Posted January, 2011
While attending my “30-something” class reunion last fall, a classmate and I were exchanging names of various artist who we had become fans of but others might not have heard about. In the course of the conversation, she mentions the name, Tommy Emmanuel, whom I haven’t heard of until then. She raved about how great this guy was on the guitar and strongly encouraged me to check him out. She assured me that my feeble mind would be blown.
I did and it was.
I scoured YouTube for some of his performances and was entertained by a rich list of some of the best covers of some of the more memorable songs from the last 50 years. There were also lots of video of Emmanuel performing some of his own creations, most notably, Initiation. It was that last song that sealed the deal with me, making me a new Tommy Emmanuel fan for life.
Further research showed me that Emmanuel was performing professionally with his family’s quartet by the age of five and performed all over Australia by the age of 10. Tommy and his brother, Phil, were appropriately deemed child prodigies, further broadening their appeal to Australian audiences. His fame and appeal has continued to grow, eventually branching out well beyond the shores of his homeland and to audiences around the world.
Naturally, I wanted to speak with this acoustic thunder from down under and was fortunate to line up a phone interview during the Knoxville stop during his U.S. tour last October. The engaging warmth and conversation that I saw in the concert videos were evident during our chat.
I began our conversation by asking him to, for benefit of the uninitiated U.S. crowd who might not have ever heard of him, how would he introduce himself?
“Well, I’m a 55 year old guy from Australia who plays guitar because I love to play. I’ve been on stage ever since I was five years old. I’ve never wanted to do anything else but play the guitar and entertain people. I see myself as a person who entertains people using whatever gifts I have and I work tirelessly on the instrument. I try to learn from every musician I come across. I guess I’m a person who loves to entertain people.”
Tommy continues by segueing from his introduction to sharing how his love for music and entertaining was nurtured. “My mother gave me my first guitar for my fourth birthday but I didn’t play in public until I was five. She showed me how to play rhythm for her. She was playing the lap steel guitar at that time. We both loved to try to make music together.
“My brothers and sisters all took up instruments as well. My brother, Phil, my older brother, he has a similar gift to me except he approaches things in a different way. When we were kids, I was the rhythm player and he was the lead player. He would learn a song – he could figure it out pretty quickly – and he would say, ‘Here are the chords’ and then I would learn the chords and the structure of the song and then we’d play it together.
“Then, when I got a little older, I discovered that, because I’m an ear player – I play everything by ear – I don’t read music, I never had any formal training of any sort - I discovered that I could figure out a song pretty quickly and hear the pattern in the song and work out where the song went. I got interested in song writing and that’s when my world exploded and that’s when I discovered that I could write songs and that I had a gift in music somehow.
“Of course, being on stage is whole different thing to being a song writer. It’s like two different roles. I loved being on stage. I loved performing. I loved getting a reaction from the audience. I loved making the audience laugh and surprising them. We’d be doing a song and I’d dance across the stage and people wouldn’t expect it. Stuff like that. I discovered that that was what I enjoyed the most was to make people laugh and to feel good and to take their mind away.
“These days, what I do on stage is I use every element of whatever I have to distract people from whatever they’re thinking and take them into another space kind of thing- make them feel good. So, I try to dazzle them with whatever technique I’ve got. I try to disarm them with the fun that I have and then make them laugh at me laughing at myself. So, it’s like I’m the Three Stooges in one person.” He says with a laugh.
“It’s also so much fun and challenging to play the instrument. The instrument is so beautiful and so challenging. But I enjoy playing my songs and telling my stories and try to paint a picture in music without words for people.”
When I made a comment based on the assumption that he only played acoustic guitar, Emmanuel politely corrected me.
“I do play electric guitar. Certainly, I do! All of my early albums – my really successful albums in Australia – were seventy percent electric and just a few acoustic songs. I do a bit of everything.”
The video of Tommy’s performances revealed that he is as also a master in the use of the electronic effect known as delay. I asked him what inspired him to use delays and if there was somebody who used them that who inspired him.
“I was just messing around with a delay one day. A lot of people have done that. Les Paul did it a lot. Chet Atkins did it a lot. People don’t realize that the sound they were listening to is a guitar playing against itself. It’s a brilliant sound.”
Ah! The great Chet Atkins! My pre-interview research revealed that Emmanuel discovered the incredible talent of Chet Atkins in 1962, becoming a lifelong fan of Mister Guitar, spending countless hours as a student of learning Atkins’ style of playing. He established a long distance friendship with the guitar great via mail and, 18 years after first being turned on to him, finally got to meet his idol and established a close friendship until Chet’s passing in 2001. I asked Tommy about his relationship with Atkins.
“Yes, I wrote to Chet when I was eleven years old. He wrote back to me. We became kind of pen pals with me living in Australia, of course.” He then shares what his first thoughts are when he thinks of Atkins. “Oh! There’s so much! He was like a daddy to me. He was a innovator. He was a great leader. He was a great organizer. He could put the right team together to do a certain project for a certain artist. He knew exactly who had what gift. He was very clever in that way. But the thing I learned the most about Chet was look for a good song and look for a melody that touches your heart and your soul and play it for people.
“Before he died, we had a beautiful day together. There’s a song he used to sing for his dad called I Still Can’t Say Goodbye. He asked me to keep singing that song. He said, ‘When I’m gone, I want you to sing that song.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t do that. That’s sacred to you.’ He said, ‘You don’t understand. People need to hear that. That’s what’s important and therein lies the lesson. Forget what you think. Do what you know is going to be good for other people.’ That summed him up perfectly.
“The same thing for me. I’ve been playing Guitar Boogie and Classical Gas. I’ve been playing them all my life and you would think, ‘Why don’t you play something different?’ The moment that I don’t play Guitar Boogie, Classical Gas or whatever, people will come up and say, ‘I drove 500 miles to hear you tonight and you didn’t play my favorite song!’ You’re there for the people. Forget yourself! Get out there and do what you were born to do and do it for the people.”
As he wraps up his thoughts about the lessons he learned from Chet Atkins, Emmanuel shares the thoughts of a man truly in awe of the blessings in his life and the lessons he has been fortunate to learn.
“If you would have told me twenty years ago that I would be laying in a bed in Knoxville, talking to you, I would have told you that you were crazy. But so much has happened in the last twenty years of my life, it’s been extraordinary. I’ve taken my music to everywhere I wanted to go like Russia and China, Croatia, Hungary, Brazil, Africa. It’s just been an incredible journey. It’s only really just beginning. I’ve been playing for 50 years and I feel like I’m just getting going now.”
Who else has inspired and influenced Tommy?
“Oh, man, there were so many! Last night, I watched Carole King and James Taylor. They’re two of my favorites. I draw a lot of inspiration from those two. Carole King’s songwriting is just on a level that’s just so stellar – so beautiful. Same with James.
“I listen to everything. The only thing I don’t like is rap music. I don’t criticize it or say that it’s bad. I just can’t stand it. I listen to all music from Beyoncé to Metallica. I listen to everything. I don’t like everything but I listen to things to try and learn and to wake up my senses to hear something different.”
Having graced stages and delighted audiences all over the world, I asked Tommy if there was any place he hasn’t performed yet.
“Well, next year I’m playing in Chile, Argentina, Venezuela and places like that – where I haven’t been. So there are a few other countries that I haven’t been yet. I’ll be in China next week and I was in Russia last month. They are countries I really wanted to take my music to because I knew something was up. Especially with Russia and China because there were Russian and Chinese people coming to my shows in Amsterdam, Berlin and places like that and they had come from their countries for the show. When I met people to sign autographs, they were like, ‘When are you going to come to Russia? When are you going to come to China? We come to your shows from China. Why don’t you come to China?’
“I got a lot of e-mail from those countries so I found a promoter there and put the show on. Two thousand people came. It was unbelievable! A lot of that has to do with YouTube.”
I’ve read lots of interviews, biographies and autobiographies where an artist gets bored with what made them famous and no longer derive satisfaction from their work. With that in mind, I asked Tommy what is the biggest thrill or satisfaction he gets from his work.
“We’re travelling on a bus for this tour and I have a great guitar player named Frank Vignola playing with me at the moment. Frank’s one of my favorite players. Yesterday, we learned a bunch of Charlie Christian songs. That was so cool to go back and listen to Charlie Christian again. That was just like going to school yesterday. We spent the whole day playing in the bus. It was great and I learned a lot of new songs.”
As I stated at the beginning of this article, I was particularly blown away by Emmanuel’s composition, Initiation. I asked him what inspired that song and how long did it take him to put that piece together.
“That’s the song I use the delay on. I spent most of my young years based in the outback in a place called Alice Springs. I played to mostly Aboriginal audiences and I heard a lot of Aboriginal music. What I tried to do with that song is tell a story of pain and suffering of the hardship of life for those people and to make it a haunting kind of thing. Some nights, I can really conjure up the sound that I heard as a kid. The sound of when an Aboriginal group is doing their corroboree or their getting together and making music, they’re telling stories and acting out dances. The sounds of all of that are in that song somehow. It’s a very simple piece. It’s not brain surgery. I try to keep it as simple as possible because you don’t want to be putting the influences of other things in that. You want it to be as pure as it can.”
I said, “You say it’s simple but you’re talking to somebody who would just love to play your mistakes!”
He laughed and said, “Yeah, you leave my mistakes to me!”
Tommy Emmanuel has played on some well known hits and performed with some pretty big names. Thinking of that, I asked him a two part question. First, what kind of project would he like to do that he hasn’t done yet? Second, who hasn’t he played with, on stage, on record or in private that he really wants to play with?
“I’ve fulfilled a few goals – a few lifetime dreams in the last year. Larry Carlton was my guest a couple of weeks ago in Austin. I’d love to work with Larry more. He’s one of my big influences and one of my favorites. And the other guy that I got to really know and would love to work with is George Benson. They’re two of the guys that I would love to play with and love to work with.
“I’ve yet to find another singer that I would love to work with because it’s all about the songs. For me, it’s the quality of your work and the quality that you put out to the people that is important. Sometimes you can do that with a complete unknown. Sometimes you can do that with someone really famous. So I’m still on the lookout for the right kind of partner to either write songs with.”
Almost as an aside, Tommy dropped this bombshell on me.
“I just played on a track for Michael Jackson which I love. I hope that they release it. I don’t know what is going to happen with Michael’s new stuff. I just played on a beautiful track on his – I hope it’s on his new album! They haven’t told me if it’s going to be released or not but they asked me to play on this track and I did. When I was in London they sent me the stuff on the internet and we downloaded it in the studio in London. I played a solo and a backing part for Michael who has been one of my heroes in my life, too. It’s an incredible vocal, I’ve got to tell you. I hope it comes out.”
The Jackson album Tommy referred to did, in fact, come out in December. Entitled, Michael, it does include Much Too Soon and is a phenomenal piece of work. Congratulations, Tommy!
As he concludes his story about working on Much To Soon, Emmanuel says: “It’s been really good – it’s been a great journey. A couple of years ago I got a call from a guy named Peter Asher who used to manage James Taylor. Peter’s a great producer and a good singer himself. He was managing and producing Diana Ross’s new project and I ended up playing on that as well. Things like that come along now and then and I really enjoy that. It’s so exciting and so challenging. I can’t tell you the feeling I had, especially with Michael’s track. I was in London and the producers were in Los Angeles and they’re trusting me with his track. That’s a big responsibility and I have such a big respect and admiration for Michael and the quality of his work. Nobody raised the bar like him. It’s phenomenal.”
When answering my question as to what can a new fan expect from one of his shows and who makes up his audience, Emmanuel says, “To be surprised and to be reminded to have fun in life and to fly your kite as high as you can. Live in the moment. Be in the moment. Be in the moment!” Regarding his audience demographic, “Baby’s to grandparents. Everybody! I get heavy metal guys. I get jazzers. I get folkies. I get blue grassers. I get blues guys. I get grannies. I get pimply teenagers. I get everybody and that’s great. That’s the human race!”
For the pure musician Boomerocity readers out there who are learning of Tommy Emmanuel for the first time, I asked him to share what kinds of guitars he plays.
“I have a quite a collection of guitars in my homes. I have a home here in America and one in England and I have guitars stored in Australia as well. I have some homemade guitars that are made by friends of mine that I don’t take on the road. My main instruments are made by the Maton Guitar Company in Australia. These guitars are not like other instruments. They have a beautiful sound but they have the best electronics that you’ll ever hear. It was Jean Larrivée from Larrivée Guitars who said to me, ‘Building a great guitar is a no-brainer. Getting the pickup right is almost impossible and that’s what these people have done!’
“So, if you want an acoustic guitar that you can mic up or, more importantly, you can plug in and get a good sound, there’s no guitar like a Maton guitar. As you can see by the finishes on my guitars, they can take a beating, too!” He concludes with a laugh.
After my chat with Tommy, I was struck by the fact that it took me so dang long to discover this gifted artist. So that YOU won’t be the last one on this fan train, I would encourage you to tell others who love great guitar work or gifted entertainers about Tommy Emmanuel.
You can keep up with the latest news with Tommy Emmanuel by signing up for his mailing list at www.tommyemmanuel.com. If you don’t order any of the music flagged in the pages of this interview, then you can certainly order his great CD’s, DVD’s and other great times from his online store. Oh, and, of course, you can be among the first to know when he’s going to appear at a town or city near you – wherever you are in the world.