No bloke with an ounce of sense would become a solo singer-songwriter. Men who insist on singing for a living are better advised to do it within a band - any band, even one of those bouffy-haired, Spandex-catsuit combos. Being a singer-songwriter amounts to creating a rod for one's own back. How do you convey the force of your personality with a guitar and a microphone when the zeitgeist is all about hyper-sexy-noisy-thrills?
Tom Baxter already knew all that, but it didn't stop him getting onstage alone in the South London pub where he was working as a painter (that's painter in the "and decorator" sense) a couple of years ago. It was open-mike night, and he was aware the odds were stacked against his making an impression, but he sang accompanied only by his guitar. And at the end, he was asked to do it again the following week. That show sold out. In his own non-hyper, non-tricksy way, Baxter had touched a nerve. And has continued to do so ever since, showing what can be accomplished by turning the noise down and the intensity up.
It hasn't been as effortless as that makes it sound, but the boy from Bungay (it's in the Suffolk fens) arrives in 2005 on the brink of meaningful success. "Meaningful" doesn't necessarily denote sextuple-platinum album sales; for Tom, it's about making simple, moving music that touches people he's never met. It's about making records that strike the same chord he did that night in the pub. In "Feather & Stone" - his debut album, released last year - he has just that: a record that evokes emotional reactions in
listeners, who have responded by spreading the word.
"I get very inspiring, moving emails" he says. "It's the best part of the job, to hear people talk about their lives. One guy got hold of "My Declaration" [the album's opening track] and played it on his dad's deathbed every day. And this guy was dying with my record playing - whether he wanted it or not! I found it incredibly moving that a song can do that."
As he's discovered, songs can change lives. Moreover, certain songwriters have an impact beyond anything they'd imagined. Baxter has been compared by reviewers to several life-changing writers, including Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake and the jazz singer Chet Baker. Buckley's name comes up often enough for him to be mortified, though the only real similarity is Tom's ability to pour himself into songs, often using strings as enhancement, to reach crescendos that linger in the mind long after the music ends.
He gets fumbly and self-effacing when it's mentioned in conversation: "I can sort of see the connection to Jeff Buckley, because he was into an incredible array of music, but I feel more connected to people like Chet Baker." In fact, you get the feeling that if people want to liken his smoky vocals to cool-dude Baker's, he's not at all unhappy about it. "But I'd rather be compared to Matisse, an artist rather than a songwriter, because most songwriters sound like they're trying to fit into a genre, and the genre seems to be a very specific genre. I'm not attached to genres. The next record might be heavier, or more soulful."
So says a man who grew up wanting to be - seriously - a rockabilly star. If he hadn't had a teenage change of mind, Baxter might now be the lead quiff in a Stray Cats tribute band. "Rockabilly was the first thing that got me going - my brother and a friend and I had a band called Jailbait - cos we were underage - that I sang in. The Stray Cats were the first band I ever saw live. I was writing naive three-chord rockabilly songs at that point." It was the mid-'80s and the adolescent Baxter knew that music was his metier. If he could just get the rockabilly out of his system, that is.
It should be explained that Baxter was probably fated to do something arty because of his upbringing as one of four offspring of hippyish parents. In the 60s, the parental Baxters were a folk duo, but by the time Tom came along, they'd settled down to a life of travelling the country in a Land Rover, which culminated in buying an old hotel in Bungay. His father turned the bar into a "sort of scrappy Ronnie Scott's, with candles
overflowing on tables and live music." This was where Jailbait started out, and where Tom later got into Elvis Costello, whom he heard on a tape while cleaning the bar one morning.
Costello was followed by an interest in R&B, and Baxter's songwriting changed direction accordingly. (R&B is still a great love: Sam Cooke, Al Green, Roberta Flack - she's the closest thing black music has to an Edith Piaf). At 18 he went to art school, but didn't complete his degree "because I wanted to do figurative work, but they expected me to throw paint around on canvas, so I left." All this time, his music had been progressing, and "after listening to a lot of John Coltrane," as he puts it - he decided that a BA course in the music industry at Westminster University would teach him how to get through the door. He got his BA (and a stint of work experience at Sony under his belt), but it didn't have quite the door-opening magic he'd expected..
"I started playing live, but I also worked in shops and bars, and as an assistant film animator, and then I started restoring houses. By the time I did that, I'd lost my way a bit, and wasn't sure I was doing the right thing with music. I'd spent so long pursuing music - I'd played all over the [London] live circuit and became disillusioned. I'd got to my late twenties, and hadn't received recognition. I had a fanbase, but I felt like they were only there because they felt sorry for me." he smiles wryly. "I had no money and was in a relationship with someone I wasn't fitting in with, because she wanted someone who could give her security. And so we split up and that caused a domino effect. It highlighted everything in my life, and I went into a very heavy depression. I struggled with it for a long time, and eventually I had to decide whether I was going to live or not going to live." Another rueful smile. "I know that sounds very dramatic, but if I hadn't lost my marbles and gone doolally, I'd be a lot more blinkered now."
That period produced several songs that eventually became part of "Feather & Stone". The writing was therapeutic, and although Baxter reckons he's still "so neurotic it's ridiculous", the depression eventually ebbed. He was working as a cash-in-hand decorator at the pub in South London by now, keeping his musical hand in by occasionally performing cover versions in the pub's front room. And then, one night, his boss persuaded him to perform some of his own songs. His depression had endowed him with a passion and intensity - "I agonise over everything" - that made drinkers forget their drinks. "And my nights started selling out, and a lot of people were coming to see me, because it was the time when real music started coming back because of people like David Gray, and it was about the song."
For Tom, of course, it had always been about the song, and the world had finally come round to his way of thinking. Those pub sell-outs were followed by a residency - and more sell-outs - at a disused snooker hall in Shepherd's Bush. His intense shows, sometimes accompanied by a string section, were the hot ticket of the summer of 2003. A&R people went to the shows, and there was "a bit of a bidding war".
What they were bidding for was a fully-formed artist: the product of that unconventional upbringing, a pessimist and "born worrier" who turned it it all into mad, intimate, string-clad songs. "Some of my songs are references to the past, which I'm not necessarily living any more, but some of the themes are eternal, like hope."
Baxter has been overwhelmed by the reaction to what he does. He shouldn't be, because the return of what he calls "real music" has reawakened an appetite for real artists. "People get so attached to what you've done, and start treating you in a very", He gropes for the word. "The music becomes precious to them. People can be very confessional toward you because the music is confessional. I've become more and more shy because of it." He's not quite blushing girlishly as he says it, but he clearly means it.
So approach softly if you see him in a North London coffee joint, knocking back "too many" espressos. Tom Baxter is better at whispering than screaming