IAN THOMAS "NOT DONE YET"
Ian Thomas has worn a lot of hats through more than five decades as a Canadian entertainer. He is a film-composer with 22 feature films to his credit, an author, an actor, much sought after as a voice-over artist and recognized for roles such as Dougie Franklin on The Red Green Show. However, it’s his Juno Award winning career as a talented singer/songwriter where he has left his most indelible mark – crafting and recording a string of hits like Come The Sun, Long Long Way, Right Before Your Eyes, Coming Home, Pilot, Hold On, Time Is The Keeper, Liars, Wishes, The Runner, Levity, Back To Square One, Love Ya Too Much, You Gotta Know, One Little Word, Dirty Love, To Comfort You, and of course, Painted Ladies.
After the hiatus imposed upon artists by COVID, Ian felt it was time to not only hit the stage, but to do it in as spectacular a fashion as possible, with a full band performing a cross-section of hits from all eras of his catalogue. In anticipation of The NOT GONE YET Tour rolling into St. Catharines’ FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre May 4th, the award-winning Thomas took time to chat with GoBeWeekly.com about the tour, his favourite covers of his songs by other artists, the threat posed by AI to creativity, and the cereal character he portrayed in a television commercial!
GoBe: NOT GONE YET is a full band tour. Ian, don’t you know you make more money if you do a solo acoustic storytelling tour with just you and a guitar? Who’s your business advisor?
IAN: Well, there may be some truth to that for sure. But honestly, I miss a rhythm section and keys. I’m doing this for my own spirit. It’s just so fun. We had a vocal rehearsal today and everybody’s going to be singing. It’s been fun revisiting some tracks too that I rarely play live like “Levity” and “Back To Square One.” It’s wonderful having the opportunity to actually do this. I’ve lost so many people during COVID. It’s made me aware of my own mortality as well. So if I want to do a band thing I better get out there while I still can.
GoBe: Given the restrictions during COVID, did you find that you developed any renewed sense of appreciation for the joys of touring the more you missed it and didn’t get to do it?
IAN: Well, ya. It’s funny. When you’re doing it a lot you take it for granted. And then when it’s removed, yikes. We are communal beings by nature. We’re like ant colonies. You don’t gather the numbers we do without being a communal entity. And I think I missed that as much as anything else, even without the performing. I missed the greater sense of community that’s part of our normal existence.
GoBe: I would think that would be even greater as a musician because you rely so much on your fellow players for collaboration when creating music.
IAN: My brother always suggested that creativity was as much an affliction as it was a talent, and I think that’s really true. We met for vocals today it was just fun to be singing our asses off together. All that is so true.
GoBe: You’re exploring a lot of your catalogue on this NOT GONE YET tour. When you gather with a band to practice, how quickly did the lyrics and chords of that old catalogue come back to you?
IAN: (Laughing) I did a little soul searching trying to remember some of the stuff, there’s no doubt about that. But the neural paths are deep, so it didn’t take to long to get up and running. But I always have lyrics on the stand just in case. You never know when you’re going to get a white out. I always keep my lyrics there as a back up.
GoBe: What filter did you use to construct your set list for the tour or is it a work in progress?
IAN: Just before COVID I did a gig as a four-piece band, bass, drums, keys, and myself. And we put it out to people on the Facebook page what songs they wanted to hear. So this show is partly compiled from that. We’re doing a cross-section of all of my hits as well as into the Boomers catalogue which was a lot more popular than I realized out there in Canada. It was biggest in Europe, so I’m delighting in playing things that these people want to hear me play live.
GoBe: I had the pleasure of interviewing Carlos Santana last week who of course had a hit with your song, “Hold On.” Of the artists who have covered your songs, who did the best job in your mind – anyone make you relinquish ownership the way Trent Reznor did when Johnny Cash covered Reznor’s song “Hurt?”
IAN: Well, I thought Manfred Mann’s version of “The Runner” was interesting. They took the raw material of my song and put their own stamp on it. They did their own arrangement. Sometimes when my entire arrangement is kind of gulped and regurgitated, they just need a single. Everything was laid out for them in my version of it. So though I appreciate the residuals on those there are others that touched me. Bette Midler did a wonderful cover a song from the second Boomer’s album called “To Comfort You.” That one just came out of the blue. The engineer that had been working on the album, he ended up being the front of house manager on her tour. He was doing PA on that album and the song came up. The next day I got a call from Bette Midler asking if she could record it. It was just a wonderful cover.
GoBe; Do you think the art of song writing is underappreciated? Everyone noodles with words, they write cheesy poetry. But to craft a song that stands the test the time, I don’t know that people appreciate the effort that goes into it.
IAN: I think the landscape has changed. Now you have six and seven writer’s names on a song. If somebody suggested hitting a high-hat in the middle of the song one time, they get a piece of the song writing credit. It’s become so diffused that in some ways it’s a different art form. It’s as much about programming now as it is anything else. But I do think there are craftspeople out there who are still writing good songs. Billie Eilish and her brother (Finneas O’Connell), I listened to her album and I thought, there’s some good structure in there. It’s a different sounding record, all very first person, very personal song writing approach. I thought that was great. There are good writer’s out there. Adele is a great writer. Whether people in the rap era, and the big synthesizer circus show that the Katy Perry’s and the Beyonce’s are doing, I think they’re just different cats. They’re different pieces of the approach to what is the same artform. Ultimately if it’s a satisfying experience as a listener, then it’s a successful piece of work.
GoBe: Out of your most successful songs, are there any that jump to mind that presented a particularly unique challenge to complete to the point you were fully happy with it?
IAN: I’ve struggled. Here’s an example. There’s a song that’s called “The Art of Living.” It was from the second Boomers album and I slaved. I had everything going but the lyric was originally a diatribe on religion, and how the religions of the world had sort of failed on their promise and their absolutism. And then slowly the lyric started to morph. Over a period of four or five days I kept scribbling and scribbling and scribbling until it became a song of tolerance. And I realized, isn’t that interesting. My sub-conscious was angry at the shortcomings of the religious institutions, but anger is not what my soul wanted. That song swung around, and it was a song about tolerance and that everyone has to find their own way through that spiritual labyrinth. I love how that song morphed. I’ve had a few songs like that.
GoBe: That’s a great segue into this next question. As a writer I’m getting really intrigued by the existential threat to my profession posed by AI. How do you think AI will affect the music industry or creativity as a whole. You just talked about an intimate, almost divine inspiration to transform a lyric. What impact do you think it will have on AI in the future?
IAN: Well I think a lot of people are worried about AI, and the more human it becomes in its responses, that’s fascinating. I think it’s really an unanswerable question. Can AI ever get to the point where it might understand what inspiration is? I don’t know. It would seem to me if there’s anything about the human experience thus far, it’s that we’ve considered ourselves almost God-like and masters of the universe. It was Genesis that said go forward and master everything that flies or swims or exists. Not much of a sense of trusteeship there. It’s our own ego-maniacal vanity to me that has been our Achilles heel. So if the question is, do I think that a piece of AI music could ever match anything human, then I would not want to rule that out because so far, everything I’ve seen about humanity is open. For example, I learned more about unconditional love from a dog than I ever found in a scripture. It’s kind of an interesting concept. Are we going to be lording our own brilliance over the machines we have created, or will there be a type of music that might just be equally satisfying. Some jazz is like that. It’s just people blowing what comes to their mind. There no necessarily melodic construct.
GoBe: We may have to change the CanCon regulations to include 35% of music made by Canadian robots.
IAN: (Laughing) Has to be at least 40 percent human.
GoBe: Your bio lists a lot of accolades and roles: film composer, author, actor, VO artist, and of course, singer-songwriter. Any of those top the list as your favourite competency? And which are those accomplishments are you most surprised by? If I was talking to 20-year-old Ian Thomas today, which one of those things would not have registered in your future plans.
IAN: Well, interesting. I would have to say, believe it not, it’s been all the voice work I’ve done in commercials. For the better part of 25 years, I made a good living and it was just fun for me. I was Clive from Ferkin Pubs. I was Snap the Rice Krispie. It was just stupid stuff. That was something that surprised me and it also helped feed my family. Never saw that one coming.
GoBe: Final question: You’ve taken your passion for music and made a career out of it. What is the most surreal aspect of that career to you? Is it the fact you go to work and people applaud you? Is it knowing your words have left an indelible mark on so many people? I hear “Painted Ladies” and I’m 12 years old again with my CANADA GOLD cassette just discovering rock music. Is it that people sing the words you’ve crafted? What has been the biggest blessing – outside of talking to me and coming to St. Catharines to perform of course.
IAN: (Laughing) I’ve become really amazing at the privilege of an audience. It’s such a privilege that people want to come out and actually listen to you. That blows me away. Over my entire career that I’ve inadvertently become part of the soundtrack to some people’s lives, I cherish that like nothing else. What an incredible privilege that is. When this tour started we sold out quite a few venues in the first couple weeks of ticket sales. When I saw that i thought, oh my God, God bless these people, coming out to see this old bastard. It’s a humbling experience. It’s probably the only validation someone my age can still feel. I just finished writing a new album. I don’t think it will see the light of day on radio. There’s no market for it. There’s a brick wall for marketing someone my age. That doesn’t stop me writing and recording. I’m kind of blow away by the support of other people who want to come out and hear me. I’m certainly not shunning the sense of privilege I have in that wonderful scenario of being the part of the soundtrack.
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