After 25 years of city life, musician Tom Caufield and his wife Rebecca Hill are leaving Los Angeles to live and work in a small North Carolina town.“When I was growing up in the 70’s,” Tom says, sipping his morning coffee (he limits himself to two mugs per day, so as to ‘have at least a fighting chance of getting to sleep’) “the iconic image of the working musician was always one of the guy or girl being out on the road, traveling ‘gig to gig,’ or living in a big city, say London or New York, among other musicians. But the music business has changed in a number of ways. Nowadays, the economics make it nearly impossible to travel and play music. With the coming of the digital era with its streaming and new listening habits, live music performances are not as valued as much as they once were. Music is too ubiquitous now, there are too many media and format options, and attention spans are too short. No one can afford to pay a traveling musician enough to even start to cover their costs.”
The porch door is swung open to let a cool breeze in, and the sound of various bird calls and squirrels rustling punctuate the kitchen air. This morning, Tom is looking back on over thirty years of pursuing music, for the first twenty as a singer-songwriter, and the last ten as a composer of instrumental, contemplative music. His wife Rebecca is out shopping for shower curtains and a day bed for the new apartment, making sure to be safe, as the pandemic precautions are still in place. For years, she’s also been pursuing arts and entertainment in various ways, and she shares her husband’s feeling about many of the changes in society that are affecting their lives.
Tom and Rebecca are recent returns to the south, after spending over twenty five years living and working in Los Angeles, both as artists and as employees of institutions or business establishments. He’s originally from Michigan, but also lived in North Carolina for a few stints in the late 70s and 80s, and Rebecca is originally from the Florida-Georgia border. Over the years, they often discussed leaving California, with it’s high cost-of-living, traffic and cramped, urban surroundings, and in the late summer of 2020, with the COVID lockdown grinding on, the time seemed right. With some help from Tom’s sister Cindi, a graphic designer who lives in the area, they found the two bedroom, wood-floors and ceiling-fans apartment that Rebecca calls ‘Little Creek’ for the small stream that runs through the woods behind it. They both consider the quiet, simpler surroundings a welcome change after years in the big city.
“With the internet, there’s not as pressing a need to be in a nerve center of any given arts community. Now, you can do what you want from anywhere. When I started out, I was following the rock star model of creating demos and pursuing a large advance and national distribution with a major label. But over the years, as I did all the extra-musical things required to try and make yourself a viable, mass-culture product worthy of a corporation placing a sizable financial risk, I grew disillusioned. I discovered I was at heart an introvert. I liked to read, I liked to stay home at night, not go out to the clubs. I liked peace and quiet, and mainly I longed to pursue aesthetic beauty, and excellence of craft more than popularity. I came to feel more akin to the community of artists and craftspeople who you may find setting up a booth at a local crafts fair – woodworkers, folks who work with stone, or metal, or glass. Artisans making custom birdhouses, leather accessories, sculptures, cabinets and the like, not someone chasing youth-based, catchy hooks. I came to realize I was uncomfortable with the mass-market model, and with volume, and speed. I craved quiet, mystery, subtlety.
In their new place in Clemmons, Tom and Rebecca have found a measure of that quiet, that subtlety. Both of their Los Angeles apartments faced busy streets, and the sound of Sunset Boulevard traffic can often be heard in the distance on Tom’s recordings from that time. But the new place is surrounded by quiet, wooded areas and grassy expanses. His wife calls the new home ‘Little Creek,’ named for the stream that runs through the seven acres of woods behind their home, and it can be heard bubbling during and after rainy hours. Tom will compose his intimate, contemplative, instrumental acoustic guitar-based pieces from here, and release them to the network of over 100 NPR stations that support his music, as well as all the major streaming and downloading platforms that carry him. The airplay, streaming and downloads will bring in a modest income, and just barely allow him to continue as a full-time musician, and repeat the process again, once a year, twice if he’s lucky. This is an independent musician’s life in the 21st century.
Artists can thrive in a small, regional culture, if they’re willing to accept a smaller audience. In the world of artisans and craftspeople, there’s no top ten chart; pieces are created, and sold at arts & crafts fairs, or online, on sites like Etsy, or for musicians, streaming and downloading platforms. If your work is good, it will thrive with a small audience, and hopefully it’ll be enough to sustain you. “The whole idea of the ‘millionaire musician’ is a relatively new one,” Caufield says. Until the 1920s, most musicians considered themselves lucky to barely get by. It was in the 1940s that music started to be a possible road to riches. But for a lot of musicians, that era and those expectations are settling back down to something more realistic, less megalomaniacal. They see hitting the top of the charts as about as likely as winning the lottery, and so are settling for smaller, more realistic careers. Not everyone has to like something for it to be good. Regional artists and craftspeople don’t think much at all about things some artists think about way too much: fame, recognition, status, critical opinion, cultural coolness – all things that don’t have much to do with beauty and aesthetics. I think the old notion of ‘making it big’ is becoming obsolete. Many musicians have more in common with artists and craftspeople working on a smaller scale, for regional audiences, than they do with international celebrities.”
Not that Tom didn’t pursue musical fame and fortune. He was initially energized by seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan (“the single most cliched reason that young people were inspired to try music in all of history,” he quips), and was set on an unwavering course toward a life in rock ‘n roll music. Playing in a series of local bands, he first attracted attention with a prog-rock outfit called ‘The All Small Band,’ started with boyhood friends Chris Arduser, Dick Lange and Roger Holland – all Sylvania, Ohio natives. At 16, Tom’s family decided to move from Michigan to North Carolina, where Tom’s mother is originally from (she’s fourth generation Carolinean), but he stayed behind, living with a friend’s family in an attempt to graduate with the students he’d attended school with all his life. But clashes with the high school dean made it difficult to stay, and Tom eventually moved to his family’s new home in Clemmons, but quickly joined a traveling pop-country review and hit the road, playing in the nearby Appalachian mountain towns of Virginia, West Virginia and both Carolinas for low pay and high times. One night during a break between sets, a club owner gave Tom and drummer Mitch Hinsdale twenty dollars apiece and had them run moonshine down the hill to a waiting, thirsty client.
In the meantime, Arduser had joined the most popular band in the northwest Ohio area, The Raisins, and convinced them to bring Tom aboard. Tom joined them in early 1978, playing the chitlin’ circuit for the next two years to packed houses, living out the young man’s Kerouacian dream: traveling in a van with your mates, sleeping rough, diners and late night bull sessions, flirting with the girls, playing music, drinking Heineken dark each night, fishing with fans by day in Greenville, skydiving with servicemen fans in Pensecola. Shrimp boats, bonfires, after hours in the club owner’s billiards room. After two years, and tired of the constant travel and disheartened by a couple of label rejections, Arduser and Caufield left and started a band that stayed closer to home with ex-Raisin Steve Athanas and his two brothers. That was ‘The Best,’ a pub-rock influenced band who drew standing room only crowds in Toledo, Ann Arbor, and Bowling Green, where the BGSU crowd made them their #1 most popular band out of a crowded field, and they found themselves playing to 500+ crowds every weekend at local institution Howard’s Club H. But when it all started to look like it wasn’t going anywhere, Tom rolled the dice and moved with his girlfriend Wendy and film maker friend Brett Leonard (The Lawnmower Man, Hideaway, Virtuosity) to Santa Cruz, then came back after nine months, and after a brief stay in Ohio, moved to New York City.
“The feeling back then was always that you had to be somewhere that someone could see you, could discover you. Label talent scouts weren’t haunting the northwest Ohio clubs nor the chitlin’ circuit. So you dreamed of getting to the big city and finding a way to get in front of them. If you were serious about music, and you lived far from the industry, that could seem like your only option.” Caufield’s eighteen months in New York were lonely; he threw boxes onto loading docks by day, picked up dinner on the way home and would read, watch old movies, and walk the streets of his east village neighborhood, observing street life, homelessness, and one snowy night, witnessing a drug-related murder from twenty paces. He tried to learn how to write songs. After working long enough to pay off the $1800 phone bill he’d racked up talking to his girlfriend back home, he took Arduser up on an offer to return to Ohio and start a more serious band. He came back, entered university, and started playing music in the Michigan and Ohio clubs again.
The group with Arduser was popular but as was common with local bands, they devolved into playing covers instead of originals, as the money was much better if you played familiar music, and all the guys had rent to pay. An untidy emotional undercurrent developed due to the fact that the original purpose of the band – to act as a vehicle for original music – had gotten misplaced, and feelings of tension arose. After a semi-acrimonious split, Caufield found a group of young players in Bowling Green to play his originals, while simultaneously, an earlier recording Tom had made with Geoff Michael, a friend from the Raisin days who owned a studio in Ann Arbor, was selected by Epic/Columbia Records to be released nationally on a ‘10 Best Unsigned Artists in America‘ sampler compilation, which came out in the winter of 1986. Emboldened, the new group recorded a demo with Michael, and Tom, “following almost robotically the tried and true young hopeful’s ritual of copying off cassette tapes, having a photo printed up, and mailing the whole thing off blind to the major labels,” sent out forty tapes, and to his surprise, got a response one morning soon after, the phone ringing as he descended the stairs, late for class. It was Marty Scott, from Passport Records in New Jersey, offering a deal. Tom was signed, the album was recorded at Sunset Sound and in Woodland Hills, produced by Howard Benson (Creed, Kelly Clarkson), and the label released his debut album nationally through PolyGram the following fall, in November 1987. The album’s single rose to the top ten in 170 mid-size markets, and a video was put into medium rotation on MTV for twelve weeks.
“It was hands down the most miserable time of my life. I felt that the songs I’d written were substandard, and that my vocals weren’t strong. Not yet realizing I was an introvert by temperament, I was uncomfortable interacting with the producer, the engineer, the publisher, the label, the art designer, the promoters, the deejays, the studio musicians, everyone. I didn’t know if it was me, or them, or exactly what, but my predominant feeling was that something ‘wrong’ had been set in motion. It felt out of control. I had no experience with business, nor much experience with transactional social interaction. Meanwhile, I’d expected my musician friends back home to be excited that at least one of us had achieved some recognition – I felt it was a victory for all of us – but instead they were jealous and often cruel. Other friends couldn’t imagine why I wasn’t anything but thrilled. But all I felt was fear, disappointment, dissatisfaction.” The label had run through the project’s budget after promoting just the first single, with the much better, stylistically more appropriate second single left to die on the vine. Tom was dropped from the label in the early summer of ’88. In an attempt to capitalize on the momentum created by the earlier release, he reconvened with Michael again to begin writing and recording a new collection, and found himself desperate and unwinding, simultaneously writing, recording, making phone calls to contacts, and painting houses for rent money when he could find work. Caufield says it was his most trying time.
In August of ’88, the pressure, disappointment and confusion finally got to him and Caufield bottomed out, crashing his car, failing to keep up with rent and arriving home at his little carriage house apartment one night in August to find the locks had been changed. A light rain started to fall. He was homeless. “I had to swallow a lot of pride that week. I stayed for a couple of nights with my girlfriend’s family, then with a lawyer friend, and finally called my sister in North Carolina, asking if I could come stay with her and start over. I cobbled together the airfare, flew into Winston-Salem, collapsed in the backseat of my sisters car, and started crying. I felt as if I was returning from war.” Caufield had lived through a common scenario, that of a musician being given a chance but not striking gold and so quickly discarded. It’s more often that we read about the golden success stories of this process than the pain and disorientation that come with the darker side of the dream, that of an unbroken fall from very far up.
What followed were a kind of wilderness years for Caufield. At first he worked three jobs simultaneously, as a waiter, an airline reservation agent, and a factory line assembler in a determined attempt to climb back up from the cellar, displaying the strong work ethic he inherited from his mother, who’d grown up working hard alongside her mother, father and six brothers and sisters on a hog and tobacco farm in Williamston. He did a year in a music store, renting band instruments to students, selling keyboards, guitars strings, picks, recording equipment. He worked in a bank vault, paved driveways in the summer, and clerked in bookstores. On nights and weekends he’d record on a small machine he’d ordered from a pre-Amazon mail order discount music equipment warehouse. “Getting that machine, a small four-track ‘porta-studio’ was one of the most important events of my life. Finally I could create, and have something to show for it, and not have to discuss, collaborate, compromise or negotiate with anyone about what I was doing. It was then I realized that a large part of the joy of making music for me was in finding a situation where I could do exactly what I wanted to do, top to bottom. Creating for me is holistic, solitary, personal, not collaborative. It’s about one person’s vision. You can contribute 20 ideas to something, and another persons one contribution can change the whole tenor of a piece. I envision something, and want to pursue it until I realize that exact thing I originally imagined.”
While visiting a friend in Los Angeles, Tom reconnected with a girl he’d known during his student days, and the two struck up a romance. A few months later he moved in with her in La Jolla, swimming in the cove together, and haunting the bistros and cafes of Girard street. He wrote a sports column for the local La Jolla paper covering the various local high school’s wrestling matches, something he’d learned about in his own high school days at Bedford in Temperance, Michigan, where wrestling was mandatory. “For better or worse, it gave you a certain kind of good grounding,” he says. “You were forced out of your comfort zone, and made to face the pain and difficulty of defending yourself, of saving face, and also to become conscious of measuring your ability against others.” Eventually the two drifted apart, and Tom decided to try Nashville, where more and more, non-country, yet ‘roots-based’ songwriters were coming, in search of a place to practice their craft that was also comfortable and affordable to live. “Nashville was the first place that I made music with other like-minded people in a relaxed setting, where you could live a musical life but still stay local, play a show and come right home and cook a late dinner, live next door to musicians and non-musicians in about equal measure. The thing is – my friend’s and I – we weren’t country. We just liked being around lots of musicians, studios, and publishers. But we weren’t trying to play the business game. That experience was where I first mixed my music life with my social life in a way that was folksy, seamless, unpretentious, and small-scale, just another member of the community, like the professionals, laborers, and academics.”
In Nashville, Tom played the clubs and recorded new music, but the most influential experience he had was non-musical. He was hired on as a tutor with a program called F.A.S.T Track – ‘Families and Schools Together,’ sponsored by Vanderbilt University. It was a pilot program, in which a customized curriculum was being tested to see if it would produce beneficial results in ‘at risk’ children. Funded for 12 years, the program was designed to follow a group of students the whole way through primary school. Tom tutored two groups of six children for two years, pulling them from class for an hour three days a week during the school year, and then in summers, visiting them once a week at their homes. It was an eye opening experience. “I had never experienced life in the projects before. It was the first time that wealth inequality, and America’s racial secret ceased to be known by me only in the abstract, but viscerally, tangibly, physically.” Tom credits the experience with adding to his humanity, and putting a “depth of feeling and empathy into my music that no amount of practicing would. That was when I learned that life itself is the true magic ingredient in music. It’s not the technique, or the desire, or the ego, but transferring lived, felt, empathetic experience into sound.”
Tom pressed a major label A&R man for a meeting, hoping to get considered for a publishing deal as staff writer. After explaining to Tom how indelibly Nashville’s commerce and reputation were dependent on protecting the purity of the city’s identity as a bastion of country music, he acknowledged Tom’s talent but told him that “honestly, you would be better off being anywhere else on the planet than in Nashville.” The point was taken, and after some soul searching and casting about for options, Tom reconnected with Brett Leonard, the film maker friend he’d travelled to California with, 14 years previous. Leonard had stayed out west after Tom and Wendy left, moved to Los Angeles, and had some success, managing to direct a film he’d written, ‘The Lawnmower Man,’ based very loosely on a Steven King title. New Line Films distributed it nationally, it was minor hit, and Leonard started his own production company. He invited Tom out to work as a staff composer and all around audio guy. Caufield made the move in August of ’96.
“Los Angeles was rejuvenating,” says Caufield. “It felt fresh, exciting, and complex; a very large new jewel box to learn to navigate, to discover, to find my place within. Having had bouts with seasonal affect disorder, Caufield loved the sunshine, the mediterranean architecture, the glamorous energy. He was arriving with a good job waiting for him that involved doing what he loved to do, and was thankful to not have to struggle. Always a loyal and generous friend, Leonard rammed Tom up the ranks, foisting him on a reluctant IMAX producer as a first-time composer for the score of ‘T Rex: Back to the Cretaceous,’ a film that Leonard was directing. It wasn’t a job Caufield was really ready for, and though the score was adequate, and made it to the sound stage, recorded by the Seattle Film Music Symphony players, it was eventually rejected, due mostly to politics and in-fighting. There had been acrimony and resentment from above and below. The producers took control of the film’s score and hired a more experienced composer, who re-wrote and re-recorded the music. “Interestingly, his score in many places is not that different from mine,” says Caufield. “I think action films kind of dictate what they need, with little wiggle room. It was another case of having to use my music to serve another artist’s creative vision, which I took no satisfaction in, and didn’t consider real self-expression.”
Tom took a job with a colleague of Leonard’s, the late Frank Serafine, an award winning sound designer (Tron, The Hunt for Red October) who owned and ran an audio-post house, and stayed for a year, working as the creative director and house composer, writing the music for three national spots, an independent film, and serving as co-post-audio-supervisor for South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s independent film Orgazmo. “They brought the film to us as they were putting the finishing touches on the first episode of ‘South Park.’ Nobody had seen the show yet; it was before the pilot had aired, and weeks before the beginning of the phenomenon that the show became. It exploded when we were halfway through audio-post-production on their movie Orgazmo, and everything changed for them. It was interesting to watch the support staff of the industry, the producers, the handlers, the agents, the managers, the supervisors – of which i was one myself – all hustle and scurry around in the service of two young guys and their creative vision, while they stood by bemused, somewhat bewildered. What it made me realize is that I didn’t want to get lulled and lured into the technical side of the business; I didn’t want to serve another creative person’s vision, even if they were king of the hill. I had become an artist mainly for one thing, to realize a personal vision. I started to understand that this wasn’t going to be compatible with working with a company, or even with collaborators, for that matter. I knew most large scale success depended on it. So I had to come to terms with what I would be sacrificing.”
But as had happened in Nashville, the most important experience Caufield had in Los Angeles was non-musical. Luminescent, effervescent, Baton Rouge born, Tallahassee raised Rebecca Hill had come to Los Angeles in April 1993, from Atlanta, where she’d been attending film school. Also a seeker of the limelight, she had worked as a country music radio deejay, an actress, filmmaker, stand-up comic, variety show host, and advice column writer throughout her college years in the south. She won the local beauty pageant. Along with Karlos Walkes, a fellow traveler and kindred spirit she’d met at an audition in Atlanta, she’d haunted the university media department, borrowing equipment and producing short programs to serve as demos she could use to seek in-front-of-camera gigs at the local news stations and production companies. It had been a bit of an evolution. Upon graduating high school in 1989, and initially giddy from the sudden freedom that college life offered, she’d entered Florida State University (a school with a notorious reputation for hard partying) and was overwhelmed by the size of the campus and student body, and by the constant temptation to enjoy social life. Like Caufield, Hill was an introvert not yet aware that that was a thing, and so struggled to fit in both classes and enjoyment, to no avail, with the school work losing the match. Bombing out with a 1.7 GPA for the quarter, her parents pulled her out and attempted to ‘scare her straight’ with a surprise trip to a local Marine recruiting office, where a Sergeant Dutra asked her loudly whether she would like to be a fry cook for the U.S. Marines. Sufficiently chastened, Rebecca embarked on a fresh start, enrolling in Georgia Southwestern in Americus, Georgia – Jimmy Carter’s alma mater, and ten minutes from his hometown of Plains.
Acting on the advice of her film school professor, who told her that experience in the real film world of Los Angeles would be infinitely more valuable than time spent in film class, Rebecca followed her then-current boyfriend west, landing in a comfortable duplex in Topanga Canyon, where packs of wild dogs roamed and the Los Angeles of dreams seemed at a remove, far away and down the hills, into the basins and valleys. She initially struggled with the isolation, yet was afraid to venture out on her own, intimidated by the city’s size and electric energy. Only weeks after arriving, the legendarily powerful Northridge earthquake occurred, 6.7 on the Richter scale and lasting twenty seconds, followed by hundreds of subsequent aftershocks that went on for days. It was a life changing experience.
Through an old family friend, Rebecca found work in television first as an assistant, then more work as a cappuccino maker, a runner, a tape logger, a transcriber and other roles in the entertainment business, the type of which the height of glamour consists of sitting alone in a fluorescent lit backroom with coffee in a styrofoam cup. She worked on ‘American Gladiator,‘ where she met fitness guru Kiana Tom; helped cast ‘Catch a Crook,’ sat with Madonna in editing bays, ran into Randy Travis while acting as trophy girl for the Country Music Awards (an honor she’d won by sending the producers a box containing the dress she’d bought to wear should they give her the gig), and almost didn’t recognize Lyle Lovett in a mixing session. A few months in, a show producer asked her for a personal favor: would she supervise the move of the entirety of his possessions to a new house he’d just bought? She handled it well, and so impressed was he with her coordination and organizational skills that he recommended her for a high profile project his friend was producing: an Eric Clapton retrospective film. Hill dove in, figured out how to do the job while on the job, and started getting a reputation as someone with a lot of heart, dogged persistence, and a gift for making people feel good when they were around her. She was hired by Mark Romanek to coordinate a Janet Jackson video, and then Kiana Tom hired her to coordinate a ‘Flex Appeal’ shoot in Maui for the popular ESPN workout program. Suddenly, Rebecca found herself an in-demand coordinator, making good money and with a foot in the industry. It wasn’t what she had planned on, but she was convinced that being close to the action was the best chance she had of getting in front of the camera. She was to learn that it doesn’t often work that way.
Producer Jini Durr (Roar: Lions of the Calahari, A Hidden Life) was looking for a coordinator for an IMAX film. She was working for Tom’s old friend, director Brett Leonard as an independent contractor. She heard through a colleague about Rebecca, and gave her an interview, but was initially skeptical. On paper, Rebecca didn’t have the usual experience Jini was used to seeing, and Rebecca admitted she knew nothing about File Maker Pro and Excel. But Jini was won over by her personal charm, and Rebecca joined the ‘T Rex” team. In September of 1996, the company’s owners, in a bid for team solidarity called for a mandatory Friday-at-five get-together. Both Rebecca and Tom say they would rather not have gone, but did, as it was required. Tom says he first saw Rebecca about twenty yards away upon entering the office, and fell for her immediately; more astonishingly, she says she had the exact same experience, simultaneously. “Love at first sight – it’s such a cliche,” laughs Tom. “But it’s true. It happened. And it does make you wonder. It’s a very supernatural experience – the most supernatural experience I’ve ever had, and you want to explain it away scientifically, but there are no good rational reasons to explain how you’ve overcome such tremendous odds. For anyone whose ever had it, it’s an experience that defies reason, but it’s undeniable.” Tom, feeling Rebecca was an obvious choice (who wouldn’t notice her?) tried to play it cool, exiting any space she entered. But the connection was palpable, and she eventually found him out on a balcony, and squeezing his arm, said ‘I’ll see you later.” “It’s the most forward thing I’ve ever done,” says Rebecca.
They married in 2000, at a small church in micro-town Ione, Georgia, where many years ago Rebecca’s grandfather Papu had preached to the Methodist congregation. The wedding was attended by a hundred family members and friends, and was magical, even though Hill’s straight-laced father forbid all alcohol – even wine was out – though Rebecca had lobbied for it on religious grounds, to no avail. Returning to Los Angeles, Tom and Rebecca settled in to married life, living first in Playa del Rey, a small, quiet burg nestled next to the water, protected from the ferocious flow of the Pacific Coast Highway by the perpetually endangered Ballona Wetlands. They stayed in Playa for ten years. Rebecca worked on the first season of ‘American Idol,’ then left the business for a time, working as an event planner at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, where Jay Leno did a weekly set on Sunday nights, and Garry Shandling, Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Ray Romano and other comedy giants made regular guest appearances. She was back in the world of stand-up comedy, one of the things she had once aspired to and thought might be the best vehicle for her ideas about life, but again, was in a supporting role, not the one writing, not the one communicating the ideas. Jini kept calling, and eventually Rebecca returned to film production, fulfilling two of her dreams: to work on the Warner Brothers lot (Scooby Doo II), and to help make a National Geographic film (Roar: Lions of the Calahari). Finally, after being called away on the weekend too many times, she decided to let go of her tinseltown dream. She took a job at a local bed and breakfast she’d felt drawn to, journaled her experiences there with an emphasis on the uncanny, humorous, and the strange, and slowly wrote and then self-published a novel based on those real life events.
Tom took a few paid television jobs, but more and more rejected the idea of work for hire. He was still making vocal music. Through those long, hazy days in the south bay, he worked on his lyric craft, and released a handful of albums. Looking for a fresh sound, he added a female vocalist, and together they recorded a folk-pop record in the Everly Brothers ‘close-harmony’ style called ‘Falling Short of Utopia,’ and then with a second vocalist recorded a more atmospheric collection called ‘Leave Tonight.’ The music was good, but there seemed to be no way to reach an audience in pop music without promotional clout – without money. Tom and Rebecca always lived close to the bone; hand to mouth. There were performances in coffee houses and farmer’s markets and a couple gigs in bookstores and nightclubs, but it wasn’t a sustainable, controllable situation, and Tom still felt an ill-defined dissatisfaction. Rebecca was still casting about for the right job, and Tom took a job at The Getty Museum that Rebecca had applied for for him – in the bookstore.
Rebecca took a position as a publicist for UCLA’s Royce Hall, and so with the two of them both working now on the west side, they moved to Brentwood. Strangely, the exact same apartment that Tom had first lived in upon arriving in Los Angeles had come available. They’d fallen in love there, and cherished its cozy intimacy, but they’d left it upon marrying, fearing it was too small and too far from the beach. So after ten years away, they were moving back in to the exact same place where they’d first fell in love. Times were generally good, but there were dark days as well. Rebecca’s father died young and unexpectedly, and she went into a tailspin. Both of them developed chronic medical conditions, and money remained tight.
Two things happened in 2011. Rebecca returned to the bed and breakfast in Playa del Rey, finding her groove in hospitality, and excelling at a personalized touch and customer happiness. Four years later she won the California Hotel & Lodging Association’s ‘Outstanding Lodging Employee of the Year for Small Property Award.’ Meanwhile, Tom, on a whim, purchased a nylon string guitar, with a plan to simply do something different for a couple months. “I’d written and recorded hundreds of songs. I wanted to return to how I’d began in music, with a classical guitar, playing simple etudes and Gypsy ballads.” When the guitar arrived, Tom immediately came down with a severe flu, rendering him immobile. With Rebecca away for long hours at work, Tom slowly recovered, and after a few days, gingerly, in bathrobe and pajamas, crawled over to the new guitar. “I had a sense. I was drawn to it. It wasn’t unlike when I first saw Rebecca. There was – and i hate that this sounds silly, or corny – but there was something supernatural about it; something drawing me to it. Future memory.” Tom picked up the guitar and within moments, ideas started flowing, one after the other. He grabbed a small recorder, and pen and paper, and started composing. Over the next week, he’d written nearly twenty compositions. “I think that the flu enabled me to bypass the thinking part of the brain, the self-conscious part of me that might have interfered. I was simply too weak to interfere, and so there was a direct line from my feeling to the guitar. But it was also as if there was something magic in the guitar. The songs poured out. You often hear guitarists talk about a guitar having a song, or songs in it. That was certainly the case here.” Most importantly, Tom felt that something about instrumental compositions, with their ambiguity, there intimacy and contemplative character, there artiness, their subtlety, their shades of gray and their understated quality, spoke more authentically for his soul than vocal music had. He had found his musical fingerprint. “I had to lose my voice to find my voice,” he says.
The two experienced a creative renaissance together. While Tom started recording and releasing contemplative instrumental music, Rebecca began writing and submitting stories to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Over a dozen of her stories were published over the next few years, which bolstered her pride and confidence, as well as giving her an outlet for her experiences. Together, with Rebecca leading, they collaborated on a children’s film and a children’s album of music and comedy. Caufield’s music was accepted by the instrumental music community, and his releases gained airplay on a number of NPR affiliates and started streaming on all major platforms. Two pieces were used by choreographer Jose Costas, director of the Orange Coast College Dance Troupe for a modern ballet performance, and he performed a well attended event with a string quartet at Los Angeles downtown hip spot The Last Bookstore. Suddenly he had the small audience he’d pursued all his life, but had only found when he wasn’t looking so hard for it. He’d followed his instinct, and searched for an authentic aesthetic, regardless of markets, or outside approval. Another cliche: he’d listened to his heart. In 2013 Tom released ‘Nature and the Constant Illusion,’ where he worked with a cellist for the first time. The lusher, ensemble sound caught the ear of SiriusXM music programmers and three tracks were put into rotation. Airplay on SiriusXM is a godsend for a struggling musician because they’re the only station that pays serious, live-on-able money. Their international reach finds a large audience, and the quarterly royalties made it realistic for Tom to consider the possibility of leaving The Getty Museum and returning to life as a musician full time. In 2014, his album ‘Tales from the Wine Dark Sea‘ also saw multiple adds to the SiriusXM playlist, and was named the ‘best acoustic album of the year’ by streaming station One World Music. As a Christmas gift to Rebecca, who had requested it, Tom made a Christmas collection, but it had a universal quality, and so the two decided to release it the next year. Critics and listeners considered it his very best to date, and ‘Echoes‘ called it ‘the best holiday album of the year,’ adding “that’s it; nothing else comes close,” and invited him to play two sets live in their studio in Philadelphia, which he did, accompanied by North Carolinean bassist and old collaborator Matt Kendrick, who Tom had connected with in his late 80s Winston-Salem days. The album was carried nationally in Whole Foods, and Tom performed Christmas services at the local Presbyterian church. In 2015, Tom purchased an analog Moog synthesizer and created nine wood-meets-circuitry miniatures on a release called ‘Moog & Nylon;’ 2016 saw the mellotron textured ‘Forging the Moonlight;’ in 2017 he entered legendary studio 4th Street Recorders (The Beach Boys) to record the minimalist set ‘Wash the Dusk with Silver,’ including versions of pieces by two of his favorite composers, Max Richter (Sleep) and Johann Johannsson. Asked about his influences, Tom is more prone to site authors such as John Steinbeck, Milan Kundera, and Isak Dinesen as influences over other musicians. “I think of my music as a kind of aural philosophy, and intend it to have the same effect that naturalistic prose has on fans of deep reading,” he says.
In 2018, feeling he’d explored thoroughly, at least for the moment, the guitar-front-and-center approach, Tom hired three string players – cellist Judy Kang and violinist Alicia Spillias, whom he’d met at the Presbyterian church Christmas service, and Wisconsonite violinst Zach Paul. Tom wrote out parts in traditional notation for the small ensemble, putting the melodies in the string parts and relegating the classical guitar to a rhythmic, supporting position. ‘Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness‘ is his personal favorite among his work, and includes new arrangements of two older compositions, two new compositions, and a cover of Brian Eno and David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy classic ‘Warszawa,’ from the ‘Low’ album. He gets a sense of history and belonging by referencing the music that has influenced his own. “My hope is that when the final bell rings, I’ll have paid tribute to all of the instrumental music composers I admire. I’ve also covered Philip Glass, and hope to get around to doing versions of things by Harold Budd, Will Ackerman, Pat Metheny, Vangelis, Terry Riley, Steven Reich, Enya, Ralph Towner, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, and a couple others. Lineage is important. Everything comes from something. It’s the proof that ultimately, we’re all connected.”
His last two albums, ‘Opaque Frontier‘ and ‘Spiritus‘ put the emphasis back on guitar, and especially, solo guitar. “It’s my strongest impulse, to constantly go back and see how complete and rich a piece I can create with just one guitar, playing alone. I love the intimacy of a solo guitar. The space it leaves. It’s like a cathedral. It’s quiet, but can be almost galactic in its cavernousness. It can be mighty.” When it became apparent that he and Rebecca would be moving on, Tom poured through his 1400+ archive of archived recordings, most of them demos and vocal music dating back to 1979, and found the best of the unreleased instrumental music, releasing it as ‘The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light,’ (2020). The title track a collaboration with his old boss at the audio post house, Frank Serafine, who had recently been tragically killed by a speeding automobile. “It shocked all of us who’d known him,” says Tom. Frank was always positive, childlike, quick to smile, with a constant, inarticulate yet palpable spiritual sensibility about him. To be snuffed out suddenly by a random event, for us to process that, it’s been difficult. You have to fight through a number of cognitive dissonances to accept it, to make sense of it. You have to make peace with and reconcile a lot of contradictions. But in the end, it says something about the cycle of life, and the existence of both intention and chance; randomness and inevitability. And life’s sometimes fleeting nature.”
It’s a nice coincidence that in California Tom made exactly as many albums of contemplative, instrumental music as Rebecca had stories published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series – an even dozen. Acting on his burst of fever induced inspiration, Tom got into a rhythm of recording and releasing albums at a rate of about one or two a year – the old school schedule – the 1970s schedule he grew up experiencing – but it was based simply on his rate of output, not on any consideration of what the market would bear. “If you look back, you see that a lot of the jazz greats, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, were putting out anywhere from two to five albums per year. Making an album wasn’t considered such a highly difficult or technical endeavor. You had a batch of songs, you rehearsed them, you went into the studio and knocked them out in 2 or 3 days. Not every album has to be like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours,’ taking 14 months, a pound of cocaine, negotiations with the label, two divorces and three affairs. Sometimes it’s just a simple transformation of a few emotions and ideas, a bit of structural development and augmentation, and then getting it documented in the most suitable way possible. I purposely write and arrange with simplicity in mind because simplicity is was I like to hear, and also to mitigate any difficulty in the capturing of the music.” He feels that making music is a natural extension of his daily routine. It flows out when it’s ready to. Yet he stays mindful of what is distinctive about his approach, and wants to maintain that in the music he’ll make at Little Creek. The body of work Tom created in his California years stands as a good example of one of his guiding aesthetic principles: achieving cohesion while also creating variety. Like a tapestry, when he makes an album he strives for everything to sound like it’s been cut from the same cloth. While each piece shows a different section of that cloth, the cloth stays the same. Make changes, but only changes that show the same cloth from a slightly different angle. Unity in variety, variety within unity.
2020 – poisoned political air, poisoned biological air, poisoned economic air. Ubiquitous pestilence. Hard times had come to America. Rebecca had been in Los Angeles for 27 years, Tom for 24. It was time for a change. Rebecca liked to say aloud, to remind them both, that if they were to have a third chapter, now was the time. Any later, and it could be too late. They’d seen friends struggle with it; many were finding it hard to keep enthusiasm up for the long, middle-end game, already exhausted by life’s high summer years. They looked at maps and web articles together and separately, and for a long time, they didn’t know where to go. Both Tom and Rebecca still loved Los Angeles, but it had grown stale. It was expensive, and far from family. They discussed Vermont, Seattle, Aspen, Chicago, Florida. Finally, North Carolina seemed the best of all possible worlds in which to begin a new life; it was equidistant to many people and things they valued; it was close to Tom’s family, had temperate climate, was not expensive, was rural; quieter. Tom had risen to the position of assistant book buyer at the Getty, and upon leaving, both he and Rebecca were allowed to stay on the group health insurance plan at an affordable premium, for life. Rebecca had left hospitality. Her mentor, original owner Susan Zolla was wanting to distance herself from the day to day duties. She was getting on, and so hired a property management firm. Things were changing. The property management firm was bottom-line driven, and it wasn’t Rebecca’s style anymore. She took a position at a large consulting firm in hopes of expanding her horizons, her experience, and her resume. But it felt to both of them like the end of an era. Time was closing in. The phase, Tom and Rebecca’s Los Angeles days, of hope, and struggle, and laughter, and achievement, and dashed hopes, disappointments, small pleasures, self-improvement, loving, fighting, making up, friends, the hassles, the joys, the city, it’s glory, it’s mystery, it’s challenges – it had all played out its natural arc. Los Angeles no longer held their future. There was somewhere else to go.
Packing was emotional. It was hard to decide what to keep and what to let go. Hours spent sorting old photographs brought up memories both good and bad; friendships that had lasted, and ones that had turned sour. Mostly the experience brought on the melancholy that arises when one directly confronts time’s passing – the failures, the dreams unfulfilled, the great efforts expended to no avail, time wasted, wrong paths pursued. Even the good and beautiful things, the one’s that were proof of happiness and laughter, of clear eyed judgement, the ones that celebrated successes and creative vision reminded them both of a long phase of life – their early days, the salad days, the innocent new beginning days – had now passed. Life feels long while lived, but short in hindsight. Time passes both slowly and quickly.
They took I-40, the second most southern route, heading east. They were to come through Death Valley, the Mojave, into the panhandle of Texas, and then veer up through Oklahoma, where the air would soften, the temperatures would lower, and atmospheric moisture would return. Rebecca had planned their nightly stops based on songs; the first night they stayed in Winslow, Arizona, in tribute to the Jackson Browne tune Take it Easy; the next night’s stop was Amarillo, for George Strait’s Amarillo by Morning; third was Collin Raye’s Little Rock, and on the fourth day of driving, after visiting a friend in Memphis they’d known in the early L.A. days, they came through Nashville at night, now transformed into a powerhouse city of light, speed, and complexity, the essence and model beneficiary of the engine of commerce in high gear, and peak condition. It was a last reminder of the heady, isotope buzzy days of Los Angeles, and the city life they were leaving behind. They arrived late at night in Knoxville, the last of their nightly stops, and all that was left was a half day’s drive to the new home in Clemmons. The sojourn east, and their time in California, where they’d met and fell in love, where they’d grown together, where they developed their craft – was over. It was time for a new start. Neither had any regrets, and both were filled with the unmistakable conviction that they had made the right move, to the right place, at the right time.
Tom claims his music isn’t about anything specifically, but instead references generalized feelings of memory, longing and what he feels the state of contemplation might sound like. In a reflexive gesture, he also tries to make music that’s about reflection that encourages and is conducive to reflection itself. “Silence can be a deafening roar,” he says. And lonliness is a formidable foe for many people. Isolation. It encourages pointless mental chatter, and in silence, thoughts can run to painful places, to doubt, to worry, to petty places, meaningless, nonsensical kinds of places. Life is often about an intelligent negotiation with overwhelming time. The human mind, confronted with undifferentiated slabs of infinite time will become despairing. One of the functions of music is to break up the time, into sizeable chunks that can be negotiated, comprehended. The different styles of music do it in different ways. Contemplative music, by remaining quiet, and spacious enough to let the mind and soul of the listener in, is a kind of conversation, an interactive kind of music. It provides a space to think; to reflect. It can relax the outer nervous system while engaging the deep thought process; the intuitive process. It’s a subtle form. It’s a quality distraction. A lot of inexperienced listeners of contemplative music think it’s all just the same pleasant background sound, but in the best of it, it’s more. It requires gentle but active engagement. It’s very slow motion music, and the tension and releases are not as pronounced as in more accessible st styles. The repetition is not always technically interesting, but the effect that repetition can have on unlocking the mind can be monumental. It’s an often misunderstood genre of music.”
Rebecca drew from grounded, specific experience in her short story writing. She loved to find the life-lesson, the hidden meaning, and the uncanny coincidences and signs seemingly from on high within her everyday experiences. She wrote about the death of her father, about negotiating illness, about their cats, and stray cats, childhood experiences and comical occurrences, all with an eye toward seeing the hope on offer, the deeper life meaning the story implied, and the evidence they gave of a larger, organized plan in play. She would start with uncanny elements, the ridiculous things that happened at the bed and breakfast, or out in the crazy big city, share an experience full of variety, detail, and craziness, yet always frame them within a coded, conveyed meaning structure that though it was often hard to read, gave reasons to hope, to believe, to see a benign and ultimately good plan at work. Though it wasn’t necessarily a plan that put human beings front and center, and probably didn’t have the best interest in mind of herself, or you the reader, there was a plan, a good plan, probably with the best interest in mind of the collective, or for the creation of some ultimate state of being, the nature of which can never be known. It was too complex. She was troubled by the problem of pain and injustice, of poverty, of animal cruelty, of indifferent human progress, but tried to offer mostly a light reprieve from the troubling aspects of life, while indirectly referring to them. Many of her stories were published, but many were rejected, and like Tom, she eventually felt that what was needed was new territory, new challenges, a fresh start.
One of the things Tom is looking forward to is a closer relationship with the natural world. “The city was wonderful, but one price you pay is a certain detachment from nature’s rhythms,” he says. “I’m naturally skeptical, but also naturally very spiritual. But I’m reluctant to define my spirituality, because I mistrust dogmas, and I’m uncomfortable with most organized religions because of their historical groundings, their specific geographical and cultural backstories. It leaves me thinking, ‘gosh – the creator of all things is playing favorites? Is setting down the most important people in one city or the other? Or has endeavored to have all the most important events happen at one time or another, in a certain place, over another place? And I think of how much trouble that inherently causes. If you can say ‘me and my people come from the place God chose to base his most indelible gestures’ then you’re saying that someone else is not from that place, and so is possibly not as blessed, not as important. I simply can’t believe that the highest intelligence of all would work in that way.” Yet he agrees that the existence of powerful, unknown creative forces are undeniable. “Somewhere in the reaches of eternity, something’s in the process of becoming,” Caufield says, discussing how much articulation and verbal concretization he feels comfortable with regarding discussions of spirituality. Lately, he looks to nature as the one reliable thing that can be observed as direct, unmediated evidence of God’s signature, and looks forward to getting more in touch with it at Little Creek. “You can’t argue with it,” he says. “It’s creation in its pure form, and so I try and learn from it, and put the elements I see into my music; the contrasts, the cycles, the tensions and releases, the peace and violence, the mystery, the becoming, the dying, the beauty.”
Rebecca wants to work closer to the natural world as well. In Los Angeles, she’d hoped to work for the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, and volunteered as a docent, but hiring was based on academic credentials, and she wasn’t willing to return to college for an art degree without a guarantee. Her experience was in events and coordination, and hospitality, and she wanted to apply those skills in an arts and botanical environment, but nothing panned out. Of late, she’s hoping that maybe here in Clemmons, at nearby Tanglewood, or in one of the nearby parks or universities, she can find meaning in a position that includes some combination of hospitality, events, animals, writing and coordinating. It’s where she finds her bliss. She’s introverted, but still thrives on limited doses of contact – she loves people and making them happy, but at the end of the day, she needs her solitude. She needs to come home to Little Creek, to a room of her own, a hot bath, and a quiet, contemplative space.
Tom is excited about making new music in a new place with a new perspective, and with the weight of long past phase of life unloaded and behind him. “I have five albums in my head; I can hear each one of them, and can’t wait to flesh them out. What I’ve learned is that people need some change, need some variety in life.” He plans to reconnect with Kendrick, and do an album of classical guitar and stand-up bass duets, and also drive up to record with old friend Geoff Michael to do a solo set. He thinks they’re might be something unique in the idea of writing pieces based on trading melodic phrases on nylon string guitar with cellist Judy Kang. A large ensemble, percussion driven rhythmic set could be interesting. In his Little Creek studio he wants to set single note, melodic improvisations against fresh, inventive analog synth textures, to try again, as he did with Moog & Nylon, to mix the natural with the digital, and make sense of the world’s strange marriage of flesh and machine. “Normally I try and offer respite from technology, and offer a natural, flesh and blood, wood and wire space of refuge from all of that ‘progress,’ but at times I feel it’s dishonest to not at least acknowledge it, and try and see what good can be made of it. Society won’t be going backward, so we have to make the best of it. I don’t think that technology is inherently wrong, but I think we’re in our infancy in terms of knowing how to harness it. The arc of progress is long and slow.”
Has he changed over the last twenty four years? “I think I believe less in the power or even the purpose of art, of music, of beauty, as something that makes much of a difference in the politics of the world,” Tom says. “When I was younger and more naive, I used to think that aesthetics could possibly save the world. Remember, The Beatles came along when I was five, and I saw music help change the world. Younger people didn’t have that experience, nor did older people. It was specific to my generation. So for the longest time, I’ve operated under the assumption that music could change the world; change society, influence world leaders, stop wars, enlighten the minds of the xenophobic, the greedy, and so on. I’m not sure I believe that any more. I think music can help achieve a personal transformation, can be revolutionary psychologically. All artists would like to be part of the cultural conversation, but I’ve noticed the music that speaks to me most these days has been things that give me reprieve from the chaos, that shut it out, and remind me of more beautiful and lasting values. I think is that, especially, during this dark political time, that the music must keep playing. Because it represents what’s best in us: our hearts, our memories, our joy, our energy, our ideas, the beauty of this world. It expresses our hopes, our fears, our longings, our idealism. It keeps us human. It brings comfort. It lets us know we’re not alone in our thoughts and longings, and melancholies. Music is as old as the human race. They say the very first humans probably hummed to sooth their babies, people sang out of joy, moaned in pain. It’s second nature to us. It’s an extension of language, an inarticulate speech of the heart. Any moment someone is making or listening to music is a moment someone is not doing violence, but celebrating beauty.”
Rebecca was leaving for Florida in the morning, to visit her mother over Thanksgiving. She would miss Little Creek, but felt it was important that her mom wasn’t alone over the holiday. Tom was going to stay in Clemmons, to visit with his own mother, who turned 90 this year, as well as his sister and his brother, his wife and two young boys. “It’s good to be back around family,” Tom says, looking out across the wooded land behind Little Creek. “From this vantage point, Los Angeles feels almost like a tour of duty. I went out there to work as an artist, to find my voice, and I did, I accomplished that. It took a long time. Something about the town motivates you. You feel like you’ve come to play, that it’s time to find out what you’re made of. I loved my time there, and will always have fond memories, yet I never felt entirely at home. I was born in the midwest, grew up in the midwest and in the south. The lay of the land, the elms and maples, and oaks and pines, the changing seasons, the crisp air, the moisture and humidity, the slower pace – it’s in my bones. It’s going to be deeply satisfying to create music in a space more natural, more intimate, with more emphasis on seeing my family, connecting with old friends, working where the noise of culture is turned down, and the voice of nature is at the forefront.” Tom kisses Rebecca goodbye and sees her off, comes back inside, and picks up his Gibson J-45, randomly picking out a light, folkish melody. There’s somewhere else to go.