Homecoming gig for Tom Baxter

Emma Lee Acclaimed singer-songwriter Tom Baxter plays an eagerly-anticipated homecoming gig at Norwich Arts Centre this Sunday. Emma Lee spoke to him.

Emma Lee

Tom Baxter's songs do funny things to people. When he played a gig in Ireland, one girl was so moved she proposed to him. And listening to his latest album, Skybound, you can understand why. The second long-player from the Suffolk troubadour really is a lovely thing. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, his lyrics explore life, love and loss with a rare honesty - so there's no wonder he's been widely tipped by critics as one to watch in 2008.

"It's been fantastic," Tom says, speaking shortly after a trip to South America, taking in Brazil and Argentina.

"I had been away out of the country for three weeks and came back to lots of great stuff."

If you've managed to get a ticket for his eagerly-anticipated homecoming show at Norwich Arts Centre tomorrow night then count yourself lucky - he probably won't be playing venues this intimate for much longer.

Success is something that Tom has worked long and hard for - but then music is in his blood.

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He moved to Bungay aged about eight when his folk musician parents, Geoff and Julie, bought the King's Head Hotel in the town and established it as a venue for music, drama and comedy which put on shows by famous names including Jo Brand.

He was raised on a musical diet of The Beatles, Elvis, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Al Green and Bill Withers. But the epiphany came when he went to his first gig, in Norwich.

"I went to see the Stray Cats at the UEA. They were amazing. It blew me away and made me realise that's what I wanted to do," he says.

In fact, you might have already seen Tom playing in one of his earlier bands.

"I played in rock bands round Norwich when I was 15. I was playing in pubs when I was underage. I don't know how I got away with it," he laughs.

When he was 18, Tom moved to Norwich to go to art school, but quit his course and headed to the bright lights of London where he took a degree course in music at Westminster University instead.

He took a succession of odd jobs to get by as he tried to turn his passion into a career, and in his mid 20s and living on the breadline, came close to giving up on his dream.

Then the tide turned for male singer-songwriters and he got his long-awaited and richly-deserved big break. The result was the critically-acclaimed major-label album Feather and Stone, released in 2004.

But as an artist, Tom says that he wanted more control over his creative destiny and decided to go it alone. It's been a steep learning curve for him.

"I learned a lot from being with them, but I was keen to get out. I wanted to set up my own label, Sylvan, and use the experience and knowledge I had gained and see how it went. It was a very conscious decision and really a lot of it has to do with retaining creative control and making sure that the decisions made are first and foremost mine," he says.

Some of the tracks on the album were written back in Suffolk - and listen out for a range of influences including Paul Simon and Bill Withers, plus some flamenco guitar.

"It was a good time. I hadn't been back to Suffolk since I was 19," he says.

To help finance the recording of Skybound he turned it into a multimedia project, creating 10 canvases interpreting the lyrics to the songs.

"I had a clear vision about how I wanted it to be. I had the idea of doing it quite a few years ago. It stemmed from the romantic idea of playing a gig in an art gallery," he says.

He co-produced the record with Jeremy Stacey, who is known for his work with Nerina Pallot, Sheryl Crow and Roddy Frame.

Once the album was finished, the artwork went on display at the Richard Dennis Gallery in Kensington. Tom has also produced a book to accompany it.

One of the standout tracks on the album is the love song Better, which was released as a single just before Christmas. It's also raised his profile on the other side of the Atlantic, having featured on the soundtrack of the Simon Pegg and Dylan Moran sleeper hit Run, Fat Boy, Run, which was directed by David 'Friends' Schwimmer.

With the album charting at number 12 in its first week, the signs are that 2008 is going to be Tom Baxter's year.

"It's really exciting," he says. "And I can't wait to get out on the road."

He'll probably pick up some more marriage proposals while he's at it.