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Tommy Emmanuel talks to Bernd Br??ggemann for Austrade
Photo by Austrade

Tommy Emmanuel, The Austrade Interview

Fri, 16 Apr 2010 05:45:54 +1000

Austrade in Germany has started an online site to promote Australian artists in Europe.

On April 14, 2010, Bernd Brueggemann sat down with Tommy to talk guitar, touring and his plans for the future.

Here is the interview:

Austrade: When was the last day you did not have a guitar in your hand?

Tommy Emmanuel: I can’t remember. Always I have it. This morning I woke up very early in Amsterdam and it was very sunny. So I took a walk and then I came back and played for quite a while. And then I had to do a live cross to a television show in Australia using Skype. I had to talk on the mobile phone and they looked at me on the Skype screen. That was really weird.

Austrade: Which television show was it?

Tommy Emmanuel: It was “Hey hey it’s Saturday”.

Austrade: With Joe Robinson on?

Tommy Emmanuel: That’s right! Well, I introduced Joe on the show. They wanted to do a cross to me because I kind of started the whole thing with Australian television and acoustic guitars. And my brother and I have really nurtured Joe all the way and he’s just an amazing talent.

Austrade: Austrade has had the chance to meet him at his concert in Aachen in December and we were really impressed by him. Will he be the next certified guitar player?

Tommy Emmanuel: I don’t know. Maybe that’s a bit early to say. But he is more than good for his age. He has been composing complex music since he was fourteen. He is a musical sponge. He is taking in everything. He can sit in with people and play like Django-music or he play John Mayer’s music or Eric Clapton’s music, he can play my songs, he can play his own tracks - he is really a phenomenon.

Austrade: When you were his age, nearly 19, were you better at that stage?

Tommy Emmanuel: No! I might have been more focused on melody. But I would say that Joe has a technical ability far greater than I had at that stage. Probably far greater than I have right now! The only difference between Joe and I is that I like to write melodic ballads and things like that as well as fast fingerpicking tunes. Joe doesn’t play any ballads because he is young and he is growing up with the fact that, when you’re just playing the guitar and not singing or whatever, you think you have to fill every millisecond. But actually you don’t.

Austrade: Does that mean that you have to get old, or at least older, to stand the more quiet moments on stage?

Tommy Emmanuel: No! I have always been able to do it. But not many young people can. I could when I was young. When I was 16 I would play “Love me tender” and tunes like that. And I would play them really slowly. I always felt comfortable about that. The only time I didn’t play those kind of things was during the early days of my rise in Australia when I was getting booked in big pubs. So I was playing in rooms where rock-bands play, but I am a solo guitar-player and went as loud and as hard and as fast as I can for two hours. So that was my training ground. That was like going to boot-camp and getting ready for things like what I am doing tonight. What I am doing tonight is: I am playing to a sold-out crowd in a big philharmonic hall. That is my childhood dream!

Austrade: Without a setlist?

Tommy Emmanuel: I never work to a setlist! Except of course when I work with an orchestra. But even then I get off the road, because I like to be absolutely in the moment.

Austrade: So, guitar playing for you - is more passion or addiction?

Tommy Emmanuel: It is a passion that you get addicted to! You are addicted to playing live. I am addicted to applause I think. And to being in that moment! But I also think you fall in love with the discipline of it at the same time. I know I have to be disciplined to get better at what I am doing. So this morning I turned my metronome on and I played fast scales. Up and down, up and down, then I slowed down and I played them slow. I take my motor skills to the gym. And I never stop doing that because I want to hone my skills so that when a real good inspired idea comes I can do it!

Austrade: Are you practicing to get inspiration or to get better on guitar?

Tommy Emmanuel: To get better on guitar.

Austrade: But... For one of the best guitar players in the world: What is there to get better?

Tommy Emmanuel: Oh, there is so much I should be working on, absolutely! Last week I went to play some of my older tunes and I did not play them up to the way I like it. So I spent almost a week, every time I picked up a guitar playing some of my older tunes just to get them up. Because I haven’t played them for so long when I played them I was rusty on them. The guitar is such a different thing. And the thing is: We are different every day, aren’t we? We perceive things in a different way on a daily basis. And that goes for your guitar playing as well. George Benson said it beautifully in an interview. He said: “I’d pick up the guitar one day and I said ‘I am the master and I am gonna show this guitar a thing or two’ and then the next day I pick it up and I feel like a fool.” And the funny thing is... You are probably aware of the fact that I work a lot? I try to play about 300 to 330 shows a year and people thought a few years ago when I got sick that I would slow down, but I actually sped up. I am actually doing more work than before. I think I am more dedicated now than I was before because it means so much more to me.

Austrade: Does that have something to do with the slight switch from electric to acoustic guitar?

Tommy Emmanuel: No! Next year I will play electric and bring my band to Europe. I will be playing all my old stuff. That is the plan. Two twenty day windows in Europe and then a twenty day window in America. We are doing Australia in December.

Austrade: Your friends and family must have been very concerned when you starting working that much again after your heart problems a few years ago?

Tommy Emmanuel: Yes, but I found the right balance of medicine and things like that. It took me nearly two years to get everything balanced. I hated it at the start because I had no energy and I felt almost depressed on this medicine. So I just took myself off certain medicines the doctor did not really want me to come off and I thought: The only thing I have to regulate is my blood pressure. That is where the danger is. So I concentrated on that and forgot about all the other medicine that he was giving me. Now I just take three different medicines a day. That’s it.

Austrade: The doctors would say now that applause raises the blood pressure...

Tommy Emmanuel: You don’t know how right that is! Sure does!

Austrade: Let’s talk about another musical talent in Australia. Your niece, Jesse Emmanuel, has a great song out. How is it like to see someone you know from the beginning of her life in a music video?

Tommy Emmanuel: “Don’t touch my guitar”! Really wonderful! She’s really got it! She won “young songwriter of the year” at the APRA-Awards. I am so proud of her! She is going to be opening for my brother and me in December in Australia. Then we will get her up at the end of the show with the band and she can sing with the band.

Austrade: You are not living in Australia for quite a while: What is your relation towards Australia?

Tommy Emmanuel: I am an Australian! I don’t live there at the moment. I can’t work too much in Australia because I am at a point where I am playing big halls in all the capital cities and I don’t want to burn it out. You can do that in Australia, you can play too much and your crowds will fall away because they start saying ‘OK, I’ll see him next time round’. So I want to keep it special for me and for the people. My daughters and my ex-wife are based in England. So England is kind of my base for Europe and America is my base for America, Canada or South America. And then, when I go to Australia I just hire an apartment or so.

Austrade: Nearly every single artist in Australia seemed to have worked with you. The latest tracks we heard were “Old Man Emu” for John Williamson and “Mr. Bojangles” with Adam Harvey. How did these collaborations start?

Tommy Emmanuel: They normally contact me via e-mail. Then I talked to Adam on the phone, we agreed on the keys and I went through the arrangement with him. Then I went into a studio in Nashville and I put my part down including the solo and then I just e-mailed it to him. With “Old Man Emu” for John Williamson: I did that in a studio in Leicester. We used some fabulous drum loops and I just did all the rest of the instruments and we came up with the arrangement on the day. We started around mid-day and it was finished about 8 o’clock at night.

Austrade: Are there any Australians left you would really like to record with and haven’t yet?

Tommy Emmanuel: I have worked with the best I think. I have worked with John Farnham, I worked with Troy Cassar-Daley, one of the greatest voices on the planet. Troy is coming to America for a tour in July. He has got such a voice and such a charisma. It doesn’t matter where he is from - it is the message he has! It’s like Jake Shimabukuro, the young ukulele-player who is on the road with me here. I really wanted to get Jake going in Europe because people haven’t seen him here yet and people have been amazed by him.

Austrade: Let’s talk about recording for a moment. Is that a totally different, maybe more complicated thing for you?

Tommy Emmanuel: No, actually recording for me generally is a great pleasure. I tell you why: Because I love wearing headphones and sitting in front of microphones. [laughs] But seriously: I use the same engineer and producer all the time. Her name is Kim Person. She is from Virginia and she is a player and a singer as well. But when it comes to recording she is an artist in her own right. When I turn up at the studio she has already got things set, headphones, reverb and all that stuff. I just sit down and start playing. Recording for me is not something that I labor over. My album “Only” was recorded in two afternoons. “Endless road” was recorded in two afternoons. “The mystery” way recorded in two afternoons. That was in the middle of a tour. My new album “Little by little” is a double album and it is exactly the opposite. I recorded it over a year in different periods when I was back home. So I am really excited about the new album!

Austrade: In your recording career you did many different things. You recorded an album with Chet Atkins, with your brother Phil, an album of duets, with an orchestra, acoustic,
electric. Is there any idea left you would like to record?

Tommy Emmanuel: Yes, I would like to do an album of duets with other instrumentalists. Like Jake, for instance. On my new album there are some duets. I did two songs with a fellow c.g.p. John Knowles and I did a duet with Doyle Dykes, who is a brilliant guitar player from the Nashville area. Rick Price and I did “Moon river” and he sang it. I also did an alternative version of that with a band and I had Victor Wooten play bass and take a solo on it.

Austrade: You still have enough new ideas?

Tommy Emmanuel: Things keep coming to me!

Austrade: I asked that because one of the greatest Australian rock bands, Powderfinger, recently called it day and one of their reasons was the fact that they felt they said everything they wanted to say as a band. Have you ever felt that way?

Tommy Emmanuel: Absolutely! The funny thing is: I am always concerned about that because I work so much. So, in order to combat that thing of starting to feel like everything is starting to sound the same I play a totally different concert every single night. I know how to put a show together, I could write a setlist and I could go out and play it every single night, play it really with conviction and it would work. I could guarantee that! But I don’t want to do that every night because by the third night I feel like playing something else.

Austrade: You make it entertaining for yourself?

Tommy Emmanuel: Absolutely! And I must push myself further out on the limit.

Austrade: Does that also involve discovering new countries on your touring-globe? A few years ago you went to Croatia, Serbia and Poland for the first time...

Tommy Emmanuel: And last year I went to China for the first time. This year I have been to Brazil for the first time. And this year I also sold out a big hall in Moscow with nearly 3.000 people. It was last Sunday night and it was just unbelievable.

Austrade: Do you get different reactions in different countries?

Tommy Emmanuel: In Russia women run to the stage with flowers and want to kiss you. The Russians are incredibly emotional about music. And if you reach out to them - boy, do they reach back! That’s wonderful!

Austrade: You were not always on the road as a solo-artist. Your first concerts in Germany were in 1987. You have been on a big tour with Tina Turner and John Farnham and you played in band called Hunter. In Australia this was Dragon, but they had to change their name here. How was it like to be in a band? Was that like only 10% of your abilities to play?

Tommy Emmanuel: Oh no, I gave everything I had! I enjoyed the hell out of it! I joined that band because I loved their music. And it was very interesting because in 1984 they had about six number one records in a row and they were all good. Classic, great pop/rock-songs. And we did a tour with them and I had produced a singer named Sharon O’Neill and we had a top ten record with her. When she got the tour, opening for Dragon, it was all like 20.000 people in the audience. And she didn’t have a band yet and her husband said ‘let’s get together on it’. So I played drums and he played guitar. We got a bass player, percussionist, saxophone player and two backing singers and had a great time. But on that tour Dragon’s guitar player came to me and said ‘I am leaving after the tour, you should join the band’. And I said ‘OK, when they ask me I’ll say yes’. It was about six months later when I was walking out of a club at about 4 in the morning at Kings Cross. And I look in the window of a 24-hour-restaurant and there was the lead singer and the keyboarder sitting there with red wine and food. And they saw me and said ‘hey, come in’. And so they said ‘You wanna join the band’ and I said ‘Yeah’ and they said ‘Good, here, let’s have a toast’.

Austrade: And you stayed in the band for a while?

Tommy Emmanuel: I did. I joined in 1985 and then in 1986 we went to America and recorded the album with Todd Rundgren producing us. When we came back we had a couple of big hits from that album. Then Polygram signed us for Europe and we got on the Tina Turner tour.

Austrade: The “band” you started playing music in was your family. Your brother Phil played lead guitar, you played rhythm guitar. So he more or less was “the boss”. Now you are far more successful. Does that have any influence on your relationship?

Tommy Emmanuel: No, it’s because I travel all the time!

Austrade: Phil doesn’t want to travel?

Tommy Emmanuel: He likes to travel. But he sees the things very different to me. But he is still always the lead guitar player and I am still always the rhythm guitar player when we play together. I was talking to him today. We were talking about the tour coming up because it is our 50th anniversary this year of playing music. And I have the promoter and the team and in a situation like that I say to him ‘You let me drive the ship and you’ll have a good time and at the end of it you have a good pay-day”. Because when it comes to organization and business and all that kind of stuff that is where my strength lies. Phil is a ‘let’s turn up and play”-kind of guy and that is great! I don’t want him to change, I love him just the way he is.

Austrade: Is there a chance for another Tommy & Phil Emmanuel album?

Tommy Emmanuel: I hope so. We just got to get the songs together. At the moment I just concentrate on America. My Live-Album, which came out two years ago, is still going strong in America. So I just keep on going with it until I am ready to release the new album.

Austrade: Speaking about selling records. In Australia your last Top 30 album was the Greatest Hits Compilation in 2001. What’s wrong in Australia?

Tommy Emmanuel: There is nothing wrong in Australia. When I get back there I have bigger crowds than I had in 2001. But if you want to get in the charts you have to sell a lot of product. And they way you sell a lot of product is to do a lot of in-stores and you do a lot of television. Then you go on every radio station that’s on the air and you drum up the business. People think it is about the amount of plays you get on radio. It’s not! It’s about how many people bother to go to a record store and buy your CD. That’s the bottom line!

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