INTERVIEW-Bareboned and Unplugged: Emmanuel brings his smooth jazz to Gravity
After a 20-year run as a Sydney session player and 15 records centered around instrumental rock and the more aggressive side of smooth jazz, Tommy Emmanuel has recently focused on barebones unplugged performances like the one he'll deliver at Gravity Lounge on Tuesday. Nevertheless, his last two records were released by Favored Nations, the record label run by electric guitar master Steve Vai, who is himself a longtime fan. Emmanuel is a guitarist's guitarist, but also a household name in Australia, where he's revered as one of the country's strongest instrumentalists. You'd be proud of him, too, if your largest musical exports were Kylie Minogue and Air Supply.
The Hook: I understand you were a bit of a child prodigy.
Tommy Emmanuel: I started playing when I was four, and turned professional by the time I was six. We had a band and started touring around Australia. That led to us being on TV and being part of bigger shows. After my dad died, I taught guitar and played in a band on the weekends. I've had a go at everything you can imagine.
The Hook: Lots of your recorded work involves compositions for an ensemble, so why do you prefer playing solo acoustic shows these days?
Tommy Emmanuel: I'm the ensemble. But I don't play like a solo guitar player; I play like a band. My music is completely self contained. When people hear me, they don't miss the fact that there's no bass player or no piano player.
The Hook: So that's why you started playing percussion parts on your guitar?
Tommy Emmanuel: Well, I kind of experimented with that when I was younger. It sounded a lot like a conga player or a bongo player, so I found a way of making it play like a drummer and a percussion player playing together.
The Hook: How long have you been with Favored Nations?
Tommy Emmanuel: For the last two albums, and I have another album to do with them. It was Steve Vai that approached me about signing with them; he loves what I do and is a big supporter. It's nice to have someone like that believe in you.
The Hook: What has been the biggest benefit of affiliating yourself with a label so closely tied to a guitar virtuoso?
Tommy Emmanuel: I'm about to find out. That's a difficult question to answer, because we've always really done everything ourselves. Having Steve believe in me and having him speak about me in certain circles has been wonderful.
The Hook: Do you think it might keep your work in a virtuoso's niche?
Tommy Emmanuel: Could be. Obviously, people associated with that label, it's specifically about guitar players, but what I do appeals across the board. I don't really care if guitar players listen to me or not, as long as the public does.
The Hook: You've worked with a lot of high-profile artists over the years. Who was your favorite?
Tommy Emmanuel: Playing with Chet Atkins was a joy for me. To get to record an album with him was a dream come true for a kid like myself, given where I came from – from nowhere in Australia, no father, extreme poverty. The only direction in life that I had was my guitar and Chet Atkins albums.