Thom Southern‘s young solo career is built on a lifetime of performing music. Formerly part of the band ‘Southern’ with his sister Lucy (who I interviewed here), to the pair have both gone solo and relocated to Liverpool to reinvent themselves.
Thom’s single ‘Perfect Someone’ has just been launched, and I asked him to talk me through the whole journey up to it, so far, from cancelled recording sressions to personal reinventions…
Congrats on the new single! Can you tell me a little of the story behind it?
Thanks, yeah it’s a song I wrote a couple of years ago actually. Totally forgot about it and when lockdown first started earlier this year I was in my Belfast home studio going through all my demos on my laptop deciding what to record to keep me busy. I found an old voice note of ‘Perfect Someone’ playing it on my acoustic. I really wanted to have a go at recording an upbeat pop tune this year using an 808 drum machine so I thought it had a strong hook to do that.
Lyrically, it’s a bittersweet tune about finding an old photograph in a coat pocket I hadn’t looked inside for years. I wanted to keep the lyrics super simple to capture that quick feeling you get when you look at an old photo. You get a flash of that moment and then it’s gone. Nostalgic feelings can be rubbish sometimes so I wanted to portray that as well. It’s hard to come to terms with the reality of the present and how things have changed sometimes.
I understand a lot of 90s guitar music is a main point of reference for you. What grabs you about it?
Yeah, a lot of people say that but I’d actually say I’m more inspired by the 60s to mid/late 80s. My grassroots songwriting is all focused on that. I’d say Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, The Beatles and The Velvet Underground would be my biggest songwriting influences.
I write all my songs on an acoustic guitar or piano completely stripped back. My first single ‘Shivers’ for example started off as this almost Dylan meets Velvet Underground country/folk tune when I wrote it. It’s when I get into the studio and layer up the electrics I definitely take most inspiration with fuzz sounds from the 90s bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr, MBV etc. Spacemen 3 and Beck are a big influence on me too.
I’d say the way I like to present my songs as a piece is definitely 90s influenced. ‘Perfect Someone’ is actually really inspired by The Las and Echo & Bunnymen. The production is really Pumpkins though, I love it. I’d like to develop my production moving forward and try a modern approach to the engineering. I really like what The 1975 are doing with their more recent albums. Super cool… it’s almost french electro-pop like Sebastian Tellier and Kavinsky.
Working with Adrian Bushby on a home-studio recorded debut single is quite something. How did that come about?
I met up with Adrian for the first time in January this year at his house in London. I’d always wanted to work with him. Absolutely loved his work with Feeder and Placebo. We were supposed to go up to Black Bay Studios in May on an island off the coast of Scotland for two weeks with my band to record my album. I was totally gutted when all the madness of covid kicked off in March, we had to cancel that session.
Anyway, I caught up with Adrian on a call and we decided to give it a go over the internet. So these tunes are all programmed drums and a recording adaptation to this year. Usually, I would have loved to do these new songs with my band and capture the live energy of our rehearsals. It’s pretty different sounding when we get together but I’m really happy with how the songs turned out anyway. I had a lot of fun working with Adrian and also it was fun to engineer it all myself on my own. It was good to set myself a new challenge. It definitely passed the time those first months of lockdown. Don’t know what I would have done without my studio.
Can you tell me a bit about your musical background?
Long story short… started on piano at 10, discovered electric guitar at 11, blew my mind, started busking as a teenager in Belfast, a year later started a band with my sister called Southern, got a record deal in London, toured loads, recorded loads. Started another project with Lucy called Mmode, did the same again for about a year. Now we’re doing new solo projects but still work on it all together. It’s been a hell of a ride so far! Lots of ups and downs but couldn’t imagine my life any other way.
What made you decide to call it a day with Southern?
Southern was really rooted in mine and my sisters love for rock, blues, bluegrass, country, folk, and Americana. It started to become kind of alt-rock indie-pop towards the end of Southern because we were desperate to do the style of music we actually always wanted to do. It’s funny because my favourite music is essentially stuff like post-rock, grunge, shoe-gaze, dream pop and alternative rock.
There was a massive folk-country boom in the late 2000s and we got really caught up in that as a duo, starting off together busking with just an acoustic guitar and our harmonies. The music industry was going nuts for it then, especially when Jake Bugg came out, a lot of industry people directed us towards that too.
We both just felt like we’d exhausted Southern as a project and really wanted to experiment more with new sounds and genres. Everything we do now feels a lot more like us as people.
Does it feel very different to be coming out with solo work instead of as part of a group?
It did at first when we stopped doing Mmode at the beginning of 2019, but we both couldn’t imagine it any other way now. We have so much freedom to do whatever we want. Although it still feels like we’re in a band to be honest just from the outside looking it in it looks separate.
I took most of 2019 off to work on Lucy’s project. We did a load of tours and I co-produced Lucy with James Skelly, it was an amazing year. When I had time I was developing my songs. It really wasn’t until February this year I started to concentrate on my project so in a way lockdown was great to get a couple of months to work on it. I must have spent nearly two months on my own in my studio without really seeing daylight, it was awesome to get the time to do that.
Obviously, you’re emerging into a musical landscape that is about as odd as it’s ever been. How are you finding it?
In my life choosing to commit to music as a career and working within the music industry itself has always been odd. I literally never know what’s going to happen next week. It’s been a constant feeling of ‘up in the air’ but it keeps things fresh. This year has definitely been a huge curve ball but we just have to adapt and hope for the best. Obviously not being able to play live is an absolute nightmare, not because it would help further my career and make a better living, but honestly just because it’s the best feeling in the world performing. I really miss it.
How much more music do you have ready behind the scenes?
Since Southern ended, I’ve been stocking up songs and ideas. As a solid piece of work though, I think I’ve definitely got my next two albums sorted, probably even a third one. I’m so excited about my next releases, I’ve saved some of my favourite tunes to do in the studio with my band. They really need that raw live feel that we get in our rehearsal room. Hopefully we’ll get into a studio in early January to put them down.
What are your hopes for the future?
A vaccine for this fecking virus… The music industry hopefully recovering from it all, especially the live events industry. Then of course getting back on the road properly. I also really want to travel more too, more than ever now. This whole year has put so much in perspective.