Tom Shea is one-third of the musical entity known as Trio Arjento: “a smooth, complex, and heady blend of musical styles and influences; scotch whiskey for the ears. Their soulful, fragile, exploratory sound mixes jazz, blues, and singer-songwriter traditions to create musical tapestries where every note tells a story. Marcy Hull’s warm, wise, and sultry voice is complemented by the intuitive counterpoint and improvisational chemistry of Jennifer Lockman’s piano and Tom Shea’s guitars.”
I met Tom online through the Music Success in Nine Weeks blogging challenge that I’ve been engaged in as my New Year’s Resolution to get a better handle on social media. This week I thought it would be fun to sit down with Tom and interview him about his music, his take on social media and his call to think locally with his Hundred-Mile Microphone Project.
K: Tom, I met you through this blogging challenge, and you keep popping up everywhere. And then there’s your group…
T: Trio Arjento
K: I’m glad you said it.
T: Yeah, it’s a funny name. Actually, it’s an anagram… the AR is from Marcy, JEN from Jennifer and TO from Tom. And it sounds like the Spanish word for silver. But it doesn’t mean anything. If you were Spanish, you’d spell it with a “G” not a “J”. We were going to call ourselves The Balvenie Scotch Trio after our favourite brand of Scotch, because it’s wonderful. But there were some people at our first show who thought that was an irresponsible way to name a band. People started scribbling on napkins…
K: How did you end up doing that first show together?
T: I’ve known Marcy the singer since I was five and she was four. She was in my younger sister’s pre-school class. She used to come around the house for play dates. I don’t really remember this, but Marcy claims I used to grab her pigtails like motorcycle handlebars and drive her around the house.
K: That’s beautiful.
T: She auditioned to sing in my first rock band in high school, when I was in grade 11 and she was in grade 9. We did all out rocking blues stuff, and she was totally unsuited for it. We did early U2 “Pride: In The Name Of Love” and the “Hippy-Hippy Shake”, which was on Cocktail… remember that? With Tom Cruise. [Tom S. picks up his guitar and sings a couple of bars]. We ended up with a guy with massive hair. But somehow Marcy stuck around. After highschool we formed a duo for six years, her voice and my guitar. The focus was on Ani Difranco, edgy aggressive folk. But I grew up on heavy metal.
T: Yeah. My background was all Black Sabbath, Anthrax and Slayer. And she kept saying “you know, there’s so much more to music than this.” She kept conking me on the head, and eventually I caught on that Joni Mitchell was pretty awesome too.
K: Though I have to say that one of the things about heavy metal is that guitar players are… like…good! Some of the finest guitar players come from heavy metal bands.
T: Yeah. But I’m at a point now in my life that I’m not impressed by the speed anymore. *smile*
K: So how did Jen come to be part of your band?
T: I took a break from our duo, while I lived in Kuwait for a while. Then in 2006 Marcy phoned me out of the blue one day. She said, “I know this guy who plays guitar and sounds a lot like you, would you like to come jam with us sometime?” The three of us jammed, then we posted up on Bandmate. We found a bassist, a drummer and a keyboardist… that was Jenny. That band lasted for 2 1/2 years. It was an amicable thing, but in the end that band called it quits over differences in the direction. Marcy, Jenny and I formed the trio.
K: How long ago was that?
T: Two years in October.
K: And so is it all original? You do covers too, right?
T: It’s probably about 70% originals at any show. The covers we throw in for amusement. For example, our Michael Jackson cover of “Human Nature”. We try to do things that are either extremely beautiful or things that are just comical. We’ve done “November Rain” by Guns and Roses. Joni Mitchell “Both Sides Now.” And Ani Difranco, because Ani is part of my DNA now. But the focus is on original material.
K: You’re in Hamilton, right? Do you guys tour across Canada?
T: No, we haven’t. Last summer we were working on an album, and things were coming together nicely. Then Marcy had a baby. We’re kind of in a holding pattern right now, writing new material, putting the finishing touches on the album. We’re not playing out much right now because she’s tired and needs a nap! That’s one of the reasons I joined the Songwriter’s Association of Canada –I thought I could get my songs out there.
K: Do you ever play solo?
T: Not really, no. I’m not much of a singer. It terrifies me. In the past 12 months, I’ve made it a goal that I’m going to sing in public. And I do now. I’m getting better, but you couldn’t give me an hour and a half in front of the microphone.
K: And you’re a dad too. I’m thinking about the touring thing. I’m not sure how many kids you have…
T: I have two boys, they’re seven and ten. So they’re old enough if I go away for a few days. We played at the Orillia Jazz and Blues Festival in October, and I was gone for three days then. And that was fine. But the idea of doing a three-week tour is not really feasible. It might happen this summer, but we don’t have any serious ambitions to tour in the next year.
K: That brings me to something you’ve been talking about, your Hundred-Mile Microphone project. Tell me about that.
T: It started because I bumped into an old friend on the web, a guy name Glenn Marshall, who runs a recording studio here in Hamilton. He’s worked with a ton of people, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno at the top of the list. He used to be in a band in the 80s. I was just coming into the scene, and he was at the top of the scene. And I remember hanging out with him, and I was really impressed that these people were making music their lives. Then he just kind of vanished for a while. I don’t know what happened. Well, in his blog he says that he developed stage fright. Suddenly he couldn’t go up on stage anymore. He went into the studio, became a great producer.
This got me thinking about my place in the local music scene. And I realized that in a lot of ways I don’t know what’s around me. Because we’re all – you… me… everybody is so distracted by music that’s piped in from outside. I found Glenn’s song on the same day that Whitney Houston died. Everybody was posting “Whitney Houston is dead. What a tragedy, and what a great voice.” And I was sad, I mean I liked Whitney as a singer. But then Glenn’s song came in, and it had a much more powerful impact on me because it was somebody I knew. I’d shaken his hand, I’d eaten dinner at his house. So I got to thinking that maybe I should spend more time exploring my local musical environment.
Since I’ve posted up the blog and the Facebook site that partners with it, I’ve been getting me the names of bands that I’ve never heard of that literally live right around the corner from me. Music is everywhere. If I go for a walk on a summer night, I’m going to hear somebody playing guitar out of their basement or attic window. Right now, a five-minute car ride and I could be at ten different clubs where somebody is playing music. What this project is is the chance to redevelop personal connections with the music scene. To say thank you to Glenn. To say thank you to my buddy Dave, who’s playing a gig tonight. By the way, Dave’s band was the first band that my wife ever saw when she was fourteen. Not only that, but his sixteen year old son is in my English class right now. Everything just goes in these little circles. It’s awesome when you realize it. You don’t need any music from anywhere else, because there is so much good stuff right here. Wherever here is.
K: You’re doing the nine week blogging challenge with me, which is all about social media. Why did you decide to do that?
T: The initial attraction was because the band is not playing out that much right now. I thought let’s see if I can use this little shiny box *points to computer* to grow the fan base and explore other avenues for getting the music out there. Initially I found a couple of things a little frustrating: The transparency of all this software: I could set up a blog, but then it wouldn’t talk to my twitter which wouldn’t talk to my Facebook. There was all this trying to massage the pieces together so that they cooperated.
The other thing is that I often feel like I’m dropping pebbles down a well and listening to the echos. As consumers of web content we all see the big, popular stuff; when something goes viral everybody gets it. And I think this gives me and probably some other people a false sense that when you put something on the internet you will find an audience. Which is demonstratively not true.
Having said that, there *is* a cool thing coming out of Hamilton right now. There’s a guy named Drew Smith, who is a wonderful singer-songwriter… he sounds like Radiohead or Coldplay, atmospheric poppy stuff. He did a neat thing to make his last video. He had $2000, so he outsourced it. He got a dance school in India to make a Bollywood style video. In the last two weeks he’s gotten about 185,000 hits. And today it’s going to go through the roof, because it’s on the front page of the Arts & Entertainment section of the Wall Street Journal. It’s an article about outsourcing, really.
K: You’re bringing up the elusive question about why things go viral. (a) They have to be really good but also (b) everybody’s always looking for the new story.
T: Just being a good singer singing a good song is not going to get you a million hits.
T: A whole different part of your brain gets engaged in how to get your idea out. But I don’t watch videos. I just don’t like them. I like to listen to music, not look at it. So the idea that I can make a picture that goes with my music kind of blew the doors off of my brain for a week and a half there.
K: It’s a whole other art form, in a sense. How many hats *do* we wear as musicians? We’re already doing (a) the music (b) the writing (c) the performing…
T: …and then there’s maintaining a blog, doing my twitter feed, and now I’m going to direct my own videos? And I’ve got a day job! I’m a high school English teacher. The idea that I’m going to come home after work, spend quality time with my wife and my kids and maybe do a little cleaning in the kitchen, and then start shooting a video at 11 o’clock at night?
K: Oh yah man, come on! Maybe you should outsource to your students.
T: That’s funny, because yesterday… I’ve got these two really wonderful visual artists who are in my writer’s craft class… I gave them a copy of my CD. I said “I can’t pay you for this, or give you bonus marks in English class for it. But you have my eternal gratitude, and I’ll give you credits in the liner notes.” So they’re going to do a series of illustrations…
[We talk for a bit about making videos out of fridge magnets and lite brights, etc.]
T: You know that I maintain three blogs?
K: Yes. I love the poetry one.
T: The poetry blog never gets any hits! Every time I publish a poem, I post it up on Facebook and the same 20 – 25 people read the poem. Occasionally somebody responds, and that’s just fine. I don’t write because I want to get rich and famous. That’s clearly never going to happen for anybody ever again! But as soon as I posted my first Hundred-Mile Microphone, I got 200 hits within 24 hours. Apparently there’s an audience for this, an appetite for the exploration of local music and culture. I’m excited to discover that I’ve stumbled upon something that other people are excited about too.
K: Cool! Okay, just a couple more questions. Sweet or Savoury, and why?
T: Savoury, I don’t know why. Because I’m already sweet enough?
K: Adorable! One more. What would your secret nickname be for yourself?
T: Like if I were a superhero?
T: If I were a superhero I would want the ability to breath under water. So what would my nickname be? I think I would probably call myself… *thinks* No… not “The Amphibian”. That’s a terrible name for a superhero! I can’t tell you my secret name. That would be giving it away, right?
K: Right. *smile* I really appreciate you taking time to talk with me, thanks Tom!
LISTEN to Love Lets Go, the title track from Trio Arjento’s upcoming CD.
CHECK OUT the Hundred-Mile Microphone Project.
WATCH Trio Arjento’s version of Human Nature by Michael Jackson on youtube. (Yes, a video!)