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Only a fool would feel slighted that Tom Guerra played his electric guitar unplugged while you’re interviewing him. I certainly don’t. It’s just that he doesn’t want to miss a striking riff or haunting chord change while talking. Besides he’s a friendly guy. Friendlier than many people who only do one thing at a time. As he strums his 1959 Fender Stratocaster, I’m 5 foot 8. Guerra is several inches taller than I am. Many people are. He has swarthy good looks, short brown hair and brown eyes that seem to suddenly open wide when he plays something or hears an accurate description of his new album: Sudden Signs Of Grace.
The backstory: After slugging it out with New England indie rockers Mambo Sons for a decade and a half, songwriter/guitarist Tom Guerra went solo in 2014. Since then, he’s released three critically acclaimed solo albums, and went on to craft some new music for legendary British band The Yardbirds. Then, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Guerra released his fourth and best album to date, the gorgeous Sudden Signs of Grace.
According to Pete Prown, music editor for Vintage Guitar magazine, “With his previous albums, Tom established himself as a fine rock and roll guitarist… Sudden Signs of Grace shows his growth and new direction as a songwriter steeped in the Laurel Canyon school of songwriting.“
Big Takeover caught up with Guerra in between a series of podcasts he was participating in designed to promote the album.
The last record, American Garden (released in 2018) had some very angry political songs and videos. Grace is much more optimistic and beautiful. Was this a conscious decision? What changed?
TOM GUERRA: Well, the fact that NOTHING has changed for the better in this country since the last record left me with two choices…to either continue to rant about those things I already ranted about, or to start to look for the good in people, the good in life. I didn’t want to repeat myself, and as a writer I want to keep moving forward, so if, for example, if I wrote a tune called “(Still) The Lyin’ King” it would be a step backwards. Also, despite “Grace” being something like my tenth album, I feel that I am just starting to hit my stride as a writer. If we can humanize things, I’d say that American Garden is a male, whereas Sudden Signs of Grace is definitely a female. And the beauty of recorded music is that if people want to hear that fired up male, they can go back and check out “Garden.”
Tell me a little about the recording process. How did you build the songs and how long did the whole thing take?
TOM GUERRA: I am writing constantly and started writing “Grace” literally within weeks of the last album being released. In terms of the recording process, it typically starts with a germ of an idea, a concept, or a musical progression that sticks with me, and I just develop it from there in my small studio. I love the creative process as it results in something that wasn’t there before. For the last few records, including the music I wrote for The Yardbirds, bassist Kenny Aaronson was a huge sounding board and co-conspirator. I’d play him stuff I wrote and recorded and he’d get an idea for his parts, which are magnificent. He even developed a beautiful string arrangement for “Inspiration Memories”, a tune I wrote for my Dad, who is an artist. Jon Butcher just directed a video for that and I think it perfectly captures the emotion of that song. Because I love music and feel that I have a certain capacity, I’d write even if I was the only one to ever hear my songs. The fact that others can maybe get something from the recordings is really the ultimate reward.
Were there any particular influences, musically or literarily for Sudden Signs of Grace ?
TOM GUERRA: Not really consciously…but honestly, just about every piece of music that I ever loved is an influence…I listen constantly, but also try to read a lot, particularly non-fiction, because I find it more interesting than the alternative. I like learning about what other artists go through, what makes them tick and it all goes into a kind of cranial blender…and depending on when it’s poured out, you might hear influences ranging from Bob Dylan to The Beatles to Brian Wilson to the Stones and Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople …but also a bunch of really weird stuff that I find musically interesting. And like everybody, I am shaped by my own experiences and limitations, so the output is a combination of all of those things.
And Mott the Hoople remains a key influence, right?
TOM GUERRA: Absolutely…There is no doubt in my mind that Ian Hunter is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Although he has a very uniquely British approach to his writing, it is his love for early American rock and roll that has been the common thread in his music since his early days with Mott. “It’s a mighty long way down rock and roll, from the Liverpool Docks to the Hollywood Bowl…” I mean, if he’d only written THAT LINE, he’s still be one of the greats. And Dylan also noticed it, as he quoted half of that passage in his tune “Roll On John”. And that’s what I love about the greatest rock and roll songwriters, you can trace these threads all the way back to the beginning of things. Funny story, I asked Ian to play piano on a track from “Grace” called “Down the Farm” and he said, “this track sounds great as it is – don’t need me cluttering up the place.” I have never felt so happy at being blown off! (laughs)
Speaking of Mott, how did you and pianist Morgan Fisher meet?
TOM GUERRA: When I heard the original Mott the Hoople were reuniting in London, I immediately bought the best ticket I could and had to get myself across the pond to see what was probably my favorite band as a kid. It was October 2009, and I’d just released a double album with Mambo Sons called Heavy Days, which featured a song called “Overend Watts” in tribute to Mott’s bassist. Well, that started to get some legs, thanks to social media. So, I started chatting with a bunch of folks and planned on meeting up with them to hang out before the show. Because Morgan wasn’t an original member of Mott, he wasn’t asked to participate in this reunion, but instead opted to have a display of his photography at The Troubadour, up the road from Hammersmith. I went, met Morgan, and we immediately hit it off. He now lives in Japan, but we kept in touch and got together again a few years later in NYC, and we started to collaborate a bit. He’s such a beautiful, classy musician, and I’m honored to say that he’s played on all four of my solo albums.
And you’re getting airplay!
TOM GUERRA: Yes, I’m doing a bunch of college radio promo stuff, podcasts too to promote it. There’s already a bunch of broadcasts and podcasts available if you search on them.
As far as the two cover songs on Grace , how’d you come to record the Eddie Money cut?
TOM GUERRA: I met Eddie Money back in 1986 and he was very cool with me. I’d just played some guitar on Max Weinberg’s solo tour, and the next week was out in L.A. and I bumped into Eddie…we started talking and he knew Max and some of the people I’d been playing with and just hit it off. He wanted to take me into the studio with him though by the time we were supposed to go, neither of us were in any shape to record. Still, he was very encouraging and I never forgot that, so when I heard he was sick last year, I decided to cut “Gimme Some Water,” one of my favorite songs of his. I sent him a copy of it too, and then a week later, he was gone. The thing that made that guy great was the tone of his voice…and is the case with all the greatest rock and roll singers, you can tell who’s singing after just a couple words. Eddie was one of them.
The other cover is a song popularized by Gram Parsons …
TOM GUERRA: Yes…and Bobby Bare as well. “Streets of Baltimore” was written by the great songwriters Harlan Howard and Tompall Glaser. I’d first heard Gram’s version, then went back and listened to Bobby’s…you’ll hear that little Luther Perkins – like lick I did at the beginning as a tribute to Bobby’s version, but other than that, mine is a total tribute to Gram Parsons, a guy who had just about as much soul as anyone. He had so much talent and left us way too soon, but his influence spawned an entire genre of what he called “Cosmic American Music.” I made a pilgrimage out to The Joshua Tree Inn a few years back, where he spent his last night, followed by a walk in the desert where his body was taken and all the while his songs were playing in my head.
Any gigs coming up to promote the record?
TOM GUERRA: Well, there were but with the pandemic, everything has either been cancelled or is sort of in a holding pattern.
With the changes in the music biz (due to Covid-19), what’s the future look like to you? And will it benefit indie musicians?
TOM GUERRA: As you know, the music industry experienced a seismic shift over the past two decades, with most indie musicians now making almost all of their money from live dates and associated merch sales as nobody wants to pay for music and when they do, it is not the artists but the distributors making most of the money. With the pandemic, indie musicians have been one of the hardest hit businesses anywhere, so things are pretty dire right now. But I am optimistic that once a vaccine is found, things can start getting back to normal…
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