Interview: Tom Ovans on why 4-track recording can still deliver music relevant to 2023

If you are born to be a musician and singer-songwriter you just keep doing what you do.

Integrity is a rare thing in music, and it is something that artists who have it can easily lose as the challenges of maintaining a musical career are faced. One artist who has maintained his integrity during a recording career of over 30 years, releasing fifteen albums, including his latest, ‘The Cure’, is Austin-based Tom Ovans.  He may call Austin home now, but Tom Ovans grew up just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, and left his working-class home in the early ‘70s to hitchhike around the US to expand his life experiences and develop his musical and songwriting skills. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with him at home over Zoom to talk about ‘The Cure’, the influence that his hitchhiking years had on his subsequent career and why he is still driven to write and record songs, there are seventeen new ones on ‘The Cure’.  Tom Ovans also explains how his use of 4-track recording, with no whiff of Pro Tools, helps give his music a timeless quality, while his lyrics are relevant to the concerns and issues of the 21st Century. So far so normal for a typical interview, but Tom then took the opportunity to turn the latter part of the interview into a discussion on his personal values and approach to music, and on where the music industry may be heading. This is how he feels he should really engage with people, rather than simply trying to sell himself and his music. Finally, many critics have commented on the similarity between Tom’s vocals and Bob Dylan’s, but he lets slip that the first Dylan album he listened to was ‘Nashville Skyline’, and he declares an abiding love for Dylan’s ‘Self Portrait’, probably the most atypical Dylan albums in his whole catalogue.

How are you, and where are you?

I’ve doing good, just hanging in here and keeping on in this crazy world. I’m at home in Austin.

You seem to have increased your release rate with ‘The Cure’ coming just two years or so after ‘Crows In The Corn’, what is driving you?

It is just what I do, it is something I’ve always done. I don’t know what it is, I wish I could stop, maybe I should stop, I just keep writing songs so I guess I will stop when I stop writing songs. I’m still feeling it so I will keep doing it.

How did you record ‘The Cure’, it is just you and your guitar with some extra instruments played by yourself?

It was recorded over a period of time, I’d write a song, record it and then move on to the next song. Usually, when I’m writing I have ten or twenty songs running at once, and I’ll just keep circling around these songs playing them until one day I realise they are finished, and then I will record the song and stuff. I don’t record in the big studios anymore because I’ve done that, and any budget I have to do that is very limiting. So at this point in my life and with what I’m doing, I like to record simply and honestly and just get the point across, it is what it is and I’m trying to get a performance with just me and my guitar, I might throw a bass on it or another guitar and I recorded the album on an old 4-track, so I limit my self to those four tracks and it kind of makes you focus in on what you are doing. What you do is what it is, there’s no overdubbing or going in fixing anything, it is a song from beginning to end, that’s how I record them.

That can be quite a stressful way to record, most artists now have Pro Tools helping them.

I guess I’m from a different generation, and it is how we’ve always done things, before Pro Tools and all this digital stuff. I don’t know whether I’m making a statement against all that stuff, I’m just trying to make honest music and I think people are getting away from that. You need a certain skill set to do it, and I think younger musicians are great, but I think this is the best way for me to get my music across, other people may say Pro Tools and the whole digital thing is the way they want to do it. That’s fine, but at this point in my life, it is not the way I want to go.

Why 17 songs which could be viewed as an old-style double album?

I know, I couldn’t stop myself. What is an album anymore, and I know it is probably too many songs but what the heck, you get them out there one way or another. I started doing twelve songs then I added one and then another, and I could have put thirty songs on it, but I didn’t I stopped at 17.

You have been on the road so to speak since you were 18, looking back what do you think of your life choice?

I grew up in a working class family and there was no chance of me going to school or anything, so what was I to do? I always had creative thoughts in my brain and spirit and stuff, and I knew I was going to leave at some point, and when I hit the road and left home I had no idea what to do, I just wanted to see and experience things, and you are talking ’72 and ’73 and you could still stick out your thumb and $100 could go a long way back then, you could live very cheaply, and I had a choice of working in a machine shop all my life or purse what I wanted to pursue. I knew I wanted to write songs and play music, and I knew I had to get out there and gain a lot of experience, just get out. I grew up on the East Coast, so naturally, I went to the West Coast, as far as I could go until I hit the other ocean. I have no regrets, and I look back on it now and I’m like, how did I do that, especially the way the world is now, and I don’t think anybody can do that anymore. I know there are still people bumming around but it’s not like what it was, but back then there was a real spirit on the road and people helping each other. There would be a bunch of guys like me hitching around the country with guitars and playing music, and I would meet them and we would swap songs and learn from each other, and that is kind of what my roots are, and eventually, I ended up in Berkeley, California for a while, then Lake Tahoe, and then hitchhiked around the West Coast for a bit, and then I made my way back East because for some reason I wanted to go to New York City, and I eventually found my way there.

I was speaking to Terre Roche recently, and she did something similar with her sister Maggie when she was barely sixteen, and she said it wouldn’t happen now. Do you have any thoughts on what the current younger generation is missing out on, if indeed they are?

You can probably ask and answer that question yourself, I don’t want to be one of those guys going, well back in the day, but it is a different world now the kids can’t do it. I guess you can do it if you really want, I see a lot of kids on the street bumming but it is kind of different because when we went out it was with a kind of purpose. It was a journey, a kind of religious or creative journey, and you were looking for something, answers or just experiences. As you ride around the neighbourhood you don’t see kids playing on the street anymore, you don’t see kids playing in yards, where are all the kids and we both know the answer to that. Maybe they are missing something, and maybe we are missing something by not doing what they are doing. It is kind of all relative experience, I grew up in a physical world and in a physical world you went out, you had to leave and experience the world in a physical sense. Maybe that’s what the kids are missing, the physical world, meeting people, the sweat, the dirt, and the toil and whatever, what kids are experiencing today is different to what I experienced, but I’m not going to say one way is better than the other. I came out OK I think, I’m still surviving and still creating, and I’ve still got a lot to draw on from my experiences.

You’ve explained you grew up in a working class family and never went to college, but how did you develop the literary skill to write the lyrics that you do?

When I was younger I always read, I read a lot of poetry and stuff, and I think I just got it into my head to think in those terms. I never looked at writing or songwriting as a craft at all, I never knew what craft meant. I never looked at it in those terms, it was just something that came out of me, it wasn’t something I studied or trained for, it just came out of me it was a natural thing for me to write, and writing songs was natural to me, and it was just a matter of catching up on the music side of things, which I did by just being around and seeing other people play music.  I was never a big record guy, I didn’t grow up with a lot of records, and we didn’t even have a stereo system growing up. So, I learnt first-hand, watching people and stuff, and I always wrote and if I learnt one chord I’d write ten songs with that one chord, and if I learnt another chord I’d write ten songs with that chord, and on and on. As I expanded my musical knowledge it drove me to write more, so there are different stages and different rhythms and you go through periods where you are exploring different rhythms and stuff, it is just staying alive, keeping an open mind and keep learning from that. I never read a book on how to write songs and that, I just wrote them.

Your vocal style has been likened to Bob Dylan’s, was he an influence on you?

I grew up just outside of Boston, and I was really lucky because around that area it was just such a creative ground for folk and rock music, so I got to hear that, and if I’d grown up in a small mid-West town I probably wouldn’t have heard that music growing up on the radio. I was always attuned to folk music and early rock’n’roll, I don’t know where it comes from or what I’m meant to do with it. I was writing before I heard Dylan, and I think the first Dylan record I heard was ‘Nashville Skyline’, which is probably the most anti-Dylan record, I loved ‘Self Portrait’ and as I came to find out no one liked that record but I loved it

That album has been rehabilitated over recent years.

I used to listen to a station here in Boston, WCOP, and they played country music and it was the only country station around, and I listened to that because I loved the instruments and the guitars and stuff, and I listened until the songs got so sappy I couldn’t listen to it any more. There was some really good stuff on it, and when I was growing up on the radio you would have Frank Sinatra next to the Rolling Stones, next to Bob Dylan, next to the Beatles, it was just a mishmash, Motown, all on the AM radio thing. You got exposed to a lot of different styles of music, it wasn’t like it is now where everything is separated into different genres. You would just listen and go that’s cool, it wasn’t about this being hip thing or nothing like that, it was just about listening to music.

You are possibly one of the last folk troubadours and you have seen a lot, has streaming and downloads made things easier for you?

In many ways, it’s great because it opens up the doors to making music for a lot of people. Before the music industry had a lot of gatekeepers at the gate and if you couldn’t get in you couldn’t make music, you had to have a whole thing behind you, and in one way that was positive because you had to be really good to get through those gates, and then again there were a lot of people who were good, and even great, who didn’t get the chance to make music because of that. In that sense, it is a freeing thing, but there are so many people making music and getting back to Pro Tools, you can make a great record with one finger without really having to play an instrument, which is fine I guess if that is the way it is, but with so many people making music it makes it very hard to find music because there is so much of it you get dizzy just trying to find any kind of music. Hopefully, you can just stumble on some.

On the other sense, financially, you’ve got to do it because you love it as there isn’t really any money in making music any more. You put out a record and say you were making $1,000 in royalties you are now making like $1. You can’t survive on it unless you are a megastar, and for people like me, there is no way to make a living from it. I haven’t been to the UK for a while and I don’t know what the touring situation is over there, but I’m sure it is pretty hard, I don’t even know if people come out to hear music anymore.

I hardly dare ask, but what do you think about the current state of America?

I could ask you a similar question about the UK. It is a new world, and sometimes it is frightening to think about because with technology the way it is, things are moving faster than we are evolving. With AI coming on we don’t even need anyone to write a song anymore, we don’t need anybody to make movies anymore, the robots are coming. You can see it, it is already taking hold, you are walking around and you see people following their phones, they are walking and looking into their phones and not paying attention to the physical world around them. It is like a mule with a carrot in front of it because it is so seductive and it feeds people’s egos and narcissism, but as far as America is concerned it is much like the UK, it is splintered into groups, and you can hear what you want to hear, and see what you want to see, and everyone is becoming a victim, and where ever you are everyone is screaming look at me or what about me.

It is like being back in the Wild West, but it is a virtual Wild West, and you can see the ramifications on the streets in the violence and the gun violence. Our gun violence is just astounding, I can go down the street and pick up a gun and just walk around with it, there is nothing stopping me from doing that. If you put a gun in anybody’s hand God knows what’s going to happen. Politically, hopefully, we don’t move into an autocratic situation where everybody is looking for Big Daddy or Big Momma to take over, and I think the appeal of that is there are so many diverse opinions right now, and issues, it is very hard to get anything done, and if someone starts slapping people around then a lot of people will think at least something is getting done, and that is the danger of that. It is a very big question and I hope for the best, we just have to remember the robots are coming.

How is Austin doing, I’ve heard it is changing with lots of investment and big business coming in?

It is kind of like Silicon Valley now, it is like San Francisco and what happened to San Francisco has now happened to Austin. There is a lot of money here and a lot of people from the coast are moving in, and we’ve got skyscrapers going up faster than you can count them, and the whole of downtown has changed and it is a tech town now. Texas is big business now, and they opened the doors for big business and that is why Elon Musk is here and he is going to create his own town, make his own rules and be his own little king. It is kind of frightening, it is not the music town it used to be and though there are still lots of musicians here, they are being driven out because who can afford to live here? My wife, Lou Ann, and I are lucky that we managed to get a place before all this stuff hit, but if we didn’t have this place we couldn’t afford to live here.

What are your plans for the remainder of 2023?

Basically, keep doing what I’m doing. I’m not out there playing live at the moment because financially it just doesn’t make much sense, and even though I love playing live I can’t afford it at the moment. I’m going to keep writing and recording, and making music the best that I can, and as you say, there aren’t many people doing what I’m doing, but in another sense, there are a lot of younger musicians out there, they are doing it differently. As long as I keep feeling it, I’ll keep on doing it.

You sound like a reasonably contented person, is that right?

Me and my wife Lou Ann are very happy together, we are both survivors and we are both creating stuff, and I’m not content in the sense that I’ve still got a lot of drive, I don’t want to say angry because I was never a super angry person. I remember in New York in the punk rock scene I was in CBGB’s and I couldn’t relate to all the anger, probably because I had already travelled around the country and seen how the country works, and I have a lot of empathy for people, working class people and people not doing well, and that still makes me angry and I’ll keep fighting for human rights.

One of the bad things about capitalism and what it has turned into is that it is bad for the working class because everything is about the money, and nobody can work a job, everyone has to work two jobs and half of what you make is to pay the rent. As James Baldwin once said, “It is expensive to be poor in America”, because if you are poor you don’t have any protection, you have loan sharks and if you’re poor you get poorer and have less chance of getting out of that poor because you earn so little money and everything is against you. So, I’m still really angry and fighting about all of that, but to answer your question, I think I’ve made peace with myself and the world around me, not total peace, but by myself I’ve made peace. I hope it is the same for you, you know who you are, you know your abilities and we can work within that.

I guess that is one of the perks of getting older.

I remember when I was in my early twenties in the mid-seventies in New York, living in The Village, with the windows open on a Friday night and hearing someone walking down the street, drunk and partying, and I hear someone shouting that famous Mick Jagger line, “What a drag it is, getting old”, and I always remember that moment, even though I was a young man, and I still hear that voice coming through the window at night.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which three artists, albums or tracks are currently the top three on your personal playlist?

That’s the kind of question that changes day to day, so I will just say the last three things I was listening to. The last three albums I’ve been listening to are Miles Davis’s ‘Bitches Brew’, I’ve got a vinyl copy of that and I just dig the grooves and the notes flying and the attitude. There is so much going on there that you can listen to it over and over again, and I find it musically very satisfying listening to that record. Another record I’ve just been listening to is the Butterfield Blue Band’s ‘East-West’  which I think is an amazing record that was way ahead of its time because it was made in about ‘66. It is just an amazing record, and I don’t know why Paul Butterfield isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it really paved the path for a lot of rock’n’roll that followed that record. Another one is Mickey Newbury’s record ‘Looks Like Rain’ and it is amazing to think that it was recorded in Nashville, and it has ‘San Francisco Mabel Joy’ and ‘33rd of August’ on it. It is a really cool record, and it is interesting to hear somebody from that time trying to deal with relationships, complicated relationships, and really digging deep down into it, and it is very much of its time. It is a really gorgeous record, and he is a great singer and writer, so I listen to him a lot.

Mickey Newbury was a great writer, but I’m not sure he gets the respect today he deserves.

Yeah, but O God, that is so true of a lot of writers, and that is the problem with the digital thing, there is so much out there that it is hard for anybody to get the attention they deserve.

Do you want to say anything to our readers and your UK fans?

When I was over there, there were a lot of people who were very kind to me and supported me and tried to help me and stuff. I remember Barry Everitt at The Borderline, he was always trying to get me in there but I just didn’t have a big enough audience for him to book me there, but I played there a bunch of times. I remember playing at a Blues Festival there where I was the opening act for the whole week because he was really trying to help me. Ross Fortune of Time Out was a big supporter, and Billy Kelly up in Glasgow. And at my old label, NSR Records, Jonathan Beckett showed a great amount of support in putting out all those records, and funding me to make those records, so I will always appreciate him. Also, all the people who came to see me, I really appreciate them as well, and hopefully, someday I will get back there, it is just a matter of the stars aligning and stuff, and you have to have enough interest for promoters to book you.

How did you like the record?

I like it very much, and I thought your honesty shone threw. I think that while a lot of younger artists can wear their influences from the ‘60s and ‘70s on their sleeves, modern music can feel more of a construct rather than something that has a raw honesty. The songs are very good, the only question for these times is have you put too many on one record.

I understand that nowadays there is a move to more concise records, but as we said before, I’m not making records for critics and the music business, it is about getting the music out there, so five extra songs, so what. I’m not trying to recreate the music of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s, this is music made in the 2020s, and I just happen to have a guitar and I don’t do Pro Tools, and this is what someone sounds like with a guitar. I’m not trying to recreate something, what I’m creating is of his time, it just sounds old because of the way I’m recording it. It is about me in this period of time, I’m not 20 years old and if I was I’d probably be writing different types of songs. I’m living, I’m wide awake and I’m very conscious of what is going on around me and I’m not trying to recreate a past thing. It may sound like it but it is not, it is something of its day and time.

And in modern parlance, that is your unique selling point.

Going back to the studio, looking at a computer screen and seeing the music bouncing along with Pro Tools and going in and manipulating it is not something I need to do. I can’t compete with that because I don’t have the computer skills, and I don’t want to take the time I have remaining in my life to just look at a computer screen. What can I do, I can play guitar, write songs, and sing and that is what I do best and that is what I should do. Anything else would not be my best, and even when I did records with bands we only did one or two takes, cut live. I always got good players and I always tried to get the song down before they started playing their parts. Working with a band is like walking a tightrope between falling apart and staying together, and that is a great way to make music. If it gets too comfortable you lose that edge, and I always try to capture that in the studio. With this record here, it was about the performance and if it wasn’t perfect, so what.

And that is where Pro Tools loses out because it is about perfection and not about performance.

Also, the great thing about analogue and recording in the old days was that accidents happened, you could throw the next song up to be mixed after leaving the faders from the previous mix, and it is like, wait don’t touch anything that sounds great. You could leave accidents and mistakes in because they were so good, and that helps make great records. The digital sound is like watching a movie, all movies now are green screen and you are like, is that a city street or some simulation of a city street, is that the ocean or a simulation of the ocean, a simulation of a crowd or a simulation of a tree. I’d rather see a real tree, a real street, a real crowd, or a real car, I’d rather hear real dialogue, and I think we are losing that with computers and AI. I know it is the way it is, and I know it is the way the future is going to go, and I can see a future where men and women are part human and part computer with chips in their brains and living to be 200. We are heading for a Twilight Zone future but as long as I’m here I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.

If you keep doing it you can try and keep building your audience.

Yeah, that’s the big thing and what you are trying to do, I don’t want to be famous but I was given a certain ability to write songs and make music, and it is my job to get these songs out there, and if someone wants to sing them then that would be great too because there is only so much I can do with getting popular with the world and stuff. For me, it is always about the songs and the music, that always comes first. I’m just the guy towing the wagon.

Where do you see the future of music going?

I definitely don’t have the answer, but I think there is going to be a backlash against digitalisation, some form of rebalancing is needed. My real concern is that music isn’t as important to the current generation as it used to be, music is listened to a lot and it is everywhere but it is consumed rather than really listened to and appreciated. I have half a hope that the current interest in vinyl will reset the agenda, but I feel that is more of a fad and marketing ploy than a long-term solution. So I think that the current availability of music has undermined its real value, and there are too many competing interests preventing people from spending quality time listening to music, and music has lost some of its mystique which is a great pity.

I tend to agree with that, there are so many distractions. I know in Austin nobody listens to music like we used to do growing up when it was a way of communicating, and it was almost a spiritual movement. I think music has become an accessory to people’s lives, I will have some music with my coffee type of thing, I shouldn’t say all people because as you say, there are still people who really love music and take it very seriously. I don’t want to get into the young people are this and older people are that thing, there are always people fighting the good fight. It is like the people fighting for human rights, that’s something nobody bothers with and if you look around the world it is terrifying. We are fighting a world war and people are being slaughtered every day, and does anybody really care, you know? It is like outrage,  I know people care and people are outraged about everything but human life, it is a strange place that we are at.

When I do an interview I’d rather have a discussion like we are having and not simply an interview per se, an exchange by ears, and to me, that is more important than me just simply selling myself and saying please listen to my music. In a discussion, you can open people’s ears and eyes and reach them that way, rather than just getting on here and selling my music. I’ve never saw music like that, and I never saw what I do like that, I’m not trying to sell myself and my music, it is what I do, and I’m throwing it out for discussion, I’m throwing it out for people to react and if people hate it that’s fine if people love it, that’s great. An artist’s job is to create art not entertain, entertainers entertain, and being an artist is very selfish but once you’ve finished your art and put it out there, it becomes unselfish. When I was playing live I used to get some younger people in the audience and I always tried to shine a light on what I do,  and hopefully try and inspire the next generation. We have to keep doing what we’re doing.

That is a very good way to finish our discussion.
Tom Ovans’ ‘The Cure’ is out now on NSR Sound Recordings.

About Martin Johnson 402 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Mike R

Great interview!