An Interview with Jon Gomm
This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of the Fingerstyle Guitar Journal. To receive fingerstyle guitar interviews, workshops, reviews, and more automatically each quarter subscribe to the Fingerstyle Guitar Journal
Jon Gomm is from Blackpoll, England but he currently lives in Leeds. He is a singer/songwriter as well as a virtuoso guitarist who has defied the odds. Jon has rejected the mainstream music industry in favor of his independence, artistic control, and a deep commitment to self-expression.
Today Jon performs throughout the world and is highly respected among his peers. He is selling thousands of recordings, having YouTube plays into the multi millions, and is inspiring a new generation.
To date your song “Passionflower” has close to eleven million plays on YouTube. I understand that your career took a huge leap once this song went viral. Please tell me about the inspiration behind the song and how your musical and personal life has changed since.
It’s about an actual plant. I threw some seeds from a passion fruit in a pot in my backyard. As a joke at the idea that a tropical plant would grow in the inner city of a northern British town. I went off on tour, and when I came back, the bottom half of my house was just covered in vines. Then when the first day of summer hit, dozens of huge exotic flowers opened. All on the same day. It was incredible to me. It seemed like a lesson in what is possible, with patient, gentle, but resolute persistence.
It’s kind of a myth that the viral video was the start of my success. It’s hugely important, but I was already touring in quite a number of countries and selling a good number of records by then. But weird stuff did start happening. Suddenly people wanted me on their TV shows.
You made your recording debut in 2003 with Hypertension, then Don’t Panic followed in 2009, Secrets Nobody Keeps in 2013, and the latest is Acoustic Asylum. Do you see an artistic evolution in these projects and if so how?
I get better as a performer. That’s the biggest development that I hear. My voice gets better, my dynamics and touch as a guitarist, all the techniques that convey emotion is hopefully improving over time. That’s the stuff that I work on. My songwriting is always a snapshot of where my mind is at that time, so it doesn’t necessarily evolve. I just have different stuff I want to say.
I watched an interview with you where you talked about being an independent artist, free of the bonds of a corporation. This is to be admired but also it’s very impressive considering the level your career has reached. Please share your thoughts and feelings on this.
Independence is about control, really. It suits a certain kind of person. The corporate music industry is slowly ruining music as an art, making it unsustainable financially. So I exist outside of it as much as I can. It can be really stressful but rewarding to know that every listener I have, every gig that’s booked, I can trace a line from each of them, through all the networks and whispers, back to me.
Please tell me about the early years of growth as a musician and your early gigs.
I started taking guitar lessons at age four, and was in bands all through school. Then while I was at college I was paying my rent with all kinds of gigs. Jazz trios in wine bars, rock covers in pubs, country and western for line dancers, everything you can imagine, as well as recording sessions. I never expected to make my living exclusively from my own music, and I didn’t even know what my own music was going to be back then. It was fun playing music. I didn’t care it about deeply, so there was no pressure. But the spiritual rewards of expressing myself artistically are important to me, so I’m glad to be doing that now.
Your lyrics are very powerful, different, and poetic. Do you have any idea where this comes from or what inspires your way of thinking and approach?
I just write about things. It sounds obvious but a lot of songwriters don’t start from a point of having a burning need to get something out. They just write lyrics as a craft unto itself. It can be anything. I just finished a song about how it feels to be a human aware of the infinity of the universe, and to know we are ourselves a tiny, temporary speck of universal matter. Before that I wrote a song about a fish, so, you know, whatever.
In late 2012 you found yourself both physically and emotionally exhausted from extensive touring. If you don’t mind please share your experience and tell me how things have changed since. The first rule of being a jobbing musician is “Say yes.” Take the gig. It’s very hard to get out of that mindset when you’re suddenly being offered lots of opportunities. It can be a dangerous situation. I have a thing called Bipolar Disorder too, which is like adding nitroglycerin to that mix. Since then I’ve taken up three things: Yoga, meditation, and saying “No.”
Who and or what inspire you both in life and music?
I don’t know if I’m ever inspired, as in “Holy smokes, this experience is intense and now I want to write a song about it” and I usually find music like that somewhat difficult, like “Here’s a tune about a day I spent in London, it’s called “A Day In London”. How am I supposed to empathize with that? I mean, I’ve been to London, but I’ve never been *you* in London. I need more information to be able to really feel anything.
But I am inspired a lot in that I try to steal other people’s artistic ideas, as best I can. Aside from guitarists like Michael Hedges and my contemporaries like Andy McKee and Thomas Leeb, and countless other fingerstyle geniuses. I get a lot of ideas from stand-up comedians. People like Stewart Lee and Daniel Kitson. I’m also inspired by novelists, Douglas Coupland and Haruki Murakami.
If you do not mind I’d like to ask about your family, mom, dad and siblings.
Sure. I have a fantastic mother who taught me to be keenly emotionally sensitive, in the same way that an unexploded bomb could be called keenly emotionally sensitive. I have a father who taught me going to gigs was awesome, and being a guitarist was pretty much the coolest thing that existed. I have a brother who teaches me humility, with limited success. And I have a wife without whom I would be playing “Wonderwall” in a ditch for pennies.
Tell me about your beloved ‘Wilma’ and your new Jon Gomm model.
Wilma is a survivor. She has been the subject of so many musical and practical experiments, and journeys around the globe. She’s still great plugged in, but her acoustic properties are somewhat limited owing to the amount of glue holding her together.
The new signature model is off the charts, everything about it. It’s a holy shit guitar. Like playing a chord and just thinking “holy shit, where is all the sound coming from?” Playing a chord on it is like opening the wardrobe door, and seeing Narnia.
I’m so proud that I got to design a guitar with George Lowden. It’s built to his usual jumbo design but with my choices of woods and frets, except with one pretty major modification, which is the Hybrid Top, which we invented for this model. It’s a soundboard made of a layer of Sitka spruce on the outside, then a layer of red cedar on the inside, with their grains offset at a slight angle. This should mean that it’s way more resilient which is so important for my style of playing. But we had no idea how it would sound, really. And oh my goodness it works! It’s rich, thick, and loud. The bass is so deep and the sustain is wonderful.
Your use of the (banjo) tuners is quite unique, especially the way you use them in combination with your voice. How did the tuners come into your music?
I first saw them used by English fingerstyle genius Adrian Legg, but it wasn’t until years later that I tried them myself. As an electric guitarist, I was always really drawn to the ethereal whammy bar maneuverings of Jeff Beck and Steve Vai, so when my focus switched back to acoustic guitar, I really missed that. And when I recalled Adrian Legg, I wondered if those magic bendy pegs could give me those sounds. Now I can’t imagine my sonic palette without it.
I’ve not been a fan of percussive techniques in general, however I am a fan of yours. Actually you made me realize that it’s not the use of percussive techniques I dislike, it’s the fact that many players lack quality melodic and harmonic content.
I’ve heard that perspective quite often. I personally disagree. To me, it’s fascinating and often beautiful when music has no melody: just rhythm and simple implied harmony. I can listen to field recordings of Senegalese traditional drumming for hours, or drum’n’bass albums. Guitarist Preston Reed has tracks, which are virtually just drum solos, and I love them. It’s incredibly bold to write that way.
Whereas there are guitarists who play melodic fingerstyle, but then throw in the odd percussive hit here and there, seemingly for the sake of it. And to me, that’s terrible. It’s like listening to music while someone is knocking at the door.
How did you move from small venues in the U.K. into being a more international artist?
By making friends with musicians and promoters. It’s the huge advantage of being independent. When musicians like Pino Forastiere in Italy, Tony Cox in South Africa or Don Ross in Canada want to work with me, all they have to do is give me a call. And we can work it out. They don’t have to go through an agent or management company I’ve signed up to, and I don’t need anybody’s permission. And then we get to play and also hang out. I get to meet their friends or family and we are just this global family of independent musicians. It’s awesome!
You have a very devoted fan base. Considering your career has been built so hands on that must be very rewarding. Tell me about your experiences interacting with your fans and what they mean to you.
I really hate the word “fans,” We’re all just people who happen to be connected by the fact that I’m a musician and they like my music. We’re equal. I don’t talk down to them, and if they expect me to have all the answers, or to never make mistakes, they will be disappointed. But if they want a real human being who will honestly share the trials and tribulations of life of a musician, they’ll be happy.
Please share any advice you may have for up and coming artists.
Don’t sell yourself. It’s transparent. Just make music and share it with humility.