Before you hear Tom Rhodes's voice, you feel it - like a left jab to the jaw. Raspy and soulful, like Ray LaMontagne or a young Van Morrison, but with a soaring intensity that recalls Jackson Browne. Your eyes adjust. You regain your bearings. A familiar feeling washes over you: Have I heard this before? Then, a split-second later, comes the power-punch: the words - direct, poetic, timeless, true.
Like a good boxer, Tom Rhodes mastered this one-two technique through years of training. The 36-year-old Oakland, California-based songwriter has spent more than a decade honing his honest, heartfelt brand of Americana, and learning to craft songs whose truth matches his passion as a performer. In that time, he has performed all over the US and Europe, released four albums, and even appeared on season 9 of The Voice in 2015.
In July 2016, Rhodes will release his fifth full-length album Who You Were – a stunning culmination of Rhodes's search for his unique voice as a songwriter and singer.
Rhodes points to his last album, the critically-acclaimed With Or Without - recorded in front of a live audience at a recording studio in San Francisco in 2014 - as a creative breakthrough: "That's where it started for me. The big turn was, 'Stop writing about what you feel. Start writing about what you know.'"
While writing the songs for With Or Without, Rhodes felt himself evolving from a dime-a-dozen navel-gazer into a thoughtful, world-wise songwriter with a deeper message to convey. "I realized that you can do more with music than talk about yourself. You can do more with music than express a feeling. You can express a piece of information with feeling and get the same emotional response, but you're actually doing something to spread good ideas and help people out there."
The songs on With Or Without struck a chord with listeners and critics. The San Francisco Bay Guardian said that the album feels "like you've been snuck into something secret and awesome." No Depression called With Or Without "an Americana gem of an album". The Americana Music Show said of the album, "The hooks are clever, the rhythms feel good, and the lyrics are infectious... But it's the good-natured everyman attitude I like best about his music."
Rhodes's new album Who You Were is a collection of stories and reflections brimming with same clear-eyed wisdom that abounded on With Or Without. However, the songs on Who You Were possess an added poignancy. Rhodes's father - himself a master storyteller and dispenser of wisdom - passed away on September 14, 2015.
To Rhodes, Who You Were feels like a torch being passed, from one storyteller to another: "These stories aren't just learned from my dad, but this is me taking on that role as he passed away and sort of left that role... This is the conversation I would want to have with my kid, if I had one. I wanted to write about the things that a father tells a son or daughter."
You can sense Rhodes taking on this fatherly role throughout the album. On the laid-back opener "Crumbling Road", the speaker encourages a younger man to pick himself up after a heartbreak. "Roll On" depicts a conversation between a father and a child about to leave home for the first time. "Every Damn Day" describes the daily grind of becoming a better person. The final track, and emotional climax, of the album is the title cut - a moving ode of gratitude to Rhodes's father and a vivid montage of remembered scenes between father and son: "I'm holding onto memories as if they were gold. And I know that I'm the man I am thanks to the man you were."
Recorded at Gawain Mathews Music Studio in Pinole, California with some of San Francisco's most sought-after musicians - Oscar Westesson (Bhi Bhiman, Quiles & Cloud) on bass, Andrew Laubacher (Con Brio, Kelly McFarling) on drums, and Tim Marcus (Lia Rose, Jessie Bridges) on guitar and pedal steel, as well as The Lady Crooners, Kyle M. Terrizzi, and Kelly McFarling on background vocals - Who You Were is a lush Americana record that blends the modern country-rock of Ryan Adams and the acoustic grooves of 70s Laurel Canyon, made unique and timeless through the power of Rhodes's voice and the honesty and insight in his songs.
As Rhodes puts it, "To me, singing songs is about passionately connecting with the thing I'm talking about, and if you're singing about something that you actually believe in it's really easy to get there."