James Thomson gets out of his comfort zone to cut a new album

The journey to making James Thomson’s third album took longer than expected, but the indication is that it was worth the trip.

After considering a Sydney producer and studio, or a return to the Grant Shanahan’s Leisure Suit Studios, the Newcastle-based Thomson chose an entirely new direction.

“Union Street Studio in Melbourne got mentioned to me,” Thomson says.

One of the Brunswick studio’s main producers is Roger Bergodaz, who plays in the band Lost Ragas, and plays drums for Tex Perkins, among others. “I just ended up going, that sounds like a good idea. Never met him before, but it’s great studio, and he was really good to work with.”

Thomson took Newcastle guitarist Marty Burke with him, but the rests of the players were new faces, from Melbourne, including Sean McMahon on guitar, Steve Hadley (who plays with Tex, Don and Charlie) on bass, Shane Reilly (also in Lost Ragas) on pedal steel. Thomson’s long-time friend Ezra Lee, played keys on a couple of songs, and Tracy McNeil did backing vocals.

Thomson and crew laid down 12 of his own original songs over six days, all played live. The album is due for release in September or October, with the first single by July.

“Everything was cut live, apart from the backing vocals, and we overdubbed some keys parts,” he says. “A couple of them we actually got the first take.”

While four of the songs were part of Thomson’s play list for the last year, about half a dozen were so fresh Thomson had never played them live.

The formula was simple.

“I’d play it through, and we’d talk about the idea,” Thomson says.

“Roger [Bergodaz] would play a feel on the drums and say, ‘is that where we’re at?’. And I would say ‘yeah, that sounds pretty good. Let’s go for a take.’ On a couple it just happened, which was really good.”

The new approach made Thomson work outside of his comfort zone. He was playing new songs, he was playing with strangers and he was not on his own turf. 

“I needed to try something else. I’m so glad I did,” he says.

The end result is more raw energy.

“Listening back to the rough mixes, I try to get my mind into that [recording] space ... You can’t really listen to it like a perfect recording, cause it’s like just an album, a performance caught on a tape,” he says.

I think people like to hear the humanness on albums sometimes, the few little stammers or an unusual vocal phrasing or a voice that breaks here and there …

James Thomson

“I think perhaps with my other albums, I’ve done things very differently where I’ve had four days at a studio, gone away, listened to everything for two or three weeks, and then gone back to the studio. Sometimes you can worry too much about things that you think matter, but really don’t.

“I think people like to hear the humanness on albums sometimes, the few little stammers or an unusual vocal phrasing or a voice that breaks here and there …”

The album will probably reflect a maturation of Thomson’s alt country blues style, judging by his own thoughts and a quick listen to some rough mixes. Under the working title Golden City Exile, Thomson feels the songs offer “a more developed sound,” reflecting his own wide range of musical tastes. 

The power comes from the strength of the songs, and the fresh eyes and ears of the musicians on the album were not familiar with Thomson or the songs before they were put in front of them. 

For Thomson, it satisfies his urge to marry his taste for rock ‘n’ roll with troubadour songs (“I like the Kinks as much as Bob Dylan,” he says. “I like the Velvet Underground as much as Neil Young.”)

“It feels comfortable, but not safe,” Thomson says of the new album.

Thomson plans on doing an East Coast tour in June and July with the release of Desire, the first single from the album. He will do a longer tour after the album is released, running into January 2019.

There are also plans afoot to tour in the US in 2019.