A Journey Back to Nature

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.

Tom Caufield composes his intimate, contemplative pieces from his studio in Clemmons.

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 his life in music – 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.

Caufield’s music is by turns both pastoral and cerebral, both comfortingly familiar yet at times exploratory and progressive.

Tom and Rebecca are recent returns to the south after spending over twenty-five years living and working in Los Angeles. He’s originally from Michigan and lived in North Carolina for a few years in both the late 70s and early 90s. Rebecca is originally from the Florida-Georgia border. Though they loved California, they often yearned for a quieter life. In the late summer of 2020, with the pandemic lockdown grinding on, the time seemed right. With some help from Tom’s sister, a graphic designer who lives nearby, they found the two-bedroom 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.

Having his own studio at home provides Caufield with unlimited time to experiment, and complete autonomy.

Both of their Los Angeles apartments faced busy streets. The city was energizing and exciting, and the sound of Sunset Boulevard traffic can often be heard in the distance on Tom’s recordings from that time. ‘Little Creek’ is, in contrast, surrounded by quiet, wooded areas and grassy expanses, with only the sound of bird calls and cicadas. Tom will compose his acoustic guitar-based pieces from here, releasing them to the network of NPR stations and digital platforms that play his music. This will bring in a modest income, allowing him to continue as a full-time musician. He’ll repeat the process once a year, twice if he’s lucky. This is an independent musician’s life in the 21st century.

‘Little Creek,’ living room and studio area.

This arrival is the latest chapter in what has been a long and fascinating journey. Since Tom’s early teenage years, he has been pursuing music, and the quest had taken him all over the country, from the time-worn nightclubs of the south and midwest to New York, Nashville, and finally out west.

“Los Angeles was rejuvenating,” says Caufield. “It felt fresh, exciting, and complex; a vast new jewel box to learn to navigate, to discover, to find my place within. Having had bouts with seasonal affective disorder, Caufield loved the sunshine, the Mediterranean architecture, the glamorous energy.

Tom’s 1992 Gibson J-45, purchased new at Gruhn Guitars, in Nashville.

He had arrived in LA with a good job waiting for him. Always a generous friend, boyhood companion, and film director Brett Leonard hired Tom on as a first-time composer to score T Rex: Back to the Cretaceous, an IMAX film that Leonard was directing. It wasn’t a job Caufield was really ready for. Though the score was adequate and recorded by the Seattle Film Music Symphony players, it was eventually rejected. “Scoring the film was one of the largest challenges I’d ever faced, and it was disappointing to not achieve my goal. But what it taught me was that I had more to learn about the art of collaboration.”

“Scoring the film was one of the largest challenges I’d ever faced, and it was disappointing to not achieve my goal. But what it taught me about myself was that I was more of a loner than a collaborator when it comes to my creativity.”

Tom next took a job with the late Frank Serafine, an award-winning sound designer (Tron, The Hunt for Red October) who owned an audio-post house. He stayed for a year, working as the creative director and house composer, writing 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 pre-pilot and weeks before the phenomenon began. It exploded when we were halfway through work on the movie, and everything changed for them. It was interesting to see two artists get their big break and clearly illustrated the dividing line between the creative and technical sides of art. It made me realize that I definitely wanted to stay on the creative side. Whether in collaboration with a filmmaker, advertising agency, or working alone, I want to be involved with music. I’m an introvert by nature, but when I find the right collaborator, it’s quite rewarding and often produces something interesting in a way that’s different than something I would have done alone. I value that.”

Tom and Rebecca met in Santa Monica at a production company office party in 1996. It was love at first sight for both of them. They married in 2000 at a small church in Pavo, Georgia, where Rebecca’s grandfather Papu had preached to the Methodist congregation many years ago. The wedding was attended by a hundred family members and friends. It was magical, even though Hill’s kind but straight-laced father forbid all alcohol. Returning to Los Angeles, Tom and Rebecca settled into married life. They found a place in Playa del Rey, a tiny, quiet burg near the endangered Ballona Wetlands, away from the Pacific Coast Highway’s ferocious flow. They stayed in Playa for ten years.

“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.”

After several years of working on music videos and commercials, Rebecca surrendered to a gentler work schedule as an event planner at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. Jay Leno did a weekly set on Sunday nights. Garry Shandling, Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Ray Romano, and other comedy giants made regular guest appearances. Rebecca marveled at the comics’ ability to take everyday observations about life and turn them into stories that connected with the entirety of life. She loved being around it. When Rebecca’s beloved boss left the comedy club, Rebecca decided it was time for her to move on as well.

Rebecca Hill moved to Topanga Canyon in 1993 to pursue a career in film, and was greeted by the Northridge Earthquake three weeks after arriving.

She returned to her former career in film production, fulfilling four of her dreams. She had always wanted to work on a television show, work for National Geographic, work on the Warner Brothers lot, and work on a children’s film. Amazingly, they all came true. She was hired onto the first season of ‘American Idol,’ then a National Geographic film called Roar: Lions of the Kalahari.  Next came a job on the Warner Brothers lot, coordinating visual effects for the children’s film Scooby-Doo II. With all of her production dreams fulfilled and grateful for her opportunities so far, she took stock of her life. She had invested many of her earlier years writing, but she had not written anything in a long while with the demands of production. With this in mind, she took a job at a beautiful seaside Bed & Breakfast hotel. The less demanding work schedule allowed for more time to write.

Through those long, hazy days in the south bay, Tom worked on his lyric craft and released a handful of albums. Looking for a fresh sound, he added a female vocalist. Together they recorded a folk-pop record in the Everly Brothers’ close-harmony’ style. Later, with a second vocalist, he recorded a more atmospheric collection. Tom was proud of the music but noticed his income was diminishing.

In the early ‘oughts, it was around this time that home studios became competitive with the big, established houses, and the rates paid musicians for the use of music in TV and film dropped drastically. To supplement his music income, Tom took a job at The Getty Museum that Rebecca had submitted his resume for – in the bookstore.

After some time, Rebecca took a position at 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, deciding it was too small and too far from the beach. After ten years away, they were moving back into 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.

A stone sculpture of a bible study class on the grounds of Hanes House, an historic structure across the street from Madison Hall, where Caufield and Hill’s ‘Little Creek’ home sits.

Then two things happened. Rebecca left her position at UCLA’s Royce Hall and returned to the Bed & Breakfast in Playa del Rey, and Tom got a new guitar. At this point, Rebecca really found her groove in hospitality, excelling at a personalized touch and customer happiness. Sometime later, she won the California Hotel & Lodging Association’s ‘Outstanding Lodging Employee of the Year for Small Property Award.’ Meanwhile, on a whim, Tom had purchased a nylon string guitar with a plan to simply do something different for a couple months. “For years, I’d written and recorded hundreds of lyric-based songs. I wanted to return to how I’d began in music, with a classical guitar, playing simple instrumental etudes and ballads.” When the guitar arrived, Tom immediately came down with severe flu, rendering him immobile.

Tom slowly recovered. After a few days, gingerly, in bathrobe and pajamas, he walked 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 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.”

‘Any moment someone is making or listening to music is a moment someone is not doing violence, but celebrating beauty,’ Tom says.

Tom felt that something about instrumental compositions, their ambiguity, intimacy, introspective character, subtlety, and understated quality spoke for his soul more than vocal music had. He had found his most suitable musical vehicle, one with a distinctive fingerprint. “I had to lose my voice to find my voice,” he says.

On making the change from vocal to instrumental music, Tom says “I had to lose my voice to find my voice.”

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 stories were published over the next few years. It bolstered her pride and confidence and gave her an outlet for her experiences. With Rebecca leading, they collaborated on a children’s film and a children’s music and comedy album. Caufield’s music was accepted by the instrumental music community. His releases gained airplay on several 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. 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. He’d listened to his heart.

Like a tapestry, when Caufield 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 atmosphere, 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 wanted a third chapter, now was the time. Any later, and it could be too late. They looked at maps and web articles, and for a long time, they didn’t know where to go. They discussed Vermont, Washington, Colorado, Illinois, Georgia, and Florida. Finally, North Carolina seemed the best of all possible worlds to begin a new life. It was close to many people and things they valued and near Tom’s family. It had a temperate climate, was not expensive, was rural; quieter.

Structure near ‘Little Creek,’ Clemmons, North Carolina

The phase, Tom and Rebecca’s Los Angeles days of hope, struggle, laughter, achievement, dashed hopes, disappointments, victories, challenges, small pleasures, self-improvement, loving, fighting, making up, hassles, joys – it had all played out its natural arc. There was somewhere else to go.

Tom credits an earlier experience of tutoring at risk elementary school children with adding to his humanity, and putting a “depth of feeling and empathy into my music that no amount of practicing would.”

Packing was emotional. It was hard to decide what to keep and what to let go of. Hours spent sorting old photographs brought up memories both good and bad; friendships that had lasted and ones that had turned sour. The experience was rewarding but sometimes brought on the melancholy that arises when one directly confronts time’s passing. There were the good and beautiful things. There were proofs of happiness and laughter, of clear-eyed judgment. Evidence of successes reminded them both of a long phase of life – their early days, the salad days, the innocent new beginning days. They’d lived them to the fullest. There were also the failures, the dreams unfulfilled, the great efforts expended to no avail, time wasted, wrong paths pursued. Life feels long while it’s being lived, but short in hindsight. Time passes both slowly and quickly.

Rebecca at Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas, November, 2020

They took I-40, the second most southern route, heading east. They would travel through Death Valley, the Mojave, into the panhandle of Texas. Next, they would 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. The third was Collin Raye’s Little Rock. On the fourth day of driving, after visiting a friend in Memphis they’d known in the L.A. days, they came through Nashville. Once quaint, the city was transformed into a powerhouse of light, speed, and complexity, the essence of a commerce model in high gear and peak condition. It was the 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 behind them. It was time for a new start. Neither had regrets; both were filled with the absolute conviction that they had made the right move, to the right place, at the right time.

“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.

Tom says his music aims for a passionate calm and would be categorized as existing somewhere between ambient music and chamber music. It’s primarily acoustic but includes electronica elements to represent both the grounded, physical, earthy aspect of life and the presence of technology. He feels that music, by remaining quiet and spacious, provides room that lets the listener’s mind and soul inside the sound instead of it pushing out at them. It can relax the external nervous system while engaging the deep thought process. The tensions and releases are not as pronounced as in more accessible styles, so requires active, focused engagement, yet also functions as ‘furniture’ or ambient music – setting a peaceful, passive mood. “It’s an oft-misunderstood genre of music,” he says.

Life is often about an intelligent negotiation with overwhelming time

One of the things Tom is looking forward to is a closer relationship with the natural world. Lately, he looks to nature as the one reliable thing that can be observed as direct, unmediated evidence of creation’s authentic signature. He 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, so I try and learn from it and put the elements I see into my music. The contrasts, the cycles, the tensions and releases, peace and violence, the mystery, the becoming, the dying, the beauty.”

Caufield looks forward to working ‘where the noise of culture is turned down, and the voice of nature is at the forefront’

Rebecca wants to work closer to the natural world as well. She’s hoping that here in one of the nearby parks or universities, she can find 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 personal contact – she loves people and making them happy. Still, 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.

At the end of the day, Rebecca 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.

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 would 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. “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 natural, more intimate space. There will be more emphasis on seeing my family, connecting with old friends, and working where culture’s noise is turned down. The voice of nature is at the forefront.” Tom kisses Rebecca goodbye, 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.