai's new Favored
Nations Acoustic label and are currently working on the follow up already.
How do you see your music progressing in the future?
All I can say is that I'm trying
to write better. Trying to write more superb. Take what I've started
to a higher level. All my previous albums were done with bands and were
bigger productions. So, I'm sort of thinking I'm going to keep heading
in the direction I'm going, I'm staying solo. I would eventually like
to have a percussionist and a second guitar player on the road with
me. I'm seeing that type of thing. There is an element in my playing
that I don't get to do it very much in a solo show, swing type music.
MF: Your complete lack of a set list last night
impressed me, spontaneity and the number of songs that people request
from you. Please talk a bit about the concept of that…
The only time I use a set list
is when I'm in a rehearsed situation where lightening cues and staging
clues are important and the band I'm playing with needs to know what
is happening next and we've worked it out to a fine art. Within the
confines of that I build in improvisation time for myself and spontaneity
so to speak. When I work solo, it's different every night. That's important
to me that that's the case because I know the people that come to multiple
shows and I have a repertoire that is fairly wide, different styles
and different songs. I like to try to mix them up, old ones, new ones,
I road test new songs and that kind of thing. I never go on stage with
a set list because you never know how things are going to go; the intensity
tonight might be twice much as last night. Although I started with a
fast tune last night, I might start with a slow one tonight depending
on how I feel and whatever. But I always try to build a show, see a
show must be like a meal, you got your entrée and then you've got your
main meal and your dessert and your coffee. It's a whole happening.
I try to entertain people and stir their emotions. I try to distract
them and give them a good time. I, at the same time, stay true to what
I do, my playing. I give myself plenty of space to improvise and fly
my kite and to get out on the limb and see how far I can go…
MF: Please describe your childhood in Alice Springs and any
obstacles you overcame during this period and how those affected your
My childhood was not just Alice
Springs. Alice Springs we were only in three months at a time. We were
on the road most of the time. The obstacles we overcame were not being
known, having to build an audience to from the ground up, being poor,
going from living in a suburb having a quiet life to being in show business,
literally within two weeks - trying real hard to be on television and
on radio and get out there and get a career going. I wasn't aware so
much of this so much because I was so young, it was my mother and father
who was doing all the pushing. My dad died really young, just before
his 50th birthday. He did everything he could before he went to try
to get us known and in the public eye. The other obstacle of course
was that we were kids, so the fact that we could play well didn't sit
well with adults, when we were on shows with other bands. When we came
out and could actually play the audience went crazy, most of the adults
looked down their noses at us like we were circus freaks or something.
But the truth was we could really play. I think that's what they didn't
like. That was a funny thing, there were people who were kind to us
but they also people who were ignorant and you'd want to know something
and they would say that's for you to figure out. You didn't get the
kind of help that you really needed. All that was just ignorance really.
And the fact that we didn't have teachers, we didn't read music, we
worked out everything by ear that was a learning process as well.
MF: Let's key in on that not reading sheet music thing, you said that last
night on WGN radio with Steve and Johnnie, has this ever been an obstacle for you?
I've only had egg on my face
once from it. That was doing a film soundtrack where I had to play this
whole passage with an orchestra. Then there was a part in the middle
of the arrangement where the guitar played on its own and then the orchestra
came back in. When you have a hundred people there waiting for you to
get it right, that's pretty nerve wrecking. I had to go to the piano
player and say "quick play this for me, how do this go?" He played it
and I quickly had to work it out, the nervous tension was pretty high.
Most times when I play studio things now, like I play with Bill Wyman
and the Rhythm Kings and I've done some other things where I come in
and put solos on people's tracks and such. That is like giving a kid
a bunch of candy to me because that is the kind of stuff I really enjoy
MF: Besides Chet Atkins and the Beatles, who are some of your influences?
You are talking Hank Williams,
Jimmy Rogers, Marty Robbins when I was a kid. The Beatles, of course.
Elvis Presley, James Burton, Albert Lee, Don Rich, Roy Nichols, George
Benson, Wes Montgomery, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel. James Taylor is one
of my biggest influences as a song writer. I love everything he does;
I love his singing, his guitar playing and his whole approach to music.
I love Tony Rice and Doc Watson. I love bluegrass music, classical music,
Mozart, violin and piano concertos just blow my mind. Blues influence,
I love B.B. King and Eric Clapton. I like all kinds of music as long
as it's got the soul; it's got the juice…
MF: How old were you when you wrote "Initiation" - and what influences caused
this unique song to come about?
Initiation, I first got the
idea when I was messing around with a delay in the studio one time.
I think I was about 25, I think when I wrote that. The way I played
it last night and the way I will play it tonight will be different.
It's evolved into something and has a life of its own. I reach for sounds
and feelings through my instrument. It's a connection into the spirit
world through my music and through my guitar. It's like the guitar is
the key that unlocks that, I'm able to get in there. So the song has
evolved and it will continue to evolve.
MF: This is on your DVD, correct?
Right. Well this is the thing
you see, what happens live, when you are in the room, you can't put
that on a disc. It just doesn't come across. You have to be there. That
is another thing that makes it difficult. People are always saying,
"When are you going to put out a live album?" The reason I don't put
out that live album is because when I hear back what happened the night
before, it's a different time, I was playing for that moment. I'd be
the first to admit that there are 9 times out of 10 where I'm quite
happy to overplay. During my show you will have noticed that I play
a lot. I'm happy to admit, that my musical sense if I stopped and said
that musically may be too much. I'm doing that for the audience. I'm
willing to wear the criticism on that from other musicians because it's
for the people. People love to see that. Could you imagine if you came
up to Billy Joel, would you just play piano for me and let me see you
play piano. He'd probably love to do that and play the hell out of it.
But a fellow song writer might say that is just musicianship. But in
actual fact, you are burning to hear him play that way. That principle
is what gives me the kind of green light to do that. Hell, you know,
I play for the moment!
MF: Some piano players can play melody with both hands, do you do this when
That's like playing octaves
and things, oh sure.
MF: What is the longest period of time you haven't played your guitar?
When I was 16, I stopped playing
for a month, got a job in a gas station and I was doing grease and oil
change. A show came to town and I played with them and the next day
I was on the road with them.
MF: Where is the strangest location you've ever played your guitar?
A bunker in Germany! A World
War II bunker under the city in a place called Bielefeld, it's a jazz
club now. But it's a bunker. The lighting in there, the walls and that,
are like they were in World War II. I'd say that's one of the strangest
places. Another place that's rather strange that I played was on top
of a huge, rocky outcrop. Down in the bottom of Australia we have this
The Great Ocean Road.
Part of the land has collapsed and it's like a 400 foot drop down to
the ocean and there are some land masses, little outcrops I would call
them, they are very dangerous. People fly out there and hover in the
helicopter and you can jump out. It's about as wide as this room, but
its 400 feet down. I filmed a commercial for Qantas Airways out there
with thermal underwear on and the helicopter going around me with these
incredible shots. And I'm standing there thinking "This is weird, what
am I doing up here? Ya know this thing could collapse at any second."
But it didn't! (laughs)
MF: You seem to have great compassion for the less fortunate in society. What
are some of the causes and why do you think you became involved in them?
I relate to people so much,
people are so important to me. I feel so blessed that even if I can
help them by playing for them it's doing something. But you see, I came
from absolute poverty and I know what that's about. I know what it's
like to live on rice and powdered milk for months on end. I've been
there. I've been with no money and no food and nothing many times in
my life and I understand that and I relate to people. I feel blessed
that I have good ears and eyes and my health is good, there are less
fortunate people out there. With organizations like World Vision and
the Red Cross, I've been and seen what these people do. You can't admire
people more than that because they are sacrificing their own life to
help others. That really inspires me. But it doesn't mean that I want
to stop and go be an aid worker in Africa. I know my calling is to play
music and I've got to stay true to that. As much as I would honestly
love to be more hands on, I have to stay true to what I have to believe
is my gift and believe that it's important to this world… (At this point
he is interrupted, quite appropriately by being told his dinner is ready!)
MF: Lastly, I'll save some of these other questions for next time as your
dinner is now ready, you confirmed on WGN radio the plans for you, Peter Huttlinger
and Peppino D'Agostino to do a tour in the near future. What form is this take playing
altogether, alternating songs in a "guitar night" format or some other format?
Peppino, Pete and I haven't
had a chance to discuss it yet. I think we will play individually, as
well as duos and then we'll all play together. I'll try to get the guys
to sing as well and try to do something where we all play percussion
on our guitars. I'm going to try to build a show that is non-stop and
where you never know what is going to come next. And Pete and Peppino
are such good guys, we're all so different. I just want it all to work
real well for the people. I don't know how much time we are going to
get to put it together because we are busy with individual things, but
we really want to do this and make it good. Of course it's going to
be good, but I think the public is going to be nicely surprised.
MF: Thank you, Tommy, now please go eat and enjoy your dinner.
I will. Thank you for spending
time with me today.
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