A Conversation with Tom Hambridge (Part 1 of 2)

Multiple Award (Grammy, Boston Music, ASCAP etc.) winner Tom Hambridge is truly a master of all trades. Singer, songwriter, drummer, producer, he has done – and continues to do – it all. Working with a who’s who of music, Hambridge has written for and with (and produced) artists in blues, rock, pop and more. Along the way, he has found the time to record and release albums under his own name. I reviewed his latest, Blu Ja Vu, yesterday. In the spare moments between sessions, Hambridge sat down to talk with me about his multiple musical roles.

Your work in the studio with other artists is wide-ranging. How did you get your start as a producer?

I had a band called TH & The Wreckage, and we were pretty regionally successful, had a lot of hits, won a lot of musical awards. I was the drummer, singer and songwriter in that band. And so I would produce our records. We’d get a lot of radio airplay on WBCN and everywhere, so other local bands would reach out and ask me to produce their records, maybe write a song for them and produce it.

So I started to do that, but I never thought of myself as a producer. I thought of myself as an artist, songwriter, drummer, musician. I just happened to make my records, and people liked the way they sounded, so they wanted me to help them make their records. I was like any other kid: I wanted to be in a rock and roll band and play music. I never was like, “I want to be a producer; I want to be George Martin.” So it wasn’t like I was set out on this journey.

Susan Tedeschi’s 1998 album Just Won’t Burn was your first high-profile project. How did you come to work with her?

Both Susan and I lived in Boston. Everyone there knew a lot of people. Richard Rosenblatt, Rosey, had a small independent label called Tone-Cool. He reached out to me and said, “You’ve got to see this girl, Susan. She’s playing around blues clubs, and she’s really, really good.” I heard her and I thought she was fantastic. I actually started doing gigs with her, and then Richard asked, “If I sign her, could you write some songs and produce a record for her on my label?” And I said, “Yeah, absolutely!”

I wrote “It Hurt So Bad” for her, and I wrote “Rock Me Right” for that record. I wanted the world to hear this girl, and so that’s what I was hoping for, like I do on any record. So everything lined up somehow, and the world was able to hear her.

Drums are your primary instrument. What instrument do you use to write songs?

I have acoustic guitars over here, and I have a Wurlitzer piano that I’ve written a bunch of songs [on] over the years. But in no way am I a guitar player or piano player! I can play enough to write a song, to get my point across.

Hal Leonard – the biggest sheet music publisher in the world – asked me if I would write a book on songwriting. They wanted it so that people who have never written a song can read and enjoy it, and a songwriter who’s had hits can maybe get something from it. So I made it all-purpose like that.

And I realized: you can write a song without having to play an instrument. If you hear music and hear words and melodies, you can sing something. And someone else can figure out what those chords are!

What have you learned by producing other artists that you’ve applied to producing your own records?

I think maybe one of my strengths as a producer is that I know what else they can do – and what else we can do to expand their vision, to put more colors on the canvas. Sometimes I’m able to pull those things out of other artists.

With me [on my own sessions], it’s just me in front of the microphone, and it’s a dark control room. I’m looking at the engineer, and I’m asking, “Any thoughts?” And they’re like, “It’s all good to me!” I’m like, “Give me something!”

Do you have a particular philosophy regarding how you work?

I’m pretty hands on. I learned early on that if you let something go, that can be your downfall. [Some producers] just go in and get the sounds. “You’re on the road? Just come on in here, and we’ll polish up whatever you got.”

Well, if you don’t have great songs, you’re not going to have a great record. So before we even talk about that, I’m already writing songs. I’m already arranging the songs in my head. I’ve already got a vision. Because if you don’t, you’re wasting time in the studio.

When I’m in the studio, I get the right people. I mix the records, I edit the records. I go through all the vocals with the artist. And when we’re done with a song, I’ll take all those [recordings] and spend nights listening to get the right vocals together from what they did.

I’ve even gone so far as mastering the records. Not to say that there aren’t great mastering people, but I try to be involved in all that. Even if someone else is going to master it, I’ll go there and at least be listening.

To be continued…