Tom E Lewis

Beneath the Sun

Dec 2013


"Here's a good one," says Tom. "You'll love this one, marrkap," and he's laughing already in that gravelly, slightly wicked way.

This story is about the day he's playing golf in Melbourne with Paul Hester from Crowded House. "You know that little club there in Elsternwick? That one, yeah?" Well, anyway, the phone rings and it's the mayor of St Kilda.

"Tom," says the mayor, "you're running with the torch."
"What torch, sir? Is it dark now?"
"The Olympic torch, you silly bugger! You got to represent St Kilda!"

So he does. Tommy Lewis from Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, '70s star of 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' turned 80's stage and screen actor and world-travelling jazz-didge virtuoso of the '90s, carries the torch through the streets that saved his life and nearly killed him.

That's a longer story. Bits of it run through Tom's new album, BENEATH THE SUN, if you know where to look. "I survived the dark side, marrkap," he says (it translates as "mate", but like a lot of words out bush, it means more). "Now I can sing about it, be the lucky one to come out the other side."

'Cherie L'Amour' captures that sleazy, boozy spirit best of all: a jazzy stumble down Acland Street to St Kilda's Esplanade Hotel, seen through the dark end of too many long discarded bottles.

Open the CD and there's Tom today, sitting on the steps of the same pub. It was ground zero for this album in many ways. A refuge of friendship, beers and music in wilder and more desperate days; the place he learnt the guitar with help from friends like Ross Hannaford and Broderick Smith.

"In 1985 I did a film called 'Naked Country' with Rebecca Gilling, directed by Tim Burstall from the Morris West novel," Tom explains, beginning nearer the beginning. "Then I had to leave my community. They said I was selling secrets to be famous. They put the death warrant on me. That's why I left the Territory and I went to St Kilda."

'Can't Change Your Name' speaks of those days. "It's my pain coming out," says Tom. "Wherever I go, I am who I am. My blood is of my grandmother, who I respect, and my body and spirit comes from my Welsh background. And I can't change that neither."

'3 Crows' is a song that nails the common ground. The birds he sings about are vestiges of a visit to the Tower of London, channelled through a recent turn as Othello with the Darwin Theatre Company. "But for my family, my people, the crow is our totem," he says. "So what I mean to say is that every culture, every world, is basically one."

'Open Road' came from the mouth of his then six-year-old daughter, Grace. "She came to me one morning and said 'Daddy, give me an open road where my heart will lead me to dance'. And I went 'What did you say?' I travel a lot, so it makes sense. Father and daughter stuff, you know?" That laugh again.

'I Can't Make It On My Own' is a darker neighbourhood tale. "It’s mango season and this couple are up late drinking on their block and he goes nuts and kills her, chops her up in puts her in the freezer. In the cold light of dawn he realises what he’s done and shoots himself."

Only Tom could turn a true story so bleak into a love song. 'Sun comin' up now, can I hold you once again…'
BENEATH THE SUN was recorded with Skinnyfish Music (Gurrumul, Saltwater Band, Ali Mills) at Audrey Studios in Melbourne with an all-star band beginning with the legendary Ross Hannaford on guitar. Tommy knew his Daddy Cool riffs from the radio back in Ngukurr, long before they met at the Espy during those Monday night jazz sessions of the '90s.

His partners in a rich and distinctly off-kilter mash-up of jazz, blues and country are Tony Floyd on drums, Stephen Teakle on keys, Craig Pilkington on various stringed things and producer Michael Hohnen — best known these days as Gurrumul's right hand man — on bass.

"What I love about Tom's songs is his stream-of-consciousness writing," says Michael. "The flow of ideas always surprises me.

"Plus he's a very worldly musician. He travelled the world as a folk-jazz didge player with the Lewis and Young Ensemble and that really shows in his writing. When he comes to me with a song it's almost indecipherable. It's very tangential, like a lot of Aboriginal storytelling. Then we'll nail a structure to it."

It's worth mentioning that the structures on BENEATH THE SUN are fleshed out in wild and shimmering shades of brass and strings by Melbourne contemporary music chameleon Erkki Veltheim.

But it all comes back to Tom's stories in the end, from the back porch ramble of 'That Girl', written for a cousin who said "Can you try and do something like JJ Cale?", to a heartfelt cover of the Australian Crawl classic, 'Reckless'.

Ask Tom to tell you that story some time; the one about the crowd throwing him up on stage with James Reyne at some pub in Lismore, then catching him again when the road manager threw him off.

"I've been lucky, marrkap," he says. "Music, it heals. There's medicine in art. I don't know where this CD can go. I really don't know. I'd like to write another one, yeah? I feel like there's more coming."