march 2012

Jon Gomm: ‘In most ways I am pretty relaxed and open as a person. But in one aspect I am a raging prima donna, a tragic artistic stereotype! I hate my recordings, for me they are painful to listen to and I feel guilty selling them!’

Artists On the Verge 2012:

Jon Gomm, On His Own Terms

A YouTube video has logged a million and a half views; his European audience is growing by leaps and bounds; the percussive and atmospheric effects he draws from (or on) his guitar are stretching the boundaries of the instrument’s possibilities; and his songs’ personal and topical themes are connecting across generations. All this from an unsigned, self-reliant artist whose manager/wife told Simon Cowell to hit the road (in a manner of speaking).

By David McGee

Born in Blackpool, Lancaster, England, singer-songwriter-ace guitarist Jon Gomm is part of a small fraternity of guitarists who make of their instrument a one-man band—tapping the strings to create high harmonics and synth-like sounds; tuning the strings in such a way as to get bass sounds; conjuring percussion instrument sounds from the body of the instrument with his own hands—Gomm does not employ these effects for affect, or merely for show, any more than do other similar practitioners of this style, such as Andy McKee, or the artist credited with introducing this approach, Preston Reed, whose own website describes his technique as “impossible, unfathomable, unthinkable, as with blurred hands he taps, tickles, slaps and soothes his instrument, fusing polyrhythmic percussion with emotive melody to create a sonic landscape. Each piece is a symphonic tidal wave…”; though he often played in a more traditional, albeit breathtakingly dynamic, style, the late, great (and classically trained) Michael Hedges also knew his way around slap harmonics and the percussive possibilities of the guitar and made those part of his instrumental language, in addition to being an underrated singer-songwriter. (Gomm credits Hedges with “reinventing the sound of an acoustic guitar--suddenly it was a huge, almost orchestral sound that could fill a stadium, with massive stereo chords, thunderous bass and treble harmonics falling like shards of ice from the ceiling.”)

Jon Gomm’s cover of Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody,’ from his ‘pay what you want’ Domestic Science Singles Series, available at his website.

If Gomm is on (or almost on) a level playing field with the above-named virtuosos, then he separates himself from the pack by dint of his songwriting. Though he does compose beautiful instrumentals to rival those of Hedges, McKee and Reed (his latest album, Don’t Panic, features a soothing, pastoral tune called “Topeka” that captures the easygoing pace of life in that Sunflower State city; actually, it’s more benign than Topeka deserves perhaps, given its city council’s 2011 decision to decriminalize spousal abuse), Gomm’s fans are locking into not only his playing, but the personal and topical subject matter of his original music. An excellent lyricist, Gomm largely explores the vicissitudes of relationships, familial and romantic, but doesn’t shrink from topical ruminations or vignettes chronicling chance meetings and unusual occurrences in his life. His intense “Weather Machine” (also on Don’t Panic), for instance, is, as he describes it, “a metal/flamenco/middle-eastern mush, which along with the words is all one big metaphor for Western globalization and homogenization of the East”; introspective and dreamy, with cascading runs sprinkled amidst dreamy, New Age-y melodies, “Temporary,” dedicated to his mother, is an appeal by Gomm to, in essence, take a breath when the day’s pace quickens, the advisory “we’re only temporary” standing in for “life’s too short.” Don’t Panic opens with “Waterfall,” with Gomm’s percussive thumping emulating the sound of tablas as he fashions fleet, sitar-like runs behind an impassioned vocal in a song inspired by a painting of the Hindu goddess Saraswati in which he counsels, basically, go with the flow: “Just blow through the static it’s all automatic/You’re thinking too much, you’re thinking too much/And don’t concentrate let the force of it claim you/Are you feeling enough, are you feeling enough?”

Jon Gomm, ‘Loveproof,’ concerning a fear of commitment. From his latest album, Don’t Panic, available for download at his website.

But it is in matters of the heart where Gomm is at his best. “Afterglow,” funky with a sensuous, tumbling groove, is a rich evocation of a woman’s love reviving the singer’s spirit when, after “a day of living later,” “you’re bruised and battlescarred.” The travails of love on the wrong side of town, wherein memory is under as much assault as the body, is the subject of “Gloria,” a song Gomm explains in his liner notes as being about “a whimsical country-waltz about a relationship which crossed the strict tribal divides of teenage society in early ‘90s Blackpool.” In the graceful “Loveproof,” a man’s resistance to commitment, despite his professed love for his companion, is making the woman feel smaller than “the stars above her”--a story told as much in Gomm’s aching falsetto moans and bluesy, introspective guitar soloing as it is in his lyrics. “Surrender,” a song Gomm wrote when he was 15, is a thumping, aggressive Delta blues-style treatise driven by the heated aggression and blinding lust teenagers specialize in. At every turn Gomm’s sandpapery voice reveals his immersion in the blues, in its phrasing, in its soulful moans, in the falsetto flights he employs so effectively to bring richer textures of feeling to specific passages in a song’s narrative.

That Jon Gomm has arrived or is about to arrive is a more recent development, marking its genesis in last fall’s release of his first single, “Passionflower,” a near-seven-minute gem blending delicate lyrics tenderly delivered and a spacey confluence of atmospheric effects emanating from his guitar. It’s a love song, to be sure, but one written for a house plant, literally: “This song is about I plant I grew in my 10-feet-square backyard in the Leeds inner city,” Gomm comments on YouTube. “I put the seeds in a tiny tub, but it grew like a Roald Dahl story until it took over the whole yard, then one day the sun shone extra hard and 100 flowers all went ‘Pop!’ It was amazing, so I wrote a song for it.” The single is one of three new songs Gomm self-released as part of his “Domestic Science Singles Series” (the other two are covers of the Police’s “Message in A Bottle” and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody”) and is selling online for whatever price visitors want to pay. Ten percent of the proceeds are being split between two charities: The Happy House children’s home in Watamu, Kenya; and STEPS, self-described as “a small national charity supporting children and adults affected by a lower limb condition such as clubfoot or a hip condition.”

Jom Gomm, ‘Passionflower,’ from the Domestic Science Singles Series, with 10 percent of all sales being split by two charities. To date, the video has logged more than a million and a half views.

As of March 10, “Passionflower” had logged 1,692,139 YouTube views, making it a true Internet phenomenon—in addition to being yet another example of an artist bypassing the increasingly obsolete record industry machinery and using social media to promote himself more effectively than any label would. To clarify, though, he’s all for supporting independent labels that place a premium on releasing quality music ahead of profit considerations, as he does on his own.

It didn’t hurt that when England’s American Idol knockoff, the Simon Cowell-produced Britain’s Got Talent, reached out to Gomm to appear as a contestant, his manager Natasha Koczy (who also happens to be his wife and, moreover, a captivating singer, as she demonstrates on Don’t Panic in making a guest vocal appearance on a captivating bit of philosophy-in-music titled “What’s Left For You”; on Twitter she is succinctly described as “Rock n roll manager sax player, singer, logistics expert…”) not only declined the offer but explained why in a fearless, forthright Facebook status update:

"To all those dreamers and wannabes who may somewhat foolishly believe in the integrity of shows like The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent: A producer from BGT just called me to ask if Jon Gomm would like to take part in the show. I happen to know for a fact that the open auditions took place months ago and there are anxious hopefuls all over the country waiting for their phones to ring to see if they've made it to the TV stage of the audition process. In the meantime, producers are calling musicians who have shown zero interest in appearing on the show to invite them to take part and groom them for victory. As a long time loather of all reality/talent shows I told them where to shove it in no uncertain terms. These programmes are exploitative bollocks. Don't believe the bullshit, people. Simon Cowell can kiss my ass."

Jon Gomm’s response to this: “She rules.”

‘She rules’: Natasha Koczy, Jon Gomm’s wife and manager, had some choice words for Simon Cowell.

None of this means Jon Gomm has “made it,” in the traditional show business sense. But he and his Natasha are joining with countless other talented artists who can only pursue their vision outside the normal structures of the industry. The attrition rate among such artists, though undocumented, is surely stupendous but social media (and perhaps publications such as this one that are not only free to access but free of advertising, answering to no financial backers and embracing a commitment to support new and developing artists, regardless of label affiliation or lack thereof) is connecting generations of music lovers who aren’t getting what they want from mainstream music. Look at Jon Gomm’s tour schedule on his website: his days off between now and the end of October are few and far between as he plays dates all over eastern and western Europe, throughout the U.K. and in Australia. In his world, the booking agent, not the label, is paramount. The point is, Jon Gomm’s music comes from an honest place and is both expertly executed and deeply felt. He connects with people on a fundamental level as he builds an audience-artist relationship designed to last. Platinum records and Ferraris may not be in his future, but a comfortable life on his own terms is within reach. The answer to the question posed by a “meddlesome Rasta” in his song “What’s Left for You?” is simple: Plenty. caught up with Jon Gomm via email, during one of his rare weeks off. To keep him busy, we sent a raft of questions his way, the answers to some of which straighten out inaccuracies in biographical background published elsewhere, the answers to others illuminating his artist’s sensibility, from developing his unusual guitar techniques to his songwriting influences to issues raised in the tunes on Don’t Panic (his second album, actually; his first was 2003’s Hypertension, also self-released). He responds with the civility and smarts you would expect of him after hearing music as rich but gentle as his, and with a good sense of humor about himself and the world at large.

Ultimately, a YouTube comment from a gent who identifies himself as Metalheadmilo perhaps sums up Jon Gomm’s appeal most accurately and most succinctly:

I hate when an amazing guitarist has no songwriting ability whatsoever. Fortunately, Jon Gomm is the best damn guitarist? I've ever heard AND a phenomenal songwriter. Plus he's an incredible singer and I love his lyrics. I mean.. He has the ability to make me talk for days about how much I love his music and feel speechless at the same time. I just can't tell you how good I think this guy is. Keep it up, Jon!


I: Influences and Aspirations

‘I consider myself a pop musician, but I think because I always try to write songs that are about something real, which mean something to me (whether that’s a love story, a political message or just expressing a complex and inexpressible set of emotions), maybe I’m really a folk musician.’

If various accounts are correct, you’ve been playing an instrument almost your entire life, since you picked up the ukulele at age two, began classical guitar lessons at age six and began accompanying your father on blues gigs in your home town. Granted your youth, but were you thinking at all that this was something that would be more than a hobby or some casual pursuit?

I don’t think I ever seriously considered doing anything other than being a musician, but then I never really considered being a musician either--it was just a part of my life, something I loved, something I obsessed over, something I never found any reason to stop doing.

Your father was a music critic and, reportedly, a musician in his own right. You were playing blues with him, and blues seems to have made a lasting impact. Why were you drawn to this music?

My dad isn’t a musician. This rumor seems to derive from the fact that he was a huge music fan, and part-time music critic, and used to have touring musicians staying at his house all the time. So I was lucky enough to get one-to-one guitar lessons over breakfast in my dad’s kitchen from guys like Walter Trout and Bob Brozman. I learned so much from those guys, most importantly I think that great music is often not the stuff on TV or on the radio, but the guy playing in a small club in your own town.

Your Wikipedia entry states “As a teenager he played electric guitar in the style of the rock greats.” Specifically, which guitarists were exerting the greatest influence on your style and what did you take from them in developing your own sound?

Oh man, there were so many. I went through stages of being obsessed with different guitarists, I kinda “advanced,” in terms of technical complexity, from Chicago blues through blues-rock players like Gary Moore, through to Hendrix and Beck, then on to Satriani and Vai. The summer I was digging deep into the Steve Vai transcriptions was the one where my technique really started to change I think, plus he isn’t shy of creative harmonies that opened up my ears a little more.

Jon Gomm, ‘Afterglow,’ from Don’t Panic, available for download at the artist’s website.

Did you ever have your own bands during this time? If so, what kind of music were you playing?

Yeah, my high school band was great fun. My best friend was into grunge, I was into shredding! So we would play Nirvana type songs with Van Halen-style guitar solos. It probably sounded awful, but we didn’t care!

Is it true that you turned down a place at Oxford studying English to attend the Guitar Institute and then paid your way through school with various types of gigs and session work? Were you playing solo at this time or with a group?

Yes, it was a big decision. The choice didn’t feel like it was choosing whether to study one subject or another; it felt like a choice between following the beaten path through academia into normal working life, or taking a left turn into the scary woods, studying music at a little school in deepest London and trying living off my guitar playing and my wits!

Jon Gomm, ‘Temporary,’ from Don’t Panic.

You went on to the Leeds College of Music to study in the jazz degree course. What were you aims in doing this? How was this experience valuable to your development?

I love jazz, I love the way it combines elements which many people (and many musicians, even, especially guitarists) consider separate and incompatible. Elements like technical expertise and pure expression. Or complex composition and free improvisation. Also, I love the north of England, so escaping London was important for me.

Was it at Leeds that you began to develop the style we now associate with you, hitting the guitar for percussive effects, using unusual tunings to get different sounds. How did you come up with this approach? Was it inspired by any other guitarist you had heard, or did it develop out of necessity to add extra texture to your solo performances?

No, that has always been a part of my acoustic playing, and it comes from all kinds of places. My first guitar teacher taught classical and flamenco, and traditional flamenco guitar uses lots of percussive effects. I’ve been retuning my guitar since my uncle gave me a Joni Mitchell songbook when I was about 10 years old. She is hugely underrated as an influential and experimental guitarist. But it’s true that adding extra bass by retuning, and adding my own percussion, enabled me to get a bigger sound that people paying me to play in their bars and cafes really seemed to dig.

Michael Hedges, the title song from his album Aerial Boundaries (1984): ‘He reinvented the sound of an acoustic guitar--suddenly it was a huge, almost orchestral sound that could fill a stadium, with massive stereo chords, thunderous bass and treble harmonics falling like shards of ice from the ceiling,’ says Jon Gomm.

Michael Hedges is always mentioned as an important influence on your music, to the point of some stories referring to him as your “mentor.” What did you find yourself drawn to in his music?

I discovered Michael Hedges the year after he died, and really got into his extensions of guitar technique. But with him it’s more than that. He was a great guitarist, a great composer, and a lot of guitarists have picked up on that aspect of course. But he was also a singer-songwriter, and an entertainer who would play covers, get the audience involved--he was everything all at once! And that’s what I always strive for. And he reinvented the sound of an acoustic guitar--suddenly it was a huge, almost orchestral sound that could fill a stadium, with massive stereo chords, thunderous bass and treble harmonics falling like shards of ice from the ceiling. 

How did your songwriting develop? And which songwriters have been most influential in your own approach to writing?

I don’t have particular songwriters that I try to emulate, I just know what songwriting is, and try to approach it in a way that feels right. I consider myself a pop musician, but I think because I always try to write songs that are about something real, which mean something to me (whether that’s a love story, a political message or just expressing a complex and inexpressible set of emotions), maybe I’m really a folk musician. It’s just that “folk” has come to mean a certain sound, which kills it the same way it kills jazz. If you listen to jazz or folk with an expectation of what they should sound like, you don’t understand what they are about, what they are for.

Somewhere along the way you made a decision to work outside the normal parameters of the music industry. In practical application, what does this mean? What have you found to be the limitations of not pursuing support by an established label and the establishment industry, and what have you found to the advantages that compel you to stay on this course?

The big advantage for me is that I don’t have to deal with people I don’t think actually have music as their driving impetus. I have nothing against record labels if they are independent, small and run for the music, with profit seen as necessary for survival but never the priority, never the main reason for any decision. And that’s how I’ve been able to work. The disadvantage is just the time it takes up in my life, when I’d rather be writing new music.

II: The Music

‘The big advantage for me is that I don’t have to deal with people I don’t think actually have music as their driving impetus. I have nothing against record labels if they are independent, small and run for the music, with profit seen as necessary for survival but never the priority, never the main reason for any decision. And that’s how I’ve been able to work.’

I notice in one video that you have what looks like several effects pedals at your feet. What do you use and for what purpose?

I have a bunch of EQ pedals for shaping the tone of my guitar, and I also have a reverb pedal, an echo, a sub-octave pedal which I love, and my overdrive pedal, which satisfies my inner teenage rocker. I also have a pedal that adds reverb and echo to my voice. Basically its because I’ve played so many gigs over the years with no sound engineer present, so I had to control all that stuff myself, then it became part of my style.

Jon Gomm, the instrumental ‘Topeka,’ from Don’t Panic

You’re part of a small fraternity of guitarists who play in the style that, sonically, evokes the richness of Leo Kottke and John Fahey, but goes further in adding textures by using both hands to extract, shall we say, not only percussive sounds but even keyboard-like timbres. Your friend Andy KcKee plays in this style, and it’s generally credited as being developed by Preston Reed. Although I haven’t heard everything those two artists have recorded, the big difference I would point out between you, them and a couple of other guitarists who play in the same style is that rather than being mostly instrumentals, your original songs almost all have a narrative, lyrics that explore varieties of experience but especially relationships—I think about “Less To You,” from your first album, Hypertension, and its deeply wounded and deeply needy narrator trying to connect with a significant other; “Loveproof,” and a couple dealing with the gent’s (isn’t it always the gent?) hedging on commitment, to the point where the woman is almost living in a fantasy world she creates for them; I think about “Afterglow,” about the healing effect of another’s affection for you; I think about “Surrender,” the song you wrote at age 15, which perfectly describes the tumult of young love, especially in one timeless lyric: “You sting me tenderly then take the antidote away.” Obviously you have a need to communicate beyond what you can express in your guitar style.

You know what--I stole that line! Ha ha! I added the third verse to “Surrender” a few years ago, and my wife Natasha has a song with the line “every note is a tender sting,” which I adapted and added to. So it was my little appreciative nod to her--she is a great writer!

Yes, I like songs. I LOVE instrumental guitar music and maybe I’ll make an instrumental album one day, but really I just like making as much noise as possible. I don’t know if I’m really a good lyricist, but I try, I would never write a string of cliches, and the important thing for me is that nothing should have one meaning. Everything should have at least one layer beneath the surface. And that the surface should not be opaque, but translucent. There’s no point hiding meaning so well nobody is aware that it is there.

Because so much is going on in your songs between the narrative and the music, I’d like to know how you actually build a song, if you will. Do you start with the lyrics and then begin adding on the effects to make it bigger? What is a typical songwriting process like, if indeed “typical” is the right word?

I start with a concept, a feeling or a mood, or something particular I want to write about. Then I start looking for words to express it, and think about melody. When the song is taking shape, I start to think about guitar arrangement. This can be painstaking; sometimes it takes ages just to find a tuning! It’s a little like the songwriter introducing a new tune to the band, and the band have to start thinking about what parts they are going to play.

Six years of growth separate Hypertension and Don’t Panic. I hear in the latter lyrics that are moving away from a conversational tone towards poetic expression—imagery, metaphor, simile, etc.—and I hear a much more assured singer. I wonder what you hear in your music—playing, singing, and writing--now as opposed to what and who you were in 2003?

I can’t listen to my old stuff. In most ways I am pretty relaxed and open as a person. But in one aspect I am a raging prima donna, a tragic artistic stereotype! I hate my recordings, for me they are painful to listen to and I feel guilty selling them! I think it’s because I see how it is built, the flimsy foundations, the recording process, which is like a war with myself.

An interview with Jon Gomm, featuring his performance of Bob Marley’s ‘Wait in Vain’

Possibly my favorite song on Don’t Panic (I say possibly because I have a hard time singling out only one) is “Gloria,” a kind of love song but one with a lot of tension from verse to verse. According to your notes, it’s based on “a relationship which crossed the strict tribal divides of teenage society in early-90s Blackpool.” What exactly was going on and how much later was it that you were able to translate the experience into a song? Also, I can’t decide if the song has a happy or bittersweet ending, which maybe is the point, but how do you read it?

It’s a resigned ending, it is acceptance, it’s kinda poignant and sentimental. Teenage society in urban Britain, and possibly in the U.S., is often tribal. You get kids into pop/dance music who are maybe more mainstream, and kids into alternative stuff, and they tend to group together and sometimes be disdainful of the other group. Sometimes there can be other lines of class, background, whereabouts you live. This relationship crossed over all those boundaries so it was seen as odd by people around me, and introduced me to people I didn’t really understand at the time, but now I probably am that kind of person!

The lilting instrumental “Topeka” is beautiful. Just so you know, having grown up in Oklahoma I’ve made many trips to Kansas and can confirm that you really captured the feel of the heartland, especially as it is when the heat’s bearing down in the summer and you just want to vegetate under a shade tree or by a pool.

That’s nice to know. It was a complete guess based on the first scenes of The Wizard of Oz!

Which of the songs on Don’t Panic were the most challenging in terms of mating the lyrics to the soundscape around them?

I don’t know; it doesn’t work like that really. The lyrics will inspire the sonic landscape I place them in (or very occasionally vice versa). I never get to a stage where I’m worrying about that juxtaposition, because they are formed out of each other. Nothing is shoehorned in; I don’t really have a need for that to happen.

You’ve made great strides developing your music and growing an audience without even a small label’s help. But you do have a manager. Do the two of you ever discuss what to do if an established label comes calling? Or are you determined to stay on the independent, do-it-yourself route?

My wife is now my full-time manager, as well as being a great musician herself whose skills I will be calling up more in the future. We don’t talk about if we’d ever sign a major-label deal. I would go insane at having to deal with the corporate world; I’m just not cut out for it.

Jon Gomm’s cover of the Police’s ‘Message in a Bottle,’ recorded for his ‘pay what you want’ Domestic Science Singles Series. All proceeds from sales of the singles go to The Happy House children’s home in Watamu, Kenya. The singles are available for sale and download at the artist’s website.

Speaking of your manager, Natasha Koczy, she’s the only person in the business I know of who actually had the nerve to air her real feelings about shows such as The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, after the latter tried to lure you in as a contestant. She not only blatantly called them out as scam artists, but closed her memorable reply with “Simon Cowell can kiss my ass.” I take it you approve.

Ha ha! There are two reasons she said that stuff. First, she was offended that they thought I might do it! Although if they’d looked at my tour schedule for the year, travelling around the world, it seems bizarre that they think I’d drop all that to go on a show where I seem to already have a healthier career than most musicians who’ve won the shows in the past! Secondly, until recently she taught singing at a school. A lot of those kids see TV talent shows as the way to get a career in music, and she is always trying to persuade them that there are better ways, and that it’s just a cynical show anyway. So having first-hand proof that it was a little bit of a behind-the-scenes fix, she wanted to let her Facebook friends know about it.

Any plans to play in the U.S. this year?

The U.S. is a strange, wonderful and massive place, but it basically has a big invisible wall around it. As does Britain! It’s hard to get into the music scene there, and hard to be able to work there, far harder than any other country I play in. But we’re working on it. Watch this space…

Jon Gomm’s two full-length albums, and the three songs from the Domestic Science Singles Series are available for download at his website.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024