Sunday, December 21, 2008

Musical Questions – Tomm Lemon

A few years back, Eberle & I each had the pleasure of taking on a delightful music student (piano & guitar respectively) in the person of Michelle Lemon. One big fringe benefit of this was that we got to know her husband Tomm, who’s now a fixture at our monthly jam session (on three instruments, & as a singer). As I mentioned in yesterday’s teaser, Tomm & Michelle have both become friends, beyond being student’s hubbie & student.

& as I also mentioned yesterday, Tomm’s musical journey is interesting & instructive. I really appreciate musicians like Tomm & Dani Leone getting into specifics of traumatic
childhood musical experiences, because many of us who now play music as a “serious” vocation or avocation (or some of both) had something similar back in the murky depths of youth (yours truly included), & have had to overcome these memories to enjoy music as a significant part of life. But more importantly, there are folks out there who’d like to play music but don’t allow themselves to try because of past difficulties—& it’s important to encourage people not to think why they can’t, but think how they can do something they dream about.

Off my soapbox for now—Tomm comes from a family that’s musical on both sides. His mother's parents played instruments for a long time, and several of his father's aunts and uncles are or have been music teachers in high schools. He describes his sister as “a mad genius on the piano,” while Tomm began taking violin lessons at around 5 or 6. He also studied violin in college at Southwestern Adventist University under Dr. Mugur Doroftei, & he notes that his violin training provided “an invaluable musical foundation.”

Tomm is a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, & what he does musically these days revolves around weekly school worships at Canyon View School in Cambridge, ID and Treasure Valley Adventist School in Payette, ID; he plays the guitar and the kids sing. Tomm (& more recently, Michelle) also perform music for church or community programs. The Idaho Conference of Seventh-day Adventists holds an annual camp meeting in Caldwell, & for the last two years Tomm has been responsible for the praise band in the youth department. Although Tomm & I don't view the workings of the cosmos in the same way, I have a great deal of respect for his tolerant & open-minded outlook, & for the way he works with kids.

Tomm is also a talented composer & is actively working on a CD of ambient music for prayer, inspired by the practice of Lectio Divina and Dick Eastman's ideas in The Hour That Changes The World. & he says he’s got a number of “rock-ish songs demanding to be let out of their cages”—so, here, out of his cage, as it were, is Tomm Lemon:

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

My grandparents paid for violin lessons for much of my early childhood. I ended up in the Suzuki method. By the time I started appreciating the music itself (in Book 3 or 4—the baroque stuff that was used to teach violin students in the 1700s was pretty good), I’d also discovered pop radio. This meant I was playing along with the radio, matching a part or making up a new one, when I was supposed to be practicing Seitz and Vivaldi, and in the long waiting periods during school ensemble rehearsals I was plucking out guitar hooks on the violin strings. In terms of pure music, the violin lessons were incredibly helpful.

I’m a preacher’s kid, so the music around the house was almost entirely religious. One of my earliest memories of listening to music involved an obscure Seventh-day Adventist folk group from the early 1970s called Take 3 (obviously a pre-Google band-name as you simply can’t find them online). Unlike a lot of CCM (Contemporary Christian), their stuff runs the gamut of the Psalms—light to really dark, in retrospect. Obviously a three-year-old can’t articulate this, but having their music in my consciousness paved the way for me to be able to write about spiritual themes a little more honestly (hopefully).

A few years ago Take 3 re-released their records on one CD, and IMNSHO it has stood the test of time. (Added bonus: when I moved to Idaho as an adult, it turns out that a friend’s sister is married to one of the guys from that band. He lives in CA now, but I got to meet him when he came up for a funeral.)

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?

I stopped playing violin for years for a couple of reasons. I was stuck on a Vivaldi piece for a year in my lessons and was not permitted to try something else for awhile. It ruined Vivaldi for me. The other thing that killed violin was a performance at the office of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. The GC is the closest thing Adventists have to a Vatican, and when I was in 8th grade our school choir was asked to play for their morning worship. Because I’d played with the choir for other things, I was assigned the fiddle run during the break in one particular song. I blew it—the tempo was about 40 bpm too fast and the part was too intricate. I’d tried to tell the director and pianist at practices beforehand but they didn’t listen. So I made it about 8 notes in, let the rest of the musicians continue without me, and shrugged. It got a laugh from the people in the GC auditorium—I know a few of them, they’re a generous-hearted bunch, and I see now they were laughing along with the shrug—but I only played violin in such an overtly religious setting one time after that. I’ve had trouble playing for other people ever since.

I started making my own stuff up in high school on a little Yamaha keyboard, and have graduated to digital recording and synthesis. Currently my biggest problem, writing and playing, is inertia and fear. I’m afraid it will be good, life-changingly good; I’m also afraid it will suck and no one will listen to it. :-D

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?

Since that day at the GC, I have never worn a sweater. I hate them. Not while playing music, not ever. Other people can wear them, but not me. I wouldn’t call it a superstition—but the negative association is so strong I can’t imagine a superstition being effectually worse.

What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?
My best music starts with a melody; my best lyrics also come alone. For me the middle way has been chord progressions. I used to do concept work in college and would like to go there, but I feel I need more experience.

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

To me, the best songs are rooted in melody and accessible lyrics, and thus transcend musical genres. That’s why everybody loves Ben E. King’s "Stand By Me," why there are so many covers of Bob Dylan songs, and why Johnny Cash could play Nine Inch Nails, Paul Simon, Depeche Mode, the Eagles, and Sting on one record and have it all work. Tori Amos has creepily-cool recordings of both "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Nirvana on a piano!?) and "Amazing Grace."

But I would hasten to add that my favorite song of all time, "Where the Streets Have No Name" by U2 is the exception that proves the rule. That song from 1987 is made not just by the melody and words, but by the hugely atmospheric playing and production. I’ve never heard a worthy cover of it.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?

I think I’ve said enough about this, ROFL.

When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

Neither; I’m preoccupied with trying not to screw up my own part.

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

I need to learn piano; I started and never achieved any level of proficiency. But for fun (actually it sounds really hard), I’d love to learn the hammered dulcimer—largely inspired by this Rich Mullins song and this one.

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

These days I listen to a lot of Pandora Internet radio—which means I’m discovering new stuff all the time. My latest discovery this past Friday, while writing a Christmas sermon, was Afro Celt Sound System (you can find lots on YouTube)—which tells you, trip-hop & world. I’ve also been listening to a lot of ambient, like Liquid Mind and Dr. Jeffrey Thompsen.

When it’s just my iPod, U2, Coldplay, Enya, Paul Schwartz, Enya, and Iona (see this link for one track from this vastly underrated prog-Celtic band). Robert Frost’s Banjo blogger John Hayes has me checking out Townes Van Zandt. Our Mother the Mountain is certainly interesting to listen to while driving on icy roads in the dark.

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

I’ve wanted to record my own songs & compositions for years, and I’m doing better about working on it thanks to GarageBand—starting with my own ambient. I’m hoping to make a more rock-oriented EP in 2009. I used to put all kinds of pressure on myself to create, and pressure doesn’t work. One foot in front of the other.

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

My influences are myriad and contradictory. Because of my family background and work as a pastor, Christian spirituality is the foundation, and I can’t think about music apart from that. I mean, my father bought me my first cassettes—Tchaikovsky AND rock. Work that other people wouldn’t find particularly “religious” falls within my frame of reference in that regard—even if it was intended as anti-religious. Bono said once that the music he finds most fascinating is music either “dancing toward God, or away from God” and I would tend to agree—if the music is truthful and not bound to religious party lines on one side (most CCM), or intended only to shock on the other (thanks but no thanks, Marilyn Manson).

Whatever you choose to fill your head with is bound to influence you—and most of that stuff on my iPod are the big influences. I would add to that Sting, Billy Joel, Chasing Furies, Rich Mullins, Sixpence None the Richer, Jars of Clay … even (though I don’t own and will never buy) A Perfect Circle and Tool, who have demonstrated that hard rock can be musically interesting as well as noisy.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

None. I’m a student in this. I sit at the feet of pretty much everyone and absorb what I can. Maybe that’s good advice.

Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to answer? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to give?

Why does so much of what’s on the radio suck? Because the musicians (and programmers) play what they think the audience wants to hear rather than coming from a place of emotional honesty. This goes double for most “Christian music.”

The good stuff always tells the truth, and on that, uh, note, some recent goodness from the recently-reunited Sixpence.

Pic by Michelle Lemon (thanks Michelle!)



  1. Tomm never told me just why he so abhors sweaters. Very insightful!

  2. Hey, you never know what you may learn on RFBanjo....

  3. Oh, this is another post where I should have been taking notes.

    Random thoughts:

    First off, this was a really enjoyable interview.

    This is MY music heritage on my mother's side:

    (My mom's aunt)

    On my dad's side - Religious - Catholic hymns, Catholic choir, "Hail, Glorious St. Patrick" and The Clancy Brothers etc.

    What messed me up musically? Being forced (at gunpoint almost) to perform on the piano for dinner-party guests. Grrr!

    I lost the drive. We even got a piano a couple of years ago and I played it consistently for a year and then just stopped. Guilt made me sell it so I wouldn't have to look at it. The piano I grew up with is in my mom's apartment and will one day come to me.

    Love U2 (80s and 90s)- Favourite song by them is "Bullet the Blue Sky". I loved to dance alone to it - it just filled me up.

    Favourite artists now - Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash -and yes, he can really do wonders with Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode etc.
    Paul Simon.

    I really like the Be Good Tanyas (They do a version of Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die" that just mesmerizes me.) I saw a bit of a doc on Van Zandt a couple of years ago - I need to listen to more of his stuff.

    I could go on and've really got me thinking. I like what Tomm has to say about music going toward and away from God. I find I am drawn to both, but like him, shy away from shock for its own sake.



  4. Glad you liked this interview, Kat-- seems like you have a lot in common with Tomm regarding music. Oddly, the one musician among my immediate ancestors was also a great-aunt on my mother's side.

    Townes Van Zandt was a great musician & songwriter; you'll be rewarded by listening to his work.


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