Tom Cunliffe has been writing songs for longer than he has been playing them. His first album, 2011’s ‘Red Leather Blues’, was a test run, a project he now refers to as “… not really an album.” In stark contrast is his newly released sophomore effort, ‘Howl and Whisper’. Almost overnight Cunliffe has grabbed national attention by writing an album that is widely admired. Karin Vincent had the pleasure of chatting to him about how it came to be.
Former Wellingtonian Tom Cunliffe’s second album, ‘Howl and Whisper’, is an eclectic exercise in folk forms – from reserved to rollicking, country to urban, trad to modern alt.
“I spend all my time writing. I’ve been kind of writing songs since I was 18, but didn’t learn to play the guitar until my early 20s. For a while I was just writing kind of poems that weren’t good and slowly I got to a point with my playing that I felt I can start to write songs.”
Inspiration during his early years came from agonising over each and every word the wordsmiths of hip hop – Eminem, Tupac and Nas – poured out.
“That is where my love for lyrics started,” Cunliffe reveals quietly in his steady voice. “The most pleasure I get from what I do is when the lyrics, the melody and the music come together to create some sort of flash of lightning – like the thing you feel when you hear a lyric that makes you go, ‘Wow, I always knew that but I couldn’t quite see it yet.’”
He adds that writing a song has to personify “… a weird truth like you can almost grasp it,” similar to that millisecond of familiarity when “… something is on the tip of your tongue”.
Tom Cunliffe certainly has a way with putting lyrics together, something which you discover as each groove in the freshly pressed vinyl is amplified.
He says he had the drive of wanting to do a genre specific style for a couple of songs, but then some were completely not that at all.
“The songs were written in their own space in my head, so they have different personalities. With some of them I was like, ‘You know what, I feel like writing a country song. I feel I want to try and do that.’
“I wasn’t after a specific sound across the whole album, I just wanted each song to be true to the story. When we set about recording it, some songs were very quick and some were just us playing it, and that’s the way it was.”
He’s likely referring to the regular evenings of playing his songs at Auckland’s Wine Cellar. Having moved up from Wellington he describes how welcoming the group of musicians were to him on arrival.
“Dave Khan would ask if we could play Bob Dylan songs at New Lynn markets. How cool is that!”
Super-strings-man Khan, plus a bunch of other Auckland playing mates, ventured south in June last year to capture his songs on tape. ‘Howl and Whisper’ was recorded and mixed in Lyttelton by Ben Edwards from The Sitting Room and released under his Lyttelton Records label. Produced by ‘Ben Edwards and the band’ as the sleeve notes reveal, this one sentence perhaps encapsulates the essence of this album.
“We had lots of ideas and everyone who went down contributed to the sound of the album versions of the songs. I wanted people to have the chance to feel that they had ownership over their parts of the album,” says Cunliffe.
“Steve Huf wrote all the bass lines, and all the horn lines. Dave Khan contributed so much across the whole album, and Tom Landon-Lane [slide guitar, piano and vocals], he wrote all his parts.”
“They followed the structures of my songs and we would just take out if we didn’t like something, or just try it. If it didn’t work out, we’d try something else. I really feel like it was a group collaboration. Everyone had a say in the sound of the album. I hope that if I went down with five or six different people it would have been a different album.”
The switch from recording in his bedroom on an USB mic to working in a professional studio, with musicians who have all done it before, proved a profound experience. Recording the foreboding mining disaster track, They Dug It All Away, they suggested he double his voice on the track. His own first impression was that his voice sounded “really, really weird”, but Edwards’ encouragement and reassurance settled any nerves., “I feel really privileged that all these musicians feel like these songs are worth their genius.”
Cunliffe heads off to Europe and the UK for a solo tour at the end of June, and come Spring is hoping to have a whole new batch of songs ready for his second “proper album”.