Songwriter Showcase: An Interview with Thomas Comerford

Thomas Comerford sits down with Homeroom to preview his performance at June 12th's Songwriter Showcase at Elastic Arts. Thomas is a fine craftsman of words, melodies and harmonies whose sound the Chicago Reader describes as “a time capsule from an alternate past, as though a band of 70s Nashville malcontents had learned to harness the beauty of David Bowie in his prime. This isn’t classic rock, but it feels like something classic indeed.”

How has your songwriting changed over the years?

I started writing my own songs in the early 90s but back then didn't think too much beyond recording them with guitar and vocal on a hand-held cassette recorder. Sometimes, back then, I would play my songs at an open mic or with a few friends opening for a friends' band. I guess I was ambitious in my commitment to songwriting but not to performing in front of an audience or engaging with any kind of studio craft to record. Both of those things started to change when I moved to Chicago in 1999 and made a concerted effort to play live (my project at the time was Kaspar Hauser) and do my best to record the songs in the best way I could imagine at each stage. When I started my solo project in 2010, I decided, even though it often always involves a backing band, that the songcraft is my primary concern -- I scrutinize my decisions regarding top melodies and chord changes, song structures, lyrics and phrasing a lot more these days. Though there are still times where a song kind of forms itself quickly and doesn't undergo as much revision. And when it comes time to work in the studio I try to build a band around a song for a single song or a group of songs based on how I think it should feel and what I know people will bring to the song -- the studio and live are very collaborative for me in the arranging of the songs.

Do you have a process for starting a new song or combating writer's block?

My schedule is pretty crazy these days, so it can be difficult to find time to write, but a weird thing started happening a few years ago where I would dream of a melody and wake up and remember it and sing it again to remember it. I got a few songs out of that. But songs get going in any number of ways -- through singing, playing the guitar, and more recently piano -- I often accumulate parts that I then try to assemble into something interesting. These days too there seem to be discrete periods of time where I'm more focused on writing vs. recording vs. playing a lot of shows/touring after a record comes out, so that pattern seems to be working well and I'm able to be pretty productive when I do have time to write. Though I never make rules about when I can or can't write or how a song has to come into being.

How do non-music art forms influence your music?

It's hard to say exactly how this works, but it definitely happens. Songwriting is a kind of alchemy. I'm constantly reading: books, magazines, newspapers -- I like to do my reading on hard copies. Also, I get to a lot of art shows and watch a lot of documentaries (I teach at SAIC so this keeps me pretty involved in these two areas). There are probably particular instances where a sentence or a book or an article or an image or scene from a film leads me to think about responding directly somehow, but more often than not I'm just absorbing all this stuff and not always sure how it's playing out in my writing.

What are your three most favorite sounds?

In the last few years I'm just in love with guitars played through Leslie speakers or with tremolo or vibrato. I have always loved the sound of acoustic and electric guitars, though in more recent years, I'm not as into heavily distorted guitars in my own music (still love to hear it tho when listening to others' music). I'm particularly in love with the sounds of clean Telecasters or Stratocasters played through small tube amps with some reverb on them. Also, I'm a big fan of the pedal steel guitar sound -- less the chicken-pickin' style -- more swell-y and soar-y. Also I love drum kit and bass guitar together. I guess these are reasons why I like to play with a band behind me so I can hear all this while singing my songs. That's more than three sounds, but I usually don't play in a trio.

What song or songs do you want played at your funeral?

I'm not gonna think about that -- I'll let the survivors sort that one out.

Songwriter Showcase with Thomas Comerford, Axons, Rebecca Francescatti and Deadbeat, 9pm June 12th at Elastic Arts, 3429 W Diversey Ave. #208, Chicago IL.