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"This is the record I’ve been trying to make for the last ten years – and I did it by mistake..."
It’s a strange story. A folk-rock band – signed to Moshi Moshi, beloved of BBC 6 Music, support act to Adele –nearly make it in the business, but not quite. Their frontman packs itall in and turns to teaching, with no plans to make a record again. Then, in 2017, he produces the album of his career – with the help of some school children, and a group of first year students from Leeds.
Tom Williams, formerly helmsman of Tom Williams & The Boat, wrote his fifth album All Change in practice rooms across Kent, in breaks from teaching guitar and songwriting to primary and secondary school children. Lyrics came to him on the long daily drives from his home in Hastings. And the band? Music tech students, who helped him out on an artist-in-residence programme. Not that you can tell.
All Change is an album made on a shoestring that sounds like a big budget classic: a reflection of Williams' life-long love affair with 1970s American rock showcasing a new refinement to his songwriting, and a more commercial edge – "a celebration of the big chord change and the emotional sucker-punch line," as he puts it. Think Asbury Park by way of Hastings –an unexpected trump card from someone who'd put rock and roll dreams to rest.
Tom Williams and the Boat – formed with friends from his hometown Tunbridge Wells in the late 2000s – came to prominence with their debut album Too Slow in 2010 and quickly picked up support from the BBC’s Lauren Laverne, Steve Lamacq, Cerys Matthews and Huw Stephens. Thirty year old Tom talks like an old hand, recalling his early ‘ mockney' accent in the days of Kate Nash and Jack Penate; the inspiration he took from the folk-rock scene that gave rise to Mumford and Sons; and the darker sounds of Nick Cave and Tom Waits his band reached for as they tried to hit the back of bigger halls. Those early gigs weren’t easy – not even for Adele, with whom he shared the stage in support of Late Of The Pier. "Everyone faced the other way and talked while she sang," he laughs. "It's brutal when you start. I tell the kids now, don't let anyone tell you that if you're good you get noticed because it's bullshit!"
"The stars just never aligned for us," Williams adds matter-of-factly. "I was about to turn 30, I was getting married, and I was teaching and I really love it. I’ve got a mortgage. I'm not that fussed. And I was content!"
Unlike a lot of musicians forced to take on teaching to pay the bills, Williams adores it. "I spend most of my time with these kids," he says. "I absolutely love teaching seven year-olds their first chords, and helping teenagers get into writing their first songs. Songwriting can make them feel better. It's like shouting into a balloon."
Bending himself to his children's demands, playing the latest Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift single, Williams – a self-confessed musical geek – was forced to look at songwriting in a new light. His own methods became quicker and more refined. With no expectations, no plans and no management looking over his shoulder, he entered the most creative period of his career.
"I’d always been obsessed with this Tom Petty song called Need To Know, where he gets to the chorus in 26 seconds," he recalls. "So much of songwriting isn't about achieving some hidden mystic depth – you're just reaching into muscle memory, appropriation and bluff. Every time I've had to play Shake It Off by Taylor Swift, I've thought what a smart song that is. There are some amazing Brill Building-era chords in Lukas Graham's 7 Years! I've become far less snobby about music – and way more aware of production."
In January 2016 Williams' new songs came to life when he was offered a week-long artist-in-residence job at the music department of Leeds Beckett University. He said he'd do it if they could provide him with a band – who turned out to be six 19 year-old music tech students including Jack Clayton (drums), Jake Mehew (keys) and Igor Dall'Avanzi on bass.
All the boys' lead parts appear on the final album. "They were the best band I've ever had,"Williams says. "I was there pretending to be a success, and they were there pretending to be a band, and we met in the middle and bluffed each other, and it worked."
They recorded two songs a day – 20 takes before lunch and 20 takes after – and Williams persuaded them to stay on during the Easter holidays for a second three-day session. Every one of the seven tracks they recorded in that short period made it on to the album.
All Change is a feast of rock and folk songs drenched in strings, Hammond organ and rich 70s harmonies. It was mixed in June by Ian Grimble (The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mumford & Sons) – who "brought the album into focus," says Williams. Additional guitar comes from Niall Davey and Declan Vink, and the lush backing vocals from Iona Corrin-Chard.
"It is all such a surprise to me. The whole album has a magical feeling because it feels like I did it in my sleep. After ten years of trying to make records and chase the industry I was happy and I wasn't chasing it – and for some reason I made a record I loved. Because I'm not worried in it, I'm not self-conscious, and I'm not embarrassed."
Williams is a musician's musician, hard-wired for obsessive listening, and a former student of abstract art. As a teenager he ran away from home to avoid a place studying at Oxford's prestigious Ruskin School. "Dear mum and dad, I am running away to be a musician," he recalls self-mockingly. "There is this band called Mumford & Sons – this is my time! I wanted to be in a warehouse with no heating, throwing paint around. I was so spoiled!"
He eventually took up the place at Ruskin and art remains part of how he sees his music. His recent experiences remind him of something the abstract painter Philip Guston once said: "The only way he could tell if a painting was finished, was when he was surprised by it."
All Change offers a touching and honest commentary on the mindset of a musician who was prepared to hang up his guitar and take on life's other challenges. The funny thing is, now he doesn't have to.
The Springsteenesque rockers Higher Place and Sleep Tight Saturday Night are gutsy ‘ farewells' to the cycle of touring, a dry acknowledgement that it's great to be big in Hastings ("With the faint sound of rock and roll / and the Ferrari in my head"). The lapel-grabbing Everyone Needs A Home, with its intense Kashmir-style string section courtesy of Tobie Tripp, is an angry response to the rise of right wing in the UK.
Elsewhere, there are moments of exquisite tenderness. The confessional folk song Sometimes ("A Ryan Adamsy ballad, cloyingly earnest!" he says) begins with the image of cars moving slowly down a motorway –a moment of unexpected beauty in a long daily commute – and turns into a love song for the women he finally got up the guts to propose to in Paris last year, his illustrator wife Sarah.
Williams' teaching itself gave rise to some of the stand-out moments too. The radio-friendly, gospel-tinged What A Shame was actually co-written with 15 year-old student Sam Gill from Sevenoaks School. It started off as a simple exercise –"Literally, let's write down loads of crap things that have happened and make a song about them," Williams laughs – but it turned into so much more. Sam has a co-credit. "I hope he makes his £100 PRS membership fee back," says Tom.
Finally, There She Goes Again is a deeply affecting love song for Sarah about the demands put on people who only pass like ships in the night.
"There's a sentimentality and earnestness to these songs, and I've got to the stage in my life when I just don't care anymore," says Williams. "I'm dad dancing at my own wedding now."
Maybe he was a few months back – but the future is wide open again. The plan is to tour as much as possible this summer with the new band – Jake, Jack and Igor. If they can get time off from lectures, that is...