Tommy Emmanuel Interview
Photos by Jeff Delp of Oxford, KS
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?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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 entr?e 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 music.
Tommy Emmanuel: 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?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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 doing.
MF: Besides Chet Atkins and the Beatles, who are some of your influences?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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 playing guitar?
Tommy Emmanuel: That’s like playing octaves and things, oh sure.
MF: What is the longest period of time you haven’t played your guitar?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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 area called 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?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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?
Tommy Emmanuel: 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.
Tommy Emmanuel: I will. Thank you for spending time with me today.