It’s been forty years since his solo debut. Since then, Thomson has worked with musicians all over the world. He finally decided to head back to the studio to record his own music again, with Songs From the Playroom. The album is comprised of nine tracks, all written (or co-written) by Thomson. He plays piano and guitar, and provides vocals for all of the tracks. Guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Robin Mullarkey round out the musical lineup, with guest appearances by Peter-John Vettese (who played keyboards for Jethro Tull, and worked with Julian Lennon, Annie Lennox, Cutting Crew, and many others) and John Anthony Helliwell (the legendary sax of Supertramp). Recording started in 2018, and the album premiered in November of 2019. With a Japanese debut pending, and more music on the horizon, Thomson sat down with Velvet Thunder to talk about the new album, and the joy of being able to speak your truth from the Playroom.
So I just thought, I’m just going to do it. And of course now that I’ve done it, coming from such an honest place, I just feel, God, I should’ve done this years ago and how things might have been different, but there you go. I’ve done it now.
Looking back at the 1980s, from a musical perspective, the landscape included influences from diverse genres. Artists brought funk, folk, hard rock, and jazz into the mainstream, with myriad results and combinations. From Scotland, Ali Thomson grew up listening to his older brother Dougie’s work in Supertramp – a musical force that helped shape “prog rock”. In 1980, Ali gave us the warm, jazz-infused album Take a Little Rhythm, and hit the charts with an eponymous single, and the follow up song, Live Every Minute. His second album Deception Is An Art didn’t fare as well on the charts, and Thomson chose to pursue other musical avenues – writing, producing, and earning Grammy and Emmy nominations (and multiple other awards) in the process. Over the past 30 years, he has worked with artists from all over the world: Roch Voisine, Laura Pausini, Girls Aloud, Mark Owen, Brian Kennedy (and many more).
“For years people have been saying to me, ‘Oh, you need to make a record again’. Mostly my family, but just industry friends and a long long time publisher that I’ve had – she was always encouraging me. My kind of day job is as a writer producer and I had done a succession of very young artists help kind of get their careers to a certain level and then either through management or record company problems, product wasn’t coming out.
“So I was feeling like I was putting in masses of energy and creativity into helping careers and then nothing happened. And so I just sat down with my publisher a couple of years ago and I just said, you know what? I’m going to stop doing this for a while and I just want to do something that I’m in control of creatively and I can just actually have some fun doing it rather than constantly competing with the ever-changing music industry, you know? So part of it was born out of frustration, but also just years of accumulation of ideas and wanting to just enjoy making music. I think I may have said this in some way in a biography, but I kind of did it for myself, but hoping that, because I’ve spent years making music, that my instincts might be good enough for other people to like it. I know that sounds very simplistic, but that really was the way I went about making the record.”
He continued, “Once I started the process of trying to make music that just felt honest – and just authentic to me – then I suppose it’s natural in a way that it would kind of sound like Ali Thomson, the 21 year old in a sense, because that’s your DNA as a singer and songwriter, and a musician really.”
This collection of music beautifully displays Thomson’s growth as an artist – the natural progression of the arc of his work. He said, “When I look back, I constantly think, this is ridiculous, that I didn’t make a record for 38 years. I did do a few things here and there that again you’re probably not aware of. I don’t know how much you’ve followed things I’ve done. I did a feature on a few records and things like that, but I didn’t make an album. I didn’t make a conscious effort to sit down and make an album since Deception is an Art, which was my second record, you know?
“One of the things that’s been a complete joy actually, about the process so far – and I’m only really still a few weeks, in a sense, into the process – was how unbelievably quickly, from the Saturday that I put it up on all the digital stores, within 40 hours I was having all these people who were going, ‘Hey, what took you so long?’ It was bonkers. Radio stations in South America, and lots of guys in France, and now I’ve signed a Japanese record deal for the album. A journalist was in touch within 40 hours, and then the label offered me a deal within, I don’t know, three weeks or something. And that’s incredible, that people even remember me, let alone want to get in touch. That I’ve found really… that in general, the reaction to the music has been so great without trying to promote it, really, yet. So that’s really been a joy.”
The album reveals the melodic jazz style that made Thomson a phenomenon of the 80s. The music had an inherent maturity then, which has been enhanced by time – and ostensibly, by Thomson’s vast body of work with other artists. The opening track, Aqua Blue, was co-written with Vettese, and has a beautiful video to accompany it. The thoughtful lyrics make it a perfect start for this album, and a re-introduction for Thomson to the audience.
Thomson described the piece, “That was actually one of the last songs written for the record. And it was a moment where I’d just been singing Aqua Blue, and I kind of liked the sound of the words. And initially, it was a sort of summery love song. But then, I just literally was watching a David Attenborough program about the planet and I just thought, I’m being broken by this information. I need to just somehow direct it into a song without being preachy. So I changed the lyrics from being a rather nothing kind of love song into something that just is a little bit of a, I felt, a relevance to what’s going on in the world.” A love song to the world – desperately needed in these troubled times.
Another of my favourite tracks on the album is The Reason Why. It evokes driving through the rolling hills of the English countryside, with a smooth melodic line and beautiful guitar. Thomson had the brilliant Robbie McIntosh at his disposal for the record, but… “That was a song written quite late in the process. But I’d sort of had that guitar riff for quite a long time. Robbie [McIntosh] is a particularly brilliant slide player. He’s actually as well – he’s incredible at finger picking. But I did the finger picking on that track! Probably Robbie was quite offended when I didn’t ask him to play that part – but he did the slide guitar on it. It’s a quite a sound that feels like it’s a warm, friendly sound that’s been around for a long time, that slide guitar thing. It’s quite a satisfying sound musically I think.”
Having friends in the music industry never hurts! And of course, Thomson had family connections in Supertramp. So when Song for a Broken Heart needed a saxophone solo, Thomson turned to another talented friend. “I’d not really stayed in touch with any of Supertramp. I know obviously my brother left Supertramp. He did one more album after Roger Hodgson left the band, Dougie stayed and did one more record and then he left the band. But John and Dougie have stayed in touch, and I sort of vaguely stayed in touch with John. And I just thought it might be quite sweet, given that I’m sort of delving a little bit into the past. I just thought it would be really nice if John played some sax on it. And so I sent him the song and he went, ‘Oh, I love it. Can I play sax on it?’ So it was very, very simple – and actually I thought it turned out really nice. You know, the old minor third key change is a very interesting key change within popular music. The way that it lifts and then lifts again when you go back to the main key mode. So there’d been a vocal hook in there just to sort of… a moment to take you away from the main theme. And then one day I just thought, ‘Oh, it would be nice with the sax, I wonder if John would like to do it’ and I just dropped him an email and he said he’d love to so yeah, turned out great.”
The album also contains a track called Dark Matter – a lyrically beautiful piece with special meaning. Thomson explained, “It feels to me like a song about the times that we’re living in. I mean I’m not very good at analyzing my own lyrics, primarily because I think people interpret your music in all sorts of ways that you didn’t think of. But with that song, I think it’s pretty clear the place I’m coming from, which is that I feel we’re really being deceived about what’s going on in the world now. And I’m just trying to sort of articulate that in a slightly interesting way. And it’s the methodology by which we’re all being influenced by things without even realizing it, you know? It’s just a bit of a mix of all those things with some slightly more. I mean, I totally have to get the lyrics up in front of me now and look at it, but I’m quite proud of those lyrics.”
He continued, “I mean, it’s not something as I say I’ve set out to be – a particularly political writer. I love music that means absolutely nothing but just makes you feel good, or the sound of the words. I mean for years, I listened to lot of Joni Mitchell and I never entirely understood what the hell she was on about, just the language itself just sounded so beautiful, and the juxtaposition of images, and the way she said things just made me feel great. I didn’t always need to analyze it. And that’s kind of what I was saying earlier… I’m not very good about telling people about my lyrics because they might often interpret them to mean something else and that’s great, that’s fine. It shouldn’t come with an instruction manual, you know?”
As a whole, Songs From the Playroom stands as a testament to Thomson’s work as a singer-songwriter, musician, and producer. It’s been too long since we’ve had music from him, and this collection shows what we’ve all been missing. Thomson mused, “It’s incredible. And hawking right back to the very first question you asked me is that… I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner. It’s a whole other interview, but I think something happened to me as a young man where I completely lost confidence in my own ability to perform and sing and write my own music. And so I just thought I need to go away and learn how to do this properly rather than make records that I didn’t think were that great.
“And I think that loss of confidence, honestly, maybe has taken up until two years ago to get that confidence back and as you said as well, because the industry’s changed so much, I don’t have that whole gatekeeper thing to deal with where people say, ‘Yeah, it’s okay, but you should do this’. So I just thought, I’m just going to do it. And of course now that I’ve done it, coming from such an honest place, I just feel, God, I should’ve done this years ago and how things might have been different, but there you go. I’ve done it now.” Well said, Mr Thomson – and you’ve done it well!
Visit the website….http://www.alithomson.com