I am really glad that my Spotlight interview section is growing and also having some increasing popularity. In this interview, I met a very interesting upcoming artist from Newcastle, England: Tommy Atkins does not only have chart placements in his home country, but also in New Zealand. Furthermore, he already played in the famous Nashville Bluebird Cafe. Atkins is a gay artist, so that we of course also chatted about his dedication in the LGBTQ+ world of music. His latest single, Freedom, is a Wham! cover.
Flyctory.com meets Tommy Atkins
FLYC: Hi Tommy, thanks for having time for this Flyctory.com Spotlight interview. How are you currently?
Tommy:Thank you so much for having me, it’s a pleasure to speak with you! I am well, thank you. I’m very busy at the moment, which is a welcome distraction from the news cycle.
FLYC: How are the lockdowns due to Covid-19 influencing your current work?
Tommy:I was supposed to be heading out on my first ever U.K. headline tour from May to September, but all of the dates have now been cancelled. I was also going to be performing at several country music festivals and Pride festivals around the U.K., but all of those festivals have been cancelled altogether for 2020. As a musician and a businessman, it’s been tough to accept that all that planning and hard work has gone to waste, but it’s important to have perspective and be thankful for your health and the health of your loved ones. I’ve been able to repurpose the time by writing more songs and promoting my new single, Freedom, with the press and country radio stations.
FLYC: You are from Newcastle, UK. What were your first musical steps in your childhood?
Tommy:I was just a huge fan of music as a kid. I wasn’t a performer – I was very shy – and I had no musical training as a kid. I didn’t get my first guitar until I was 16, so I was a late bloomer musically.
FLYC: What kind of music did you listen to and played during that time?
Tommy:As a kid, my parents would play Shania Twain and Martina McBride and Alan Jackson, so those albums were my introduction to country music. I heard a lot of 80’s pop and power ballads too – my sister and I love a good power ballad!
FLYC: You do country music. When did you find out that this is the music you like to write and perform?
Tommy:I truly fell in love with country music when I was a teenager. I saw Carrie Underwood singing a Dixie Chicks song on American Idol back in 2005. I fell in love with the genre then, and, being a millennial, I was able to access pretty much every country album ever online. I started writing songs when I was 16, and country is all that comes out of me!
FLYC: 2019 was your breakthrough year. Your debut single Wild in the Wind went up to #5 in the UK, but also #2 in New Zealand. How did you grow a fan base?
Tommy:It did, and I am so proud of that. For me, it was word of mouth. I had a promotional budget of £0 – nothing! – so I had to put in a lot of work to reach my audience through social media, and by contacting radio stations and country music publications directly to try and get some exposure. It’s a tough business and you have to really hustle to be even a blip on the radar. I’m talking 12-14 hour days, 6 days a week, when you’re releasing a single. When you’re an independent musician, you have to wear all the hats – yes, you’re a songwriter and recording artist and performer, but you’re also a businessman and have to learn how to market yourself and promote your music. And if you really stick with it and work hard, that’s how your fan base grows… so long as your music is good, of course! That always helps!
FLYC: What is the story of that song?
Tommy:It was inspired by a dear friend of mine who passed away a couple of years ago. I wanted to write something that would raise a glass to our friendship. I wrote it with Anna Pearson, an amazing songwriter from Nashville, and at first it was hard to sing. But with time, it’s become one of my favorite songs to perform, because every time I sing it I get to remember those fun memories of my friend. It’s been so powerful to hear how people relate to this song in their own way: it reminds people of their friend, or their brother, or even their parents, someone once said.
FLYC: Your next single was Cinderella’s Had a Drink, which is in fact about a friend of yours?
Tommy:Yes, it is! This song was inspired by a friend of mine who I nicknamed Cinderella, because whenever we would go out drinking together she would always end the night with one shoe less than she started with! It just reminds me of my late teens and early twenties when the world revolved around which bar we were going to that night.
FLYC: On your Facebook profile, you state that Newcastle and Nashville felt quite similar to you, hard-working people just having a good time. When did you visit Nashville the first time?
Tommy:I first visited Nashville in 2018. I went out there for a month to perform at Writers Rounds and work with other songwriters and artists. And it really did feel like home. I think the north of England is similar to the south in the US: the people are just friendlier and down to Earth. The food is good and homely too, you know? And although it’s a big city, you never feel crowded. Unless you’re at the bar trying to get a drink downtown, of course!
FLYC: Was there maybe a special occasion, a special concert or so you attended during your first trip to Nashville?
Tommy:So many! I was in town for the 4th of July celebrations that year, so seeing Lady Antebellum downtown on Broadway was insane. There were SO many people there! I went to a lot of Writers Rounds as an audience member as well as playing, and I got to see Chely Wright perform at Nashville Pride, too. That was awesome. We went to see Chely Wright at Pride through the day, then we went to the monster truck derby at the Titans stadium that evening – two very different experiences!
FLYC: In the meantime, you even had a gig at the famous Bluebird Cafe. How was it like?
Tommy:You’ve clearly done your research – I love it! That was crazy. It was actually my first ever gig in Nashville and I’d only been in town for two days, so I was still jet-lagged! It was a milestone for me and something I am very proud of. I got to perform a couple of songs, but my first was a song called Man of My Dreams. That was my Bluebird song – if I only had one chance to sing at the Bluebird, it was going to be that song. It’s a song about my husband’s grandmother, who raised him, and it’s an openly gay lyric. To stand on that iconic stage and sing my truth and have the response be so overwhelmingly positive was honestly life-changing.
FLYC: You are openly gay and, especially in the States, the country music scene is quite on the conservative side. How was your experience about that during your shows over there?
Tommy:I was nervous about it, I’m not going to lie. But the response was amazing. I had so many people come over to say hi and compliment the songs. I think the country music audience gets a bad wrap when it comes to this – I think a lot of the audience are very accepting. Actually, after the show at The Bluebird, a guy came up to me and said he’d been in Nashville for ten years and had never heard somebody sing a song from an openly gay perspective before. That was the first time he’d truly heard himself in a song, because he was a gay man too, and that just blew my mind. So that was a turning point for me. I figured, how many millions of people in our community don’t hear themselves in country music? So that’s what inspired me to release some of my music as an artist.
FLYC: There are not too many country artists who openly live a LGBTQ+ life. What do you feel needs to change that they can just be openly happy as they are?
Tommy:We need to be represented in mainstream country music. We need to hear an openly gay lyric on country radio. It’s 2020, and we haven’t even had one openly gay lyric be a radio hit in country music in the U.S! I think people are ready for it, but the record label heads and radio station heads will be scared of backlash. We’ve seen this time and time again in country music with songs like The Pill and Independence Day being banned. People are scared of making a statement, but it’s necessary for progress. And with progress, the fear that a lot of artists live with – that leading an open LGBTQ+ life will negatively affect their careers – will begin to fade away.
FLYC: One song you explicitly mention in this context is Kacey Musgraves’ Follow Your Arrow. How did it inspire you?
Tommy:That song made a statement similar to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and Macklemore’s Same Love. It told the country music audience that it’s okay to just be yourself and love who you love. It inspired me because that box had been ticked in country music: an ally has made a statement and made some progress. So, what next? That’s what inspired me – what’s the next step? And for me, it’s what I said before – it’s representation in country music. It’s having openly gay lyrics on the radio. That might not be me – I might not break into the U.S. mainstream – but I hope I can help build some momentum for someone else to break through. I believe country music is the most relatable genre of music – imagine how much further its impact could be with a diverse set of artists.
FLYC: How does the topic that we are all equal, no matter whom we love, influence your songwriting?
Tommy:Whenever I write a song, I want it to be relatable. I want to tell my truth and express myself creatively and write about my experiences, yes, but you have to have some perspective and write about experiences that others can actually relate to. Otherwise they’re not going to listen; you’re not going to connect with them. So, if I’m writing a song that uses pronouns and is therefore openly gay, I make sure the emotion behind the song is something universal. I might be presenting a gay relationship, but if the emotion is real, like heartache, people will relate to the song however they identify.
FLYC: Going back to your recent music: You just released Freedom. Tell us a bit about that song.
Tommy:This is actually a cover of the 1984 hit by Wham! George Michael is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and this is my favorite song by Wham! Again, it’s one of those songs I remember hearing as a kid. I’ve been performing it live for a couple of years and it’s just become a staple in my set. It’s the only cover I perform, actually.
In the studio, I wanted to make it my own, so it’s laden with fiddle and steel and harmonies, and it’s now sang from an openly gay perspective. It’s got a real country heartbreak feel and I hope people love this new take on a classic. It was recorded in Nashville by my producer, Dr Ford. Michael Cleveland played the fiddle – he won the GRAMMY for Best Bluegrass Album this year – and Smith Curry played the steel guitar. He’s worked for everyone from Dolly Parton to Taylor Swift. Chris Condon is on guitars – he’s Billy Ray Cyrus’ right-hand man. Anna Pearson is singing harmony – I wrote Wild in the Wind with her and she’s sang on all my recordings so far. And it was mastered by Pete Lyman, for Infrasonic Sound. He’s worked with Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, the list goes on. I had an incredible team for this song. Just incredible.
FLYC: What are your plans for 2020 and the future? Any new songs? Maybe an album?
Tommy:I will definitely be releasing an EP this year. The release schedule has been delayed due to the current circumstances, but it should be this summer. My album is written and ready to be recorded and I’ll be putting that out as soon as the timing is right. I’m excited for people to hear this album.
FLYC: Finally, what is a Tommy Atkins show like? What can people expect when they are going to one of your concerts?
Tommy:I’ve tried to infuse my shows with the magic of a writer’s round by telling the stories behind the songs, but I also love to let loose on the upbeat songs with my band and bring a bit of downtown Nashville to the stage. It’s kind of a show of two halves and audiences are really responding to that. I hope we can get back out on the road soon and it would be wonderful to play in Germany!