Second Acts

04.09.14

Sandi Thom On How To Make It As A Female Rock Star

Singer Sandi Thom shares her story of beating the odds (twice) in the music business—and why you should never listen to the naysayers.

The only limitations that we face in our lives are the ones we put on ourselves. That was what someone once said to me. In other words, if you believe in yourself and continue to do so with unwavering strength, eventually, you’ll make it regardless of what other people may say.

Ever since I was a child I’ve wanted to know what was beyond the horizon. Watching my father, who was a fisherman in his younger years, sail away out into the choppy seas ignited a sense of adventure within me, and what an adventure it’s been so far. 

My love for music began as a child, four years old, happily swinging my little legs off the piano stool mapping out the chords to some old nursery rhyme. I was content, alone with my music. 

It wasn’t until the age of 12 that I really started to allow the music to speak my thoughts, and at that tender age I had a lot to say. My first songs had such terribly tortured titles as “Where Do I Belong,” and “These Are My Glory Days.” Glory days? I was 12! But my imagination was greatly outrunning my number in years and I knew I had a passion for songwriting.

I wouldn’t say that I was “encouraged” to do music by my school, but my parents were extremely supportive, something that has come to be invaluable. There is no price you can put on the support of your parents when you go through your greatest and worst times in this business— from your first record deal (for me, in my early 20’s) to the backlash of the British press, to the worldwide tours, the drink and the drugs, and finally the moments of sheer and utter exhilaration, like standing on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall performing with Dr. Brian May and John Paul Jones. 

I chose a life of organized chaos and unbelievable highs and lows. I don’t think the word ‘dull’ ever had a place in my vocabulary.

There is one enormous lesson you will learn in life and indeed in the music industry: finding someone you trust is like gold dust. I trusted my first manager without a shadow of a doubt; we were the Bonnie and Clyde of the music biz, gunning down all that was in our path and never relenting until we got what we wanted. It was us against the world and we were unstoppable!

I fell hard. I was left with nothing—and I mean, nothing.

Eventually after years of banging our heads against a brick wall we struck gold. We came up with an ingenious plan that would light a fire in the belly of the digital revolution.

I would be the first artist to webcast to the world from my basement flat in London. 

And so it began. We orchestrated it all ourselves, called it “21 Nights from Tooting.” We teamed up with a company that would provide the bandwidth and for 21 nights we performed live to the world from my basement. Progressively, we saw the figures rise, the press picked it up and then it went absolutely off the charts.

 In a moment, I had gone from unknown, broke and struggling to a worldwide phenomenon that everyone suddenly wanted to speak to. 

Literally within a matter of hours and days I had news fans lining the streets, photographers at the ready outside my door. The phone was ringing off the hook, my manager Ian was dancing around like a drunk little leprechaun, high on the sudden meteoric rise to fame.

 For he and I had, quite frankly, got one over on the music industry. Then came the labels—the same labels to which we had tirelessly, relentlessly tried to shop my first album, to no avail. In industry terms “we couldn’t get arrested.” Now where were they? Lining the halls of my flat like kids in a dentist’s waiting room, except we never sent them away with a free lolly—we sent them away with a sense of, “Oh shit, kind of missed the boat on that one!”

Eventually I signed to Sony BMG and became the first artist ever to sign a record deal live online, webcasted to the world. 

I went everywhere—New York, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Sydney, London, Los Angeles. You name it, we went there, along with a gaggle of individuals who each had some kind of purpose. I believe at one point it got so ridiculous they even paid for a nail artist to travel with me. 

It started off amazing. I charted at No.1 in countries all over the world. I broke the record in Australia for being the longest standing No.1 and stayed there for 12 weeks. We toured around the globe, played the biggest festivals alongside the biggest stars. I was nominated for awards, attended posh parties, was driven everywhere in my own car. It was beyond ridiculous, beyond ostentatious, but it was all going to end soon.

Much the same as the rest of the world, the music industry took a nosedive in 2008. The economy crashed, businesses went bust and a combination of free downloadable music and the crash of the economy lead to one giant cull.

It was not only myself and several other artists that got dropped from the label that year; 200 or so staff members also got dropped. They were out of a job and so was I.

They say the higher you climb, the further you fall. Well, I can vouch for that statement—give someone everything and then take it all away and watch how they respond. Kind of reminds me of that movie Trading Places—some will fall and some will rise up again.

I fell hard. I was left with nothing—and I mean, nothing. Even my social networks were deleted, my videos removed, the fan base I had built lost forever. Why? Copyright issues. So for a long time, I was lost, completely lost, without a clue. My label, my team of people, and then my manager all left me, told me it was over. “Go away and write songs for other people, you’re no longer an artist—that’s just not for you, Sandi.” That’s what they said. 

For a long time I contemplated it. Sure, I could write a song, a pretty good song when I wanted too—but did I want to be that person? The thing is, I look at myself on stage and I don’t know who that person is. I can’t ever come to terms with the fact that it’s me—but that’s just it, without the Jekyll to my Hide, I am nothing. The only place I know how truly shine, full of confidence, is on a stage. 

Ironic, really, considering it’s performance, an act, a well-rehearsed coordinated show, built to wow and impress—and it takes balls. But then, when I’m not on stage, I’m shy, unassuming and quiet.

But they always did say, “Watch out for the quiet ones!”

I always did like to shock people, but I was never particularly loud-mouthed or obnoxious, even when I attended performing-arts school. The other kids would dance across the tables, like they were starring in their own version of Fame—everyone wanted to take center stage. Me? I wanted to observe and learn.

And learn I did. When I was on Sony, I watched intently. I watched what people were doing and how they were doing it. When I toured, I watched the tour managers, the road crew, the sound techs, everyone—I watched and I learned.

When it came to setting up my own label, all of these lessons would be invaluable, but practice makes perfect, and I didn’t have any practice at all. 

Sure, I thought I knew a thing or two about the business, but little did I know. I released album No. 3 on my newly formed record company, Guardian Angels Music (and had the name tattooed across my back). I had myself branded so that I gave myself no option to f**k it all up. 

The third album came out, a complete creative 180 from the previous two. It was bluesy, bold, loud, dark. Oh so very dark. I had been forbidden from writing anything with any level of depth while I was on Sony, because I was on a cookie-cutter pop label and they didn’t deal in those kinds of depths. They preferred to dip their toes in the shallow end. So when I was dropped, it was also when I was freed—and with this newfound creative freedom I went right into the depths of my soul and pulled up the pain of the past and blurted it out in song. “Born in the Belly of the Blues” had lyrics such as “Oh how I love to feel the pain, so drown me in despair, going down to the halls where the darkness reigns, follow me if you dare, I don’t know why I can’t explain, no matter how I try its a losing game, take me to the Cross I bear, I will hang my head and cry”. 

Pretty dark stuff, but also pretty damn liberating. I embraced the change in my style, loved the freedom—and wild horses couldn’t stop me from hitting the road with that record. But then reality set in: How in the hell do I keep this machine going at the current rate of burn? I was living in a bubble, not able to conceptualize that all that financial help was gone, and I would now have to be at the center of not only my musical career but also my business. 

The first thing I did was I went about firing everyone that was unnecessary—the expensive London accountants that quite frankly I didn’t need, the overpaid lawyers, all these people would have to go. Time to wipe the slate clean and start over.

And so I did. I toured again, but this time I downsized from the luxury of my tour bus to a cold damp splitter van. I drove myself and my band of merry men up and down the length and breadth of Britain, determined not to just fade away into obscurity like some whimpering flower that can’t stand the bleak winter. I was determined to hang in there and show this world that it takes more to break this fiery little Scots woman down. I even pushed myself so far, I contracted swine flu and had to spend two weeks holed up in a hospital, then a hotel room while my mother battled the winter snow and frost to try and rescue me.

It wasn’t easy. It tested every bone in my body, and there were moments where I failed miserably, made the wrong decisions, let people down unintentionally. I continually questioned myself. But the one thought that kept driving me was, “What else can I do?” I only know this life, I couldn’t live without it—I would be dead inside. 

That was the one thing that no one could ever understand. People would tell me time and time again, ‘Sandi, be smart. You’re a great writer—go out and write, make money and be happy.’ But I wouldn’t be happy, I’d be a tortured unfulfilled little soul desperate to get out there, to travel and perform.

The year 2010 saw the release of “Merchants & thieves,” an album that introduced me to a whole new audience and certainly dumbfounded critics; it was not what they had expected from me. The album featured a duet with an extremely talented guitar player called Joe Bonamassa; we fell in love and are still together. (But that’s another story for another time!) I toured this album with the band, and the shows were great. We had a blast, but the band represented another phase of my life and it was time to move on.

So I said goodbye to them, to the past, to the producer, also to my ex-partner, and in 2011, I met Rich Robinson, the Black Crowes Guitarist. 

It was a chance occurrence, something of a fluke, but it was meant to be. We recorded my fourth album in Nashville and he produced it, surrounded by some of the most incredible musicians. The stars aligned for me finally. They say good things happen to good people and to those who wait. I feel like acts of kindness and the continual display of humility, determination and courage will eventually buy you enough credit in the favor bank that the universe will pay you back in some wonderful way. I felt that with this record—some of my best material, my best vocal performances—I was showcasing my harmonica playing, my electric guitar solos, and just having the time of my life. Now that’s what music is all about!

Not only that, but one of my many dreams came true when I did a duet with the legendary Buffy Sainte-Marie. She was incredible, divine and the true definition of a star—always smiling, never complaining, true to the art and to herself. 

Having received the most horrifying backlash from the British media back in 2008—they called me “the Anti-Christ of Music” and groused, “Ever feel like you’ve been had?”—I was only too happy when the album received glowing reviews, not only in the UK but also in the U.S. I had rebuilt my reputation in Europe and had my sights set on North America. 

But my growth was stunted by the mere fact that I didn’t have worldwide distribution anymore. So that was the next big challenge that lay ahead of me. 

I was given the name of a gentleman called Ron Spaulding, then CEO of Fontana Distribution, and so I got to work—calling, hounding, emailing, and I guess he caved in the end.

I marched into the NBC Universal building, clip-board in hand, armed with all the information necessary and I did my very best to impress. As fate would have it, Ron and I were going to be in London at the same time, and so we had dinner. In addition to myself, there was another label looking for their “big break” with Fontana. I didn’t have any impressive figures to show him like they did—in fact, I had no sales history at all in North America on my label. If I was to secure a distribution deal, it would be the “stuff of legend” as one friend called it. All I had to show was my drive and passion. But was that enough? 

I will never forget the moment that we finished the meal and Ron turned round to me rather unexpectedly and said “Sandi I’m going to give you a chance.” I swear I burst into tears and ran into the toilet. I felt like the last three years of constant struggle—and the realization of what I had just been through and overcome—hit me in that moment. 

The mere fact that this man, this powerful individual, saw something in me, and he believed in me, touched my heart so deeply I cannot describe it. He believed in me, and that is something that we all need in this life. 

Since that day, I confess, there are always struggles but I choose to seem not as obstacles but as challenges.

Now two years on, I run the entire operation with two other people. One has been working with me for eight years; the other one is a dear, dear friend. Last year I released my fifth album entitled “The Covers Collection”; appeared at the Royal Albert Hall with Dr. Brian May & Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones; and successfully toured the UK, Australia, China, Scandinavia and North America. This year will see me tour with my One Woman Show in North America, New Zealand, Australia, the UK & Ireland, Holland, Germany and Scandinavia. I’m also set to release my first DVD and my sixth album.

There is nothing that anyone could say to me to make me change my mind about choosing this career. It’s not a job, its a way of life—I live for the music, and the fans are just the most generous, kind and wonderful people in the world. they have watched me go through incredible highs and tremendous lows, but in eight years, they never left my side. I only ever want to write music that touches people, moves them, helps them or even heals them. I do it all for them, because their support over the past eight years has been what’s kept me going—that and a shit load of whisky. 

Seriously though, as Brian May said to me when I came off stage at the Royal Albert Hall: “Wow! Where have you been hiding?” “Well, Brian,” I said, “I was there all along, just took a little longer that I expected for you to find me.” Don’t ever give up on your dreams, not matter how long it takes, or how many times you fall. You have to pick yourself back up by the boot straps and keep going.