by Russell Baillie

Thomas Oliver: Espresso Love

by Russell Baillie

Thomas Oliver: Espresso Love

Hold on, Thomas Oliver. There’s something we need to clear up. The final song on your new album is called The Time In Tokyo. The new single from it is called Coffee. But it’s the video for Coffee which has the Kiwi musician playing his Gretsch White Falcon and singing the giddy-in-love song on the streets of the Japanese capital.

Oliver and his love-interest/backing singer/dancer are filmed all over the megalopolis, including Shibuya Crossing, reputedly the world’s biggest pedestrian barn-dance. It’s a location with a long history in movies and pop videos, including Crowded House’s When You Come.

But with a new song that has Tokyo in the title but the city itself acting as a backdrop to another track, did something get, well, lost in translation?

No, laughs Oliver from his parents’ place in the Hawke’s Bay where he’s sitting out the Covid-19 pandemic – having already had to do 14 days self-isolation after returning from his Berlin base.

Yes, Tokyo was inspired by seeing a former partner’s Instagram post from Japan and asking Siri for the time zone difference. But the Nippon clip for Coffee was just serendipitous. His manager Mitch Lowe (of Audiology Touring and Tenfold Agency) was heading to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Oliver was flying back to Europe.

“And so we thought, why don’t we just shoot it?”

Serendipity also played a part in the song’s creation. It’s a co-write with fellow itinerant Kiwi singer-songwriter and Tenfold stablemate Mitch James who suggested they collaborate while on a trip to Berlin. The result was a song apiece for the pair’s future albums – and possibly some neighbours puzzled about the sounds coming from James’ AirBnB. 

Coffee, they figured, was a metaphor for perfect love: “If you can find a love for a partner that’s comparable to your love for coffee, then you are going pretty well.”

Before heading home Oliver had based himself in the German capital for nearly two years, where, it must be said, der Kaffee ist nicht gut.

“It’s pretty terrible, really. You have to find Australian hipster cafes to get a decent one. The general coffee of Germany is to be avoided.”

Coffee is possibly the poppiest moment on ‘The Brightest Light’, an album that doesn’t lack for hooks. It’s his third studio set following 2017’s ‘Floating in the Darkness’ (which had the 2016 APRA Silver Scroll-winning song If I Move To Mars), and his 2013 slide-guitar instrumental collection ‘Beneath The Weissenborn’.

There’s a similar romantic swoon and sweetness to the likes of You Shine On Me and Bulgarian Mountains. That latter song, inspired by meeting a Bulgarian woman named Martina in an Amsterdam cafe, has already become a big deal in her home country.

“That song blew up in Bulgaria and it was like all over all the biggest TV stations in Bulgaria. I must have answered hundreds and hundreds of messages from Bulgarians just saying thank you. That country really fell in love with that song.”

The residents of Tokyo or indeed the Dutch capital, which also features in Amsterdam Bender, are yet to swing in behind Oliver’s respective shout-outs in the same numbers. But geography and nationalities aside, you can imagine the big soft romantic heart in many of his songs must speak its own language.

“I have and have had a very blessed and unconventional love life, I guess, and I still do, “ says the 34-year-old. “I love to write music for women or about women or inspired by women, because love is just such a magical thing. Everything that comes with it can be so triumphant and so turbulent that it’s just perfect for songs. It helps me to make sense of all of my own feelings, I guess, and it helps other people make sense of theirs too, especially in a nation where men are not particularly prone to expressing particular things. If somebody can stand up and show them the way, I think that’s a positive thing.”

But what do past loves think of his various odes?

“I imagine as a woman, it’s always a lovely thing to have somebody write a beautiful song for you. When I am playing a show and I’m singing a love song, you can kind of feel women in the audience thinking like, ‘Oh how I wish someone would write that for me’. But what they forget is that the person for whom it was written is listening and enjoying it, but then they have to listen to the song that’s about another girl – and then the next song is about another girl from seven years ago, then one about another girl…”

If Oliver’s heart remains on his sleeve in the lyrics, musically, the new album still has some tougher touches, whether it’s the brooding soul-blues of opener She’s Mine, the Sly Stone/Prince-funk of Ready To Love You, or the hip-hop scorched Alive Again.

His trademark slide guitar is at its most prominent on Steel On The Strings. The song is both a homage to his love for the instrument as well as a tribute to his late grandfather, who was among the Allied ‘Desert Rats’ who defended a besieged Tobruk from the German Afrika Korps during the Second World War. The Berlin-recorded song is sure to make some future Anzac Day playlists.

“I just love to explore different avenues and that’s all part of part of me.”

For Oliver, that includes a sideline as a drum’n’bass guest vocalist and lyricist for producer-DJs all over Europe. As well as some welcome career diversification, the electronic music sideline has helped his own approach in the studio.

“The biggest thing that I can take from it into my other music is I tend to trust my process a little more because I guess I’m just one step removed from the music. So when I’m writing the parts if a melody pops into my head or a lyric pops into my head, I tend to roll with it a little more fearlessly. Whereas with my own music, I tend to scrutinise it almost to the point that it’s counterproductive. The more writing in that way I’ve done, the more I’ve loosened it up and just learned to trust my own process.”

The European release of ‘The Brightest Light’ comes after he signed to V2 Records Benelux, a substantial independent label based in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. That’s helped give the new album a major push, despite the pandemic cutting short his European promo tour. With flights booked to play the postponed Homegrown festival in Wellington, Oliver and band winged their way back to a fortnight of self-isolation.

Still, Oliver has posted one solo performance from his parents’ backyard on his facebook page, complete with a cameo from the family dog. The solo rendition of You Shine On Me features his Fender Stratocaster newly decorated to match the swirly pink-red-purple-cream tones of his album design.

“I don’t think I want to have a generic guitar ever again after this because it’s so cool having something that has a story or some significance. Especially when it looks so good at the same time. How could you want anything else?”

Oliver is hoping he’s going to be able to bust out the custom instrument on a NZ album release tour, whenever life goes back to some version of normal.


Made with the support of NZ On Air.