An interview with folk-pop singer/songwriter Tom Nichols
The sweetly melodic folk-pop of Washington, D.C.-based singer/songwriter Tom Nichols delivers an emotionally uplifting alternative to much of the cynicism in the indie scene these days. On his latest album, Trust, Nichols writes straightforward, gently moving songs of life and loss. On “Every Now and Then,” Nichols seems to be singing about the death of a loved one, reflecting on old memories that are tinged with regret and puzzlement. This theme is further reflected on the hauntingly beautiful “Questions of the Heart,” wherein Nichols’ fragile croon deepens that wounded ache. Nevertheless, it’s not depressing at all but poignant and soothing. They don’t seem to make artists like these anymore which is why I contacted Nichols and asked him for an interview.
Q: You have been a producer for other artists since 1987. As a musician, though, how did it all start?
A: When I was very young, my parents had a vision of creating a family accordion band so, along my twin brother and my older twin brothers, we were enrolled in accordion classes when I was 8-years-old. I always had a good ear so I cheated and learned all my lessons by ear and never at that time learned to read music. After a few years, my secret was exposed when I could not play alternate parts or read music, so I picked up the guitar and began to play with our church music group. I always loved to sing, so the guitar was a wonderful way for me to learn many songs quickly. Through the years, I have loved being able to entertain at gatherings of family and friends. Early on, I remember listening to Elton John and Billy Joel and learning every song they released. I also loved the Eagles, Beatles, Loggins and Messina, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, and James Taylor. Through high school I spent countless hours learning every folk/acoustic song of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and they remain among my favorite cover songs to sing to this day.
In college at Virginia Tech, I met many great musicians, and expanded my musical influences to include bluegrass, rock, contemporary Christian, and older folk music. I began playing at bars up to four nights a week to earn extra money. I also directed one of Virginia Tech’s contemporary church choirs. My senior year I performed with a traveling contemporary ensemble called The New Virginians. It was during this time that I also began to teach myself to play the piano.
Q: How old you were when it all started? Was it something that you treated seriously at that time?
A: I remember early in school, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote "A rock star." I have always felt like music was at the core of who I was and who I was meant to become. As early as 10, I sang solos at church and played the guitar. I began writing songs in high school and continued to write and perform during my college years and even when I began my professional career as a CPA working for environmental non-profits. Although I've kept active in singing and producing music projects and always planned to release an album of my original music, it wasn't until the death of my nephew in 2009 that I realized that life was too short for me not to be working full time as a composer, recording engineer, and producer.
Q: You're a guitarist as well as a pianist. What was first, and which do you prefer?
A: I started playing guitar when I was 10-years-old only started playing the piano in college. I don't consider myself an accomplished pianist, but I do find that it helps me greatly in composing. I write many of my new songs these days on the piano.
Q: How prolific are you in terms of songwriting? Is it a meticulous process for you or do the lyrics flow naturally?
A: Writing for me comes very naturally and quickly. Usually a phrase or idea will start the process and if I am able to create an open space for myself, the message and music will come. They usually flow together to help create the song and the melody usually flows from how I feel it is best to deliver the message. Many of my songs such as "Trust" are usually conversations I am having in my head or with my muse.
When I have an idea or reason to write or something I want to say, the lyrics and melody are often there just waiting for me to discover them. Many songs come quickly although a few songs have taken many months to complete. I believe this is because they are not yet ready to be born. There is usually some part of the story that is still unfolding. It takes patience to allow the song to be born, but it also takes a fairly consistent discipline to create the space to allow for the messages to emerge.
Q: You were the CFO of the World Wildlife Fund and the African Wildlife Foundation. Are they passions of yours as well? How did you get involved with those organizations?
A: Like many, when I graduated from college, I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve professionally. I worked for two years in accounting for a defense contractor in Washington, D.C. then made the move to the World Wildlife Fund. The moment I stepped into that organization, I realized I was “home,” and devoted my career to helping protect our environment, beautiful open landscapes, and rare and beautiful animals. It became my passion to leave our children a “living planet.”
Photo: Helen Hausmann