by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Tom Knowles: Breathing Life Into His Music

by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Tom Knowles: Breathing Life Into His Music

Following in the footsteps of, say, Troy Kingi, who also successfully passed from drama to the roaring crowds cheering sort-of-stages of Aotearoa, Te Whanganui-a-Tara reggae artist Tom Knowles presents ‘Atarangi: Morning Sky’. His debut album was recorded with a dream team of local musical friends, as Nur Lajunen-Tal discovers. Made with support from NZ On Air Music.

Tom Knowles has an extensive acting career under his belt, encompassing stage shows, television and advertising. A graduate of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School, some of Knowles’ appearances include Shrek: The Musical (in which he starred as the titular ogre), Grease, Saturday Night Fever, as part of the Modern Māori Quartet and TV series The Brokenwood Mysteries.

However Knowles’ first love has always been music, and 2023 sees him finally releasing his own original music with ‘Atarangi: Morning Sky’. The album sees him emerging with a feel-good reggae-pop sound, with both English and Te Reo Māori lyrics that explore themes of empowerment.

“My dream has always been to do music, but my way in was always through acting and musical theatre,” says Knowles. “I’ve always been into musical theatre, actually, and I’ve always sung in bands. Right through primary school and college and whatnot, I was in rock bands, doing Smokefree Rockquest, all those sorts of things, but also doing all the musical shows in town, and plays and things. Finally, I dug deep and got into it, and recorded the first album!

“It’s very exciting to finally be putting some music out all these years later… I’m really excited to put the music out, and for it to be the first of many, as I’m sure all musicians hope and wish! I’ve been writing songs my whole life, and I’ve still got some of the lyric books from when I was a kid, and I still use some of them in the songs. I feel like everyone’s always writing music, it just comes down to who can move it from the pen to the paper, paper to the CD, CD to the airwaves… and that process is long.”

The songs on his debut album, which was funded by NZ On Air, were originally written for a children’s musical – and this wasn’t Knowles’ first such musical, apparently.

“I wrote a full ’80s rock opera. We never recorded it, it’s still on the back burner to record, but we toured it to America and Mexico, and we played it in Fiji, and all around New Zealand! That was the first full-length musical experience extravaganza that I created. This was the next one, which happened to be reggae-themed, and a story that I really wanted to tell…

“The musical was performed in Blenheim in 2021. Over 300 kids were in it, and thousands of people came to see it. But because of Covid and various things, the show hasn’t been performed again, although I hope it will be. I revamped and revised all the songs, and then applied to NZ On Air to get funding, and so was funded to make it into an album. I hope that the album stands alone, but also that it’s able to be folded into a live theatre experience as well.”

The album, which certainly does stand on its own, deliberately incorporates stylistic elements which have become iconic to local music followers. Having spent much of his career putting on accents and performing other people’s songs in musical theatre, with Broadway songs and West End songs he says he wanted to create something that was clearly from this country.  

“I wanted to create something that’s a musical journey, but also that can stand alone as an album. The songs are a collection of stadium anthem reggae songs, of the likes of Katchafire, Kora, Black Seeds and Troy Kingi.

“The album themes are around standing up, feeling proud of who we are, discovering where it is we come from and being proud of that. Empowering people to tell their story. There’s a whole lot of songs in there that centre around the Māori myth of creation, with Ranginui and Papatuanuku, because I’ve always found that story hugely interesting. There’s 20 songs in total. Some are only short, but they link together, to try and create some sort of concept album, I suppose. It has really strong elements of pop, but definitely coated with this reggae theme, which is the genre that I love playing most.”

Having grown up listening to reggae music Knowles considers it simply the best genre.

“When I was a young teen Kora had just put out their first EP, and that just blew my mind. I love all the synths, the keyboards, sometimes you can make it sound like there’s 30 people on stage! It’s just so New Zealand sound. As a covers band, we’ve always played those songs, and they always get the crowd going.

“But also, I’ve always wanted to put out a reggae album and play reggae music because of the message that you can say in the music. There’s a lot of political tellings you can do, or political messages. You can talk about hardship very easily. A lot of reggae is storytelling, so I suppose I’m able to tell stories easier through reggae. They usually have a really great chorus. It’s a universal sound that everyone knows. It’s not too in your face, it’s not too loud, but it has a grime to it, it has a bop to it. I wanted to create reggae for all ages, that people in the classroom and the playground can be vibing to, the same as us adults at a concert can be vibing to. It crosses so many boundaries and lines that I think it’s the best genre to do.”

The whole album and all the music videos were made with Loho Studio, a Christchurch-based company consisting on Josh Logan and Adam Hogan.

“I’ve had a really long friendship with Josh Logan,” Knowles relates. “We’ve been friends since we were kids. That friendship has now grown even further into our first album together… They’re incredible. They’ve got a real hunger for new music, going against the norm, something a little bit different that’s not your real cliche top of the pops music. They’re doing really great things for a lot of up-and-coming bands, as well as some really top acts. They’re just masters of their craft, and at such a young age, it’s incredible.”

Jed Parsons and Thomas Isbister provided the album’s rhythm section.

“They were the musicians who were good friends of mine. We all got together and I taught them the songs and we went from there. We would record the guitar, bass and drums at the same time, and a tracking vocal, and then I’d come back in and redo the vocal, and then we’d just layer from there…

“We played the whole album pretty much with the three instruments, and then we’d add all the keyboard sounds and things like that in post. There’s a lot of kazoo, because I love playing the kazoo! There’s kazoo all through the album. I reckon it sounds like a big baritone saxophone. It reminds me of that ska band Madness, from the ’80s. They’ve got a whole bunch of kazoo-type honky tonk piano stuff. But since then, no one’s used kazoo. We used what we had in the studio and I love it, and as a result, I’m selling kazoos now for people to be able to play along with the album when it comes out!”

The recently released track, Breath Of Life, was the third and final single from the album. A light, infectious slice of feel-good reggae pop, the song’s theme centres around the country’s natural beauty.

Breath of Life is a solid gold reggae classic that I tried to write, which I thought was an epic way to start the album! It invites people in, it sets a scene of our backyard, our mountains, our ocean, where we come from, and also community and unity of Aotearoa, and our multiculturalism that we live with here. It talks about being the new generation, the new wave of people. When we’re bogged down by the monotony of society these days, sometimes you just need that breath of life; a child or someone with that drive or ambition to spark us up and carry on into the future with our heads held high, proud of who we are. I think Breath Of Life comes from the Māori saying ‘mauriora.’ People say ‘tihei mauriora,’ which is the sneeze of life, or the breath of life, which is the sharing of our life forces.”

Breath Of Life was, he says, one of the easiest songs on the album to write.

“I wrote it when I was in Queenstown about to get engaged to my partner. I was sitting in a campervan, and for the first time just started writing down what I saw. It was a way of calming my nerves about doing a proposal, but it was also about being hugely thankful for where we live, and where we come from. The song pretty much wrote itself.

“I think I wrote three songs while sitting in the campervan that day, and that was the only one that made it to this album, that I thought was a really good way of setting a scene of where we are, what we’re grateful for. So if you go through the lyrics of the verses, they’re exactly what I was seeing. I was thinking about Lord of the Rings at the time, because I was by the lake where Lord of the Rings was filmed, and I thought, ‘Man, this is a mythical, mystical place!’ There were birds flying ahead, the rain was pouring down but it was still beautiful, the clouds lifted over the mountains… I felt like I was in a movie, and I was just writing what I saw.”

The song is accompanied by a video showing Knowles in several different nature locations.

“We recorded three music video clips for the three singles that I have. Two of the music video clips, for the first two singles, I filmed with Bohally Intermediate School [Blenheim], and featured all the kids from there, which was really awesome. But for the third one, I wanted to set up a vibe that was fun and jovial, having a bit of a laugh, but also to showcase the amazing vistas and landscapes that we have in New Zealand, just at our disposal.

“We drove to all of those locations in the video. It’s what people travel from overseas to see, and we just have it there at our disposal. I wanted to highlight how lucky we are to have this amazing country and landscape. One minute I’m on the top of a mountain with the ocean below, and then I’m in a New Zealand native forest, and then I’m by the water at an inlet. It’s crazy that we have that at our back doorstep!”