Storytime Questiontime


Tommy Keyes’ songs invariably come across as complete compositions based around a specific subject with intelligent lyrics, without becoming academic exercises or lectures.  The constants that make his latest album Storytime work as a single listening pleasure are his distinctive voice and the piano.  There’s also lots of sax, judiciously used, and the songs are developed as needed to include guitar, strings and extra voices. The drums/bass also make solid underpinnings so it all fits neatly together.

The album confirms Tommy as a thoughtful and inventive composer, with a finely-tuned musical instinct for what a song needs. Unfortunately, many artists are feeling that fewer listeners want to bother with albums and are concentrating on individual tracks. Yet somehow I feel, if only psychologically, that an album is the measure of a true artist in a way that 16 singles released one a month aren’t. Revolver or Sergeant Pepper are majestic works in a way that a “Beatles Classic Hits” album isn’t.

It could be argued that Tommy’s songs are generated from the same era and musical style, but you could say the same for Bruce Springsteen or Elton John or any number of artists. In a sense, Storytime reflects his musical yearnings and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that.

What intrigues me about creative artists is where the creativity comes from and how they use it to give us finished works of art. So I put some pertinent (and maybe impertinent) questions to Tommy himself and here’s how the conversation went.

What’s your earliest memory of music? Did you grow up in a musical household?  What were the key elements in the musical environment you grew up in?

My mother was very musical, my father less so. They sent me off for piano lessons when I was 8 or 9.  That didn’t last long, I didn’t take very well to the discipline required for formal lessons.   But I’m so grateful that they still decided to plunge money they couldn’t really spare on a second-hand piano.  I would sit at it every day and pick out the notes of songs I had heard on the radio and slowly but surely I taught myself to play.   I still have that piano.  It’s a Bechstein, it’s now almost 120 years old and I play it every day.  Pretty much all of my songs have been written on it.

Radio was clearly an important part of your musical life. Yes?  So who are the key radio figures and programmes you remember from your formative years?  Was the music scene more exciting then? 

It was an incredibly exciting time for pop music and radio, with the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and so many others delivering classic songs that we still play today.  It was moving and developing so quickly.  There’s only five years between the simplicity of ‘Love Me Do’ and the sophistication of ‘Penny Lane’, for instance.   The templates for the pop and rock music we listen to now were largely shaped back in that era.

I’d listen to Radio Caroline, Luxembourg, Alan Freeman’s chart countdown on BBC on Sundays.  I acquired a new-fangled device – a cassette tape recorder – and connected it to the radio so I could tape the new songs and make it easier to work them out.  Last year I finally managed to get those memories into a song in the title track of the Radio Days album.

You make lots of references to radio on your early albums in particular. Is radio still important to you? Lots of young music fans these days don’t seem to listen to radio much. What are they missing?

The big advantage of radio (when it’s good radio, that is) is the curator role that the presenter plays.  There is an incredible amount of music out there.  Believe it or not, 60,000 tracks are uploaded to Spotify every day.  If you find a radio show, presenter or station that you like, you know that you can come back to them over and over again and they’ll have music that suits your tastes, and that way you’ll be introduced to great new music (and indeed old music) that you would never have found for yourself.

The song ‘Daddy Bought A Car’ on your Storytime album would suggest that maybe you grew up in a modest family where buying a car was such that you can wax exuberant looking back on such an important family milestone?

It was a Morris Minor bought second-hand in 1960 when I was 4 or 5.  The average family didn’t have a car in those days, this was a very big deal! 

‘Be With You’ is a nostalgic love song and ‘The Glimmer Man’ is an appropriate “tribute” to a long-forgotten scary character of Dublin folklore. Do you like looking back and appreciating what you had?

I like writing nostalgic songs but, equally importantly, I think people like to listen to them.  Maybe it’s not just that they’re listening to my memories but it helps to spark memories of their own.  But I have to add hastily that ‘The Glimmer Man’, which is about gas rationing during World War 2, isn’t drawn from any personal memory.  But it’s an interesting bit of history.

Suzi Quatro sent an e-mail saying she liked your single ‘Suzi Quatro (Teenage Discos)’ and that you’d captured the era well. Did that mean a lot to you?

You’re too modest to point out that you were responsible for that because you sent her the song to see what she thought of it.  Of course it meant a huge amount to get a personal response, especially when it was so positive and generous.   The song comes from my first memories of going to dances in the early ‘70s and the type of music that was played at them – and the Chinn-Chapman sound, epitomised by her wonderful singles, was everywhere.  I set out to recreate that feel on the track and if she thinks I succeeded all I can say is that she’d certainly know!

Were you disappointed not to pursue a full-time career in music?

No, and it was never on my agenda.  Playing in bands in the 70s while also working, I could see the precarious nature of the business and the very low percentage who could make a decent career from original music.  I ended up having a good career in another field and now that I’m retired from that I’m very happy that I can write, record and perform without having to depend on music for a living.

Your daughter is now also a singer and musician. Did you encourage her?

My wife and I gave each of our kids the opportunity to find where their talents lay.  Two of them are musical and have sung on all my albums – another is a TV producer and has done some of my videos.  Ellen has had a lot of success with her band ELKIN.  I give advice if asked but she is very clear on her own musical vision.

What big music-related changes have you noticed over the years?

The business model broke when file-sharing came on the scene and, like it or not, we now have to accept that most people see original music as a freebie.   I can’t put it better than Gillian Welch did – and this was over twenty years ago – in the song ‘Everything is Free’ when she sang “They figured it out, that we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”.  Ultimately, you don’t make original music because you want to make money, you do it because you want your music to be heard.  And unfortunately that means, in the digital age, that, unless you are a superstar, your original music is likely to cost you more to release than it will ever earn you.  And sadly I don’t see how that can ever be fixed.

With Storytime having sixteen tracks, it could be a bit daunting for people in this short attention-span era. I know they don’t have to listen to all 16 at once, but the very presence of that number might be a turn-off for some. On the other hand, none of the tracks are overly long. There’s a good mix of tempos and moods, so it never gets stuck in the one groove. But is that an issue you have to be aware of?

I think today’s audience divides into those who enjoy and appreciate albums and those who consume music as tracks.  I’m trying to straddle that divide.  It’s very important to me that each album is cohesive, that I sequence it properly so the flow is right, and that the whole package including the artwork and packaging is attractive to those who collect albums.  But I also want each album to include a lot of tracks that stand on their own as singles.  That’s really important if you’re as focused on radio play as I am.   I released nine singles from Radio Days and they all got a lot of airplay, and I’m planning something the same with Storytime starting with the Suzi Quatro track.

As you rightly observe, it’s harder than ever to make a living in music these days. Your new song ’Where Are The Clowns’ could be heard as a requiem for what we’ve lost in that regard?

You’re on the right track there, on the surface the song is about the circus but I guess it’s really about how technology has changed the world and our expectations.  In the song, the child isn’t that impressed by the acrobat flying through the skies given the wonders he can see just by scrolling on his phone.  And I guess subliminally I’m going back to the impact that technology has had on how music is consumed.

But are there also gains?

Of course.  Technology has transformed recording, just to give an example.  I’ve made seven albums now in the last seven years so I’ve become very familiar with the modern recording process and all the advantages it gives you in terms of getting the very best performance down on record.  I really enjoyed the recent documentary of the Beatles’ Get Back sessions, but the technology they had to work with was primitive by comparison.  

‘Sentimental Songs’ sounds like an emotional reflection on the power of music. How powerful is music in your life?

It’s the soundtrack to everything I do.  I have a huge collection of albums and there’s almost always something playing.  If not, there’s something playing in my head or I’m at the piano losing myself in notes and chords.  I couldn’t imagine my life without music.

Which is more important to you as a performer-composer, the lyrics or the music? How do you approach writing a song?

They both evolve together.  Here’s how one of my songs emerges.  I sit at the piano and let my fingers go wherever they want.   Sometimes a little melody line or a nice chord change jumps back at me.  Then I might find myself singing a couple of words or a phrase that seem to fit with it.  And from there it’s about building it up to see if it takes me somewhere interesting.   Ultimately I need a set of lyrics that make sense and tell a story, but I don’t set out to write about anything specific.  That initial phrase is the seed I have to germinate until it grows into a song.  Once I have a few lines and I know what the song is going to be about, I can start looking for specific lines that fit.

And as a listener?

Much as in my approach to writing, I like to hear songs where it’s not the music or the lyrics on their own that grab you, but how everything knits together.

Your songs are all about something specific. There’s nothing casual or throwaway about them. ‘Canaries In The Coalmine’ is a sharp song of regret for the folly of mankind and the damage we’ve done. ‘We All Mess Up Sometimes’ is unambiguous and to the point. It’s hard to hear ‘House For Sale’ without thinking of our current housing crisis.  Do these issues matter to you as a person or are they simply interesting topics for a song?

I’m by no means a campaigning singer-songwriter but ‘Canaries In The Coalmine’ is one I wanted to write as the climate crisis is really important and I spent a lot of my working life dealing with environmental issues.  ‘House For Sale’ is more about nostalgia (again) – mind you, my mother is still happily living in the house I grew up in so it’s general rather than personal nostalgia.   With that one, I think that the opening lines came first – “the garden’s overgrown, the roof is short a tile” – so I knew that I was probably going to be writing a song about an old, neglected house.

How do you prepare for a recording?

It’s been the same process from the very first album.  I send demos of the songs to Dick Farrelly, who plays bass and guitar on the albums, and Ger Farrelly, who plays drums, and we get together for a day or two to rehearse the songs, settle on tempos and so on.  The three of us then go into studio with Mick Heffernan, who has engineered and mixed them all, and put down the guitar, bass, drums, piano and lead vocals.   Then it’s just a case of bringing in everyone else to add their bits.  Generally we get it done in eight studio days, and a few more for mixing and mastering.

Your tracks sound like a bunch of musicians playing together, like, say, ‘We All Mess Up Sometimes’ with Richie Buckley on sax. But that’s not always the way modern music is made. Why do you take that option?

The great thing is – that’s not the way my music is made either, but it’s the effect we aim for, so I’m delighted to hear you say it works!

The last song on Storytime is ‘Now We Say Goodbye’. Is this some kind of farewell from you?

I hope not!  Once I wrote it, I knew it’d have to end the album, but I’m well into the writing of the next album so, all going well, I’m not finished yet!