Written by the world renowned rock journalist and author Mick Wall.
Sandi Thom is not who you think she is.
For a while most people still recalled her as the precocious next-generation talent that produced one of the defining hits of the internet age, ‘I Wish I Was A Punk Rock (With Flowers In My Hair)’, this talented singer-songwriter has come a long way in the years since then.
As Sandi now says, “The strange thing about having the kind of success I had, people think they know you. In fact, people don’t know me at all.”
That is all about to change, however, with the release of Sandi’s superb new album, Flesh and Blood. Recorded at Nashville’s legendary 16 Tons studio, with celebrated Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson in the production hot seat, the fourth Sandi Thom album is, she says, “the first album I’ve made that is really all about me.”
Describing it as “a new chapter” in her story, personally and professionally, she adds: “I never liked to pigeonhole myself. I feel like my sound and voice have been naturally developing since I was 14-years-old, and that it’s only now I’ve finally hit upon what I really sound like.”
It’s a sound that combines the blues-rock raunch of belting opening track ‘Help Me’ with the balladic, country-flavoured charm of ‘In The Pines’; that shows how to funk it up, as on the strutting, clavinet-led ‘Stormy Weather’; and that knows how to break your heart, as with the movingly climactic finale track, ‘Lay Your Burden Down’.
Featuring a core studio band led by producer Rich Robinson on guitar and including fellow former Black Crowe and widely travelled session star Audley Freed (guitar), respected Nashville stars Mike Webb (Keys) and James Haggerty (bass), and Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, there are also guest appearances from acclaimed singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte Marie, famous Rolling Stones collaborator, saxophonist Bobby Keys, and Sandi’s life-long drummer Craig Connet.
Sandi: “The best part about it was being able to breakout and work with all these different musicians, putting it all in the melting pot and seeing what comes out.”
Adds Rich Robinson: “I’m really proud of Sandi’s record. With the help of a great band of musicians, Sandi really stretched herself and made a bold new album. Her songs are honest and very strong. Her vocal abilities are showcased really well on this record, as well as her guitar work, and harp playing. Sandi’s a well-rounded musician and she made a great record. It was great working with her.”
Indeed, the relationship between Sandi and Rich went far deeper than that of mere band mates.
“By the end of the album I felt like Rich was a brother. When you spend time like that in such intensity, putting your emotions into a song, it fast-forwards the process of getting to know each other. At the end of the sessions we’d go down the road and sit in this Mexican bar and have a few drinks and talk about life. In a strange way, when we came back into the studio the following morning, it all contributed to the recording process. You can hear it all in the songs.”
They met in LA, after Sandi called Robinson out of the blue. She played him some of her ideas, on acoustic. “I admit I was quite intimidated. This is a guy who when he was 19 released an album that sold nine million copies. But he was sitting there in sandals and a long beard, this chilled-out hippy. That was our one and only meeting till we started to make the record. He listened to my songs and had a couple of things to say about them. But we just started working together straight away.”
Long recognised as one of the most exciting vocal talents to come out of Britain, Sandi says working with Robinson helped bring her singing to new levels.
“Rich knew I had a confidence issue, as do many singers, so on certain songs he really pushed to get the best out of me. ‘In The Pines’, ‘Help Me’ and ‘You’re Not My Man’, those were the most challenging tracks for me on the new album, as a singer. They were really, really high – and deliberately so. Rich pushed most of my songs up by at least a key, or a key-and-a-half. He wanted to hear the struggle in my voice, to get me to really work for it as a singer. He forced me out of my comfort zone and into places I’d never been before, but that he knew I could do.”
‘Help Me’, which opens Flesh and Blood, was actually the last vocal recorded.
“I walked in and thought, right, you’re either gonna give this your all or you’re really gonna fuck it up. So I let all my inhibitions go and just opened my mouth wide and began to sing. And I did it one take. Just went all out and gave it everything I had. And it was Rich that brought that out of me. Sometimes he would even deliberately antagonise me, just to get me to that very angry, pissed off level, where you just let go, you know? He was very clever in that respect.”
Unlike his brother and songwriting partner in The Black Crowes, the garrulous Chris Robinson, Rich is more the strong silent type. But Sandi managed to bring him out of his shell too.
“He’s a great character, full of stories and songs, and is a very loveable, easygoing guy. He’s also a really talented guitarist and producer. I’d love to be able to forge a working relationship with him where we can continue to make records together. I’d love to go on that journey with him and make some really awesome records.”
She says she has “always flown between the lines of blues and rock and folk and pop, Americana and country, it’s a real blend of different genres.”
She explains: “Songs like ‘Lay Your Burden Down’ and ‘When The Sun Comes Crashing Down’, those songs are just me. The most me there’s ever been. I wrote ‘Lay Your Burden Down’ about my mum and my brother, originally. No lives are ever simple and they have both been through a lot of heartache.
“That song is really also about myself letting go of the past and its pains, almost like laying your weapons down and giving yourself up to the consequences and your fate. So whenever I sing that song, it’s with tears in my eyes. I sang that one from the pit of my stomach.”
‘When The Sun Comes Crashing Down’ came from a two-week trip with her brother to Malawi, in her role as an Oxfam Ambassador.
“I was very, very moved by the whole experience. People are living on dirt and dying right in front of you. It was life-changing. If the rains don’t come in these places, people die. That’s where the whole idea of ‘When The Sun Comes Crashing Down’ originally came from. It’s a love song that started out like a prayer for rain. It really went on a journey from the desert in Malawi to a house in Nashville, where I finally finished the lyrics.”
Legendary producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, John Hiatt, Journey) was moved enough to offer to mix the final track for Sandi. “I was lucky enough to get to mix it,” says Shirley. “I think it’s super strong – her writing is fantastic and her singing is great on a great song. ‘When The Sun Comes Crashing Down’ has everything it needs to be a hit!”
A self-described “obsessive Fleetwood Mac fan”, they are also a strand in Sandi’s new sound: the strong-minded female with the oh-so vulnerable heart.
A good example being ‘I Owe You Zero’, of which Sandi says: “I’m not bitter but I am certainly stronger now. A lot of people have cast shadows of doubt in my life, or tried to pin me down and hold me back, or have really hurt me. But I am very determined, as a person, driven mainly by the music. But I also like to prove people wrong. I don’t like it when people judge me and that song is me saying: ‘You don’t know the half of me’.”
Then there is the intriguingly titled ‘I Love You Like A Lunatic’, another autobiographical work based on her “life-changing” love affair with superstar blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. The couple have been together for three years now, living and loving together, on and off the road. Like a modern version of the Johnny Cash and June Carter story, Joe made a guest appearance on Sandi’s 2010 single, ‘This Ol’ World’, and Sandi has toured and sung onstage with Joe.
Yet they nearly didn’t get together at all. Sandi, in fact, was on the verge of getting married to someone else when she fell in love with Joe. ‘I Love You Like A Lunatic’ is just one of those songs she has written that offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the emotional rollercoaster she has been on with Joe.
She sighs. “It’s a song about being so madly in love with someone you really can’t help yourself. I thought I’d been in love in every one of my relationships. But then I met Joe and realized what it really was to be in Love. And it’s true, it drives you insane! I did turn me into a lunatic.
“In the upheaval of it all my life just turned crazy. But at the heart of it all I was just crazy in love, completely and utterly insane. All rational thinking went totally out of the window. Yet that’s what everybody wants, that insane kind of love that utterly consumes you.”
‘Stormy Weather’ is another song inspired by her long-term relationship with Bonamassa.
“I was alone in Joe’s house in LA. He has away on tour and we hadn’t quite settled into living together yet. So I was in this strange place – physically and emotionally – kind of like no-man’s-land.
“The whole dream that we talked about was to move out to the sea and live near the beach. So I’m sitting there writing about this and there’s this crazy storm outside, furniture blowing around the patio and rain lashing down. But it’s not about the storm. It’s about getting out of this limbo-land and getting to a place where we can make a life together. It’s a song about longing, and about being in a transitional state.”
She goes on, “I feel like I deserve this now. I’ve worked my arse off to get where I am. I’ve taken some serious leaps of faith in my life and done some crazy shit. To be here now and think that it actually paid off, that it all finally came good, it’s like I’ve been playing a video game and I’ve progressed to the next level at last. I feel like I really have weathered a storm.”
A statement that is itself a metaphor for the journey Sandi Thom has been on since going to No.1 in seven countries with her very first single, ‘I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker’ and multi-million selling album, Smile… It Confuses People.
“‘Punk Rocker’ painted a very firm picture,” she explains. “Everybody expected that everything that came after would sound like that too. Hopefully this new album will change people’s perception of me as a musical artist, and become more open to me again. This really shows what else there is to me.”
Part of the same generational influx that saw other major artists like the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen find their way to the top of the charts via the internet, Sandi’s career has transcended her pixelated beginnings to the point where she now fronts her own record label, Guardian Angels, and calls the shots on every aspect of her career. She even single handily secured a worldwide distribution deal with Universal Fontana.
“I just got back from Kuala Lumpur, meeting with distribution companies to talk about servicing Guardian Angels throughout South-East Asia. That’s the other part of me that people don’t know, The Mogul.”
Like David Bowie and Elton John, who both enjoyed early one-off hits before finding their true niche as musical artists, Sandi feels that Flesh and Blood is her coming of age album.
“All I ever want to do is write songs that connect with people. And with this album I’ve finally found a place where I can make the very best music I can achieve. The people that only know me from ‘Punk Rocker’ won’t recognise me on this album.”
Now the media spotlight has moved on to blind other unsuspecting victims, the truth can finally be given a good, proper airing. Behind the hype there is simply that voice. Heartfelt, soulful, sincere… Sandi Thom is not who you think she is.
She’s something else.