Tommy Ashby's 'Lamplighter'


Emily Warner (she/her) speaks to BANNERS opener, Tommy Ashby, about his new album.

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Image by Denis Poltoradnev

By Emily Warner

While waiting for the headliner at a concert to walk on, the audience seems to hold a collective breath. Those agonising minutes brim with anticipation, suspense and excitement until sometimes, the opener feels like a footnote to the true show. A mere time-filler before the true reason everybody is here. Perhaps a few people don’t even deign to arrive until the supporting act is wrapping up their final song. If this was the case for anyone at the BANNERS concert in Leeds, 3 March 2023, then they would have been deprived of an intimate, soul-stirring performance by Tommy Ashby.

This Scottish singer/songwriter has been active for seven years, and it has been seven years of continual, genre-defying music, which delicately blends his various musical and personal influences to create a gentle indie-folk sound. Tommy draws upon the world around him and the relationships that have shaped him, so that every melody or lyric is a deep meditation on the self. Writing throughout the Covid pandemic, Tommy’s music provided a sense of connection, which was longed for by many. His opening performance for BANNERS was raw, touching and encompassing; music that emerged from his own experience but extended outwards to capture every person listening. With each successive song, he carved out a space that was enchanting and weightless, deeply rooted in local places and beautifully unique.

His long-awaited debut album Lamplighter was released on 3 March, and I spoke to Tommy about his inspirations after the concert. The name refers to the people who have been lamplighters for him - friends and family who have illuminated the path he’s chosen with their support and encouragement. Tommy also cited the Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, whose poem provided the name of this album;

‘He went through a company like a lamplighter –
see the dull minds, one after another,
begin to glow, to shed
a beneficent light.’
It finishes;
‘...He’s gone: but you can see
his tracks still, in the snow of the world.’

Tommy said, “I love the idea that, once it is lit, the beneficial light that someone has given you can spread and illuminate others. And that once the light is lit, it never really goes out. The overall album concept is that much of who you are is a result of people you interacted with, were influenced by, loved.”

His dad is a singer and guitarist and his sister always sang, so growing up Tommy was always surrounded by guitars and music. His family would sit together in the evenings and play songs – mainly classic singer-songwriters like Neil Young and Bob Dylan with some country artists like Dixie Chicks and Brad Paisley too. However, his influences are, ‘such a melting pot of different artists’; blues, modern indie and Scottish artists. Each of these genres can be keenly felt across the album, Lamplighter, intertwining and evolving to produce a smooth, velvety sound and a diversity of tones.

Tommy earnt a PhD in acoustics, and this interest has also helped to shape the album. Every song is grounded in a specific location, recorded in a series of rural retreats across the UK, and the dynamics of place are essential to the sound produced. The music is able to convey a communion with nature, particularly ‘Floorboards’, which was recorded during a storm in a church in Cornwall. Since the album was created, Tommy’s producer, Sam Okell, has rebuilt his studio. Tommy told Atwood Magazine, “I love that Lamplighter is the only record ever to be recorded in that room as it was. I had an imprint, an audio signature that doesn’t exist anymore and won’t come around again.”

Touring as a solo artist has given Tommy the opportunity to visit a multitude of amazing places. On this tour, he has been hiking in the peak district and enjoys walking around a nature reserve before soundcheck, strengthening the authentic bond with nature that pulsates beneath every one of his songs. He also valued the opportunity to meet his fans, each of whom has been swept into the emotional vortex of his sound and affected in a different way. Tommy said, “I think touring as a solo artist also forces me, a generally introverted person, out of my shell. You get to meet so many interesting people while travelling. This is a lovely contrast to recording the album, which tends to be an insular existence. Seeing what the music means to people at live gigs makes the writing of songs feel worthwhile.”

Listening to the songs of Lamplighter is like piecing together a collage of Tommy’s life: ‘A Beautiful Day’ is set in the highlands with folk music and his grandma’s poetry; ‘Closer’ describes missing home while touring the United States; ‘Which Way the Wind Blows’ focuses on the present, on prioritising what matters; ‘Running’, as Tommy said during the performance, is something he loves and wanted to reflect in his music. In addition, the songs range from blues to pop, folk to country. This dearth of genres work together effortlessly to produce a masterpiece of an album. Tommy’s music captivates, moves and inspires in the space of a few words, without ever trying to because above all, his songs are unwaveringly honest. He is an artist who attains the full attention of his audience, not because they’re waiting for the next act, but because his music is undeniably beautiful and demands to be heard, with a gentle but insistent voice.