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A & E MUSIC | Rock Solid

Rock Solid

Iconic Songwriter Tom Wilson Is Grounded In Mountainous Creative Passion

By James Tennant

  • Wilson’s latest musical project is “acid folk” collective Lee Harvey Osmond, whose debut album, A Quiet Evil, was made in five days, “over cups of tea and Velveeta sandwiches”

The room is warm and earthy, almost the colour of creamed honey. Sunlight streams through an open doorway and the sound of Spanish guitar follows on its heels. Against every wall leans a collection of canvases – bold blue backgrounds and bright yellow moons, tan figures with enormous, cyclopean eyes, with the lyrics of songs etched gently onto their faces. One such canvas, fresh but for an outline, is propped atop a stool. Bowed intently before it, Tom Wilson straddles a chair. He gently applies oil sticks, smoothing and blending colours with paint-stained fingers. There is a sense of calm in the room, little of which comes from the music or the morning light. It seems to emanate from Wilson himself. It feels like the calm after the storm – or, more precisely, the calm of someone who has weathered the storm and now enjoys the quiet gentle breeze left in its wake.

Calm wasn’t always something one associated with Tom Wilson. With a weathered look, bushy goatee, rumbling bass voice, intense gaze and propensity for speaking his mind – Wilson could be an intimidating presence. Still can be. Yet here in his living room, this statesman of Hamilton rock ’n’ roll is contemplative, talkative, almost gentle. Gone is the gruff anger he seemed to possess, especially onstage; that energy now seems directed towards conviction and passion. Wilson has more talent and drive than most half his age. Consider that he recently started yet another new band (the moody folk collective Lee Harvey Osmond) at the age of 50. And then there is the painting…

“I started painting the second time I stopped drinking,” says Wilson. He remains fixed on the work as he speaks, though the occasional thought or memory causes him to pause and turn towards the microphone. His fingers are steady, and his voice is relaxed. He explains that at one time, once the sun set, he would fill the empty space it left behind with alcohol. When he chose to quit drinking for good, he decided to fill the empty space with art instead. His last drink was over a decade ago.

While he may have begun painting in earnest at that time, art has always been part of Wilson’s life. Wilson was once awarded the Juno for Best Album Design (“which is kind of like winning a bowling trophy for best-dressed bowler,” he quips). Today, he is preparing for an exhibition in Ottawa. His first show was a group show in Toronto with Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.), Daniel Lanois and the late Long John Baldry. Wilson watched as his paintings were priced far higher than he expected; then he watched as all of them sold. Suddenly, art provided the financial means to continue making art.

This, as most artists know, is not always the case. It certainly wasn’t the case when Wilson began his career in music. As a boy he played the upright bass in folk masses at church. Later, he began to perform in places such as the Knight II Coffee House, where he befriended the likes of Willie P. Bennett and David Wiffin. At 16, he played matinees at the notorious Running Pump, where hardcore boozers showed up at 11am to start their drinking day. Wilson was required to play popular songs for the crowd, so he would announce a number by Cat Stevens – and play a Bennett song instead. Nobody knew the difference.

As Wilson reached the end of his teens, he moved to Los Angeles. While his attempt to take the city by storm was a bust, the nascent L.A. punk scene had an effect on him. When he returned to Hamilton, he formed his first band, the Florida Razors.

The Razors were arguably Wilson’s least popular creative outlet, but possibly the most beloved by fans. Independent before the word had meaning in music circles, the Razors were what Wilson calls a “401 band,” travelling that highway from Detroit to Montreal. The band struggled for four years, releasing their one album, Beat Music, independently.

In those days, however, a record deal was necessary for success, and The Razors never struck that elusive deal. In a Flock of Seagulls world, these punk/rockabilly bearded weirdos were not quite understood. Yet in their own way, their success was unheralded. While many of Hamilton’s current indie musicians were still in diapers, Wilson was in a parking lot “selling bags of weed and Florida Razors records out of the trunk of a car.”

Beat Music sold 7,000 copies – amazing for an independent record at the time. When Wilson began his next band, however; it was time to take it to the next level, even if it meant corporate collusion. During his first grapple with getting sober, Wilson landed a publishing deal with Sony Records, who eventually gave his band a record deal. That band, Junkhouse, went on to earn gold records, tour several continents and have a number one hit in Europe with “Out Of My Head.” Wilson has few complaints about the Junkhouse days, even though the cost of success was high. The rock ’n’ roll lifestyle kept them on the road for long periods of time and even ruined marriages, including Wilson’s first marriage to the mother of his two children. On the other hand, the long-struggling musician had finally achieved a level of success befitting his hard work and talent. He was enjoying global success. He was being flown across the Atlantic to open for Oasis in Scottish castles. Everything seemed to be moving forward and upward. Yet Wilson was not satisfied, and in the midst of the upward trajectory, the group disbanded.

“When you feel like you’re gonna die, it’s pretty well time to do something else,” he says, hesitating to find the words to describe his feelings at the time. “Sometimes, you never see yourself reaching a peak. You never know how to take advantage of the good times. You kind of just start drinking to keep yourself busy.”

Thirteen years later, Wilson reckons he is finally where he wants to be, both personally and creatively. “When you give up alcohol and drugs, it’s amazing what good fortune comes to you,” he says. “People think that’s all mystical magical shit, but it’s actually real. Your generosity, the good spirit you have inside you, is able to be released. The spirit you put forward is different than it is when it’s all chemicalled or alcoholled up. It’s not really you in the end. It’s not really any of us. That’s why I always have a lot of patience for drunks.”

The first success on his renaissance road was Blackie & the Rodeo Kings. Founded with friends Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden, Blackie was originally a sort of tribute band to Willie P. Bennett. “We got together to make a record, and I thought that was it,” Wilson recalls. “Thirteen years later, we’re still on the road.” On several roads, in fact – in several countries, receiving rave reviews and racking up awards. Wilson attributes their success to attitude as much as he does to talent and music. “Our plan was to avoid any of the trappings of rock stardom,” he says. “No worrying about who’s got the most songs on the record, who’s singing the most songs, who’s sleeping with whose wife.”

Wilson continued to record solo albums as well. These included Dog Years and Planet Love, the latter of which was an album that “people loved but critics hated.” He also recorded The Shack Recordings with Bob Lanois, which was “considered a really great Canadian folk record everywhere except Canada.” Somewhere in between, Wilson married again, this time to Canadian comedy great Cathy Jones. The marriage didn’t last, but while it did, Wilson and Jones could often be found performing shows together, bringing Wilson’s music to new ears every time.

Wilson’s latest musical project is the murky, moody and occasionally spooky “acid folk” of the artist collective Lee Harvey Osmond. LHO was co-founded with Josh Finlayson of the Skydiggers and Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies. As always seems to happen, press outside of Canada has picked up on it first, with strong reviews appearing in Europe and in the respected alt-country magazine No Depression.

LHO was born of Wilson’s and Timmins’ mutual love for Canadian folk writers, instilled in Wilson back in the days of the Knight II. The album, A Quiet Evil, was made in five days, “over cups of tea and Velveeta sandwiches” in a little garage off Clinton Avenue in Toronto. Like Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond was meant to be an outlet for songwriting, but has become a full-on engagement. Wilson even has a touring incarnation of the group, which bridges generations – twentysomethings Cam Malcolm and Aaron Goldstein (of Huron) join Wilson’s long-time compatriots Ray Farrugia (Junkhouse) and folksinger/songwriter Brent Titcomb. Lee Harvey Osmond play the Mohawk College Theatre on Dec 5. Wilson has been promoting Lee Harvey Osmond with zeal. His enthusiasm for the project – for all of his projects – is always apparent. Part of his independent spirit comes from his hometown, which he has never left, despite the fact that the music business has more opportunities elsewhere.

“The goal is to go out and make enough money so that I can do whatever I want to do,” he says. “Hamilton’s a good place to live to do that. It’s where musicians can afford houses – and it’s inspiring. There’s also less bullshit. In Toronto, you're elevated to some kind of demigod stature. In Hamilton you’re just another schlub buying your groceries at Fortinos. That helps your perspective, and it can prepare you to take on the rest of the world.”

If anyone has the right perspective to be an artist, it is Tom Wilson, right now. The only through-line in his career, the only unifying element to his various ideas and incarnations, is desire. His albums and shows are not necessarily historical documents or pivot-points on which to spin a career. “Making these records is more fun than anything else,” he says, “and really, I’ve had the opportunity to do whatever I wanted to do my entire life, creatively. Luckily I’m able to pay the bills.”

Wilson’s colour-thickened fingers glide in soft semi-circles across the canvas. It is simply another outlet for him, another way in which he can express himself. That it’s both his art and his income is merely a bonus. He takes a moment, leaning back to regard the morning’s work. The painting is impressive, simple and bold. All that’s missing are some final touches, and the lyrics – the part that adds both depth and texture to the final piece. Wilson leans in, tools in hand. You’d think the painting looked finished, but for Wilson, there’s plenty of work left to do.