The Stranger in Swansea

Looking at the cover of Tom Fitton’s new EP, The Marsh Road and Other Tales, you would be forgiven for thinking that Tom’s self-penned lyrics would transport you on a Sunday afternoon stroll with picnic basket and merlot in hand. The journey, however, is quite different.  Listeners are transported to one of the most treacherous massacres in Scottish history, a horrific mining disaster, and a Nordic romance.

And that’s the genius of it. Tom has a distinctive vocal that some of the best storytellers would envy: an Adam’s Apple that makes you stand to attention and listen as each narrative unfolds.  Couple the tales with some beautiful guitar melodies, and some of the most brutal actions in history are turned into music that is both calming and delicate. But who is the new man on the Welsh folk scene? And where do his tales come from?

“I’m still a bit of a stranger in this land,” confesses Tom, 37, who, despite living in Wales for 33 years, still doesn’t feel totally assimilated in his Swansea city, a former Viking trading post.

This is perhaps fitting, since his track, The Marsh Road, is a “thinly veiled” love song – written for his strong-minded Swansea wife – and features a local Celtic lass who longs for someone other than Welsh “mam’s boys”.

This stand out track features a Nordic man arriving on her Welsh shore and the couple’s paths cross in what is a gorgeous five minutes of play.

Perhaps Tom was the handsome Norseman his wife was looking for, albeit actually hailing from Cheltenham.

Tom moved to Mid Wales from the spa town at the age of 4, and has inhabited Swansea for the past 15 years, but as all young stars start out, Tom’s first dabble with music was more Art Attack than Aerosmith.

“As a kid, even before having a guitar of my own, I was stretching elastic bands over empty boxes to make guitar-like things,” laughs Tom.

“I’ve been playing the instrument since my late teens, initially inspired by the Grunge boom of the late 90s, which led to discovering the classic rock which had inspired those bands.”

But interestingly, Tom didn’t grow up in a family of morris dancing, rapper stepping, annual Sidmouth-goers, and had a much more gentle journey into the world of folk.

“The interest in folk music was fairly accidental, and an organic process. I’d always been more interested in putting musical ideas together  – rather than learning other people’s work.

“The types of harmonies and textures which please me have always had an acoustic or folky flavour, meaning I sought out music with a similar feel,” explains Tom.

“Although, despite being very much folk, I think you can hear a little Zeppelin in my playing and writing.”

After discovering a whole-lotta-love for the genre, an ambitious Tom then decided to take his passion one step further, and climb the stairway to a rather more degenerate place than heaven – the rowdy pub bar.

“I’ve been performing since my late teens; however, until recently, this was as a guitarist in bands fronted by other people. I’ve only been performing solo for last two years or so.

“There are plenty of horror stories from the ‘bad old days’ when I played in pub covers bands, usually involving drunk punters,” smiles Tom.

But the beer bellies and two pints of lager lads were all worth putting up with, as Tom finally took a chance to go solo – and curbed an unusual maternal instinct of being the band organiser – alias ‘mum’.

After making a rough live recording of his music in early 2014, called ‘A Quick Live One #1’, Tom heard the work of Rob Lear, which inspired him to put together “a more polished product”.

And what a good job he did.

Tom’s album takes us through the darker periods of history, and with the nerve to pen three out of four tracks on his EP, the storyteller allows us to immerse ourselves into a world where health and safety does not exist, and where whole communities are left to perish as the result of bloodlust and rivalry.

East Wheal Rose features the famous Cornish mining disaster, which took place near St Newlyn East on 9 July 1846, when an usually heavy thunderstorm caused the nearby streams to become deadly torrents, entering the mine and drowning 39 men.

Meanwhile, Murder in Trust focuses on the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe. This ugly tale of betrayal contrasts with Tom’s soft vocals, as the carefully crafted track tells how members of the Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were brutally murdered by the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot, captained by Robert Campbell of Glenlyon.

John Dalrymple, Secretary of State, was looking for an excuse to exterminate the clan, claiming they had not pledged allegiance to new monarchs, William and Mary.

Women and children died of exposure, and a memorial still stands at the site to commemorate the hideous betrayal.

However, it is comforting that these events are remembered through the medium of music, with Tom taking inspiration from his travels across the UK.

“I picked up the idea for East Wheal Rose whilst on holiday last year. We visited the Lappa Valley where the mining disaster occurred, while Murder in Trust was born of a visit to Glencoe.

“Meanwhile, listening increasingly to folk music and especially playing at folk clubs inspired me to add some traditional material to my repertoire.

“The Blackest Crow is often sung in American bluegrass settings, and appears to have come from a broadside that pre-dates the colonising of the Americas.

“Since I started singing it’s been featured on the Transatlantic sessions sung by Julie Fowlis and Tim O’Brien has also recently recorded it.

“I do like the sentiment and use of language in the song; you can really get your teeth into the tune when it lifts on the third line of each verse.”

There is always something particularly haunting about hearing lyrics which have been passed down from father to son, having seen wars and change, and birth and death, and this is no different in The Blackest Crow.

What particularly gives you goosebumps are the gorgeous harmonies produced by Tom and his talented friend Carol Edwards, who provides the backing vocals for each of his tracks.

The intrepid Tom has also produced a video for The Marsh Road, although like all good historical dramas, the music video is not shot on location.

“The actual marsh road cut across the start of the Gower peninsular between Gowerton and Lougher and is now known as a handy shortcut prone to flooding so not ideal for a video shoot” laughs Tom.

“However, the name has always struck a chord with me and I thought it deserved using in a song.

“The video was shot at Parc Le Breos in Gower, and the stone structure I’m unceremoniously sitting on is an iron age burial mound! ”

But fast forward past iron age sites, Viking longboats, warring Clans and coal covered faces, and Tom Fitton looks to be a class act about to freshen up the folk world. What’s most revitalising about Tom is that while many folk artists revive old songs, this storyteller is not afraid to pen his own lyrics about the trials faced by our ancestors. He is also a reminder of why folk music is so enjoyable: far from the typical chart ‘he-loves-me’, ‘he–loves-me-not’ playlist, folk lyrics give people access to the past, take you on a journey and make you stop and remember times gone by. Tom’s lyrical journalism, giving a folk song to events in history which may have no musical record, make his album a must buy for anyone looking for something original and different. So, head on down to the album launch tonight: it’s time for a story.

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