(Published in Guitarist Australia magazine.)
If there’s anyone who’s earned his success more honestly, I don’t know who they are. Having paid his dues as a journeyman musician and sideman, multi-instrumental session player, solo and duo artist, and respected composer, Tommy Emmanuel has gone global – possibly Australia’s most popular export ever. The industry’s best-kept-secret no longer, he has joined that handful of artists known by just their first name. Here’s catche up with Tommy prior a national tour with brother Phil, also an extraordinary guitarist.
TE: What’s goin’ down, Hendo?
SH: The brothers are getting together again!
TE: [Laughter] Yeah…to terrorize the nation.
SH: That’s right. Run for your lives! [Laughter all around!]
SH: That’s pretty exciting.
TE: It’s going to be lot of fun, mate. The boys have already started rehearsals because I’m still on tour and I won’t get in until two days before the shows start in Sydney. But we’ve got it all mapped out, we all know what we’re doing. We’re really looking forward to it in the band situation, like we did with Terra Firma, and, Phil’s daughter Jessie, a wonderful singer and songwriter, [is] going to open the show. Phil will join her, then she’ll go off, then I’ll come out and we’ll play all our “two out” stuff. We’re going to play some of our real fast bluegrass kinda stuff we [did] in Goldrush. So, I’ve got my old Tele back out and my Fender amps and away I go. [Laughs.]
SH: Is it still sunburst or has it faded?
TE: Well…it’s trying to be sunburst. There’s not much left of the finish. [Laughs.]
SH: What sort of equipment are you going to be using?
TE: I’m going to use a couple of different delays and…I’ve got a couple of different distortion pedals: an old Tube Screamer and one that I got from Germany called a Carl Martin, which is a really wonderful distortion. I haven’t used it since…oh…’97, I think. [More laughter all around.]
SH: It’s probably faded too!
TE: [Laughs.] No, it’s in good shape, in my house.
SH: You guys were always a lot of fun to watch together.
TE: Because we don’t see each other that often, it’s going to be interesting because I think we’ve both changed so much and matured as people and musicians – we want to do things in a different way, in a much more meaningful way. Phil’s been doing some really interesting things lately. He’s doing this Brothers In Arms [show] at the moment, with Stewie French and Rex Goh. And he’s done the tribute to Woodstock recently where he did all Hendrix’s and Santana’s parts. Phil can do anything, really. But the stuff we do together is a lot of fun and the “two out” stuff is exciting for the audience - and exciting for us, too. And it take us right back to our roots ‘cause I was his only rhythm player all his young life. [More laughter!]
SH: I can remember those gigs – Goldrush and just the two of you…
TE: Well, we toured for years, just the two of us – pack up the trailer and put the Bose PA in, a few lights, our dog, and we’d start in Newcastle, go up the Coffs Harbour, then Lismore and Casino, and stay on the Gold Coast and play, then do Brisbane and Ipswich, and away we go. We’d be away for 6 weeks.
SH: Which sounds like a grind but it’s where you learned your craft.
TE: That’s right. It’s where we learned to perform and make a show work. Our training ground, in the first place, was playing in the street while dad took the hat around. Then halls and [then] being a part of someone else’s show, coming on and playing for 15 or 20 minutes, and have to make an impression in that time. That was our training ground. We went our separate ways for a while and then came together again in another band playing covers [in] pubs around Australia, and that was good training too. Six sets a night, six nights a week, and [we] had to learn a lot of new songs all the time and that was good. All the time we were both working on other things – I was trying to write songs and learn new things. Actually, when I was in my teens, I was always trying to write songs with lyrics but they were never any good. But I wrote a few melodies. [Laughs.] Dixie McGuire, Amy, and a few of those early instrumentals. Actually, coming out next month will be my new double album. Sony are also doing a box set for this tour…four CD’s….and a lot of great photographs and stories.
SH: A good friend of mine, a terrific guitarist, Sam Mudie, has a question for you: “After such a long career, where do you find inspiration and how do you stay motivated?”
TE: It’s pretty easy to stay motivated because I’m travelling a lot and things keep building. I don’t write as much as I used to – not through lack of trying, it’s just that I know that I can’t force it. I have to wait for something to happen and, when it does, I’m right on it. And inspiration is a spiritual thing. So, I never force it [because] something that I try under my own steam very seldom works.
SH: So, you’re not a Brill Building writer – clock on, clock off?
TE: No. Actually, in the early ‘80’s, when I lived in Los Angeles, songwriting for MCA/Universal, I used to start at 10 in the morning, meet with a songwriter I didn’t know and see if we could create something. And I got a couple of covers out of that – [one with] Olivia Newton-John and [another with] Sheena Easton. I wrote a few half-decent songs, learned a lot about songwriting from different people. But once I got firmly into going solo and playing the acoustic guitar, I knew I had to write music that had depth and meaning, and were memorable. That’s what I concentrated on. I needed some pieces that I could really touch people with – and that’s where the album Only was born.
SH: You’ve just done an album Just Between Frets.
TE: Yeah, with Frank Vignola, one of my favourite players. That’s another of those “we’ll get together and record it in a couple of afternoons” and that’s exactly what happened. We had two days free – [he] turned up with his bass player, Gary, and rhythm player, Vinnie, [I] drove to where we were going to record, checked into a little hotel and, at 3 o’clock in the morning, started running ideas, [then] had a few hours sleep, got up and started recording that next day. Most of the arrangements were one time around – we just worked [out] who was going to play what and then we pressed the red button.
SH: Well, it’s got lots of life, lots of spark to it.
TE: Oh, absolutely. And we’re in the ballot for the Grammies, we’re hoping to be voted into the final four. We’ve got two cuts that are in the ballot…the Jazz Performance category. I’ve just finished a tour of America, and Frank and Vinnie we on the bill and the three of us really had some magic chemistry together, that’s for sure.
SH: I spoke to Neville Kitchen [Maton Guitars] and he said you were just back from Russia.
TE: That’s right. I played an outdoor event called the Mamakabu Festival – I’ve done it every year. But they had freaky weather and [it] turned really cold, I had four layers of clothes on and, by the time I played an hour, my hands were completely numb. But the people were so incredible that you just don’t even think about it.
But I have some other exciting news that I can talk about now. There’s a new Michael Jackson album and I’m playing on a track. I was recommended by Keb Mo’. I was in England visiting my girls and I got the call and I said, “I’m about to start a tour, I’ve got Thursday free…and it’ll have to be in London.” So…Sony brought it into the studio, I replaced the [original] guitar and then I did a solo. It’s a beautiful song and his vocal is spectacular. It was just like the most incredible honour. I’ll never forget the feeling – here’s someone trusting me with a Michael Jackson track, you know? That’s about the pinnacle of my life – playing with the King!
The other thing is, after this tour with Phil, I’m [taking] the band into Europe and we do March and April all over Europe, including two nights in Moscow.
SH: When soloing over a familiar track and you want to inject something new into it, how do you go about doing that?
TE: You mean like you’ve played the song a million times and you could play it in your sleep? What I do with songs that I’ve played a lot, that people expect me to play, like Classical Gas or Windy And Warm, I just try to do different things with them all the time. Every time I walk out on stage there are some people who are familiar with me and there are a lot of people who aren’t. So, you’ve got to look at it from their perspective – just because you’ve played Classical Gas for the last 15 shows doesn’t make it any less meaningful for a lot of people in this room tonight. So I try to give it stick every time. There are some times when I play it slower than others, other times I play it more frantic. If I leave it out, I get complaints: “I told my friends about your version and we drove 500 miles and you didn’t play it.” There are nights when I don’t play it, and I hear about it. I stopped playing Somewhere Over The Rainbow and I got so many complaints about it, and you’ve got to listen to what people say, you can’t ignore them and you can’t say, “Well I’m tired of playing it.” So, I’ll go back to it and say, “Right, how can I play it better?”
SH: Because that song may mean something very special to them.
TE: That’s exactly right. I remember coming out of a show in Ballarat one night, walking back to the car and a guy was waiting [there] and he said, “I just wanted to tell that your song Country Wide changed my life.” It’s just a simple song but it meant so much to him. There’s always ways of giving a song a re-birth.
SH: When you go out with the band next year, you’ll automatically being doing that. For some people, it’ll be brand new.
TE: Yeah, we’re going to breath new life into some of my older song which we know work and everybody’s matured a lot as musicians, players and arrangers. I think it’s going to be great.
SH: Advice for young musicians?
TE: Learn some good songs. There are too many players out there who want to play like Andy McKee and Don Ross and all those guys, and they’re doing all that tapping with all their strange tunings and nobody’s playing melodies any more. You can do all that stuff, just make sure it’s melodic and that you’re saying something.