Tommy Emmanuel chatted with us about what he’s up to during the current lockdown, his new album, and so much more.
Tommy Emmanuel CGP is, without doubt, one of the most talented guitarists in the world today. It’s no wonder he’s one of only four guitarists in the world to have the “Certified Guitar Player” title bestowed upon them by the great Chet Atkins himself.
Tommy is currently bunkered up in California to wait out the current lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic which caused him to reschedule his North American tour, originally scheduled for April and May. Tommy talked with us about what he’s been up to in order to keep himself busy, as well as his pre-show rituals and his upcoming album, The Best of Tommysongs.
LH: I know you’re stuck on the West Coast at the moment. Are you and the family all safe and well?
Tommy: I’m in San Jose in my apartment. My wife and I have been separated for a couple of years. I live close by. I can walk to be with her and to be with my daughter Rachel, who is 5, and I get to be with her every second day. But, you know, I’m the luckiest person walking the earth because my apartment’s right downtown. I can walk to the supermarket, I can walk to Rachel’s, and it’s a safe neighborhood. It’s really pretty, and you know, you’ve just got to take all the precautions that we take. Make sure you’re disinfecting, you wash your hands and wear a mask when you go to the supermarket, all that kind of stuff. I’ll tell you, when this went down so many people wrote to me really concerned about me because I’m isolated and I’m not doing what I normally do which is playing a lot of shows a year and traveling all the time. And people were really concerned about me and I don’t think one person said I bet you’re loving this, you know what I mean? Everybody said you must be going out of your mind, are you alright? Can we do anything for you? I’m like, I am absolutely loving this!
LH: It’s a bit of forced downtime.
Tommy: Yes. Well, I’ve never been forced off the road and told to stay home. I mean, I’ve got to pay bills and I’ve got three people on my payroll so I do have a little pressure on me there but I’m not even letting that get to me. And I’ve applied for government help for small businesses and I should be granted that I hope. I’m still paying the wages for the people that work for me so I’m trying to do all that. I’m living really simply. I cook myself, and I eat simple things, I do all my own housework and everything, and every Wednesday I do 35 minutes live on Instagram, and on Fridays I go live on Facebook.
LH: I think it’s interesting how the music community has rallied around and pivoted to move towards doing these live streams. Joe Pug, for example, is live streaming each week and is also performing live-streamed concerts for individuals so they can pay. I think it’s interesting how quickly we can adapt in this kind of situation.
Tommy: Oh, totally. I’ve always said, it’s not about working harder, it’s about working smarter.
LH: I’m not suggesting it’s ever going to replace the experience of a live show, definitely not.
Tommy: Oh no. When you do a show and people say I’ve been watching you on YouTube for five years, or whatever, but seeing you live was no comparison. And I say, well that’s why you have to be there, you know. The same as we have to be present now, you know? And in order for us to experience life, we have to be present. That’s why I tell people, don’t sit in my concert and look at your phone. Be in the moment!
LH: I completely agree, that drives me nuts. Are you drawing any inspiration from being on your own? Are you writing at the moment?
Tommy: Yeah, I’m in the middle of a film project that I started about two weeks ago. I’ve already seen the film with some of the director’s ideas of what music he wanted. And then what I’ve been doing is, because I don’t have any equipment here, all I have is three guitars in my apartment here, a computer and my iPhone. That’s it. So I’ve been writing stuff for different things in the film, recording it on voice memos on my phone, and texting to Don Harper, the film’s music director, down in LA and then he’s putting keyboards and strings and stuff on it and we’re kind of getting the soundtrack of the film demoed up so we know it all works. When we’re ready, I’ll drive down to LA and record everything in his studio for real. So that’s one project I’m working on, and the other things are I’m shooting videos on my iPhone in my apartment as well as doing these live streams.
LH: We watched one of your live streams the other day and I couldn’t believe the quality of it since it was just on your phone.
Tommy: That’s right. I know.
LH: This is a horrendous situation but can you imagine if it had happened say 15 years ago when we didn’t have this technology to keep people connected. It’s been a blessing.
Tommy: Yeah. I totally agree. This is a great wake up call for everybody to find out what really matters because everybody are like sheep out there. They’re focused on how can I make a lot of money quickly, and then run off to some island and have a good life. It’s like sorry, it doesn’t work like that! If you want to be feeling good and if you want to have a great life, make someone else’s life great. Make someone else’s day better. What can you do for someone else, if you want to feel good? It’s very simple, you know. Every day I wake up with a grateful heart because I’m healthy, I’ve got a beautiful family, my marriage isn’t what I would like it to be, but, you know, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and I’m trying to fix a bit of the damage that I caused and things like by being a drunk, or a drug addict, or whatever. I’m in a good place and so I’m just trying to do my best and do my bit right now.
LH: Well, nobody goes through life perfect in any case.
Tommy: The flaws and the cracks in me are where the light gets in, you know. And that’s a wonderful thing.
LH: Those experiences will be part of what makes your music as great as it is as well. The good and the bad will make your music what is and will make it uniquely yours.
Tommy: My message to the younger generation is don’t be afraid to just be yourself. That’s all I do. I’m the luckiest son of a bitch walking this planet because I make a difference in people’s lives just by doing what I love. There’s no other reason. I’m not a rich man, but my focus is not on money. My focus is on doing a good job, and I know how I feel if someone says to me, “Oh my god, you changed my life” or “I didn’t think I would sit there and listen to someone play a guitar for two hours” and blah, blah, blah, and all I did was just turn up and do my best, that’s all.
LH: I think about that a lot. A lot of people underestimate in life just how important music is. Speaking from my perspective, it’s really a release for me. We get to see a lot of live music and when I’m feeling really down, I can be totally turned round by going to see some live music. It can literally change everything. It’s just that time to switch your brain off and be immersed in something else, it’s really important. And I think this is highlighting how important it is. One thing I’m loving is I’m getting to see all these artists do these live-streams, right in my home, and it helps a lot during all of this.
Tommy: Totally. But you know what, you and me both need to be nourished because we’ve been living a life that’s full-on and no time for nourishment really. I’ve got so much going on in my normal life that I shove food down my throat to keep going. I’m not like savoring the taste of the food. That’s how busy I am. And I think this has forced me to take a look at myself and say, you need to be nourished spiritually, physically, everything musically, you need to be nourished so you can be of better service to others.
LH: I couldn’t agree more. It’s so important. I know you’ve talked a lot about starting out on guitar and how young you were. I’ve spoken to a lot of guitarists and a lot of them have that lightning bolt moment, and yours seemed to be hearing Chet Atkins on the radio. But I know your brother Phil was a great guitarist as well. I always wondered, having a sibling myself, how competitive was it with the two of you when you were starting out? Were you battling against each other to prove who was best or was it really collaborative?
Tommy: No, never. Phil was older than me, two and a half years older than me, and his ear was great. He’d buy records and work stuff out and then he’d say, “Hey idiot, get over here.” He’d show me everything. I remember when I was 18, and I came to the big city to hang out with my brother who was doing well in a band. He was the hotshot guitar gunslinger of Australia in those days and so I’m going to shows and seeing what I want to do and all that. My first visit to his apartment, he said, “Sit in this chair,” and I sat there and he put the needle down on a record and it was The Dark Side of the Moon. And I’d never heard anything like that in my life. We listened to the whole record, and then he said, “Right, stay there, listen to this,” and he put on Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow. Oh my god! I’m 18 years old going, “Oh shit! What’s this?!” That’s the kind of person he was. One day, I got a phone call from him and he said, “Hey idiot, have you heard that new Julian Lennon song, ‘Salt Water’?” And I said, “Isn’t it a great lyric?” He said, “Listen to it again” and hung up. That’s all, right. So I listened to it again. Next thing, I fall in love with the melody, I make an arrangement of it, I called Chet Atkins on the phone, and I play it to him over the phone, and we ended up recording it together. He loved the arrangement so much, but I have to thank Phil for that because he brought it to my attention and said, “No, no, really pay attention to it.”
LH: Can you imagine going back to that kid who first heard Chet Atkins on the radio and telling him, “One day, you’re going to record with him on his last album”?
Tommy: Listen, the things that happened to me, I would have never believed. How did I, a kid from nowhere, how did I get to record with the greatest instrumentalist of all time? How is that possible? It’s unbelievable. And people in this generation, they don’t know much about the previous generation, but I’m just old enough to have worked with the pioneers of everything that’s going on now. I’m 65 next month, and because I started so young, and I could actually play and I understood how a song worked, and I don’t know how to explain that because I had zero training, but it just came natural to me. I’m old enough to have not only worked and recorded and played with the architects of country music in Australia and in America but also some of my heroes like Hank Marvin from The Shadows, Bruce Welch from The Shadows, Duane Eddy, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Jerry Reed…so many people, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis… you name it. I have been so lucky that I got to know James Burton and Albert Lee. These guys are the architect of my life, those guys, and I got to know them all because I was at the right place at the right time.
LH: It’s unbelievable. It’s funny what you say about the no training part. It wasn’t a case of no training but I always remember, I was fortunate enough to interview Steve Vai and when I was getting ready for it I read that he said there was a point where there was a piano, I think in his parents’ living room and he walked over, hit a key on the piano and then he hit a higher key and he said it was like something clicked in his head. He said, “Oh, I understand that now…That note’s higher than that note.” He said it all just spawned from there. That is what kicked off his understanding. When I looked into your background, there was never any formal training, right? It was just you and your brother working things out as you went along.
Tommy: I’m guilty of a lot of petty theft. We all steal from each other, and then all of a sudden, what we’ve stolen starts sounding like us. And it’s just nature’s way. It’s the same thing as the principle of what I call “The Messenger” and when people say, “Oh my god, Stevie Ray Vaughan, wow what a sound! He did this and he did that” and I say yeah, and he copied and stole from Albert King. Yet when he played an Albert King song, he sounded like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Even though he was even quoting him. The way that I see nature at work, is that it’s always sending a messenger for the next generation. So Stevie Ray Vaughan came along in the 80s when Blues was dying a terrible death around the world. All of a sudden, the young generation took to it because it was put in their face by the right person. And unfortunately, he died young, but he was The Messenger. And now you’ve got all the other guys out there. You’ve got Joe Bonamassa and people like that. And all that’s happened, thank god that BB King came along, Eric Clapton came along, and you know all those guys are The Messengers. And it’s the same in anything, before Chet Atkins there was Merle Travis, and Merle electrified everybody with his playing and his songwriting, but Chet took it to another dimension and another level. And then I came along and did something completely different, but you can tell where the roots are. It’s still the same message. It’s like make your arrangements interesting, be in tune, be in time, take me somewhere, play me a melody that takes me out of myself.
LH: It’s one of the things that I think is a great message today for people starting out on guitar, because you can go online and my concern sometimes when I look at it is, there seem to be a million players on the internet who can play at lightning speed. People get caught up in that and the technical side of things. The older I get, the more I realize… Well, it’s easiest to give an example… We went to the Chicago Theatre last year to see Mark Knopfler. I could have sat in that room blindfolded and from the first note, I would have known that was Mark Knopfler, and I would say a similar thing about you when I hear your music. And again with someone like Steve Vai, it’s unmistakable. Don’t try to be someone else. You can steal from other people, but make sure you do you.
Tommy: Just have the courage to be yourself. It’s as simple as that, you know, and I’m really grateful for that because all the other people are taken [laughs].
LH: Absolutely! There’s only one you.
Tommy: Yeah! It’s a beautiful thing, you know. Like when you hear James Taylor talking about that, he said, “I’m myself for a living, publicly and privately,” and I’m the same. The thing that puzzles young people, they’re so used to the bulls*t of how rockstars conduct themselves and I say to young students, “I have a secret weapon. Does anybody know what it is?” The kids will say, “You practice a lot,” I say “Well, that’s true but that’s not my weapon. My secret weapon is I’m just myself all the time.” When I’m on stage, when I’m off stage, when I’m taking a poop, when I’m having dinner, when I’m going to the post office, when I’m surfing, when I’m whatever… I’m just myself all the time and I don’t have to do anything else. How free am I?!
LH: That’s a big thing with songwriting when that honesty and authenticity comes through. There are a lot of songwriters now that I love who do that so well, you played with one of them on Accomplice One – Jason Isbell. I honestly believe he is one of the best songwriters alive today.
Tommy: Isn’t he great. What a great guy. And you know, we cut that song in one take. He was in the vocal booth, I was out in the studio and I’m singing live and so is he, and I’m playing live. We just worked out who was going to sing what and where we were going to go, and once we did that, we just put the headphones on and we did that song one take.
LH: That’s crazy. On that album, you covered a lot of songs along with some originals and I really like the song that you did with Suzy Bogguss, “The Duke’s Message.”
Tommy: [Sings] Where the sky is always changing….
LH: That’s a great tune. When you collaborate with someone, how do you go about doing that? Did you write with her or did you send something to her?
Tommy: No, I didn’t write the lyric. The lyric was written by a friend who was living in my house at the time. He’s gone back to Australia now. His name is Anthony Snape. I wrote the song, I wrote the melody years before and I called it “The Duke” because it’s inspired by my love of John Wayne films. Anyway, I thought, you know, this song… I need to revisit it and tell the story. And so, Anthony had nothing on his plate at this time and I said to him, “Anthony, I want you to watch the movie The Cowboys, and I want you to watch Rio Bravo, and I want you to watch The Shootist. I want you to imagine you’re a 12-year-old boy and you’re sitting in the cinema and your hero is on the screen. And you know every word he says. You know everything there is to know about him.” And he went away and wrote those lyrics.
LH: It’s a beautiful song.
Tommy: Yeah. And Suzy was a natural choice because she’s one of those singers that I believe every word she says. There’s a sincerity in her singing that is almost otherworldly. She’s a great singer.
LH: I love the one you did with Mark Knopfler on there as well.
Tommy: Oh yeah, that was one take as well. I had never heard that song before and Mark had just written it and when I came to his studio, he had all the lyrics written out and he’s already had the arrangement worked up in his head. He said, “You need to sing this part, I’ll sing that part, you take a solo and I’ll take a solo…” Oh ok. So we just run it down in the control room and then we went out and tried the mics, sat down and just played it one round and that was it.
LH: Nice! We actually saw you two years ago at Thalia Hall in Chicago when you had Rodney Crowell, who is also on that record, out with you. He’s one of the greats as well – you really picked good people to collaborate with on that record. That was a great show. That’s such a fantastic venue as well. That room sounds so great. It’s like a broken-down old theatre, they’ve left the walls exposed. I just think it makes the room sound really good.
Tommy: It does, yeah.
LH: You’re releasing The Best of Tommysongs soon. You’ve gone back and redone some of your classic songs. I read an article about the recording of the record where you said you literally set up your four microphones, they never moved, you moved yourself around until you got the sound you wanted, and then just ripped through it.
Tommy: Yeah, I did 26 songs in two days.
LH: That’s unbelievable!
Tommy: Well, if you’ve got the songs, you’ve got the songs. If you’re the writer, you’d better damn well play them [laughs]. The thing about how I work is, my hearing is pretty bad. I was born with yellow fever so I have a real hearing deficit, which is another reason I am speaking to you wearing headphones. When the sound is good for me, I’ve got good headphones on, a little bit of reverb, I’m in heaven. I’m totally in heaven. I feel like I can pour much more emotion into what I’m doing because I’m hearing every minute detail. That helps me to not labor over things and have to keep dropping in and doing all that. I get a song, when I’m happy with the sound it’s just like, ok press the red button, here we go. I’m already in the zone.
LH: In normal circumstances, you’re relentlessly on the road so you’re playing all the time as well, I guess which helps. What you’re saying there around being in heaven when you get the right sound is noticeable when you play live. You can really tell you enjoy yourself up there. We go to so many shows and what stands out to us is that within 5-10 seconds of the first song, you can tell whether the band wants to be up there or whether they don’t. You can see those bands who are on their money-making tour before they retire, it stands out a mile. But when somebody’s up there who genuinely looks like they’re having as good a time as you are in the audience, there’s nothing better than that. We commented on that after seeing you at Thalia Hall. You looked like you were having such a great time.
Tommy: Oh god, yes! I don’t know any other way of doing it. I’ll tell you something else, too. If I’m feeling flat, if I feel uninspired, I’ll tell the audience. They usually cheer me up and that usually helps me to break the spell. Sometimes you can get run down, physically, and emotionally. You’re not a machine. It’s the same thing as nerves. I feel so sorry for people who get bad nerves and can’t deliver on stage. When people ask me, “Do you get nervous?” I say, “No, I don’t” because before I go on stage, I have at least 10 minutes of calm. What I need to know is that I’ve done all I can to be prepared for when I walk on stage that I can go from 1 to 100 in a second. I’ve done the soundcheck, I’m happy with the sound, I know everything’s right, my guitars are all perfectly in tune, I spent time playing and tuning, I’ve spent time testing the tuning with different songs and chords, I’m totally confident that I’m ready. And now I’ll just focus on playing a little bit, and just be really calm. I’ll walk out on stage and the crowd roars and it’s all exciting but what’s going on in me is total calm. You can’t play complicated music with a mind that’s racing. I need to be in touch with all my skills at the same time, and I need to be in a good place. I don’t need my mind to be ricocheting around and thinking about I wonder what the club sandwich is like at the hotel.
LH: You can tell when that’s the case, you really can.
Tommy: I’m going to through everything I can into every minute when I’m out there.
LH: Earlier this year, I got the chance to speak to Steve Lukather and he was talking about doing session work. He said there’s a certain type of person who does session work because you literally walk in there and get given a chord sheet and they say, “Do something.” The red light goes on and the music starts, and he said there’s not many people that can handle that environment and get something in one or two takes.
Tommy: Exactly. Luke has had some serious experience and he is one hell of a musician. He’s a dear friend of mine and I love him deeply but I admire him even more.
LH: I bet you have a good laugh when you’re with him. He was hilarious.
Tommy: We do. He’s such a naughty boy. I love that about him.
LH: I listened to his autobiography as an audiobook and it would make me laugh out loud on the street.
Tommy: Isn’t that cool. Look at his solos. What about his solo on Boz Scaggs’ record, “Break Down Dead Ahead” and all that stuff. Holy sh*t! The first time I saw him was 1980, I think it was or 1978, around that time. I was in LA and I went to The Baked Potato where Larry Carlton used to play, and it was Larry’s band but it was Luke playing guitar. That’s the first time I saw him and he was playing an old gold top Les Paul, and he had two Fender Princeton’s in a V shape on the floor and it was one of the greatest nights of music. His soloing was so freaking unbelievable, I was actually jumping out of my seat in the middle of the crowd. I couldn’t sit because it was so intense. I was wondering if I was going to crap myself. It was so exciting. I met him the first time that night just briefly and I noticed that he had an Ibanez tube screamer so as soon as I got back to Australia I went out to a music store and I bought one. I still have it somewhere.
LH: When you write music, I always think you’re in a tougher position as a guitar player. You’re going to write a tune with a melody and it’s all just you on the guitar. I think that is a much harder proposition than writing a song with lyrics as a songwriter, knowing that you’re going to have a vocal on there. You maybe have to go an extra mile to still really hold people’s attention.
Tommy: I’m going to tell you a story that you’ll understand without saying anything.
LH: When you started playing, when did the writing side of it come in? Were you always creating or was the first few years just learning?
Tommy: I tried to write my first song, I think I was probably 9, something like that. People loved it. My mother said, “I think you’re going to be a writer” and she was right. Playing the guitar is just what I do. But being a songwriter is my passion. It’s also the hardest part, trying to write something. Look at my song “Lewis & Clark.” It’s so simple, it’s kindergarten. But it tells people about the American West. And I don’t know how that happens, but it does. That’s all I can say.
LH: It absolutely does. I read a quote from Jason Isbell the other day where he said, “If you really love guitars and playing guitar the best thing you can do is work really really hard on your songwriting.”
Tommy: Well, it was a pleasure to talk with you, brother.
The Best of Tommysongs is set for release on May 8. You can pre-order your copy here. Also be sure to check out Tommy’s live-streams on Facebook and Instagram.
Interview By: Phil Walton
Photo By: Kirstine Walton