Tony Cummings quizzed Bournemouth-based singer/songwriter TOM WHITMAN about personal turmoils of the past and creative accomplishments of the present.
As everyone knows, the new wave of popularity for acoustic-based folk pop has brought fresh opportunities to gig and record for hundreds of singer/songwriters and although few are going to reach the mainstream popularity of a Damien Rice, Willie Mason or a Jose Gonzales or the cult following of a Nick Drake (anyway, premature death is probably too big a price even for the most ambitious songsmith), the movement has brought forward some exceptional talents. Christian music too has brought forward numerous new singer/songwriters into the public arena. One of the most gifted in recent times is Bournemouth-based Tom Whitman. His album 'The Breaking In Of Light' on Risen Records is a deft blend of poetic musings and powerful spiritual insights while his winning way with an audience has just earned him a support slot to a tour of Wales being undertaken by progressive rockers The Repercussion this July.
Tom describes his music as "lyrical with a real melodic edge." He told Cross Rhythms, "I can't simply take a cool chord sequence and a sweet melody and go 'that could be a great song.' It's nothing without some meaning, story or reflection. There's something truly spiritual or redemptive about being able to express yourself in prayers, memories and stories. The band of musicians I work with and producer Mike Griffiths have been able to work with me to create the right atmosphere for the songs and in my humble opinion have been nothing short of inspirational. The rush of taking a naked song and meeting with friends to fill it with harmonies and atmosphere is beautiful and probably where I find most fulfilment and enjoyment in practising, recording and playing live."
One of the key contributors to the finely textured sounds on 'The Breaking In Of Light' was guitarist Tim Mayo. Tom explains how he and Tim first came together. "We had met through church and were both at Bournemouth University. I invited him to play guitar at Nth Fest and from there we begun a friendship that was cemented by beginning to play as a duo for a while. We just got on really well and bonded through music and he would accompany me leading worship at Christian Union too, which was a great encouragement as he had done it before and I hadn't! He instinctively knew what to play on my songs and so with the support of Risen Records and the enthusiasm of Mike to get involved producing and recording we started in winter 2007. In all honesty I had shared my vision for an EP of two guitars, maybe some bongos and backing vocals, but it just developed and we all gained confidence to do something bigger."
The title track of the album is particularly powerful. Comments Tom, "With my experiences of depression I have been in the depths of despair and hopelessness yet the gift of God and the beauty of the Cross for the troubled soul is initially peace. Joy may come at the same time or may even come before peace, but for me God's peace is the relief and the comfort that he is there with me and will now bring me through. It's also about freedom and keeping the thirst for God. The final line is my favourite to sing because it's saying, 'This is where I've been and how God has brought me through and now I'm going to ask you: will freedom find you alive?' We all need freedom from different things and obviously it's quite refreshing in the midst of a set of generally personal songs to turn and face the audience and ask them this most vital question."
Another of the album's standouts is "Love Like A Drug". Explains Tom, "It is about trying to make someone you love understand just how much you feel and how much you're sorry. It's also about imagining a fresh start. But it's never that easy and I guess the complications of love aren't as attractive to write about, as is the possibility of reacquainting you with someone you love."
Not all the songs on Tom's new album come out of personal experience. One, "Teddy", is a masterly onslaught against America's gun culture. Says Tom somewhat ruefully, "It would be great to say that I watched Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine and immediately picked up my guitar and wrote it. But it was a bit more gradual and not as thought through as that. I was playing around with drop D tuning and had these sinister folky chords and this idea of an innocent kid who stumbles upon his Dad's gun collection and wreaks havoc. He feels the power of the weapon and I guess it encapsulates him. Really it's just asking the question of what culture you want to create? If you want to give rise to a potentially violent culture then a gun culture is perfect. Though my songs are a million miles away from this band and I'm a baby in comparison, the topics on Verra Cruz's 'Emancipation Day' were probably a force. That's an incredible album. It just reeks of passion and righteous anger."
22 year old Whitman was born in the sleepy town of Godmanchester in Cambridgeshire. He muses, "I have always wondered how they came up with the name and have not found out to this very day. It was a beautiful place to grow up with the River Ouse winding its way through to its older brother Huntingdon, where John Major used to be MP. When I was a baby there was this one music tape that would stop me crying and I knew exactly what it was so I couldn't be fooled. It was the American pop Christian singer BJ Thomas. My parents must have treasured it because I was apparently a bit of a bawler. Another early musical memory was hearing Mum play Fur Elise on the piano. I loved it. It's tense and dramatic but full of beauty. Our family life was centred on church as the family moved there about a year before I was born for my Dad to begin leading a Baptist Church. He took it from a small sized building into a factory, which we converted into offices and a main meeting hall. I loved having my Dad as the local minister, seeing all these walls being knocked down to create the main hall. He used to take an Easter service for the primary school I went to, and we'd traipse the half-mile up the road for him to lead us in some thoughts about the Cross and Resurrection. I'm not sure you could do that now."
After a failed attempt at living in a Christian community in Norwich ("I hated it because I was too embarrassed to invite my friends there") Tom and his family relocated to Bournemouth. He remembers, "By sixth form in Bournemouth I had began to develop my own musical taste and having had a few guitar lessons, was writing songs in my bedroom. I was far more interested in the dream of being a singer though, printing reams and reams of lyrics off just so I could press play and sing along. I was always keenly interested in lyrics and still think it's crazy that music lyrics aren't studied in English Literature at school. At sixth form my main interest was still football which I would play every day in the yard trying to emulate the Norwich City legend Iwan Roberts. But music was still there and though I had no ambitions at all I still wanted to sing in front of an audience. We had these sixth form concerts and I teamed up with my good mate Chris Lombard to perform The Beatles' 'Blackbird', which was my first ever musical performance. I genuinely wanted to chicken out but fortunately Chris wouldn't let me. I went on to do a couple of other sixth form concerts, covering David Gray and Radiohead."
Now something of a seasoned on-stage performer, Tom has managed to avoid predictable audience demands for covers. He recalls, "We tried two or three times last summer to sneak Ray Lamontagne's 'Trouble' in the set but it didn't last. Recently I watched a performance of it on the 'Live At Abbey Road' DVD and laughed. I think if you're going to do a cover you've got to either nail the rhythm and arrangement or do something original with it, and I couldn't do either of those. I consider myself a musician of limited ability but I'm passionate enough about my own stuff not to be bothered about playing covers. We've also played fewer venues that would demand covers, perhaps because of that reason but perhaps not. Playing covers just doesn't interest me."
'The Breaking In Of Light' wasn't Tom's debut. Previously he recorded the EP 'Transparent Lives'. He remembers the circumstances that led up to that recording vividly. "Mike Griffiths, who drums in the rock band Bosh, has been a very good friend of mine for a while and we had always gone to gigs together and stuff. He recorded a song of mine after I finished sixth form and when I dropped out of Cardiff University I had started to write worship and what I call devotional songs. He was one of the few people who I could play my songs to and not get nervous. I had improved as a guitarist because the kind family I stayed with on my gap year in Manchester decided to take my minimal rent money and use it to pay their son to give me guitar tuition. He's a great guitarist and songwriter and he got me playing lots of picky stuff we both liked from Simon & Garfunkel to Stone Roses. They had obviously heard my enthusiastic guitar playing and thought 'we can't be listening to this for the next nine months!' So I had a bit more confidence as a result of that. The clinch though was hanging out at a friend's engagement party and Mike Griff's older brother Dave, the frontman in Bosh, asked me if I'd like to get some musicians together to play a set of my songs at Nth Fest which is a festival he set up in 2006. I think he'd heard a demo of a song I wrote with Mike and I was massively thrilled to be asked as he's someone I looked up to hugely and still do. So I started working with another good friend of mine Chris Lombard who plays piano. He was integral in terms of being someone to play my new songs too, and picking out the ones that would be best. The one song that has stood the test of time is 'Stood Still'."
After his gap year in Manchester where his faith in God had been cemented, Tom went to Cardiff University. But there everything began to unravel in his life. Tom says candidly, "I loved my course, had made some great friends and was enjoying the vibrant Christian union. Nothing prepared me for what happened the week before I was due to go home for Christmas. I had sunk into depression and my anxieties about being away from home, the relationship I was in at the time and the upcoming deadlines all came to a head. I was massively anxious, got diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome [IBS] and I lost quite a bit of weight. I ended the relationship I was in pretty hastily and it all just set off a horrible spiral. I didn't know what was happening at the time but my brain and thoughts gradually went into overdrive and everything was going 100mph. Lots of irrational thoughts entered my head and I remember one day going round a bunch of shops in Cardiff and placing loads of goods behind the counter to buy later for Christmas presents for people I would never normally buy for. My girlfriend and me were going to patch things up. I went into a jewellery shop to check out some rings. We were going to go and be missionaries abroad. I thought I was receiving cryptic messages from signs in the street. Obviously this couldn't be further from what happened in reality, yet to me because I had never felt so energetic and high I considered it to be some incredible experience. It felt like I was in a film."
On the Friday of the same week, things reached crisis point for Tom. "After little sleep and rest from the constant hyper state I was in, I found myself standing on the bridge over a railway track just outside the halls of residence. I climbed over the bridge railings and thought it would be some kind of valiant act to end it all. I had stuffed up. I was out of my mind. Yet all this time I had been praying to God, and whatever crazy things I thought he was saying to me, he was still there by my side. A train had now passed underneath the bridge and as I stood there I heard the simple words of Jesus that 'I have come that you may have life, and life to the full.' I climbed back over and lay on the concrete underneath the stars thanking God for guiding me from danger. I was still not calm. I was still not ok, but I was alive.
"When I got home, which was encouraged to me from two of my close friends, my parents noticed my constant talking and high mood and called the night doctors in. After visiting a psychiatric hospital the following day I was eventually diagnosed with suffering from a manic phase, and coupled with the depression leading up to it, I was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depression. I quit university and gradually got back into life at home, and found a job which gave me a lot of dignity and purpose. The crazy thing is that my relationship with God had been strengthened as he had carried me at my lowest point. I still suffer from bipolar disorder though it is more often now the depression and anxiety rather than the high moods. But God is with me, he carries me through and has given me the gift of music to express myself. 'Stood Still' is a condensed version of that story and we re-recorded it on 'The Breaking In Of Light' with the wonderful harmonies of my cousin Beth."
The song "Stood Still" is still a powerful item in Tom's live set. He comments, "We tend to find that the song most likely to silence a crowd is 'Stood Still'. Generally our view of how a crowd has reacted to songs is based on the volume levels, and atypical to a rock band, we judge it on how quiet the audience remains throughout the song rather than how loud. Recently we've had some of our quietest gigs, which have been very enjoyable."
Cross Rhythms finished its interview with this passionate and bravely honest song craftsman by asking him his plans for the future. His response was succinct. "Continue to gig the album. Make more friends in music so we can do gigs together. Record more. See more of God in our lives."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.