Tom Caufield – An interview with the “Contemplative Music” artist. “The main commitment I have is that I always will keep the acoustic guitar front and center,”
Tom Caufield is an acoustic guitarist and songwriter whose music will put you in a relaxed state of mind. With catchy melodic guitar riffs, his songs will enhance your thoughts and give you the perfect ambience to think, talk with friends, or just concentrate on a daily routine. That’s the reason why Tom is a staple in coffee shops, wineries, and on home stereos. On his new album, “Things I Heard While in the Womb”, he adds just the right amount of reverb and echo to give you the feeling that there’s a wonderful experience ahead of you. I recently corresponded with him and he explained in depth why he delved into this contemplative genre of music.
R.V.B. – What kind of music were you exposed to at an early age? Did you come from a musical family?
Tom – The first music I remember was my mom singing ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Moon River,’ accompanying herself next to my crib with ukulele, in order to stop me from crying. Also ever present were the Christmas Carols I heard during the holiday season – ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Greensleeves,’ ‘Joy to the World,’ and the like. I think this accounts for why most of my music is very diatonic, heroic, hymnal, and almost sacred sounding, and also maybe why it yin-yangs between being major key and minor key, or modal cores.
Soon after that I was saturated with the optimistic, euphoric and melodically catchy music of the golden age of am radio. It’s a major influence – music that created a sound that seemed to say that things were getting better, that ‘good’ was winning. It was always really powerful to see some of the older boys in the neighborhood playing ‘Wipe Out’ and ‘Green Onions’ in their garages – four piece bands, live and really loud. It just lifted you off the ground and you really wanted to be a part of it.
I was also always acutely aware of soundtrack music when taken to the movies as a child. The John Barry scores for the James Bond films made a strong impression. My father played a bit of piano as well, and dug Sinatra, Bing Crosby and all the big bands of the 40s, and played those records on our ‘hi fi,’ so that was going on.
R.V.B. – What was the catalyst that made you want to play the guitar? Do you play other instruments as well?
Tom – It was held in the hands of both St. John and St. Paul, who to a young boy appeared as the most charismatic, sexy and powerful individuals it was humanly possible to be. No young man could resist. But interestingly, I taught myself some rudimentary piano first, before I played guitar, simply because there was a piano in the house before I got my first guitar. I also play a bit of harmonica, melodium and bass guitar.
R.V.B. – In your woodshed years, what were some of the covers that you played and when did you start writing your own songs? Did you have formal lessons?
Tom – I think the song I played that has most set the tone for my style is ‘Song of the Wind,’ by Carlos Santana, off the ‘Caravanserai’ album. It really is one of the most remarkable pop guitar pieces ever created. I learned it note for note, and played along with it on the record, and then onstage with my high school cover band. It’s six minutes of flowing, melodic phrasing that is so hook filled and focused, euphoric and exuberant that you can’t help singing along with each line. All the phrases have great arcs and great shape.
I also liked acoustic guitar wherever I heard it – on ‘Rubber Soul,’ ‘Sweet Baby James,’ Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn,’ on Jackson Browne albums, John Denver albums, Eric Claptons ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ and on the gentler pieces of Led Zeppelin albums. Just the SOUND of it appealed to me – regardless of what was being played. It was something about the woodenness, the warmth, the ringing overtones, the bold and bright fourths and fifths.
I had some lessons as a kid, yes. First learning very simplified Segovia-esque classical pieces, and then a bit of Berkeley School jazz theory stuff. They were half-hour, weekly sessions at local music stores that I did on and off for a few years. But by far, I learned by doing. I’m largely self-taught.
I took stabs at writing right from the start, finally cobbling together some amorphous jam-like things in my middle-teens, but didn’t really get the hang of tension and release, structure, dynamics, strong melody, and fulfilling or defying or denying expectations until my mid-twenties. Writing – it’s the hardest part – to come up with well-shaped, memorable and distinctive figures. It’s a lifetime’s work.
R.V.B. – Did you have high school bands, or participate in music in school?
Tom – Sure – I had a couple of high school dance bands – playing the covers of the day. I was in Jazz Band in high school in Michigan as well, but honestly, I have no memory of it. I took a music theory class my junior year – it was first period – 8 a.m. A couple classmates and I would often get a bit herbally inspired before class, on the belief it would make us more creative, as we were often called to the piano to spontaneously improvise something, based on recent harmony assignments. Mostly, it made it hard to follow our very intense and enthused instructor.
R.V.B. – Playing the relaxing mood style of music that you do play, does that effect the venues that you play in? Do you enjoy playing in the acoustic coffee shop or winery settings?
Tom – Well, I’m lucky right now. I found a coffee shop that gave me a weekly residency, and this venue’s vibe is that rare thing in modern times – a very quiet atmosphere where people like to come in with a book or a kindle or a laptop or the paper, and just sit quietly and read and dig the music. Every now and then there’s a talky group, but not often. So I’ve kind of taken over and set the tone on my Sunday mornings – everyone comes in with the expectation that I’m going to do my very quiet thing, and they enjoy it and look forward to it. I enjoy it as well.
But most public venues, even coffee shops are pretty noisy these days. It’s hard to get people to sit down in a public space and listen to very quiet, slow music for any period of time. Even me – I think I’d get restless after a while.
This genre – Contemplative Music – it’s really for listening to alone, at home, or playing in the background while working or socializing, if you don’t want to commit to an attentive listen. So it’s a bit of a challenge making it work in a concert setting, in a public space. It has to be re-tooled a bit, I think. I don’t want to bore people; they’ve worked hard all week, and when they go out to spend a little money and relax – they want something that’s right – entertaining, or engaging in a fun or exciting way, or involving. Sunday mornings seem to work for me.
If it’s not the right kind of place – I don’t want to be there. I only want to play where what I do is what is desired.
The winery tasting rooms –I’m essentially just a pleasant atmosphere-enhancing background,hopefully adding some ambience to a din of socializing, though there are always a handful of people who listen attentively, and who compliment me, and then sometimes buy a disc.
R.V.B. – On your new collection of songs “Things I Heard in the Womb”… did you take a different approach on this as on previous releases?
Tom – Yes. My first four albums were ‘guitarist-alone-in-a-cathedral’ affairs, very austere, with lots of space, and more traditional song lengths – 3 to 6 minutes. On this album, I wanted to work with a larger, lusher, more varied sonic palette. I’m reluctant to say ‘more expressive’ because you can be very expressive with just one instrument, but I wanted to hear other flavors, accents, evocations. I added a pulse – a slow, thick backbeat on 2 pieces, and my 2 favorite instruments after guitar – Fender Rhodes and Moog Synthesizer. A bit of bass, acoustic, piano, Hammond Organ, strings. Mainly I added length. I love the side-long tracks that Yes, Mike Oldfield, and other artists of the 1970s attempted. I love how, when they’re done right they can be so immersive and involving, so I wanted to try my hand at that. Incidentally, I think the first piece of ‘ambient music’ that I ever heard was the tranquil middle section of Yes’ ‘Close to the Edge.’ It left an indelible impression on me, and I find myself often trying to recreate that atmosphere.
I want to retain my stylistic fingerprint, but I don’t want to make album after album that all sound the same. The main commitment I have is that I always will keep the acoustic guitar front and center. But I want to explore, and push the boundaries of what can be done with the ‘acoustic guitar based album’ – and try and take it where it hasn’t been before. And I want to build a body of work whereas each album offers something a little different; offers a different slant on the same thing. I want to insure that it’s interesting to go through all of my albums, and it’s not that thing where, you know – ‘if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all.’
Part of my aesthetic is to create, something akin to a tapestry -a sound that overall is cut from the same cloth, but has a lot of variety within that unity.
R.V.B. – The lush instrumentation on the release, features strings, electric guitars and other synth sounds. Did you have other musicians help you with this? Can you give a little description of who helped you on this project?
Tom – I did everything myself on this album, except for the mastering, which was done by the very talented Geoff Michael at his studio, Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I wrote, performed, recorded and mixed everything. It’s…I’m particular – it’s just easier this way. It’s more convenient. I get in a flow, and I’m afraid it’ll all break down if I pause, or stop to make logistical things happen. Inspirations are like winds that blow through…They’re like comets that suddenly approach you, find you, and fly next to you at your velocity and trajectory for a moment, but as time passes, the artist and that meteoric inspiration’s path start to diverge. So you have to grab it while it’s there.
On my third album, ‘Nature and the Constant Illusion,’ I hired a cellist, and it’s absolutely beautiful, and I hope to collaborate more, but…it’s stressful. Communicating what I want, giving the musician latitude to express him or herself…I’m lazy…the results of collaborations are usually a bit more interesting, but I settle for a more hermetic sound rather than enduring the challenge of collaborating.
On my 4th album, ‘Tales from the Wine Dark Sea,’ I went outside my home studio and recorded in a ‘real’ studio, because I have an absolutely beautiful sounding guitar, a 1992 Gibson J-45, and I wanted to, at least once, capture it in all it’s warm, resonant, round, mellow, wooden glory. So we miked it up with the best German mics, used the best compressors and preamps, and you can really hear the difference. It’s my best sounding album. But I was only able to do that because I’d already worked all the compositions out onstage, in the preceding year. Normally, I kind of write as I go, and I can’t do that when I’m paying a studio at an hourly rate.
I’m holistic – I usually, improvise, write, record, mix, arrange, eqetc all at the same time as I go. Because honestly, every aspect influences the other one. For example, you might write or play an entirely different part based on how hard you’re compressing the signal. It’s crazy. There are rules, but arriving at something exceptional depends mainly on how carefully you break them.
R.V.B. – Why did you choose the title “Things I Heard in the Womb?”
Tom – This album was about expressing my experience of the idyllic, pastoral, peaceful optimism that I recall feeling as an infant, child and early youth -the summer times, holidays, pre-school/pre-language impressions, and then hinting with the last piece at the complexity to come – the invasion of the world of separateness, fragmentation and pain.
I wanted to convey things that were primal and formative – at one’s core.Looking for a title, I stumbled onto literature about what one hears in the womb, which I found out is primarily the mother’s heartbeat, and also sounds occurring in the outside world – music, conversation, mystery sounds, etc. But they are all very muffled and indistinct. Two things were noted:one, that all sounds one hears in the womb are reverb-y and echo-ey, and since I often employ both in my music, I thought this made the phrase apt. Secondly, the things we hear in the womb represent our first realization that there is a world beyond and outside ourselves. Those two things, along with the idea of the warm, peaceful character of life in the womb, as well as it alluding to a primal and core experience, led me to decide it was an appropriate title
R.V.B. – What are some of your more memorable performances?
Tom – Every now and then, out of nowhere and when I never expect it, I find my way deep into one of my compositions, and feel I’m playing from an almost unmediated place – going straight from infinite, immortal feeling and life-representation, directly to expression in sound. It’s what I live for.
It’s interesting, when I record a piece, the goal is to perform the sections in the most solid, archetypal way possible, so as to get a definitive record of the piece. But live, the goal is precisely the opposite. The structure and archetypal phrases of the piece become simply a starting point, and the goal is to see where else I can take it, and how deeply and emotionally I can explore the shadows and corners that the piece is still hiding, and to reveal them, and to unlock further secrets that every good piece of music contains – almost infinitely.
The best performances still honor the composition but reinvent it in subtle, inventive ways at almost every turn. When I manage this – it’s always very memorable to me. It’s a rare place one doesn’t get access to that often.
R.V.B. – I couldn’t help but notice the wide variety of sounds on “Palace of Broken Mirrors”, including electric guitars and wah wah pedals. Can you describe how you approached this song, and why the title?
Tom – My approach on this piece was to have, in the first section, to have it share the same relaxed and contemplative tone and feel as the earlier bucolic, reveries on the album, but this time change to a modal/minor key. The idea was to ease the listener into the idea that all is not always so comfortable, so beautiful, so peaceful, that there is pain. And then to introduce the storm of life – the aspect of life that involves conflict, separation, and pain.
Interestingly, there is no electric guitar on this piece – though it certainly sounds like one in the ‘C’ section. It’s the nylon string guitar triggering software that adds distortion and wah.
To date, there hasn’t been any electric guitar on any of my music, though I think eventually I’ll use one. I’m a believer in making ‘rules of exclusion’ in order to limit one’s options and focus the music. So far, that rule – ‘no electric guitar,’ has been one of my main rules. Adding that electric sounding guitar was a decision I struggled with for a few weeks, but I finally concluded it best served the piece – as it adds the distortion of disharmony and the cry of pain.
The title ‘Palace of Broken Mirrors’is a metaphor describing the breakdown from a state of oneness and grace into the world of matter, fragmentation and separation;of the world’s and the individuals falling from the state of grace, of oneness, into the ‘world of 10,000 things’ – of differences, and pain, and disagreement. It breaks the reverie of infancy and early youth expressed by the first two pieces, and expresses the idea that finally one must learn to negotiate everything in a different way, now with the realization that there is an outside world that is often in conflict.
Tom – I play a bit of tennis, but mainly just to get a little exercise and to get out of my head for a moment – no easy feat for me. It’s fun and challenging. I read all the time, but am trying to less. It’s an addiction! I’m a bit of a secular, domestic monk, actually. I don’t drink much, nor socialize too often, except with my wife and 3 or 4 close friends. I love working, reading, and grabbing a run. I did discover the joys of frozen rum drinks at the beach this summer. Swimming in warm ocean water, preferably in the Keys, the Bahamas, or the gulf coast, is always appealing to me.
R.V.B. – Where do you see your career in 5 to 10 years?
There is a venue here in Los Angeles, at UCLA, called Royce Hall; my wife worked there for a while. They participate in what I call a ‘subscription concert series’ – we’ve all seen these I guess, which is a series of shows by artists that run the spectrum from classical chamber music, 20th and 21st century experimental music, dance company recitals, world artist performances, to some artists possibly past their prime but still doing good work, to jazz artists, roots artists (folk and blues), to a taste of contemporary rock and roots people – younger artists.These occur in cities all over the states, and – the world, I guess. Folks buy tickets for the whole season, or alacarte. My aim is to somehow enter this world. As my music isn’t really made for the youth oriented, rock, stadium or club scene, I feel that theatres, especially old style concert halls, would be the perfect place for my stuff. I’d love to develop a compelling light show and visual image presentation to accompany the music I play and stories I tell. I’d also like to do some outdoor festivals, with an ensemble, and lay down some gentle groove versions of my stuff, and improvise on extended length arrangements.
I’ll of course continue to record, and see if I can somehow make music that will hint at new and more compassionate and enlightened ways to look life not just musically, but philosophically, psychologically, politically and socially. I set my bar high!
Interview conducted be Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Tom Caufield visit his site http://www.caufieldmusic.com/
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