INTERVIEW: Tommy Ashby



Tommy Ashby


I am starting off the week...


 PHOTO CREDIT: Fraser Taylor

by speaking with the Scottish songwriter Tommy Ashby about the track, Cocoon, and its origins. Although he has released another track in the time between the interview being conducted and published, I wanted to know what we can expect from the upcoming E.P., Golden Arrow.

Ashby discusses albums important to him and whether there are tour dates coming up; when he began writing music and which artists inspired him growing up; how he relaxes and unwinds away from music – he picks a cool song to end the interview with.


Hi, Tommy. How are you? How has your week been?

Hi. My week has been a bit mental. I was up in Scotland shooting a music video and supporting a lovely band called Skinny Living; then I hightailed it down to Cornwall for rehearsals and photos. To shoot the music video, we hiked twenty kilometers up to an abandoned reservoir in the snow and up the side of a waterfall in the hail, all carrying our equipment. I felt very sorry for the cameraman. Yesterday, I was in Oxfordshire recording a session doing a few songs for Bob Harris. I was very excited about that. Bob is a legend! So, it has been some week…

Also, lots of hours spent eating biscuits in my car.

For those new to your music; can you introduce yourself, please?

Ehh, hello everyone. I’m Tommy. I am a songwriter from Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. I came down South to do a PhD in Acoustics and ended up playing a session guitar for a few artists and staying here for a bit. I’ve recorded a couple of E.P.s down in Cornwall with Sam Okell.

What is the story behind the single, Cocoon?

I wrote Cocoon in a beautiful little studio called La Frette just outside Paris having been on the road for two months straight. I was there to record guitar for another artist but, while they recorded drums, I snuck upstairs to one of the bedrooms and started tinkering on the grand piano in the corner. This was apparently the room where Nick Cave stays on his trips to the studio and I like to think some of his inspiration rubbed off because the song just fell out in one go.

I ran downstairs and grabbed a mic and started recording it on the spot. A lot of it was also recorded using my laptop microphone, super lo-fi! You can hear the birds singing outside and Olivier, the studio owner, pouring the dish water out of the window toward the end. We tried to re-record the vocals and piano but the atmosphere just wasn’t there, so the birds and splashes stayed. I think this song captures a wee moment in time, which I think is pretty cool.

It is from the E.P., Golden Arrow. What sort of themes go into the E.P. would you say?

I think the general theme is the disconnection a lot of people feel in modern society. I was definitely feeling disconnected as a result of being on tour for such a long time. I think it is a thank you to the people who make you feel needed.


PHOTO CREDIT: Fraser Taylor

Can you tell me what sort of sounds you grew up around as a child?

My dad is a musician so we were all immersed from a young age. We had jam sessions every few nights in the house, I played guitar for my sister at various musical events around the villages and our area is a bit of a bluegrass/country music enclave, so there was lots of general pub jams too. In terms of music, mum and dad always had music on, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, Dixie Chicks, John Martyn, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings and Jeff Buckley to name a few.

When did you begin writing? Was there a reason for stepping into music?

I have played music for as long as I can remember so I can’t really imagine not doing that. As for writing, having played for other people for a while, I began to feel like there was some stuff I wanted to say.

Your songs have been used in some pretty big T.V. shows. What does it feel like hearing one of your songs on the screen?!

To be honest, it still feels pretty weird. You know all the little quirks in the track, how some of it was recorded in your bedroom; some in a little box-room in deepest darkest Cornwall, sounds recorded by stamping on a cardboard box or just generally wailing into a microphone. So, to see it shown in a super-polished, amazing T.V. programme is quite a contrast. Who am I kidding, though. It feels amazing as well!

PHOTO CREDIT: Fraser Taylor

How does your music come together? Do you experiment on the laptop and gradually work on it - or does it depend on the song?

I think I come from a more songwriter-style approach: I try to get my song in shape with just a guitar before approaching the computer. It just means I know it hangs together as a song. I can get very excited about silly sounds and production but, if the song isn’t there, then it ain’t worth much! I try to record as much as possible before heading down to Cornwall with Sam to add all the extras. That is a fun experience; tinkering with sounds, having as many gadgets linked up as we can.

Do you have a standout memory from your time in music so far?

My first night supporting Rhodes in Utrecht a couple of years ago. It was my first gig outside of the U.K. and the audience was just incredible. It was the moment where I thought that maybe I could do this music malarkey.

I played four nights at Wembley Stadium last year as a session guitarist. That wasn’t playing my own stuff but it did feel pretty mind-blowing. Though a week later, we played the Stade de France in Paris just after they had won the semi-final of the World Cup and the atmosphere was electric. I remember glancing across at the drummer to see him crying with happiness. That sticks in my brain too.

PHOTO CREDIT: Fraser Taylor

Which three albums mean the most to you would you say (and why)?

Revival - Gillian Welch

My sister and dad do a duet on Annabelle – track-two on this album - so it always shoots my straight back to sitting in the living-room as kids singing around the fire. It’s a heartbreaking song; the whole album rings with the excitement of a first record too.

This first lines of Barroom Girls floored me when I heard them:

“Oh the night came undone like a party dress/and fell at her feet in a beautiful mess/The smoke and the whiskey came home in her curls/and they crept through the dreams of the barroom girls”.

It’s just so full of images….

Also, Jason Isbell, another artist I am a huge fan of, tweeted reviews of this album when it first came out and they were pretty bad - which is inspirational as it leaves you thinking that, if this album can get a bad review, then any album can. Pretty questionable reasoning from me but there you go.

Graceland - Paul Simon

This is just a joyous album for me. It reminds me of uni. I don’t know why I wasn’t listening to The Killers or Kings of Leon or the Arctic Monkeys like everyone else. Lyrically, he is a bloody genius.

Grace - Jeff Buckley

Ahh, Jeff. I am aware that most male singer-songwriters cite him but it would be false if I were not to include him. When I first heard Hallelujah I was transfixed. I can remember getting ribbed in school for listening to a religious song while everyone else was listening to Kanye West. Then, my player kept going and I discovered Lover, You Should’ve Come Over and I learned to love that even more. Grace, Last Goodbye and So Real: harmonically, he created a whole new palette of colours which people have been stealing from ever since. And the whole thing is just raw and beautiful!

Jeez, I need to get a bit more modern but there you go!

If you could support any musician alive today, and choose your own rider, what would that entail?

I think I would want to support Jason Isbell. He seems like a stand-up guy. His songs are brilliant and he is an amazing guitarist, so I dream that we might have a jam onstage one night!

Rider: I once got a one-pack of fig rolls for my birthday and I think that might be my ideal rider.

PHOTO CREDIT: Fraser Taylor

Are you planning any gigs in the coming months?

I have my own headline show in London on 10th April at The Slaughtered Lamb. In the lead up, I’m supporting Luke Sital-Singh in Southampton (6th), Cardiff (7th); London (8th) and Manchester (9th).

How important is performing? Do you prefer it to life in the studio?

When performing on-stage is going well, it is the best. It’s just that those moments are rare and they can disappear in seconds and I think that why people often prefer the studio. I love both. You can lose yourself in the studio for hours and hours without thinking about food or the outside world but the high you get during and after a good gig is like nothing else. Plus, things happen in the moment when playing with other musicians that you can’t replicate with overdubs in the studio. That is why I am all for live studio recordings as much as possible!

 IN THIS PHOTO: Eliza Shaddad/PHOTO CREDIT: Melanie Tjoeng

Are there any new artists you recommend we check out?

Eliza Shaddad, Tusks; RHODES, Phoebe Bridgers, Isaac Gracie; Bad Honey and Tom Speight.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Phoebe Bridgers

Do you get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?

I run a lot. When I was a teenager, I thought I would make a career out of athletics but injuries scuppered that. I can just concentrate on something basic like doing 400m laps in a set time. It quietens my mind. It’s not always easy, though, as people who always find exercise easy are either mental or not trying hard enough!

Finally, and for being a good sport; you can choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).

Dylan Thomas - Better Oblivion Community Centre

It’s been my driving bop this week (smiles).


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