COAL CITY GOLD
James Thomson’s third album is his his finest yet, the result of his steady creative evolution. Golden Exile sees the Newcastle songwriter digging deeper and more widely into his influences and writing with a greater sense of musical identity.
Back in 2012 he came to the attention of journalist and label owner Stuart Coupe, who, recognising his prodigious talent, quickly signed him to Laughing Outlaw Records and released his debut album. It was a stripped back, mainly solo affair that highlighted Thomson’s laidback style and strong affinity for the masters of folk and blues.
“When I was younger and starting out I couldn’t always reconcile the music I liked and the music I was writing and playing,” says Thomson. “That first record was reflective of how I envisaged performing the songs. I was performing solo so I was writing songs to be that kind of artist.”
In the ensuing years Thomson learnt that he could add greater depth and nuance to his songs by playing with other musicians. His 2015 album Cold Moon was a leap forward as Thomson refined and expanded his sound by fleshing out the songs with a full band. “With the second album I thought I could change things up a bit and add in more instrumentation. It was also about having more time and experience in the studio and being able to try things and be more fluid with the process. Sometimes the best things come from accidents in the studio – putting a slide guitar on a pop song or a synth on a country song and seeing what happens.”
With Golden Exile, Thomson continues his growth as a writer, both lyrically and musically. One can hear The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, 60s and 70s folk rock and country soul, all woven together in songs that chronicle optimism and heartbreak, emotional and physical departure. “After Cold Moon I put The Strange Pilgrims band together and that sound naturally came about. Having that ability to play with a band every week took the shackles off a bit and I could explore more with styles and formats that I loved. Having a band made me realise I could do that compared to when I was playing solo.”
Thomson chose to record Golden Exile live, over six days, with Roger Bergodaz at Union Street Studios in Melbourne. Taking his guitarist Marty Burke with him, he called on the skill and experience of some of the city’s finest alt-country musicians including Sean McMahon, Tracy McNeil, Shane Reilly (Lost Ragas) and Steve Hadley. “I liked it because they had different ideas,” he enthuses. “I sent demos down and they made notes and had some ideas. We tried them all and went with the idea that worked best. Sometimes that was truer to my demo and other times it was an idea that they had that I hadn’t really thought of.”
As Thomson explains, the album title gathers together the songs and the experience of writing them. “It’s an allusion to a happy disengagement from a whole bunch of things and it’s golden because this music and these songs came out of it. It came out of being physically, emotionally and socially removed from certain aspects of life. Rather than making it a maudlin thing, this is the other side of the coin, it’s a good thing,” he reiterates. “It’s a reminder to myself, of sorts.”
As the local country, folk and Americana scene continues to grow, Thomson is reflective of his place in it and clearly doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by preconceived expectations. “It seems to me that Folk/blues/roots music have only ever really existed on the periphery of popular music – despite the fact traces of them are in almost all popular music styles There’s a bit of difference in what I do as I don’t want to paint myself into one corner with what I do. My goal is to keep writing better songs. I want to be able to try different things and not be restricted. I want people to like and respond to my music.”