The next big songwriter seems like a misnomer when it comes to Tom A. Smith considering the career he has already had to date. Furthermore, if that promise seems like a hefty weight to heap on his young shoulder, then I can assure you the load lands on him like pressure is purely a word resigned for tires.
He might only be 17 years old, but the young lad from Sunderland played his first ever gig when he was eight, he played Glastonbury at 11, and Tim Burgess picked him to play his curated stage at Kendal Calling, making him the youngest performer in the history of the festival. Along the way, he has also supported his regional contemporary Sam Fender, and he no doubt quietly has a similar progression in his sights.
Ahead of the release of his second EP, with his latest single ‘Could I Live With Being Fake’ fresh off the press, we caught up for a chat with the musical Mackem. His feet are evidentially firmly on the floor, but he has a flowing talent that may have them moving towards a bright future soon enough.
With shows with Miles Kane, festival appearances and a run of dates ahead, Smith is taking to touring like someone who has done it for a lifetime: “I’m really looking forward to it all. It’s the first time I’m doing it with the band as well so it’s a bit different,” he tells me. “It’s really insane. We’ve got venues like the Roundhouse in London and loads of academies up and down the country. It’s all just loads to comprehend. It’s just great.”
And if that sounds like a seasoned pro talking, that’s because he is. “My first gig was when I was eight at the Cluny in Newcastle with Detroit Social Club, who used to give me guitar lessons and music lessons, so it was always nice to start with them,” Smith explains. He then went on to play Glastonbury shortly afterwards: “I was 11, it was a venue called Fluffy Rock Café at Glastonbury, and we managed to ram the tent full, which was great. I was doing covers of The Beach Boys and stuff like that.”
In playing so young, it’s almost as though he has duck-shoved the sense of nerves that most artists have when it comes to performing. “I just enjoyed it, really. I had a bit of nerves before I went on, but once you’re on there, I’ve always found it exciting. I just enjoy it me, I love doing it, so it’s always fun.” Now he says, “I don’t really get nervous at all anymore. Especially the rooms we’re playing in now, it’s just amazing. I love all of it.”
In part, his stage success is testimony to the burgeoning music scene currently bubbling up in the Northeast. Artists from the area like the late great Dave Harper of Frankie & The Heartstrings have been instrumental in creating a legacy that has allowed for talent to come through, and their nurturing has given a maturity to Smith and his songwriting that comes soaring out of his anthemic compositions.
As he says himself: “The one thing about gigging is that I was never headlining myself. I was always going around with great bands who had had successful careers and written great songs themselves, so I’d be getting advice and talking to them with my being young, and they were giving me tips, so that always helped.”
Speaking about how it has shaped his songwriting, he continued: “I suppose playing for years, and your formative years in front of people, your sort of understanding of what people like and what people don’t like are defined.” As a music writer who gets sick of being bombarded with a slew of songs that sound so studio-bound that you couldn’t even imagine them being played in a live setting, Smiths performative footing and visceral feel is as refreshing as the ice cold showers at sunny Benicàssim Festival.
The other beauty of this footing is that unlike a lot of emerging acts who have constructed their sound in their bedroom alone, Smith comes through with an organic flowerbed of followers ala Arctic Monkeys before him. “It’s been strange in the last month. It’s just gone to the next stage. We’ve done shows where there are like 50 people knowing the words to my songs which is just completely insane. It’s really hard to comprehend when you’re up on that stage, and you’re seeing people singing these words that you wrote when you were 14.”
However, away from the stage, he also has the tracks to back up his performance. And this developed craft speaks of his maturity. “It was really those two years we had in lockdown where I really honed my craft of songwriting,” he explains. “I was just picking the songs, for instance, I did a cover of ‘Do I Love You’, and then I replicated it the next day in my own way and own style and was thinking about my own way of doing things, so that was a very informative period from my songwriting in that way. But I think live, I’ve just got a better understanding of what people want to hear and what people don’t.”
Nick Cave once said that you ought to treat creative pursuits like a 9-5, opining: “Most people wait for the muse to turn up. That’s terribly unreliable. I have to sit and pursue the muse by attempting to work.” Cave went as far as to get an office and don a suit everyday, but aside from the sartorial style, Smith, remarkably at such a young age, holds the same philosophy.
In fact, he wrote a whopping 150 tracks in lockdown. Explaining: “I just approached it like it was a school day. GCSEs were going out the window, they’d been cancelled, so I thought, ‘What can I do with this time? I’ve got about ten or eleven songs at the minute. This is what I want to do, and I haven’t got enough songs right now to be able to do that.’ So, I just sat there 9-5 every day and approached it like a job, just writing and recording demos.”
This process gave him a new depth. “The thing with writing a song every single day, you might think it becomes repetitive, but you sort of end up being the opposite because you write a song one day you’re not going to do the same the next. So, they’re all about different things, they’ve got different style and genres, there is a real mix there,” Smith said.
And that labour is beginning to bore fruit which was painstakingly harvested for his forthcoming EP produced by Larry Hibbitt. “We recorded it in Brixton, and we recorded the whole EP in a week. It was brilliant.” Contained on the EP is Smith’s new single, “It’s insane to get the tune out there. It’s a song that I’ve had for a couple of years now, and I just really can’t wait to hear it. It’s my own favourite one of mine, I think.”
“With the track, the title says it all. Could I live with being the things that I don’t really want to be, or should I just keep doing what I love doing and enjoying what I love doing and hopefully create success out of that rather than just the easy route? Basically, am I going to be authentic or have my name in the headlines straight away,” Smith explains with a definite knowledge of his own place and the industry pitfalls that he seems to be sagaciously sidestepping.
The song itself might have a slight juvenile air to it, but that is more than expected, and it even gives it a sincerity that should help him to capture a youthful fanbase to bring along on his journey. However, he is quick and rightfully humble enough to point out the timeless influences behind his sound. “If you listen to my songs, there’s The Cure in there and The Smiths,” he says.
Continuing: “When you break the songs down, they’re essentially pop songs on their own, but with an indie feel thrown in there. So, in terms of influence, I’d definitely say The Smiths and The Cure are the two big ones,” Smith explains. If he can follow in those footsteps, you won’t have to avoid looking over your shoulder for long.