LIGHTS AND BRIDGES is what happens when a composer of global, border-dissolving tones and beats decides to condense his symphonic visions into intimate, yet still epic slices of song, lyric and sound. It’s the evocative collision of voice and acoustic guitar stripped to its melodic essence. It’s the lush whisper of breathtaking harmony and atmosphere.
It’s the poetic designation that singer-songwriter Tom Rossi has taken on to imagine a new musical landscape. Music originally came to be part of his life through WAQY 102, KISS FM and the local Western Mass classical music station via the car radio to and from grade school. We spoke to Tom Rossi about multi-instrumentalism, his new self titled EP, and personal emotions.
YOU ARE A FLUENT MULTI-INSTRUMENTALIST; EVERYTHING FROM CEREMONIAL GHANAIAN HAND DRUMS TO AFRICAN KORA. HOW MANY INSTRUMENTS CAN YOU ACTUALLY PLAY?
At this point it’s 7 kinds of instruments and 9 kinds of drums.
In college, after evolving from electric guitar to acoustic fingerstyle, world music became a heavy influence. I then picked up the bamboo flute, sitar, clarinet, kalimba and any hand drum I could find.
Going deeper into percussion, I dropped out of college and moved to West Africa for seven months. I attended vodun ceremonies in Togo and studied Kpanlogo drums and songs with master drummer Mustapha Tetty Addy in Ghana. Later I would live in Brazil and Cuba for a few months playing and learning, as well.
Absorbing African sensibility from the source was a huge musical shift for me, especially the local Ewe vodun. To witness so much energy generated with four drums, a bell, two shakers and a few neighborhood people singing, was incredible. A rock concert was never the same. Back in New York, I lived at my uncle’s dance studio learning more African, Brazilian, Cuban and Haitian drum styles.
I started on Kora (teachers Keba Cissoko, Yakuba Sissoko) at some point back in NY after attending Berklee College in Boston for composition. The clarinet was my principal instrument. I modified the kora with five extra bass strings, to have 26 strings instead of 21. I found the traditional arrangement beautiful, but musically limiting.
The current instrument list is guitar, piano, bass, flute, clarinet, kora, kalimba, m’bira. Then for drums: djembe, dunun, kpanlogo, conga, bata, kutiro, surdu, frame drum and darbuka.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST INSTRUMENT THAT YOU LEARNED HOW TO PLAY?
My first instrument was a $22 sunburst acoustic guitar from Sears catalog. I was inspired by my 4th grade classmate, Jensen, who could play “Stairway”. In my hormonal, heavy rock years, the Sears sunburst came to a glorious end in a sincere Rock & Roll smashing ritual. Replaced by a vintage Fender Telecaster and a Pevey Classic tube amp.
WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND LIGHTS & BRIDGES THEN?
Lights & Bridges is a return to my roots growing up with the songs of Simon & Garfunkel and the broader, more experimental musical spectrums of Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and Pink Floyd.
It’s deliberately distilled to the essential elements of vocals and acoustic guitar, as a starting point to the sound of the project.
YOUR LATEST EP IS INCREDIBLE TO LISTEN TO. HOW WAS THE PROCESS WHEN MAKING IT?
Thank you! “Tears Of Gold” and “Outside The Wall” were partially recorded in my studio in Brooklyn. When I moved to LA in 2015, I met Guy Erez, a great musician and producer, who plays bass for the Alan Parsons Project.
As we became close friends, I sang “Superball” for Guy and he loved it. He offered to co-produce the record in his studio, and since I was looking to do more collaborative stuff, this was perfect. In a few months we finished all the tracks. Guy brought a wonderful sensibility to the project. Adding his bass, synths and some of his choice musician friends (Jamie Muhoberac on keyboard, Kellie Adams on vocals), he built nicely off of the Lights & Bridges sound I had intended.
YOUR MUSIC SEEMS VERY PERSONAL AND HONEST. DO YOU WRITE FROM YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES?
Yes, whether it’s the abstract imagery of cosmic longing in “Tears of Gold” or articulating a specific catharsis in “Lemonade”, I draw from whatever I’m feeling and going through personally.
ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING THINGS THAT YOU DO IS PLAY FOR TERMINALLY ILL PATIENTS IN HOSPICE CARE SEVERAL DAYS A WEEK. WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO DO SOMETHING SO TOUCHING?
I went to a healing art school in NY in the mid 90’s, where I was asked by a schoolmate to play music for her lover dying of throat cancer. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life to play and sing for this man, who was hooked up to tubes and an oxygen mask. To see how deeply he enjoyed himself, despite his condition and discomfort, was incredibly moving. It was a defining moment for me. I felt like I was in the universe for sure on that day doing something meaningful. Soon after I looked up a local hospice company in the phone book and they were very receptive to what I was offering.
IT MUST BE A VERY EMOTIONAL THING TO DO. HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL?
There are times when it gets intense for me emotionally, especially if I’ve had time to form a relationship with the patient and then they start to decline. Seeing how people feel for each other, or don’t, is also very moving. Some families are there all the time and beautifully present and others are completely absent.
When the family is absent, it makes my job all the more essential to also provide company. Death can be very lonely, so it’s really about letting the patient know they’re not alone. “Outside the Wall” was written over a period of several hospice sessions and touches on that longing to connect beyond the cycle of death and the physical world.
WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE PEOPLE TO TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR MUSIC?
When I love a song it’s because I can feel the artist’s life filter through their voice and the music in such a way that I feel comforted by it. Or inspired. Or it’s a great idea, perfectly executed. Or just a total escape. Much gratitude for any of those takeaways.
WILL WE BE HEARING MORE MUSIC FROM LIGHTS AND BRIDGES THIS YEAR?
Yes, I’m working on a few new songs right now and planning to release a few covers this year.
interview DYLAN HILTON | @dylanxhilton