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Interview with Tommy Emmanuel


Interview by Cherilyn Hehl

Tommy Emmanuel belongs to the best finger style and acoustic guitarists in the world. His career has started at the early age of 6, and since then he has been nominated twice for a Grammy, released over 30 studio albums, has toured the world multiple times and worked together with stars like Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Olivia Newton John. Still he seems to be unstoppable. I hardly ever met a person who is loving so much what he is doing, and even after so much success, his passion still keeps him going.
In January 2018 he released his new studio album 'Accomplice One', and as a testament to Tommy's musical diversity, the range of expression that stretches from authentic country-blues to face-melting rock shredding, by way of tender and devastating pure song playing.

tommy emmanuel interview 1

Tommy, I have already read a lot about your career and I have to say, you are such an inspiring person, not only as an artist, in everything you are doing, you are so heart- driven. I would like to take you on a journey through your life and take you back to your childhood. You have been on stage at the early age of 6 and toured around Australia. How was that experience for you? Didn't you feel like you would miss something in your childhood?

It was just so exciting. I started to play at home with my mother when I was 4 years old, so I learned how to play songs. We were listening to records all the time, so there was always music in our house. I am one of six children and we all love music. My parents really pushed us to play, in a good way. We were a family band. My brother would play all the lead part, so I took over the rhythm guitar. When we played shows, it was the best feeling ever. When the audience clapped along to our playing, I just thought wow, there was something in this that connects people. I fell in love with being on stage, I wanted to be on stage, I wanted to be an entertainer. From that day on and still today, I have always watched people who were good at it: comedians, entertainers, singers. I have observed what they are doing that is causing these people's hearts to explode. I studied people who could handle the crowd very well and I started to learn from that. And when I got older I have realised all I have to do is to be myself and have fun. If I take myself too seriously, everything comes to a hold. People can see that. If I just make sure that I am having a great time, then people have a great time, too. You learn to be open and free. When people now say to me, "Oh my son wants to be a solo guitar player like you," I say well he better be okay with being naked on stage, 'cause everything is exposed. Not just my playing, but my arrangement, my sound, my tuning, the timing...everything is exposed because there is no other instrument, just the guitar. So you better have it all together and be comfortable with who you are.
There is a lot of sides to it. Growing up on stage has been a wonderful thing to me. When I am home with my family, I am doing my best to just be a daddy and a husband. But when I am on stage, I can just be myself. It is the opposite of most people's life. That's why I say: I don't go to work, I go to play. I didn't have a normal life growing up as a child with all the touring, therefore I was very good in geography with all the travel. Ironically I wasn't good at music because I never learned music from the books.

Do you remember the moment of your big break through, where you realised, that you were on the right track?

I am still waiting for my big break through, haha. I just keep trying to move forward. Every day I am trying to play better than yesterday. I am not focused on fame and money. It is all nice if you have it, but I really hope to place a trail for the younger generation. If they see what I do, hopefully they are inspired from it. That's how I look at it. Fame and money is all scenery. It is not spiritual, no personal growth ... I'm looking for something to leave behind. A great song from the movie 'The Accountant', written by Sean Row, that is what I am trying to do. Actually I will tour with Sean Row soon and I am very excited about that.

You also toured or recorded with other artists like Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and your idol Chet Atkins. Tell us about the best experience you had with them.

Oh fantastic, fantastic. I toured with Eric in 1990 and did a whole tour through Australia. He was so nice to me and encouraging. There first thing he said to me was, "So you've been playing a while, have you?" Tina Turner, I was in the opening band for her tour in 1987. We played all over Europe. We played 9 shows at Wembley. It was amazing. She was such an inspiration and I watched every show. Working with Chet, who was my childhood idol. The day he called me to record with him I put the phone down and thought 'Is this really happening?' I wrote a song for him, called 'Mister Guitar', which is his nickname. I wrote it very quickly because I was so inspired, and then I rang him back and told him about the song. So my daughter held the phone and I played it. He was in Nashville, I was in Australia. He said, "It's good. Let's do it." It made it on the album. I was looking on everyone's albums and nobody used that title 'Mister Guitar' before. So I used it. It was like a childhood dream that came true. And that shows, that in life and the music industry, everything can happen. Look at Ed Sheeran, he went to school with my daughter. He lived down the road from us. I saw him in school and I knew he was good. Now look how good he is now. It is unbelievable.

You have once said there are so many acoustic guitarists out there, but what makes you different is the way you write songs. You wrote songs for artists like Olivia Newton John. How would you describe your style of songwriting and do you always have an artist in your mind you write songs for?

I try to write as if I would write for a singer. I never think I am just a solo guitar player, I always try to put a song together that tells a story, that takes the listener somewhere, that you want to hear again and again. I try not to think too much as a guitar player. I try to think as a singer/ songwriter.
When I was writing songs with Chet Atkins, or showed him a new song, he would always say, "Can you hum it?" He always set a quality level. Guys like him had a quality control inside. When they heard the song, they immediately had arrangement ideas and knew who could sing that song. That's why Chet was a great producer.

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Do you write the lyrics as well?

A little bit, but I am not very good at writing lyrics. If I need lyrics, I would go to a lyricist and he would end up with something great. On the new album, the last track I wrote as an instrumental piece, but the melody was strong for a singer. The song is called 'The Duke's Message', and the duke is John Wayne. One of my friend is singer/songwriter Anthony Snape; he is Australian but lives in Nashville. I like his lyrics, I like how he thinks. So I went to him and said imagine you are a young boy and you go to cinema and your hero is on the screen, and you listen to everything he says. And these words carry you and make a difference in your life. So he did some research about John Wayne and I told him a little bit about that movie, because I have been a fan since I was a child and I could tell you a lot of quotes from his movies. But he found the message on his gravestone: Each night tomorrow comes and hopes we've learned from yesterday'. That's on his grave. So that became the bridge of the song. The song is from the perspective of a young boy who is influenced by his hero. It starts out, "Where the sky has always changing, where the dusty reaches turn to planes, I can hear your words, they carry me, and my life will never be the same." The second verse talks about the boy and comes from a quote of his movie. I had written the melody years ago, but Anthony had written the lyrics and Suzi had the right voice for the song.

You have released an album nearly every year. How do you get the inspiration to write all these songs and do you have times where you can't be creative?

That is a good point, beause I can't write unless I am inspired. You can't force music, it has to come and flow to you. Some of the songs I wrote, the first part came very quickly. Like the verse was there very quickly. But then when it comes to the chorus, I analyse too much and get stuck; the ideas weren't natural anymore. So I stop and I wait, I may wait for the next day. And then I keep on. I learned very quickly that you can't force it. There are people who can clock on and clock off and write great music, every day between a certain time. There are those people. I am not one of them. If I am inspired, I write.

Do you have certain tricks to get inspired?

Yes. For example I watch great people who are excellent. For example, I watch Tom Hanks in 'The Green Mile' or I watch 'Forrest Gump'. I watch somebody doing something excellent. Or Mohamed Ali, people who were born to do what they are doing, on a level of excellence. And I get tears in my eyes as it is so inspiring. It changes you. You have to try whatever works for you.

There is always two sides: creativity, and the other part is skills. You belong to the best finger style guitarists in the world. How much do you practice?

I practice every day. My main focus is trying to write new music all the time and coming up with new ideas. I also play my old stuff and try to play around with it to create something new. I don't have a set routine. Sometimes I work on skills, sometimes I work on strength, work on my timing. Mostly I am playing songs and trying to write songs. On a normal day on tour we would get up at 7am, have breakfast at 8am, arrive at the next city at 1pm, have a little rest in the hotel room then go to the theatre at 5pm for sound-check, then have dinner, then I do a meet and greet before every show with the public and then the show begins at 8pm, finishes at 10.30pm, meet more people and then I sleep. So it is not a lot time left for practice. But I play as much as I can. But I mostly play every day, either playing on shows or radios. When I practice, it is just repetitive stuff, to be more flexible with your fingers and strengthen your muscles.

What's your plan for the future?

This album is called 'Accomplice One' for a reason, because there is going to be a two. And for the next album I would love to work together with people like Stevie Wonder or Bonnie Raitt. So I am starting to work on that now and have already recorded stuff for that. My goal right now is to write the next solo album with solo pieces. When I write new songs, I would perform them live on stage to see how the audience reacts to it. If I see it works well on a show, the song will find his way to the album. When I go then to the recording studio, I play it one time and it is done.

Now industry has changed towards electronic music. What is the motivation for young artists to still focus on acoustic music?

I love all kinds of music. There is nothing wrong with electric music. The only thing I don't like is if music is too repetitive and doesn't go anywhere, I don't like that. But there is some electronic music that is really great. I know what is going on in the world right now. There are young guitar players everywhere who are putting videos on Youtube or other social media. This is a great thing because people are sharing music and videos, because everyone has their own approach to songs. And I love to see how ideas are coming together. For example, how other young guitarists play songs by Chet Attkins with their individual interpretation. So thanks to social media, we are all linked together. I am just ready for someone to take what I have started and do something new and great with it.

What is your favourite quote?

Dress up, show up and do your best. These are my mentor words. Because it is not about me, when I play. Something happens with you, with the audience. That's why I show up.

What is the meaning and message of your new album, 'Accomplice One', and the most meaningful song on it to you?

Real music and real people. The most meaningful song is 'Rachel's Lullaby' beause Rachel is my daughter, she is three. And that's her style. She is playing the ukulele and singing a song she just came up with.

She is already playing at the age of 3?

Yes, she already has a little guitar. The reason I wrote 'Rachel's Lullaby' is that Rachel loves the song 'Blackbird' by the Beatles. She loves is so much and listens to it a thousand times. So I took the feeling from 'Blackbird' and put a new song together. It is a tribute to Paul McCartney with the feeling of his song and dedicated to my daughter. I just hope that people feel the joy in the music of the album and feel that it is very real.

Tommy Emanuel will be touring in UK in May and will be accompanied by his friends like Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo. Tickets are available here:

His new album can be downloaded here:

tommy emmanuel interview 2

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