Scottish singer-songwriter Sandi Thom first crossed my radar in 2006 when I heard I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair) on the car radio. For a young woman, Sandi’s voice was incredible and already showing signs of ‘a life well lived.’ The song itself was sort of soft-rock meets folk with references to the Sex Pistols, Procol Harum and record shops that only stocked vinyl; so it ‘ticked all of my boxes.’ I spent the next hour looking for a shop to buy the album; which hadn’t actually been released, so I bought my first Single in 10 years.
After a couple of false starts and re-releases; but with the help of my £1.99 purchase Punk Rocker eventually made #1 in the UK charts.
Although she was being billed as an ‘overnight success’ Sandi’s story is actually a tale of hard work and the embracing of modern technology while taking advantage of the changes in the music industry.
Born in Banff, Scotland she attended a High School 45 miles away in Aberdeen before becoming the youngest student to be accepted at the prestigious Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts and eventually leaving with a BA (Hons); proving from an early age that she wasn’t afraid of hard work.
As you do, when you are an aspiring singer-songwriter Sandi Thom then headed for the bright lights of London Town in 2005 where she played every dive bar in the city before releasing Punk Rocker on Viking Legacy, to great indifference from the radio stations and paying public.
While sitting in a broken down car between gigs in York and South Wales; and feeling sorry for herself, the young singer had the bright idea of recording a gig and using the internet to broadcast it around the world.
Even though she was still touring the highways and by-ways Sandi recorded 21 intimate performances in the basement of her flat in Tooting between February and March and then streamed them on the internet. With parallel promotion on MySpace and Facebook the ‘shows’ where an instant success and soon piqued the interest of the National newspapers and eventually the A&R department of SONY/RCA; who signed her to the label and re-released I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker which went straight into the charts at #1; as did her debut album SMILE; IT CONFUSES PEOPLE the following June.
On the strength of that success Thom toured the UK and Europe solidly for the next 18 months eventually releasing her second album – THE PINK AND THE LILY in May 2008. The reviews; including 4 stars in Maverick were all positive and glowing; but the singles failed to trouble the Chart compliers for too long; much to the Record Company’s chagrin.
Sandi Thom’s songwriting was now showing signs of a growing maturity as she sang about the past she’d left behind in Scotland but also touched on politics with the anti-war song Devils Beat.
Although still relatively successful, THE PINK AND THE LILY caused a fall out with SONY/RCA who wanted Thom to record more commercially lucrative tracks like Punk Rocker but the singer stuck to her guns and there was a parting of the ways, giving her the opportunity to launch her own label – Guardian Angels and develop her writing and singing in a direction that was more suited to her own ambitions.
The first album on the new label MERCHANTS AND THIEVES took the reviewers by surprise as it veered more towards Blues and Roots than her previous Pop-Folk styling. But; as she was still touring heavily her fans weren’t surprised at all and bought it by the truck load!
Not long after the album’s release Sandi got a call to ask if she would fill in on vocals on a Joe Bonamassa tour as the American Bluesman had developed a throat problem; as they’d bonded while he played on two tracks on the album. The Bonamassa tour was a success and the two soon became an ‘item.’
Now happily ensconced with Bonamassa in sunny California Sandi has just recorded her fourth album FLESH & BLOOD which has been produced by Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes and features drummer Steve Gorman and guitarist Audley Freed from the same band, saxophonist Bobby Keys plus a glorious duet with Buffy St. Marie (The Big Ones Get Away).
With the album release imminent and a UK tour in the Autumn I spoke to Sandi as she was being driven along a beautiful California Freeway by Mr. Bonamassa as the rain came down in sheets outside my house in the North East of England.
As Sandi has just released her fourth album in 7 years I asked if she was a prolific songwriter.
“Do you think 4 in 7 years is prolific?” Sandi sounded surprised, “I have friends who release an album every year and I honestly don’t know who they can do that; especially if they want to keep the quality up high. I aim to release one every two years and each one represents a chapter in my life at that time and I try to capture everything in song. I still love albums 1 & 2 as they captured snapshots of the situation that I was in at that time – the youth, the naivety; I can hear myself growing up and that puts a smile on my face. My records are like a log book to my life.
I’ve only been recording for seven years; but at times it seems like an eternity as each album is so different. Obviously you can listen and enjoy each album in their own rite but if you know them all you will definitely hear how I’ve developed and evolved as a writer; plus my style of playing has changed from poppy-folk into a rockier more Bluesy style that I’m far more comfortable with.
With the first album I was very unsure of myself as a musician and what my best style was and even what I was capable of doing. If a fan went straight from my first album to the new one you would probably be confused as there’s a real disconnect between them; but when you listen to the full story – it should all make sense.
As I’ve grown up I’ve become more confident and sure of myself in the studio and I love the direction I’m heading in which I think you can hear on FLESH & BLOOD – although some of that can be attributed to Rich Robinson in the production hot seat. He certainly pushed me into musical areas I never thought I could go. It was a bit like going to the gym and suddenly getting a personal trainer who knows what you are capable of better than you do yourself.
I still love my previous albums; but for this one Rich brought in Steve Gorman and Audley Freed from his band the Black Crowes alongside Mike Webb and James Heggarty who are legends in Nashville and their involvement gave me the opportunity to take my songs and do what I’ve always dreamed of doing. He really is the backbone of the album – he’s now like my ‘brother from another mother’ (chuckle).
That said; one of the highlights for me was getting to work and sing with Buffy St. Marie who my Mum had been a fan of; for forever. Buffy may not be someone that everyone knows about, but she wrote songs for Elvis as well being a star in the whole of North America – I think she has the keys to Canada! Her songs were the first I heard that were giving a social commentary. I’d heard her even before I heard Dylan and so much wanted to write about things going on around me in her style. So it was quite natural for me to record a version of Sun Comes Crashing Down with just me singing and playing because I love the song and wanted to take the opportunity to get Buffy’s work back in front of people again; as her music’s always been a big part of my life.
I liked it but Rich wasn’t as happy with the finished track; so my Mum (who’s good like that) suggested ‘Why don’t you ask Buffy to do a duet!’ Without me knowing someone contacted her Agent who spoke to her in Hawaii and she immediately agreed; so by coincidence we were both going to be ion London at the same time and a studio was booked.
I was so nervous as I waited for her to arrive; and when she did my jaw dropped! She was head to toe in leather and her hair and make-up were immaculate and she looked every inch the Rock Star that she is – she seemed to suck the air out of the room. But before I knew it, we were blethering away about music and the recording was done in a day with no problems at all.
The song is one of my favourites and actually better than I’d hoped and my Mum is so pleased too.
Rich had a profound effect on another song – The Sun Comes Crashing Down which started life after I visited Malawi as an Oxfam Ambassador (which I’m incredibly proud of) a couple of years ago. If you’d heard the original version it had a completely different set of words and melody; but when Rich heard it he changed the rhythm, key and the melody; which where both far better than what I’d done, so I reworded it, but with the same theme until it became the song it is on the record; a love song with the chorus and hooks being exactly as I’d originally written them.
The last few months have been so frustrating for me because I’ve been desperate to get out on the road and sing the new songs for people. I first started performing at Weddings and Bars around Banff when I was about fourteen; playing keyboards and singing harmonies, so I don’t know how some musicians don’t enjoy being on stage; because I absolutely love it and this new set of songs need singing!
For me it’s the greatest feeling on Earth being on stage in front of an audience that has paid money to come and hear ME and my songs. When I played Glastonbury last year I was completely blown away because for all I was only playing the tent that hold 1,000 people; there were another four thousand people outside – it was the coolest thing ever and reduced me to tears. How can you not like that?
I always try to give the performance of my life regardless of the amount of people in the audience. There won’t be any fireworks or laser shows when I play, but I’m so excited putting the set list together as it includes a few older songs, especially ones off the first album that I’m bringing up to date with my ‘new sound.’ I may even include some of the cover versions that I’ve been uploading onto my website – you just never know. All I can say is that I can’t wait to tour the UK and Europe in November.”