Interview with John Vella of Tenderfoot

Sydney based band Tenderfoot have just released their debut record, Beginnings. With a nod to classic acts like The Band, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Ryan Adams; Tenderfoot have created a sound that is unaffected. Fusing their organic approach with modern influences like Coldplay has resulted in a debut record that has garnered strong early interest. In this interview John Vella, frontman and principal songwriter, talks about preparation for the band’s debut album (which is to be recorded at Abbey Road Studios), touring and the Australian music scene.

Congratulations on the completion of your debut EP, ‘Beginnings’! The lead single, ‘The Balcony Tale’, and accompanying music videos, released last month, appear to have been well received. The narrative presented in lyrics of ‘The Balcony Tale’ are very personal, especially the tail end as it turns to first person. Does performing a song like this ever shine light on past memories? If so, how do you deal with such experiences?

Thanks very much! Yes, it does, but at the same time it’s quite a cathartic experience. I’ve always found myself taking a feeling of joy from singing my lyrics, rather than the pain that may have lead to writing them. Sometimes it may knock me around a bit, but for the most part I try to be at peace with my past, which definitely helps.

What was it like working with mixer and producer Ryan Miller at Hercules Street Studios?

Ryan is the best. We’ve known each other for a long time now and have developed a great dynamic. I produce as well, though he’s definitely a level above me. Nonetheless it makes it very easy for us to communicate ways to approach an idea or challenge. Ryan is great at understanding where the artist wants to go, and with Tenderfoot he really does fill out the role of the ‘fifth band member’. He knows when to cut in and when to just let us do our thing. We all have a role that we specialise in, and a pretty solid knowledge of everyone’s role. It’s very collaborative and hopefully the music is stronger for it.

As a band, you’ve partnered with international publisher Audio Network. This deal also sees funding for your debut full-length record, and the opportunity to orchestrate it at London’s infamous Abbey Road Studios. You’ll be working closely with UK songwriter/producer Julian Emery. How much preparation is required prior to heading over to London to record?

Quite a lot! We’ve been chipping away at it since January. Being offered the opportunity to record at Abbey Road and have an orchestra play on our next record is not something we take lightly. We’ve been selecting songs with a fair bit of thought, and have been writing new ones with it at the front of our minds. An orchestra is a big sound, and we want to use it in a way that offers a new and original chapter to the Tenderfoot story. Julian is a great producer. I love the work he did with Nothing But Thieves, and was pretty excited to learn he was interested in our project. We’ve had a a few Skype sessions so far and have been working on a couple of co-writes. We head off in September.

How has writing music helped you process your thoughts and experiences?

I’ve been writing music since before I can remember. I sang ideas in my head as a kid, and when I started learning guitar at 12, I used to just make things up instead of practicing my scales etc… So I suppose it’s an outlet I’ve always had, which means I absolutely have no idea how I’d process my thoughts and experiences without it! What I can say is that whenever I finish a song that I’m proud of, it’s usually because the lyrics really mean something to me, and as a result I’ll be on a natural high for the next day or so. Writing music definitely helps me to deal with my emotions, and is a great outlet to have. Lyric ideas more often that not come out subconsciously, which I think is a pretty effective way of processing my emotions. I try not to think too much, and just learn to tap into what it is that my music is trying to get me to say.

Is it difficult to know when you’ve finished writing and recording a song, or does everyone come to a mutual agreement fairly easily?

These days it’s not so difficult. As a band, we know when it feels right. I’m lucky to play with a band of what I would consider to be fantastic musicians. If something’s not sitting right, someone will raise the question. If there’s a really great idea going unnoticed, someone will bring it to the front. We try to leave our egos at the door, and it seems to work for us.

When you’re on tour, do you ever keep a diary or take photos/videos to help process or reflect on your time away from home?

I think tour diaries are a great idea, we should definitely do that more. We have some shows in the UK coming up, and an Australian tour, which is looking like it’ll happen in November. I have a few friends in bigger bands and have heard lots of their stories. Hopefully we’ll get it right when the time comes.

What, have you found, is the biggest misconception people have in regards to making a living from music?

Great question. Obviously it’s not an easy career path. That being said, there are plenty of opportunities to make a living if you’re willing to take the doors that open for you. I do find it quite fascinating. As a musician, and I’m sure a lot of my fellow musicians will relate, I’ve dealt with most people not believing it was possible for me to have a career as a musician, and once I made that happen, it was a pretty common assumption that because I’m a musician I must be flat broke. Sorry, but not true. Quitting my day job was made possible through cover gigs. Lots of original musicians might not dig that idea. For me it was an easy decision. In Sydney you can make anywhere from $200-$500 a night for 3hrs work plus set up and pack down. It’s one of the only cities in the world that pays that much. 3 gigs a week and you get to live a decent life and spend the rest of your time working on your passion. Made sense to me. I also make a living producing other artists and writing music for ads and libraries. There’s a good career to be made in back end royalties if you can learn to write and produce music that’s ready for sync. I’m not saying making a living from music is easy, it’s actually really hard starting out. It’s totally possible though, you just have to look for success in other forms than getting a label deal or being famous.

How important are stations like Triple J Unearthed for the livelihood of Australian acts, especially in a world filled with so many media outlets?

Very important. It’s a hard question to answer. Triple J have just spun our lead single The Balcony Tale on radio and we’re really grateful. For the Triple J Unearthed platform, I’m sure it works really well for some acts and I think it’s a great thing that it’s there. 

The hard part of the question is that there are no other stations like Triple J in Australia. They are the only national radio station in Australia breaking new Australian acts, which puts them in the default position of being the gatekeepers of Australian music culture. The acts they choose to break are the ones that work for them, which makes sense. The problem is that there just isn’t any other national radio station with that level of reach to pick up the rest of the great acts that go unnoticed. Without Triple J support it’s definitely much harder to gain consideration from labels, managers, booking agents, publishers. We have a great industry capable of generating lots of money for our country. Why do our commercial stations just play American top 40? I think it’s a pretty sad state of affairs to be honest. Money money money. Hopefully one day some other factors will come back into play.

What are your views on the Sydney lockout laws?

I think they are a joke, orchestrated by a corrupt government who has been well and truly bought.

Five fast questions for five fast responses:

  • When was the last time you borrowed a book from a library? 2001
  • Have you ever visited or lived on a farm? Yes, my cousins have some awesome farms.
  • What was your first paid job? Nightfill at Woolworths
  • What has been one of your favourite career highlights to date? Playing the Metro Theatre.
  • What is something you want to do career-wise that you haven’t yet done? Write a song that becomes part of the fabric of society.

Finally, if you could give your nine-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be? 

Start your singing lessons now, you’ll need them!

This interview was first published on 6 August 2016 for Amnplify.

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