Friday 22 February 2019

Q&A: Tom Baxter

Ed Power

Tom Baxter hasn't had an easy road to success. He talks highs and lows with Ed Power

Your parents were a folk duo, weren't they?

They were both folk singers so they met and they became a team. They were called Jack and Julie. They were on Opportunity Knocks, which was the equivalent of X Factor in those days. Then they had four kids, and that was the end of that. My dad has always been a frustrated songwriter. He's much more of a performer than me. He's very gregarious, very eccentric. In a strange sort of way, me having success with music is probably some sort of way of creating a bond with my father. It gave him an opportunity to live through me. It's quite strange. Sometimes I feel as if I'm almost doing it for him.

Is it true that you briefly gave up on music to become a cabinet maker?

I'd been playing for years. I'd get to the point where I was nearly getting somewhere, then something would go wrong. In my late twenties, I had a bit of a breakdown in a way and I didn't know what to do with myself. During this time, all my mates had been working all these different jobs, such as film, media and graphic design; buying houses, getting married, having kids. And you're on the dole, still trying to do music. So I thought, 'OK, I'm going to stop'. I was trying to do other jobs but I didn't really have a CV. I had always done DIY decorating with my Dad, so I set up this thing where I started renovating pubs and houses.

You've had some unhappy experiences with record companies...

It was Sony and BMG who wanted to sign me and I chose Sony -- only to find out later that the whole place had been taken over by BMG. So when they took over, they were like, 'F**k you, you didn't want to go with us anyway'. That's where my whole nightmare began with the first record (2004's Feather And Stone).

The rumour is that the label wanted to pair you with a big-name pop producer but that you balked.

Record labels are fundamentally run by accountants, and accountants want results. If you make a record at a normal label, they pump in from £250,000 to half a million and then you get the sort of sales we had. It's not enough to remotely pay back the money. So they stop and panic and say, 'OK, it didn't really work and now we need something else. Let's go and work with blah blah blah, who worked with blah blah blah, who happened to make, say, a Boyzone hit'. And I'm going, 'Yeah, but Boyzone don't do what I do'.

So you covered the cost of your new album, Skybound, yourself?

One thing that record companies want is to earn money. They don't care if you dress up as Donald Duck, so long as you make them money. With my last label, I gave them Better. I went to a senior person and I said: 'Here it is. This track is what you need.' I knew it. Even the producers he put me onto knew it. But they wouldn't give me any money to go and record the song.

Ironically, they ended up paying to let me go and I used that money and my own money to go on and make the second record and put it out myself. Fortunately, at that point, everyone was taking interest again and wanted to license the record. We then did the deal with EMI. Ridiculously, Sony BMG were interested again.

You put Skybound out on iTunes before it was physically released. Was this to counteract file sharing?

You know that's going to happen anyway; you can't put a record out nowadays and expect it not to be downloaded for free. That's the way the industry works and that's why record companies are having a nightmare. They're in a position where something is going on that they can't control. I have sympathy for them, but I don't at the same time. But it will work its way around it. Touring is much more successful now, as is merchandise.

Tell us about your friendship with Friends star, David Schwimmer.

Starting out he was a fan, but now he's a mate. He's a really down-to-earth bloke. He has no airs and graces; he's a normal guy.

David Gray has said that he became fed-up having to play Babylon night after night. Do you fear you'll eventually come to feel the same about your hit, Better?

The best way of explaining it is, if you get up every day and you put on exactly the same set of trousers, it's impossible not to think, 'I wouldn't mind wearing another pair of trousers'. If people know you by one song and then come to the gig, they expect to hear it. You're not going to avoid playing it. n

Tom Baxter plays The Meteor Awards, February 15 and The Olympia, Dublin February 28. Skybound is out now

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