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Tommy Emmanuel: Only


Andrián Pertout speaks with Tommy Emmanuel about his stint with Sir George Martin, the ups and downs of the music business, and his new album 'Only'.

In the words of Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel stands as, “one of the greatest guitarists on the planet” – whether you agree with the accolade or not, whether you like his music or not, one thing that you can’t take away from Tommy is the music, because it flows through his veins.  His musical career is one that actually began at the age of four, and in the small country town of Muswellbrook, NSW, where his father initiated the outback tours together with his brother Phil, and other siblings.  With now seven solo albums under his belt, three can claim to have achieved ARIA’s double platinum status, while the other three, a gold rating.  His performing and recording credits include work with Sir George Martin, John Fogerty, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, Albert Lee, Michael Bolton, John Denver, Joan Armatrading, Olivia Newton-John, Hank Marvin, James Morrison, Larry Carlton, John Farnham, Tina Arena and Bill Wyman, while his collection of accolades and awards lists a 1997 ‘Grammy’ nomination, a 1999 ‘CGP’ (Certified Guitar Player), a 1997 ‘Nammy’ (Nashville Music Award), two ‘MO’ Awards for ‘Performer of the Year’ (1995 and 1997), as well as two ‘Australian Ambassador of Music’ awards and five for ‘Australian Guitarist of the Year’.

With your countless number of achievements, what do you now consider as the highlight of your career so far?

TE: ”One of the most moving things for me, apart from working with Chet Atkins – which was a most fantastic part of my life, because I had been inspired by him since I was a little boy – was the tour with Sir George Martin.  Playing all that Beatles music was the most emotional experience of my life.  You can’t imagine how good it feels to play that music with an orchestra, and singers who are into the music; people like Glenn Shorrock and James Reyne, Human Nature, all those people that did that tour with us.  And having George at the helm, the guy who originally did it all – it was so moving, and especially when we did ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Across the Universe’ and all those tunes – and then eventually the show finishes with ‘Hey Jude’.  Honestly, we’d come off stage just crying our eyes out at the end of every night because it was so good.  The music was so good that you could barely stand it.  I think that tour will always have a special place in my heart, because it was so special.“

A fan reported to me that the stint with Sir George Martin included a slight slip in balance.  How does a public figure cope with the biggest nightmare?

TE: ”Yeah, it was here in Melbourne, and I just laughed about it.  I’ll tell you what happened – I had really shiny shoes on, slippery shoes, and I leaped up on a chair, because people were just going crazy, and to get them to do this (demonstrating the hands-in-the-air-thing); and suddenly I just went, ‘Wowww, bang!’  Straight onto the ground.  And the Human Nature guys were just like, ‘Oh God,’ you know.  They must have been so embarrassed.  But you know, it doesn’t matter, I’m happy to fall down in front of the audience.  I don’t care, I’m only human (laughs).  But the thing is that it was my emotions running away with me.  I just wanted to get the people to go crazy, because it was our last show, and just wanted George to have the greatest ovation that we could give him.”

What have you been generally up to these days?

TE: ”I’m based in the UK, and I have an assistant, but I won’t call her a manager.  But I have a person based in Nashville who does help me with my promotion, gigs and all that kind of stuff.  But she’s only just come on board, so I’ve been doing everything myself, I’ve been getting myself onto all these tours.  And when I think about it, the thing that blows my mind about Chet Atkins, apart from the musical side of things, is the people around him, this whole network of people that’s reached out all over the world – because through playing with Chet in Nashville, doing my own shows, and having people there, I’ve been invited to play concerts in France, Germany and Italy.  It all comes back to Chet as the central pulling point, a few years ago, when I started to network and get booked on different things.  Now I’ve got this album out, and this is what people have been waiting for.  And this is what I play on stage, and it’s really good to be able to say, ‘Here’s what I do, have a listen to it, if you like it, here’s my email, call me up.’  And that works every time.  So that’s what I’ve been doing.  And I’ve been through the toughest period of my life financially, and I’m still not out of the woods yet.”

Is that to do with the last album, or simply everything?

TE: ”It’s to do with my commitment to touring out here in Australia, and then not having any follow through by a record company that promised me a television campaign and then didn’t deliver it, and things like that.  So I’m out there with my willy in the wind, taking the cost.  And so I ended up getting into debt, and we all know what that’s like, it just builds on itself.  So I had to kind of break the cycle and say, ‘Start again’.  And you get a fresh perspective.  That’s what I’ve done.”

How did the change of direction for your latest album ‘Only’ come about?

TE: ”Playing solo all the time now has given me a lot of freedom, which I enjoy, and it’s made me a better songwriter.  And to me songwriting is the greatest thrill and challenge, and it’s also something to do with being tapped into the spirit that controls the universe, that has its heaven flow through us.  And so I’ve really been trying to tune into that and become really aware of where I’m supposed to go musically, and my surroundings.  Things like; there’s songs on this album that I couldn’t have written unless I had gone there, like the one from Africa, ‘Mombasa.’  I couldn’t have written that unless I’d been there and had that experience.  I wrote from my feelings.  And tunes like ‘Those Who Wait’, the very first track on the album – that song came after I’d made some major decisions, and had said no to a lot of things that shocked people in the business.  I said, ‘I’ve gotta stick to what I feel is right for me, and I’m not moving from that.’  You know, ‘You can wave a big carrot in front of me, but I don’t give a damn!’  And I had to make that decision.  And at that time I was watching that Muhammad Ali documentary, ‘When We Were Kings’, and I’m so inspired by him, by the stand that he took against going to Vietnam, and the way that he told it like it is, between blacks and whites, and all that sort of stuff.  I thought, ‘Yeah, this guy, no wonder we admire him and love him so much,’ not just for his incredible skills, his courage and his comedy, but for the fact that he knew exactly where he was going, and stuck to it.  And I said, ‘That’s me, that’s what I’m all about, and that’s what I want to stay true to.’  And I have, and it’s been incredible, it’s a powerful feeling yet it’s a sense of incredible freedom at the same time, that you can’t be intimidated by anyone or anything.  So I’m digressing a little there, but it is important that you to understand that the last eighteen months have been the greatest adventure of my life, and it’s made me a better person, a better player and a better writer.  And so I’m seizing every opportunity to get the most experience out of it.”

To what extent would you say that you decide where you want to go and how much does a record company push you to go a certain way?

TE: ”I had a lot of pressure on me in the past, and it didn’t do me any good.  And it does corner you a little into, ‘Well, if you do this, you’ve gotta stay this direction for a while.’  And it’s easy to be pressured into that, especially if you’re under a contract.  But now I’m not, I own the rights to everything I do from now on.  And so I’m licensing to EMI, and I may licence to another label overseas.  But basically, I’m just looking for great distributors, in Asia, all through Europe and even in America.  But I want to do it from the ground up, and get a relationship with the people.  I don’t really care about that box over there (pointing to the radio) and what kind of brainwashing goes on in this business, and whether people perceive that as being stardom.  I don’t really care at all about that, all I care about is that I’m communicating with my fellow man out there, and that when people come and see me play have an experience that they can take with them, that makes them feel great.  That’s what matters to me.”

Tell me about the technical aspects of the new album’s production.

TE: ”It was recorded in Germany in a private studio, in a guy’s house.  And I flew my engineer Rod Tamlyn, from Sydney.  He came over to produce the album, and he’s like my partner in everything I do now.  And we used four microphones, and put them in a place where they would pick up the different sounds that come off the acoustic guitar.  So we had one mike close to it, a Neumann 149, up real close; then we had another German mike called a Gefel back here (pointing to a front position).  And then another Neumann mike up here, up as if you were standing above listening;  and then up this way, above the neck, where my hands are, an AKG 414.  And when you listen to the album, the sound is exactly what you get if you sat right in front of me and I played.  And then there’s the reverb, which is kind of behind it.  And it wasn’t even a deadened room, it was a very live room, with a wooden floor and glass windows.  And you’ll notice that you don’t hear any foot tapping on that one, like my previous albums, because I had a piece of foam taped to my foot, so that I could still groove but not get any banging noises.  The mikes went into the preamps, which were Studer, German valve preamps – through an Avalon compressor, which is an Australian design made in America, and straight to hard disk.  And I only used the desk to monitor.  We took two tracks for each microphone, so I had eight tracks with one guitar playing.  And there was no eq used, it was the sound of the mikes, only in mastering we brightened it up.  But the tone of the guitar is exactly what the microphone heard.  I did the whole album in two days, and most of the tracks are first take, because I’d been on the road, and so I was ready to run for the Olympics.“

Has experience provided you with many new guitar techniques?  What is in your bag of tricks at present?

TE: ”The stuff on the album pretty much describes it, but I’ve come a long way since then, which was in November last year.  But I don’t practice scales, modes, and all that kind of stuff, because I don’t know much about them.  I don’t know any theory.  I play tunes, and I try to write songs all the time.  And I run over the tunes that are difficult to play, to make sure that I can physically get my hands around them, so that then I don’t have to worry about that and can put all my thoughts into getting the emotion right.  But I’m playing all the time Andrián, that’s the thing.  I’m never not on the boil.”

Where to from here?

TE: ”I’m building such a following in places like Germany, Italy and France that I’m spending a good deal of my time in those countries.  I’ve already started writing for the next album, and it’s pretty similar to this but what I’m doing is, you know how I play percussion on the guitar?  Well, I’m planning to build on that, and make an album where all the sounds are made just on the acoustic guitar.  Congas, bongos, shakers, tambourine, and all the sounds that I can get off the guitar, plus animal noises and things like that.  So I’m planning to use a bit of that on my next album.”

‘Only’ distributed by EMI Music.  For further information visit the Official Tommy Emmanuel Home Page.


'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #74, June 1, 2000


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