I talk to Tom Emlyn over a glitchy zoom whilst the Swansea-born songwriter is on a break in Slovenia, a country of uncannily Welsh-like weather right now going by the verbal picture he paints, but one also hiding the extraordinary within familiarities. After we’re finished up here he’s off to see a post office built deep underground; his description and the gremlins mischief-making with our internet connection across land and sea combined, make it sound more than a little bit magical.
Tom, who releases his debut solo album ‘News From Nowhere’ next week, penned his first songs – ‘psychedelic phatasmagoric trips’ – before legally permitted to buy his first pint. It kickstarted a whole creative process and outlet. This prolific songwriter so fascinated by quirks and eccentricies of the world around him has come a long way since, and has a stash of recorded material lined up for release. ‘I try and slow myself down. But I can’t really help but do it. It’s like an obsession at this point,’ he jokes of his songwriting habit.
He sees ‘News From Nowhere’ – produced by Tom Rees (Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard) at Rat Trap Studios, Cardiff, and mastered by Charlie Francis(REM, Robyn Hitchcock) – as a ‘bittersweet love letter’ to his hometown. Named in tribute to his previous now defunct band and the continuing spirit it represented, he talks fondly of the musicians who worked with him on it. Without their input, the record would not be.
The eleven songs are impressively diverse. Emlyn lays out and showcases his musical passions in song after song, from simple acoustic ballad ‘Empire’ and and the tender loneliness of ‘Throwaway’ to the brisk punk n roll wig-out ‘Caught The Sun’. The album begins with haunting instrumental ‘Ymerodraeth’ which unexpectedly blooms open, and up; ‘Colourless’ swirls in the purple smoke of 60s psychedelia. And my goodness, the lyrics are so highly creative and surreal, a trait omnipresent from the offset.
Life, he rationalises, is a bizarre and strange experience, so why the hell not document it as such. The humdrum and monotony, and the curveballs lobbed our way are weaved together, taking a ‘psychogeographical’ approach to documenting about his hometown. ‘Travelling makes you interrogate the place you’re from. I studied a lot of Welsh authors at university, thought a lot about what it is to be Welsh, what it is to come from a place. I write about a lot of things, but I try to map out the landscape of Swansea in a psychological way.’
The songs have true emotional depth, are highly tuneful and melodic with lyrical sharpness and shades of dark, combining the magical ingredients of melancholy and wit. ‘Different feelings contrasting with each other. This is what Elliott Smith always said, he doesn’t think of it as sad music he sees it a as different complicated feelings. Melancholia isn’t necessarily sad, is it? In Romantic poetry, it’s a feeling of ironically enjoying those feelings rather than just wallowing in it,’ says Tom.
Single ‘Under The Street’ is a personal triumph, he reveals. A rewarding result of working his craft. ‘When I’m talking about these psychogeographic post-industrial feelings, I’ve written a lot of songs about this, it’s the song that finally captured what I was trying to say about it all. The sense of the past you have in a place like Swansea.’ He talks of his days wandering around Swansea in years past in somewhat of a dreamy daze, letting his mind wander. ‘And write in my head inspired by what was around me. I would try and imagine, hallucinate what Swansea was like in the past, try and visualise all the ghosts that could have existed. I don’t know why I was doing this. This song is an ironic attempt to capture the idea of a place.’ The video to go with it ties in. Tom and his girlfriend the artist Seren Noel, went for a walk on Splott Beach in Cardiff during plague year. ‘It’s not really a beach. It’s a post- industrial wasteland, it was a beach once upon a time, industry has scarred it so much. The whole thing is covered with bricks and rubble, industrial wreckage.’ Seren gathered together pieces of metal, wires and nuts and bolts from the beach and created the puppet Splotto. In Tom’s mind the rusty wonky metal figure epitomises the curious spirits living amongst the discarded debris.
Elliott Smith’s legacy shows itself on News From Nowhere, so we talk songwriting influences a little. REM, Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Gorky’s, John Cale, Australian post-disco oddball Donny Benét and the words of Dylan Thomas. The humour in Emlyn’s work, a value he views vital, is clever and subtle. He loves Half Man Half Biscuit for Nigel Blackwell’s distinctive observations. The bleakness and weariness and dark comedy of playing in a tribute band is dealt with in ‘Cover Band’ on the album. ‘I think you have to have a certain sense of humour to get it, though. I have a dry sense of humour,’ he smiles. He likes HMHB’s no frills production as well. ‘I’ve realised with songwriting, simple is always best.’Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson fed in from early on. ‘He as a folky songwriter, his lyrical style and guitar playing is separate from the prog rock flute band, it’s a very different beast. It’s an underrated side to him.’
Tom has learned so much from enjoying Bob Dylan since even before that first song he wrote as a seventeen year old. ‘There’s this tendency to intellectualise him, I don’t think you need to do that. All you have to do is listen to him. For me it’s the phrasing and the feeling in his voice, the rhythmic emphasis. That’s what’s unique. You can just inhabit the song by that strange technique that he’s developed.’ Dylan’s refusal to stay in the safety of the past, not relying on past glories is a lesson, I suggest. Take the way he totally reinterprets his own work, to older fans’ chagrin. They get so angry. ‘I’d like to be able to take songs apart and put them back together in that way. I don’t think I’m there yet. All I can do is do what I do, and that’s something you can learn from Dylan as well.’
Tom’s been playing shows over the past few months, including the 6 Music Festival fringe in April, and News From Nowhere has received enthusiastic airplay from Huw Stephens and BBC Introducing‘s Adam Walton. Last year we enjoyed the gorgeous ‘Serenade’ on the Record Store Day EP release from record label R*E*P*E*A*T., and after the album is shared with the world, we’re to expect an EP and collection of acoustic songs. ‘I’ve had enough of sitting on stuff,’ he says simply.
News From Nowhere may well be an affectionate credit and tribute to a relatively recent past, but also it feels a necessary document logging a period of his creative and lived life before he embarks on the next chapter.
News From Nowhere is on all listening platforms on 30 May 2022.
Tom Emlyn plays Elysium, Swansea on 24 June with Adam Walton, Foxsleep and Daisy Birch-Jones.
God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.