Tom Wilson’s beautiful scars
When listening to Tom Wilson speak, it isn’t a leap of the imagination to envision a grizzled mountain man appearing out of the darkness the relay wisdom to anyone who may be there on the edge of the woods, the shaman in the smoke imparting collected mythologies and knowledge to the attentive around the fire. There’s a deepness in his soul well and underneath the midnight black there may very well be no bottom.
It is on the surface of this pool, silver moon glimmering in the ripples of song, where the ethereal psychedelic folk cries in the night of LeE HARVeY OsMond’s most recent offering, Beautiful Scars, gently float.
Wilson, whose life was altered a few years ago when, during a conversation with a stranger, he was told he had actually been adopted, had a lot to unearth. With the cold shovel he started digging and the past piled up next to him, things he thought he knew examined anew, transporting him into old memories and moments that would be poured into a skin shedding, laid bare personal release.
“Suddenly you're back in your kitchen. And you can see the pattern on your mothers dress and see her eyes alive again. You smell the shampoo in her hair and the coffee on the stove. You hear Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman” on 900 CHML and feel the air move around the room as your mother sways to it,” Wilson says, taking you back with him into this moment where you can almost feel the tablecloth, smell coffee.
“It's real and for the most part we avoid real because it breaks our hearts. When you write it down you get your heart broken all day long.”
Ottawa Life had a chance to speak with Wilson before his sold out performance tonight. The musician, actor and artist talks about the inspiration found at the kitchen table, touring with his son and coming book.
Ottawa Life: I once read a quote by you stating that your music has to be “translated across a kitchen table, over a pack of smokes and a pot of coffee”. Can you elaborate?
Tom Wilson: When I was a kid my uncle Jim would come down from Kahnawake with his little guitar. He was a wild Mohawk ironworker. He climbed the giant steel skeletons the rose up in the sky over Manhattan. He was like Superman. He was one of many Mohawk supermen who built the American skylines we know today. He would sit around our kitchen table and play and sing George Jones, Buck Owens and Hank Snow songs. White man blues.
I learned then and there –in 1965 / 1966– that music was about communication. It was simple. Lullabies and whisky around the kitchen table. If a song can make it across the kitchen table it can make it anywhere. My kids in turn also learned this around our kitchen table. Willie P. Bennett, Daniel Lanois, Colin Linden all sat and threw down at the kitchen table. Try to beat that in any classroom or concert hall. It may go around the world but it all starts at the kitchen table.
How do you feel that translated in the songs that went into Beautiful Scars?
It's where I write. There was nothing to translate or manipulate. It's always just there.
What has it been like working with your son on not only this release but also having him open up on the tour? I think I read you played over 130 shows together between April and November of last year alone!
It's the best time in my life. Total love. We stand toe to toe singing into one mic across America. We sing together the way most bands will never sing. Sing together. We are blood on blood. Nothing gets in our way.
That’s a pretty packed touring schedule. How do you find the time to write new music or focus on other arts you are interested in?
The energy of one feeds the other . I think, I hope, that's what being an artist is about. I work hard at it. I have to. I'm not as talented as the next guy or girl. I hope to keep getting there. That's the job.
You are one of these artists like, say, Tom Waits where in your lyrics you really feel the song and can be transcended into the moment of the music. How do you feel you encompass this and is it a visceral sharing of self or carefully crafted fictions? Both?
Just honesty. If you’re honest with yourself you'll only have honesty to put into your art. People don't get honesty much. They get con men, flashes in pans, and sometimes lies. Honesty is the only way to go for me now.
The band was formed as a sort of artist collective. Do you feel it continues to achieve this?
Completely. It wouldn't exist without Michael Timmons, Ray Farrugia, Josh Finlayson , Thompson Wilson. These guys and the other musicians we surround ourselves with play without trying to show off. We build a family. That's what this music really is. Family music.
While many tend to stick to one medium, you’ve been a musician, actor, painter and writer. Do you find this need to create in you leads itself to multiple facets and art forms?
I've never wanted to be with the many and the many never wanted me hanging around with them. I have no idea what other people do or think and I don't care. My game is to do whatever I'm moved to do whenever I want to do it. Success comes and success goes but freedom rules.
Speaking of writing, last year you signed a book deal with Penguin. Can you share some of the plans for the book? I read it focuses on you discovering only a few years back that you were adopted.
That's where it starts. The mirror I see myself in is finally cleaned off. This new journey had a lot of roadside adventures. My book like everything else I do is about freedom
How did that revelation affect you? Did you find it drove you in a different direction creatively?
It drove me harder. I'm closer to 60 now. I'm a man making man art not boy art. I'm more loving but at the same time more aggressive about my direction.
You mentioned that Beautiful Scars was a way to drag a lot of things you were thinking about into the present. Did you find yourself looking back on your past prior to writing to discover things you wanted to surface?
My editor at Random House gave me smart, well-travelled advice: She said keep one foot in the now as you step into the past. We can all tell a story. Finish it, butt out our smoke and move on. When you write your story everything your writing comes to life. It comes barreling though your door without you giving it permission to come in.
As we are here at the start of a new year, what were some things that are sticking with you about 2016?
I got my birth Mother a brand new condo/apt to live in. 2016 was a successful in a way I never imagined.
The title Beautiful Scars strikes me in the same was as Cohen’s Beautiful Losers did. Scars are not looked upon in general as a thing of beauty. What went into this title and finding beauty in what many might find grotesque?
I don't give a shit about what many might find. Many have their journey and they might want some passive milk toast version of art or music to make them feel smart or accepted. Beautiful Scars is about not running anymore and leaving the game with blood in your face.
The album is a collection of genres, a wonderful collage of influences from country to blues to folk. Like an artist choosing colour for his pallet, how do you find you mesh these various styles, sometimes in single tracks?
You got it right. It's about colours. It's not all about one colour. It's about letting all your colours hit the horizon. Some bands do the same thing their entire careers. Wear the same shirts, show off the same smile and play the same shitty song over and over and over and there are people who will go to see it over and over and over. Some bands lose their colour wheels. I refuse to do that. I'll go broke before I ever do.
“Blue Moon Drive” seems to be the blackest song on the album. What went into getting that one down?
I lived in LA for a short while in the late 70's. I thought I was going to take over the world but instead I lived off chilli dogs and sold hash to tourists on Hollywood Blvd. I got punched in the face a lot. But I got up. And I wrote it down.
Looking ahead, what’s on the horizon for you in 2017?
You gotta’ sin to get saved.
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