Tom Freund – Sympathy for the record industry
As a musician and songwriter, Tom Freund has had more than his fair share of ups and downs. He’s also made some remarkable musical connections along the way.
Having just released his second album, Sympatico, his first on his new Surf Road label, he appears to be settling into his own groove. Sympatico is an organic collection of songs and stories, breathing with an acoustic richness and lyrics that capture slices of Americana in a way that many attempt, yet very few master. How he got to this point is no ordinary tale, however.
Originally from New York, Freund, who recently turned 30, has been performing his own music since he was in his teens. While attending Claremont College in California in the early 1990s, he performed in duo with Ben Harper. In 1992, they recorded an album together, Pleasure And Pain, that contained a combination of traditional and original songs performed in an acoustic setting. The LP was released on vinyl only and in a limited pressing, and has become quite a collector’s item among Harper’s now-considerable legion of fans.
Not too long after playing with Harper, Freund hooked up with Walter Salas-Humara, who was then living in Los Angeles, and Freund became the bass player for the Silos. During the mid-1990s the band, as Freund puts it, was “touring incessantly.” The experience would serve him well, but eventually he left the group and settled in Austin. “I spent a great year there,” he recalls. “It’s where I wrote a lot of music that ended up on my first record.”
His debut, North American Long Weekend, was released on the Red Ant label in 1998. It was a critical success, drawing comparisons to vintage Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones for its smoke-tinged moods. But the record label was having all sorts of problems.
“Shortly after I signed — I met the whole camp, I was flown out to L.A. and got to stay at the [upscale] Mondrian Hotel, the whole bit — [Al] Teller left the company,” Freund explains, referring to the renowned label head who had helped to launch Red Ant.
“There was some kind of complication. They told me to stick with them during a really hairy time, where we didn’t know if the company was going to go bankrupt, and I did. It seemed like the whole music business changed right after that, unbelievably so. I felt like I was in the back end of a wave.
“But I ended up making the record with Marvin Etzioni as producer, and we had a pretty elaborate thing going on. We had a lot of great guests like [famed jazz organist] Jimmy Smith and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. We even had a 17-piece orchestra. That style was great and it was a lot of fun, but actually rather intense. I mean it was a pretty heavy emotional journey.” Then he adds with a nervous laugh, “which I think shows up on tape.”
Just as North American Long Weekend was released, Red Ant started having serious problems. Freund persevered, touring as much as he could, including a songwriters in the round tour during which he shared a bus with Graham Parker, Radney Foster and Jeff Black. He and Parker hit it off and have toured together, backing one another during each other’s set. “There were a were a couple of times,” he remembers with a chuckle, “when we’d be on stage doing my songs and I’d look back at him and go ‘What? Where am I?'”
Freund eventually convinced Red Ant to return to him the rights to North American Long Weekend. His stint with the Silos had taught him a great deal about record company entanglements, and he was shrewd and lucky. “I got my record back, lock stock and barrel, and they just paid me what they owed me, probably a week before they shut their doors,” he recalls.
“It’s a rare thing,” he adds. “But the only thing it screwed me up on was pacing. I write a lot and I was ready to make record number two, and here I was fighting for my first record. Then I don’t have a label, so I’m thinking, ‘I gotta keep going on some level, I write songs and this is what I do and I gotta find a way to record them.’ What pissed me off was that my momentum was screwed.”
Unlike the big-budget North American Long Weekend, Freund recorded Sympatico in bits and pieces and at his own pace, “whenever I could afford it or when certain producers or studio owners could help me out in Austin and in New York,” he says. Where the first record had an urban sense to it, Sympatico seems to possess more of a back-porch feel. “I’m not country,” he says, “but this one manages to capture just bit of a country feel.”