Americana/folk rocker Tom Freund meets us at The Cow’s End Cafe in Venice, CA to discuss his latest album East of Lincoln, the changes that he has experienced firsthand in the music industry, and coming to agreement that ‘life is a shitshow.’
So to start us off, you’re riding the highs of your latest release, East of Lincoln. For those who have yet to discover it, would you care to share some of the themes and experiences? And also, some of the instrumental elements that you’ve included?
Tom Freund: Sure. So people always see me with an acoustic guitar and an upright bass, but I also play plenty of electric guitars and keyboards. Thematically, I’d say the record is a notes to self, carry on, don’t be afraid to change kind of album. There’s also some humor with songs like “Poached Eggs.” Relationships gone bad, in “Abandoning The Ship” and “Freezer Burn” especially. And then of course, there is the whole East of Lincoln title. It talks a lot about where I am geographically in Venice and the ways that it’s been changing. It’s gotten really weird as we’re sitting in it now.
As if it wasn’t weird enough beforehand.
Tom: *laughs* Well, it was a good weird then. Now it’s like an estranged posh-weird. It’s gotten very different.
Yeah, I’ve definitely seen it change in the past five-ish years that I’ve been here.
Tom: Five years for me is probably when it started to get weird. No offense, I’m sure you’ve had a good time here, but I did see a big shift. Yes, it was always a little bit weird, a little scary because of the gangs and stuff, but that part was actually more bearable than when a place becomes overrun and yuppified. You know what I’m saying? There’s still a lot of cool people here though. The album is a almost like a little ode to Venice, but also a goodbye in a way.
Well hopefully it’ll still be here in two years and it doesn’t get taken over by the ocean. I mean, we’re practically on the beach right now.
Tom: They said that if there was a tsunami that hit us like the size of the one that hit Fukushima in Japan, it would probably go to about La Brea.
That’s insane! Get your life jackets and your rafts ready!
Tom: It’s still a pretty long ways away, but yeah, better to be prepared.
Definitely. And which song would you say was your favorite song to write and record?
Tom: I think I loved writing the song “Runaround” because it really felt like me in that moment. I just couldn’t stop playing the riff at home, and when I get on to something that I like, I’ll keep playing it over and over and I want to keep going and writing words for it. I guess that means that I’m really into it. *laughs* So yeah, I couldn’t stop playing the riff and writing the verses and singing to it. It’s like a wonderful addiction that’s soothing and soul bearing to me. It helps me to be vulnerable, and it’s almost like songwriting is like a medicine for me sometimes. It’s sort of my meditation. For recording, “Abandoning The Ship” was a lot of fun because it kind of felt like a new style of song to me. I was on keyboards, and then I had this incredible drummer Matt Johnson and my friend Ben Harper came and sang backup.
All the friends!
Tom: It was great! All of the songs were really fun to record, but that one was really memorable in the studio and also for the mixing that one was really fun. I went to this mixer named Jim Scott, who is just an incredible genius. He worked a lot with Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty, Sting, just an amazing mixer guy. I went up to his place near Six Flags to mix the song, and it was just a nice mixing experience. It was cool because it had a little bit of a reggae vibe and I got to play a bunch of fun instruments on it, like a ukulele. I mean, I play a lot of instruments all over the album, but it was nice playing a sort of reggae uke for that one.
Yeah! Implementing all of the elements that you want is the best!
Tom: Yeah. It was a blast! The studio is my favorite place to be! Actually, that should be my bumper sticker. “I’d rather be in the studio!” *laughs*
Tom: I’m gonna do it! It’s good to sell at gigs, it’s good merch!
*laughs* if I pass by a car, I’d be like, ‘I know where that sticker came from!’
Tom: Yup! *laughs*
So how would you say the songwriting and recording process for this album was similar or different from that of your past works?
Tom: It’s similar in the fact that the whole process took about two or three years to realize the whole thing with the writing as well as the recording. It was also similar in that I was doing stuff for it while I was at home recording for TV shows and other things. I did that, and then I brought to 4th Street Recording in Santa Monica. But I guess what was different about this album is that it ended up having some older songs that all resurfaced. Not ’cause I needed them, I had plenty of material and actually had extra songs on this, but three songs from ages ago resurfaced for this. One’s called “London Bound Lady.” And another one is “Poached Eggs,” which has a funny story.
Let’s hear it!
Tom: *laughs* So my grandmother lived to 105 years old in New York City, and when she was around 95, she asked me, ‘What ever happened to that song “Poached Eggs?”’ That one I wrote like twenty-five years ago!
And she still remembered!
Tom: She still remembered yeah, and I was like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know. I guess I gotta put it out now.’ I finally resurfaced it, and we did a really cool recording of it. It’s just so funny because the song itself has some slight sexual innuendos in it. It was a little bit racy, and then my grandmother is over here just loving the song. I would be like, ‘Isn’t that a little bit racy for you?’ and she would be like, ‘No no! Flirt with the audience. Flirt Tommy!’ *both laugh*
I feel like when you get to that age you just want to make sure everyone you care about is living their best life.
Tom: Exactly! I was like, ‘Well, ok! Looks like I have license to flirt!’ *laughs* Anyways, there was a third song that came back for the album recording and that one was “Chelsea Street,” which I wrote when I lived in Chelsea, Manhattan above Blimpie, which is like the original sub sandwich in New York City. I wrote when I used to play with Ben Harper back in ‘92, man, that was a long time ago. *laughs* Actually, “Chelsea Street” is not on the CD, it’s on the vinyl that I just did for the album.
Looks like we’ll have to buy the vinyl too so we can hear the extra special song!
Tom: Yeah do it! It’s a double! I did a double because there already wasn’t enough room on one for all of the songs, and even more so when I added two extra tracks on top of that. *laughs*
Cool! And as an artist who’s lived through the never-ending changes in the music industry, what are your thoughts on the prominence of social media marketing and music streaming?
Tom: My main thing is that I love that music is so easily available to all, but the unfortunate thing is that it’s not being paid for adequately. Inflation and the prices of paid services have all gone up due to the cost of living, but somehow the composer and artist makes much less than they used to. Even with getting a song placed in a show or having it as a theme song is less now than it used to be. I feel like it’s going down the wrong direction. I mean, I still love the business, I’m not knocking it, but the fact that it hasn’t gone up with everything else kind of sucks. Everything’s going up, and somehow even when you land something in a TV show, they pay you less even though there’s a million people that are watching it. It just doesn’t pay much in the royalties, and now there’s streaming for TV, which pays even less in royalties. So you have to track all of this and do a lot extra work to make sure you’re getting paid appropriately. I’m finding that I have to keep busy with all of the musician economics stuff.
You’ve got to keep all those records though.
Tom: Right. It’s very important now. But even when you see that latest thing with Spotify where they’re denouncing an already low paying thing to be lower even lower. The low pay right now with them is like .004 cents or whatever, and they’re trying to make it even less. It’s like, ‘Really guys?’ That was sort of disgusting, and I’m glad that information came out because it made them look really stupid. Now Apple, I mean, Apple’s never been great, but at least they look a little better now because they’re the only company that’s at least trying to keep a designated standard. But then again, they’re not paying a ton either so it’s just really tricky. It’s tricky to track money in this digital cloud world for sure.
Yeah, I wasn’t too happy about hearing all of the news about the low pay for Spotify. Hopefully with all of the articles coming out they’ll actually be like, ‘Wow, we do need to rethink the payment process.’
Tom: Yeah, it’d be nice.
They just need a good kick in the butt to get their heads on straight.
Tom: Totally. I mean, yeah, I can still go do concerts and sell CDs and whatnot, but even that’s getting trickier in the U.S. I notice when I go to Europe or Japan I still do pretty well there merch wise.
Tom: Oh yeah! But I think it’s because not many people here have CDs anymore. There are some vinyl collectors, which is great because I just made a shit load of vinyl, *laughs* so there are some hard-core people who’d buy that. But with CDs, it’s getting trickier because people are like, ‘Oh, what do I need this thing for?’ I still like CDs, I play them in my car, I like to look at the artwork, I still like to geek out with a record, but that’s definitely happening less and less. I really think that CDs maybe sort of might even be gone in a couple of years.
Just like cassettes. Although, cassettes are coming back as collector’s items just like vinyl. Maybe one day CDs will come back into rotation.
Tom: Why don’t we just implant something in our ears? *laughs*
Well I hope I’m long gone by the time they start implanting stuff inside of my head. *laughs* Although, it would be nice if I could hear music in my head so I can have a theme song when I’m walking down the street. *laughs*
Tom: There you go! *laughs*
Do you think that the state of the current music industry has made it harder for artists to break out and be successful?
Tom: That’s a loaded question. I think there are lot of people who prescribe social media as something that’s just inevitable to have with today’s climate. The cream will rise to the top of course, but it’s such an open gate now that to me as a musician, I’m scared that because there is so much content out there, how could they possibly get to mine? There’s always that worry at the back of your mind now. I agree that if you have strong stuff that it will rise, but there’s also no gate with what’s available in the same pool as you. It used to be that if you make a record, or even a CD, you’d have to have certain people involved and certain things need to happen in order to get it out there. It’s almost like, any twelve-year-old kind could put out a record and it would automatically be in the same market as me because of iTunes or any kind of online music service, you know what I’m saying? So it’s tricky. From what’s available out there, yeah, there’s tons of opportunities for a breakout artist. But the question of ‘How can I make sure that I’m being heard?’ is always at the back of your mind. In that case, you’re going to have to go out and play a lot. It’s just a bit of a shit show. *laughs*
If life isn’t a shit show, then you’re doing it wrong. *laughs*
Tom: Final answer! *laughs* But there’s always hope.
Absolutely. So with the popularity of music streaming, and also with singles-based and shorter EP releases, do you think that there’s still going to be an audience out there that craves those more complete works? Or do you think that with how our music listener attention span is slowly lacking, that’s why we want them shorter?
Tom: I think it’s getting shorter and shorter now, but I also think that it will spin around like in the way that we were talking about vinyl and CDs. I think that people will want to ‘read the book’ so to speak, and as Prince always said, “The album will never die.” He was actually really outspoken about the album. I think even twelve years ago or something he was already starting to see what was happening with albums and such, and I still agree with him.It’s sort of an interesting time right now. Actually, I was just talking about this same thing with Ben Harper recently, and I was like, ‘I don’t know. I think the East of Lincoln album may be, a least for now, the last sort of cohesive album I make for a while.’ The format may return, but yeah, I think looking at the curve of the trends right now, I may just put out some singles or EPs, we’ll see how that goes. It’s funny how much it’s changed because it used to be that for press, you wouldn’t get as much attention for a single or EP because they wanted to see a whole album.
It’s like the opposite now pretty much.
Tom: I remember this EP that I put out like fifteen years ago…nah, twelve years ago…no….maybe ten years ago? I don’t know anymore. *laughs*
It gets blended together. *laughs*
Tom: Right! *laughs* But anyways, it was called Fit To Screen, and even though people really loved it, I wasn’t able to get it picked up by press because it was an EP. They’re were like, ‘Call us when you have the album.’ Back then, an EP was supposed to mean, ‘Here’s a sampling of the record that’s coming.’ Now, the EP is like its own entity. That is a huge change. It freaks me out because I really do like a full album, but I also believe in releasing a good EP too. It’s just, how are people gonna listen to anything? It’s all in a giant cloud of lists. I think it’s almost dumbing down a nation sonically when it comes to playlists and stuff. I’m listening to my daughter’s music, she’s sixteen, and she’s got great taste. Yeah she listens a new stuff, but she also listens to [David] Bowie, [Led] Zeppelin, and Queen, so she’s got a good balance. But what I hear with playlists, and sometimes her playlists or playlists from other people, the algorithm thing is just them picking up on a certain type of vibe and beat. So like, if they hear a harmonica, or if they hear a certain type of beat or whistle or something, they just put a song that has some of those same elements in the playlist. It’s freaky.
I’ve noticed that too. Like, if you have a ‘coffee shop’ themed playlist, almost all of it, like you said, pretty much shows that that picked one specific element and them put a bunch of songs that sound the same.
Tom: See! You know what I’m saying! I think it’s smart for people to keep playlists, but don’t just let a computer decide what’s gonna be on there.
Totally! Now we were already kind of starting to talk about this, but your music has been featured in a bunch of different shows like One Tree Hill, Better Things, and more recently Pete the Cat. If you could provide a soundtrack to a cinematic work, whether it’s a film or a TV show, what type of genre and story would you like to tell?
Tom: That’s an interesting question!
There’s so many options! *laughs*
Tom: I always say that I’d love to move back to New York City, I’m originally from there, and have someone put me up in West Village for a year to go write a musical and then put on a show for it. I would just love that kind of thing! It’s one of my dreams. But in terms of cinematic and TV, I think it’s cool when there’s thematic songs that really add a little extra something special to the story. Like Good Will Hunting and American Beauty. Something that brings the drama, you know? Or even in something that’s comedic, but also has a lot of feeling like the Judd Apatow movies. I got to be in This is 40 playing guitar and singing backups with Graham Parker. That was fun! I really like the way that his movies can have a lot of comedy, but they can get really moving too. Even with TV shows like Modern Family, sometimes they just get to me where I end up crying. *laughs*
There’s nothing wrong with crying!
Tom: No there’s not!
I cry so much at movies and tv shows now. It’s nuts!
Tom: Ah, I think you’re ok. *both laugh* I think most people listen to my stuff and think that it’s kind of mellow and moving or sad with the ballads. I think I can still be rock and be joyful though. If you listen to all of my albums there’s plenty of stuff, but mostly I’m sort of known for the mellow, dramatic, more of the This is Us type of stuff.
That show is what gets me the worst! *laughs* But it’s those moody, dramatic kind of works that really play on people’s heartstrings. It’s think it’s because it embodies a feeling that a lot of people have right now.
Tom: That’s true. That might be one of the reasons people relate to my music.
A lot of people turn on music to feel something, and it’s sometimes just easier to feel sad than happy.
Tom: I think you’re right. That’s why those types of movies and shows are so popular, they pull on the heartstrings.
Yup. Because we all want to cry whether we want to admit it or not. *both laugh* So if you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Tom: Ah! That’s a good question! I love Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley, so she would be one. James Taylor would be another one because he was one of my heroes growing up. While he’s still playing I would love to go on tour with him. And let’s see, who else? I think it’d be fun to go on tour with Beck. And I’d probably call it ‘The Detrimental Tour with Jenny Lewis and Tom Freund.’
How do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Tom: Not so well! *laughs*
Do any of us have any balance in our lives? *laughs*
Tom: I have a balance with my daughter again. I have her half the time, so I really try to base my travel and stuff as much as I can around when I’m not with her. I don’t want to cut into too many of the weeks that I have her. I try to be there as much as I can for her, even when it’s the super early mornings where I’m getting up at 6 AM to make a smoothie and some toast while she’s still sleeping and then dragging her ass out of bed to throw her in the car for school. *laughs* I guess those crazy ass mornings are memorable in a way because it’s a chance to be with my kid. It’s also tricky when it comes to touring and having a relationship. It’s hard. The stress from when you’re on the road traveling can be a lot more extensive than in a normal relationship because it’s so frequent.
Life is a shit show.
Tom: Getting back to the shit show. *laughs* Can that be my recurring term?
Yes! Because it’s true.
Tom: Ok cool! *laughs* I’m glad you appreciate that. I feel comfortable knowing that you agree with me.
Of course! And if you could give your younger self some advice in regards to what you have experienced in your music career, what kind of advice would you give him?
Tom: Oh wow, that’s such a great question! I’ve always had a little pang of regret when I say that part of me wishes younger Tom would have been like, “Dude, just go out with five other guys, as a band, and hit the road hard.” Sort of like what Dave Matthews did. I think I was always so careful about making each thing work for that time period, and having the money for ‘this’ and being able to do ‘that,’ you know? I think you have to take more of chance and just put it whatever you have out there, and then go hardcore until something hits. You also have to find people willing to take that journey with you. But yeah, I would have told myself to just go for it. As an artist who’s still out there hustling, of course, I think about the ‘what ifs’ all the time. I think of it also when I listen back to my recorded music sometimes. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I could have done it ‘this’ way or ‘that’ way.’ It’s one of those things that can really get to you. As someone that’s trying to get further along in the public eye, it can really fuck with your brain. I don’t think I’m done anything wrong, but there is this sense of, ‘Why aren’t I having an easier time securing gigs?’ I’m not gonna lie, there’s always a little panic when I wake up in bed, but there’s a lot of gratefulness from it too. I try to keep the balance. I keep the grateful list going. But you know would I’d tell myself? I would say ‘Believe in what you’re doing, and don’t feel like you need to underplay or hang out with people that are not so great.’ I would definitely tell myself to be careful about who you spent time with because my tendency is to really get in good with people. Sometimes that meant playing down my skill or getting drunk with them instead of being on stage and getting better. Even if my tendency is to ‘join the crowd,’ it’s still important to wanna hang with people that are really going to see your excellence. And sometimes that can get foggy. especially in touring because there’s so much partying associated with traveling and playing. Let’s put it that way, there will always be an element of people trying to take you down to their level, but you have to remember that you don’t need to be at their level, or I guess swayed be them in the general.
What do you hope your audience will take away from your music?
Tom: The best feeling is when your music can touch people of all ages. For some reason, little kids love my song “Freezer Burn,” which is a song about a dysfunctional relationship where I’m left confused in the driveway as well as backstage shenanigans. It makes me laugh sometimes when these parents come up and tell me that that’s their kid’s favorite song. *laughs* But anyways, if the song is talking about really deep stuff, then it’s normal for you to want them to feel any connection. I just want people to be able to feel what they need to feel, whether it’s needing to cry or needing to feel exhilarated. If you can do that with music, that’s the best thing that could happen. When something’s hitting the nail on the head for people, it’s a really good feeling and that means I’m doing my good.
Doing your musician’s duty.
Tom: Yeah! That’s my question to my spiritual self all the time. Like, ‘How can I put myself and my music to use?’ I just want to people off with music. *laughs*
That’s one way to put it! *laughs*
Tom: It’s a little crude I know, but it’s honestly what drives me to do it. *laughs*
It’s just another aspect of the musician’s duty! *laughs* So to end us off, apart from continuing to promote East of Lincoln, what other exciting things should we expecting from you?
Tom: I’ve got music videos coming out. I’m going to be doing some more vinyl. I’m doing the second season of Pete the Cat, so I’m writing all these songs for people like Elvis Costello and Diana Krall to sing. That’s a bit exciting for me. I’m playing and singing some of the stuff as well. So lots of fun side stuff that I’m doing right now. I have some fun tours coming up in Europe and England in May as well as some East Coast dates in July. New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Philly, DC, that’s about it.
Lots of traveling though! It’ll be fun!
Tom: Yeah, fun stuff! It’s not crazy amounts, but also better than nothing. *laughs*
About The Cow’s End Cafe:
Cow lovers and coffee lovers collide when you step into The Cow’s End Cafe in Venice, CA. Family owned since the eighties, the loft style shop very much has classic hangout vibes with its weathered brick floor and wooden stairs, and adorable cow-themed knick knacks and memorabilia scattered around the shop for all patrons to enjoy. Owner Clabe Hartley’s goal for the shop was to re-create a feel similar to that of his youth while growing up in Old Town Chicago, and his vision was met by a grand opening of around 500 supporting customers. Let’s just say that it’s been an udderly delightful ride for the shop since its inception.
While its proximity to the beach has an effect on the amount of parking and flow of sidewalk traffic, The Cow’s End is an absolute gem that provides a splendid menu of food and drink options to make it all worthwhile. Once you step inside, you are greeted by kind workers, a quirky atmosphere, and the smell of fresh coffee courtesy of their old school espresso machine. I opted for the delectably creamy Latte Latino (espresso, steamed condensed milk, half and half with thick cream) along with a delicious trio of breakfast sliders comprised of eggs, corned beef, white cheddar stuffed into fluffy mini baguette style buns (note: they normally have pretzel buns and I asked for the mayo on the side). So don’t worry your pretty little head because there is plenty of space for any sized beach going group, adventurous couple, or relaxed solo visitor looking to enjoy a caffeinated beverage with some all day breakfast while soaking in the sights, sounds, smells of the famed Venice Beach!