Q & A with Tomi Gray
Stepping away from his position as vocalist in Sydney’s hip-hop indie rock flavoured band, The Ruckus, Tomi Gray has set himself a new solo project: to write 100 songs in 100 days.
At halfway through his journey, he sat down to answer some email questions from Julie Leighton in what turned out to be a very insightful interview.
Tomi, you’re releasing 100 demos in 100 days, which is quite an ambitious endeavour. It reminds me of a Paul McCartney interview with Michael Parkinson that I saw back in the 90s when he talked about collaborating with Stevie Wonder. Paul and Stevie were chatting about the number of songs they tend to write at any given time. Paul said he felt somewhat like a slacker when Stevie admitted to writing “a song a day.” Can you talk a little more about the reasons you have undertaken this project?
Firstly, I should mention how much I enjoyed being mentioned in the same sentence as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. I feel like this has already been a successful interview!
There is a fairly lengthy list of reasons I committed to this process at the beginning of the year. However, the drive at its core would be that I feel the need to earn back the right to describe myself as a musician. This is a practice in discipline and fulfilling promises to myself above all else.
I have listened to a number of your demos and I have noted some themes including self-reflection, growth, understanding and forgiving our flaws, making better choices for ourselves, embracing our similarities and our differences and showing kindness to others. Have I grasped the meanings in, at least, some of your songs? And if so, what brought you to this shift in letting go of negative people and situations and moving you towards a more positive place in your life?
It has been a steadily increasing force in my life over the past few years. The city can be a murky atmosphere and I find that I am most attracted to the parts and people that do me no good. A lot of the songs I write are an attempt to hold a mirror up to the parts I don’t like about myself to try to force myself into seeing, accepting and hopefully overcoming them.
In demo #42, Cold Water, you share your position on not agreeing with organised religion. One might suggest the recent expose of Scientology, by former, long time member, Leah Remini, is a clear demonstration of your position. Are there any particular examples you can share on your views of the seemingly insincere, possibly hidden motives of organised religion?
As a general rule, I make an effort to let people live the life they see as fitting for themselves. If the practice of religious beliefs is part of leading a fulfilling life to some then I hold no disdain toward them.
My issues with organised religion are primarily based around my belief that majority are set up and run like businesses and unfortunately, in order for those businesses to continue to operate, it requires its customers to remain ‘spiritually unwell’ and in need of saviour. If everyone was happy, healthy and spiritually functional, the churches would be out of business. And they don’t want that.
There is a lightness and fun in some of your demos such as #44 Handball and #43 Free and #26 Trampoline where you talk about missing being a kid lately. What was your childhood like? And what parts of your childhood do you especially miss?
There’s something about the feeling of nostalgia that is very comforting to me. I haven’t spent as much time as maybe I should considering why that is. I think there is an innocence that can only come naturally with youth. After a certain point it takes a great deal of effort regain.
Sometimes the thought of an old favourite childhood book or friend is enough to give me a flirting of excitement in my stomach. I remember the exact point in my life where I realised I wasn’t excited by things anymore. Birthdays, Christmas, sleepovers … That upsets me. I guess I’m just trying to explore that feeling.
Speaking of Trampoline, as of right this minute, it has had 101,659 views after going semi-viral in Mexico. Also, your single with your band The Ruckus, Steady Hands, is being played in over 100 radio stations worldwide and the song has been added to the school syllabus in Brazil to assist in teaching the school children English. Why do you believe people worldwide have so enthusiastically warmed to your music?
I have my theories that Australia and its people of the whole [sic], despite its many beautiful factors, is fairly unwilling to announce its allegiance to anything until it has been approved of by someone with ‘more credibility’. I don’t know why that is but I see it everywhere here.
I hate cool people and small mindedness. Those are the only two prejudices I openly allow myself to continue practicing uninterrupted. Of course I base this on a very limited knowledge of the rest of the world and how/if they operate differently but all I can go on is my own experience and that has seen my music always and continue to be accepted, supported and appreciated by people from outside this country.
With The Ruckus, you raised money from the proceeds of your song Steady Hands for Headspace.org, an organisation devoted to mental health treatment. Why did you guys choose to donate funds to this particular organisation?
A human being’s mental condition is of much greater importance than our physical in my opinion. It is the foundation of our spirit. I always feel the need to make a disclaimer alongside comments like that such as, “without wanting to sound all, hippy or whatever.” I simply have a great deal of respect and admiration for the work they do at Headspace and intend to support that cause in any way I am able.
Your #38 song, Epiphany, has an almost Jimi Hendrix-inspired video, the way the two images converge together. Was that intentional or have I misinterpreted the video altogether? Also, why have you had your mouth pixelated out of the video?
It’s so fantastic to have an (albeit, typed) conversation with someone about this project where I am not being fired the generic template questions. So thank you for this experience. I spend most of my time in my own company because that is just what seems to work for me at present and often feel I try far too hard to have people understand me.
I have had to give a great deal of thought as to why that is and the further I explore it, the more I find as a natural by-product, the less important it becomes to me. The pictures in the video are drawings on my bedroom wall which I did one afternoon. I used them in the video alongside images of my censored mouth singing because they are a part of me, which I could display without having to say anything.
I’m noticing the less you say, the more room you leave people to interpret they’re own meaning with things and when they do that they have accidently become partially entangled.
With your #37 song, Validate Me, you talk about trying something different: You simply grabbed your guitar, had a little jam. It’s quite a melancholic, pretty song and it highlights the warmth, sensitivity and haunting quality in your voice. Would you consider yourself, at least at times, an accomplished balladeer as well as blessed with a raw, rocky, soulful, bluesy tone to your voice?
I don’t consider myself an accomplished anything though I have been enjoying the process of trying things that challenge me musically. I hope to broaden my scope as far a possible within these 100 days to then have a better understanding of my strengths and weaknesses and refine my own personal musical style as a result.
In Window in a Cage, your #36 demo, you sing about having to prioritise making music over making money and that you are “getting down to the coins”. However, rather than being disenchanted or dissuaded, you take what some might call an esoteric viewpoint by proposing that the less you worry about something, be it money or any other concerns we tend to have, the more chance opportunities for making money, in some way, shape or form, will present itself. What experiences have brought you to this way of looking at the world we inhabit?
My life had gotten away from me a few years ago. I was emotionally tied up with a girl with serious mental illness and I was 100 per cent on-board for the ride. Everything else in my life took a back seat. I was broke and homeless. I kept my only bag at her house in Kings Cross but was kicked out on an almost nightly basis.
I had committed to diving headlong down the rabbit hole of this exciting dark decadence and had become addicted to the emotional rollercoaster. She was a stripper with a drug dealer day job so there was tonnes of money (all hers) and a pretty serious flow of chemicals to wrap everything in. I lost all but two of my friends. Lost touch with my family and wasn’t even really playing music.
Through this whole experience, I still called myself a ‘musician’ as it seemed to be the last piece of personal identity I was managing to clutch onto. I have hit my lowest point and seen what it looks like. I know have a constant fire in my belly to make it up to myself and I suppose with that I’ve come to gain a belief in my ability to always land on my feet. It’s not a new story, just a different take.
#34, Tall Poppy, is played with one instrument and things found in your living room like a pack of cards, a spoon, a coffee jar, a frying pan and a running tap, with impressive dominoes set ups that tumble throughout the song. What is that one instrument and are we to take the meaning behind the song Tall Poppy literally?
I actually can’t remember this one.
You were awarded the 3rd Place for your song Under the Mountain at the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre’s Sydney-Vision song competition late last year. What was that experience like for you?
That was so fantastic seeing my video clip on a movie screen. I used to go and play music out the front of the Newtown Centre every Friday/Saturday night with The Ruckus when we had a full-time drummer and less excuses. I met the organisers of the event through that and was pretty flattered to make the finals let alone take out a cash money prize. Which I think I spent on rent.
The ad you did for Audible, sung to Roxette’s Listen to Your Heart, made me (literally) laugh out loud. How did you and Craig McLachlan (of all people) become involved?
I had no idea who Craig McLachlan was before he turned up. I could tell he was a big deal by the way he was the focal point of the room, so I asked some questions and found out he used to be on Neighbours. Anyone who knows Jarrod ‘Toadfish’ Rebecchi is a good guy in my book.
Although I was most impressed with Jordan Raskopoulos. That’s the kind of person I’d like to be friends with. Driven, always improving on themselves and super cool. I’m just never sure how to make friends as an adult. Maybe she’ll read this and hit me up? I’m open to coffee and hangs? She has my Instagram.
There is a quote about you that states, “He doesn’t just deliver a song, he encompasses it. Wraps you up in the journey and takes you inside the soul of the music – Tomi Gray is more than an artist, he’s an experience to add to your bucket list.” Voice PM. Consequently, I have just added you to my bucket list. Gently pushing humility aside, how does such a powerful and positive review feel?
It’s a lovely thing to have heard someone has said about what you are most passionate about but how can you follow that, really? I try really hard these days to pay no heed to anything that is being said about me. The positive things hold just as much weight as the negative and neither should affect my image of myself, but they do.
That’s the journey, so now I just pass all feedback along to Adam, Heidi and Lee at Firestarter Publicity and let them do the best they can in creating a hype-machine geared toward hopefully one day seeing me be able to support myself and my friends with the music and art I love to make.
One of your images is of Mr Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons smiling unabashedly at some literally dark action he undertook (if memory serves me correctly): completely blocking the sun in Springfield. Is that simply a laugh-out-loud moment or does it represent something slightly more meaningful for you?
I love that you have been to my personal Facebook. You are fantastic at your job. This holds no significance. I think I was drinking a coffee at the time I found that picture and so was he. It was nice to feel connected.
You also include a Leunig cartoon: “I agree with you Bert … humanity is disgusting … but rejecting it and trying to become a toucan is not a lifestyle choice, it’s an idiotic delusion.” Why is this cartoon included in your images?
My mood swings fairly drastically from noon to night and sometimes the hardest part is finding the perfect cartoon to post to Facebook that will encompass the full sphere of emotion.
One of your musical favourites is the Sydney quartet Creo. Why do you love their music and can you share some of your other musical influences?
I love those guys because I have known [them] and seen how hard they work for many years. They are all stand up human beings and very driven and extremely talented and unique.
I had the unfortunate responsibility of having to chase Carlos (guitar) for an invoice due to me by a venue he was booking for about a year ago. The invoice had been unpaid at absolutely no responsibility of his own and I had let me frustrations out on him inadvertently over the phone one day [sic]. I always hated that I had allowed that to happen.
He probably doesn’t even remember, but that was a huge thing for me and the final nail in the coffin of me trying to keep one foot in both the performance and business side the music industry.
It’s unfortunate that in order to be a musician in the city you also have to be able to be a manager, agent, promoter and stretch your already minimal time in between shifts in a bar or however you make dough. Or you have to be good at networking, which I am not. Or have money, which I don’t. But you find a way.
I read your Do Something Hectic essay and found it brave, honest and inspiring: That you have spent a great deal of time giving serious thought to your place in the world, what you really want from it, how you really want to live, who you want to associate with, how you want to treat yourself, etcetera. That we send out into the universe the intrinsic, often not especially beneficial to our welfare, kinds of thoughts which, in turn, brings not especially beneficial people and experiences into our lives. Was there a particular trigger (or triggers) that have led you down this path towards a more beauty filled, growth fuelled, positive place?
I think I’m pretty inspired by my mum who raised my practically by herself in the city, which is never where she wanted to be. To see how she completely, ruthlessly and unforgivingly changed her life to suit her visions has been an inspiring thing to watch growing up. I’m actually writing you from the bed in the back of her bus where she lives now (currently up Byron Bay area) where I’ve come to write for a few days. We always have thought provoking talks.
You talk about yoga, the instant impression it left on you, and that you had an overwhelming feeling that something had fallen into place. What had actually fallen into place?
Yoga just seems to be a natural next step for people on the self imposed path to self-discovery. It seems to be part of the club membership terms. I draw the line at vegan diets and white-man dreadlocks but you can only hear so many people you admire sing the praise of something before you roll out the mat and get down.
I can’t explain what it was that clicked into place, I just love how I am when I incorporate these things into my life more than when I don’t.
You have created a 7 point plan. Are you following your plan and what kind of a positive difference is it making in your life and in how you feel about yourself?
1- life admin, 2 – new projects, 3 – new experience, 4 – overcome fears, 5 – Personal development, 6 – Selfless acts and 7 – Treat yourself. I do. I try.
As life is always changing and spinning I’ve had to refine it lately to allow myself to focus fully on this current undertaking of 100 demos in 100 days, but it is a personal checklist I am always conscious of.
What did you study at The Design Centre at Enmore? And how do you incorporate your design education into your music?
I have undertaken further education a few times since leaving school in grade 11. The first time, this instance at Enmore Design was when the inevitable external pressures of society get to you and you cave in to the opinion that music is unreliable and you need to have a career to “fall back on”. The next times were internships I did at agencies, record companies and management labels around town. The third and latest was a university course I undertook so that I could apply to receive Centrelink benefits.
There comes a time where you need to stop walking with one foot in each world. I have made the decision to dedicate my life to this as it seems to be the thing that brings me the most joy, comfort and satisfaction, and therefore I endeavour to commit fully to everything that entails.
I only did the design course as I figured it would help me with band posters. I only did the internships as I figured it would help me meet the right people. I’m only enrolled in uni so that can have the government fund me to create music and not have to spend the majority of my time struggling to keep my bills paid. No one’s life is easy but I just have to trust that I’m on a path that is leading me to somewhere, one day, one song at a time.
Connect with Tomi Gray
- Julie Leighton