“Until March this year, I hadn’t spent more than three months in Adelaide at one time since before November 2017, so in hindsight it’s been a bit of a blur,” Tom West tells The Adelaide Review.
“On the road life pretty much has revolved around how I could find a show, how I could get there and then get to the next place, find somewhere to sleep and how to get somehow money to pay for the next lot of tickets or hostel rooms. Lots of busses, planes, trains, Ubers, hotels, bleak dorm rooms, benevolent strangers’ couches… it’s honestly been really crazy now that I think about it.”
On almost every front, that way of life was comprehensively curtailed by COVID-19. “At the start of March I had just arrived back to New York City after about three weeks of fairly relentless tour dates,” he says. “It was honestly a bit cosmic how things played out: I came down sick with a bad cold in Denver, [and] because I was sick I slept in and missed a flight to Milwaukee. I got to Milwaukee on another flight, but was too late for the house show I was playing so went straight to bed, the next morning while leaving the AirBnb room I was bitten by the host’s husky on my arm pretty badly and had to go to hospital for injections and stitches.”
As he soldiered on playing shows after the bite, the news that SXSW had been cancelled was the first real sign life was about to change dramatically. “I was due to be showcasing [at SXSW] only a couple of weeks later, and had spent a small fortune on accommodation and travel for myself and a band.
“Obviously, in the background to all this was the virus exploding in Europe and the news was talking about a big ‘cluster’ in upstate New York. For that week the subways were still full, restaurants were packed, people were definitely still going about business as usual in that week.
“I booked a flight back to Australia on March 13 and left, pulling out of whatever bookings were left. This was a really, really hard decision because at the time I don’t think we really grasped the full gravity, and speed, of what was happening – so I was definitely feeling pressure not to pull out of things. [But] by the time I landed in Adelaide barely days later, everything was cancelled and New York was shutting down.
“In the space of about one week, my plans for the first half of the year went up in smoke big time. It had been a really long build and I honestly felt that I was really getting somewhere with the level of shows that were popping up so it really was devastating.”
Returning to South Australia to lick his wounds, figuratively and literally, West turned his focus to releasing the album he had pieced together over the last year, Antarctica.
“The album kind of materialised itself slowly out the fog last year, one thing led to another and then, whoops, album. In the second half of 2018 I was sitting on a finished album called I’m Livin’ which I’d worked on over the previous couple of years. I was in the USA on my first visa and the plan was to release another single from that album ahead of tour dates. When the single came out it had basically no impact: the problem was that it was a rock song and a fairly rocky sounding album but I was touring as a solo singer-songwriter. It seems extremely obvious now that that was never going to work, but it took a while to realise this at the time.”
A few fortuitous connections saw him work with American singer Allen Tate, who would become Antarctica’s producer.“[Allen] was keen to work on some ‘back to basic’ more songwriter orientated music with me so we recorded a few songs at the start of 2019, with the idea that it would be an EP,” he explains. “Mid-2019 those songs were sent to Tom Sarig at AntiFragile Music who liked them and asked whether I’d be interested in building on the EP so that they would release an album. I had enough songs from the same cohort at the time so we went ahead and recorded some more music.”
Recorded mostly in Brooklyn in between touring, the album contains some incredibly personal moments. Perhaps the most affecting is Black Rain, a song written in the wake of his father’s passing in 2017 that has lost none of its raw potency in 2020.
“The year that my dad was sick it was really a stressful time for everyone in my family,” West says of . “It was such a surprise and such a fast decline that I think we were all just shocked. I kind of retreated into my home studio and just worked on music, I didn’t really know what else to do. I wrote more stuff then than I ever have before, not just about what was going on at the time but all kinds of stuff too: I wrote a bunch of songs where I was venting about things that were annoying me at the time – from surfies to luxury cars – which was a bit mean but it made me feel better.
“I’m a fairly shy person generally speaking and talking about feelings and emotions to other people is, honestly, pretty uncomfortable for me at the best of times. It probably isn’t exactly healthy but it is what it is. I wonder if, consequently, I was putting so many of these thoughts and feelings that I couldn’t talk about into music.
“Black Rain is one of the more literal of those songs, I guess: imagining someone crossing a bridge that gets suddenly washed away – trapping you on this side while they keep on going.”
Tom West launches Antarctica at The Gov on Sunday 13 September, from 6.30pm
Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country.
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