21 million Spotify streams is a shit load more than most artists can hope to accumulate, a number all the more impressive if the artist in question has yet to release an album – or celebrate turning 21 themselves. With the benefit of two digital EPs and some very influential international music media, Aucklander Thomas Stoneman, aka Thomston, has achieved just that, all while remaining largely unknown at home. He talked topographically with Felix Mpunga.
A smiling Thomas Stoneman, known musically as Thomston, almost bounces into the NZM office on schedule for our interview. He seems excited about delving into the details around his latest endeavour, his debut album labelled ‘Topograph’.
London-born, Thomas was a baby when his family shifted across the world to Titirangi in Auckland, and was at Avondale College before he started to show any real interest in making music. Now 20, he was only 17 when Thomston first popped up, quite literally out of nowhere.
A first track sent to international blogs immediately led, among other responses, to music discovery site Pigeons and Planes singing his praises – and inviting still-lingering comparisons to Lorde by trying to discourage them.
His debut EP ‘Argonaut’ appeared unheralded on Soundcloud in 2014 with global praise quick to follow. A year later came another EP, ‘Backbone’, also released on Soundcloud, also to wide-ranging international critical acclaim and by now quite staggeringly, multi-million Spotify plays.
“I find it hard to pin myself down, but I would just call it pop but that’s coming from a very open-minded view to music,” Thomas says of his music, which started in the traditional way of piano lessons at a very young age. “I think intially when I started singing, I thought I could just sing along to music on the radio and people wouldn’t block their ears. I kind of quickly came to realise that there was something about my voice and I just wanted to explore that.
“Music was always a thing but songwriting didn’t really start till my last year of high school, and it kind of came at a time when I started listening to more music. Then I was like, ‘Hey, I should try writing and see what happens!’”
At that time Thomas was listening to the likes of Kimbra, Michael Jackson and ‘Adele’s ‘21’. Finishing high school his parents gave him an option to pursue his musical career and make an impact within a year – otherwise studying at a university would be the path he’d take. Thomas surpassed their expectations and reflects on that moment.
“Initially I really needed that ultimatum to drive me and push and stop me from waiting for other people. I think that’s probably the biggest mistake that people will make initially in music – they do something then they expect people to approach them – and once people approach them they expect those people to initiate everything because they don’t want to be annoying, or they don’t want to be difficult. But like, you have to be ’cause there are so many people and if you’re quiet and passive you’re just gonna drown out.
“I needed that ultimatum to make sure. I had a year to make things work and if I hadn’t had that I probably would’ve been a lot more passive.”
Dabbling in production Thomas says he found himself sitting behind producers – giving the likes of Josh Fountain (who has produced for the likes of Maala, Benny Tipene and Leisure) suggestions.
“‘Can we make that distorted, can we put tremolo on that?’ – stuff like that. Like I knew the basic terms but if you put me at a computer I was very slow. But I was put in couple of situations where I had to be at the control desk. There was one in particular when I went to Sydney and I was working with this girl Wafia, and then suddenly I was pretty aware that we were gonna write a song and I would definitely be the one to have to produce it because she doesn’t sit at the computer either!”
The result of that session was the single Window Seat, which appears on Thomston’s new album ‘Topograph’, plus the opportunity to work with one of Australia’s acclaimed producers Ta-Ku, who has remixed fellow Future Classic labelmates Chet Faker and Flume.
“He was lovely, so kind, so humble.”
Unsurprisingly the team who helped him orchestrate and realise the vision behind his debut album is an international one.
“There was Josh Fountain who was a producer, incredible guy. The best thing about Josh was that he was really like a vessel for my ideas, he never came in with like an ego. A guy called Nick Leng produced the track called Headspace. He’s out in LA, he’s great. I also worked with a guy called Fyfe on the track Birthmark and he’s in London. That was the team I wrote the album with.
“Los Angeles, London, Auckland and Sydney are where I wrote. I did some writing in New York but none of them made the album. Golden Age is where I wrote most of the album, lots of Broods and Lorde plaques around, staring at me like, ‘Write hits Thomas, write hits!’”
The album art was done by Sydney-based David Porte Beckefield.
“The idea behind it is that it’s a waveform from the album, textured with a photo my photographer Josh Griggs took. The idea is that the song itself has become a landscape.”
‘Topograph’ was, he says, conceived on the backbone of one track called Broken Skin.
“I wrote that really early on in 2014 and I was like, ‘This is the album.’ It set the sonic palette I guess for the record.”
That pallete turns out to be surprisingly broad, from Mura Masa, Kendrick Lamar to UMO. Just two years removed from his first music production influences Thomas has retained some as a base, but added other smart contemporaries to the mix.
“SOHN was a big one, I really like the minimalism. FKA Twigs, I just really like her percussion, Years & Years, their pop delivery is so good. Also I feel like we have similar voices, that kind of Michael Jackson influence. I listened to WET quite a lot too, the Brooklyn three-piece, they’re incredible.”
He could be a poster boy for the new culture who champion sobriety over binge drinking and drug culture. Highly focused, evidently energetic, positive and uber-charming – further success seems inevitable, and all those Lorde comparisons more than reasonable. University, at any stage, by now seems very unlikely, while LA is looking good as a future base.
“I just really like it there, there’s so much going on and so many people to write with. It’s so much bigger… the closer I am to Ariana Grande the better! I’m so anxious to write more and have been writing more. I’m like halfway through another album because I can’t stop.”