Sunday, June 18, 2017

Interview: Thomas Wynn

Thomas Wynn and the Believers are a Florida band who have been named number one country/folk as well as number one rock band by the Orlando Weekly for seven consecutive years. Their latest album, Wade Waist Deep, is all the proof you'll need as to why. Central to the band's sound are the vocals of Wynn and his sister Olivia, and when I spoke to Wynn recently I asked about their joint musical history as well as his songwriting, amongst other things.

Are you in Florida at the moment?
I’m not, I’m in New Orleans. We’re on the road.

How extensive is your tour?
This one’s a month long. We just started two days ago and we’ll be back home July 2nd.

Do you like being on the road?
Yeah. I certainly love playing, and that’s the way that you need to play. There are aspects that aren’t so great – I’m away from my family – but we all make sacrifices.

From someone in Australia, where we have a large land mass but not so many towns and cities, the logistics of organising a tour in the US seem to be enormous. It must take a lot of preparation.
Thankfully it does. There are a lot of cities and routing is generally pretty good. We try to do around four hours of drive time between cities, maybe less than that. We’re in New Orleans and then we’re in Baton Rouge, and Baton Rouge is only 80 miles so that’s not far at all. We have a wonderful agent, Jesse Rosoff over at the United Talent Agency, and he’s pretty great at working things out. We do have two seven-hour drives on this run but most of it’s pretty close.

The actual first question I was going to ask you was: do you recommend being in a band with a sibling?
If you like that sibling, sure. I certainly do like being in a band with Olivia. She’s wonderful and we get along great, and as far as musicianship goes, siblings can be tighter and more aware of where one person is going. Like an inner feeling – we just kind of go there. It’s ingrained in us somehow.

And from a singing point of view – there aren’t actually that many sibling singers. In Australia we have a group called The McClymonts, three sisters whose harmonies are out of this world, and there’s certainly a sense with you and Olivia that your voices are symbiotic in so many ways. It’s no doubt a result of singing together for a long period of time but also that understanding, as you said, about where you’re going. There’s something almost mystical about it as well.
It’s pretty cool that we have the same genetics and so our voices kind of do the same thing and have the same characteristics, so we can kind of get on a wavelength where it sounds like one big person. There’s another Australian group called the Vaudeville Smash – we met them in Austin a few years ago. It’s three brothers and they have two other members as well; they’re a disco revival band and their harmonies and their musicianship together – it’s very, very apparent that they’re been doing it together for potentially a lifetime.

Do you and Olivia have to work on how you sing together or is it something that does now flow so effortlessly that you don’t even really need to rehearse how you work those harmonies with each other?
I’d like to say that of course not, we just innately know, but practice makes everything better. I think it’s easier for us to get to the place where we want but it certainly takes practice and it certainly takes a level of awareness and trusting the other person to go where we’ve established. I can go off the cuff a little more than Olivia likes to but I really appreciate the fact that she doesn’t necessarily like to do that because with being rehearsed, it kind of ensures that we’re going to give you something good. And that’s the point.

The whole band’s sound on the album – it’s immediately apparent that we’re dealing with professionals. The sound is really tight and it does sound like it’s coming from people who take their music seriously, and that does involve rehearsing. It shows when that doesn’t happen – I was in a band that rehearsed a lot but one member did not like to rehearse, and that showed.
It does show. Live is a different animal than the studio. The studio, we certainly rehearsed a good bit before we went in so that we weren’t wasting time and we were able to do what we went in there to do, but live we’re a little more free, we’re certainly wanting to hit the parts together but we can stretch our legs when we’re live. But at the same time, you’re not able to do that unless you’re practised. You’re not able to do that unless you know, ‘Okay, they’re going to stretch this out a little bit.

You and Olivia seem to have almost been trained since childhood to be musicians, because you’ve been doing it for so long – does it feel like you’ve always been a musician?
Thinking about it, music’s always been in my life. I’d say we’ve always been artistic, always been creative in that our parents really gave us that ability and that freedom to express ourselves, and we chose for the forefront of that expression to be music. But all of our siblings are artistic in ways. All of us are musicians but then all of us express our art in different ways as well.

You grew up playing music in church, and your songs certainly don’t shy away from what might be called big questions and theme. It’s often not deemed cool, I think, particularly in contemporary music, to address those sorts of subjects – to be visibly looking for meaning, I think is what I’m trying to say. Have you ever doubted your lyrical direction, particularly on this latest album? You really are getting into some very meaningful, fundamental questions.
I appreciate that. I never doubted where the lyrics were heading. I might have doubted how they would be received. But I knew the direction I wanted to take the lyrics in the record – the songs that I was writing, and have been writing, go along with that vein of, like you said, the big questions in life. At this point in my life that’s a very important part of it, trying to find deeper meaning and then, if it’s found, trying to understand why it’s found in that way.

I think we’re also at a time in history where meaning is required, for many people, in day-to-day life. And in art, quite often, meaning is seen as being cheesy but to be entertaining and meaningful at the same time is what audiences respond to best, and you’ve certainly accomplished that.
Thank you. I was wary of how it might be achieved but in the end I trusted that our audience – and, hopefully, a large audience – would be capable of following that and asking even more questions. I think a lot of art these days is just about YOLO or whatever. It’s about bottles in the club or some stupid thing, and that doesn’t touch me. I wanted to give something to everyone and to myself, to my family, in the form of art that they would know I was thinking something deeper.

And that does require you, of course, to be vulnerable, as the lyricist and the lead singer and the band leader. In order to be vulnerable – particularly on a stage – that requires a certain courage, and I do hear that in your music, as well: you are not resiling from this, you want to connect to the audience, you want to take these questions to them. Where does that courage come from?
I don’t know. I think we all go through things in our lives and then at some point we have to reflect upon them. At some point the best of us reflects upon them. Thankfully I’m at that point in my life. I’m reflecting on in it, and if I’m choosing to be an artist and put myself out there, I have no other way to do it. I have on other real way to do it. One of my favourite artists of all time, Levon Helm, said, ‘You’ve got to give them something real.’ At the time that he said that it was late ’60s, mid ’70s, and I think people were on a different wavelength altogether. Nowadays it’s a little different but I still try and subscribe to that effort: give them something real. I’ll give you something real because you’ll know if I don’t. We all may like the cheesy songs, and they’re catchy – of course they’re catchy – but it doesn’t mean that we can’t also realise that it’s faith.

And to deliver the music you have to have this voice – and yours is a real instrument in and of itself. Has that voice always been there or has it taken time for you to develop that instrument to the point it is now.
Of course in some respects it’s been there, but I think … my son always asks for ‘Dadda’ on Youtube, so we’re listening to the old videos and then the new videos and I can definitely hear a difference in the maturity of it. I’m not stretching for things that I don’t think I can do and I’m confident in what I can do, so that’s what you’re hearing now.

You’ve said that fundamentally you want audiences to feel something, and I think the tracks are really layered and complex in such a way that we can feel that when you’re performing them. What was the studio experience like for all of you, creating those songs?
It was the best experience in the studio that we’ve ever had, and I think in large part it was due to Vance Powell, the producer. Another large part is that we were all together for a month just concentrating on the creation of this project that we’ve yearned for and worked for, for so long. And to hear it after every few days, listening back to what we got and hearing it really come into being and the fruition of that dream of this new record, it was just amazing. It was an amazing time – and we certainly hope to do it again in about a year.

Wade Waist Deep is out now through Mascot Records.

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