This week’s Q & A features Tommy Emmanuel! One for the artist who wants to go their own way – Hard work, filtering opinions, will power, how to handle a “bad” gig, and busting the age/success myth. Again, grateful for your wisdom Tommy!  

In an industry where expression collides with business, how do you keep the passion to play/write music alive?

When I was a lot younger, I knew nothing about business and so I got ripped off many times. It’s only when I took control of my earning capacity that I learned the importance of taking care of business. I learned that some people are not very professional and so business is unpredictable and disappointing at best.

Then there are real professionals who make business simple. They sign a contract, they commit to the deal, you deliver your end of the bargain and get paid and everybody wins. It’s a good idea to keep business away from management. There should be a separate entity making sure all the taxes and bills are paid, and management should be busy trying to get you the best deals.

Have you ever come close to leaving music? If so, what prompted it and what inspired you to stay?

When I was sixteen, I finished a year of hard work in a band and decided I wanted to go home to see my mother and get a job in a garage. I did that for three months and a travelling show came to town. I went down and jammed in the show and the next day, I left home and haven’t looked back since.  

How do you stay true to your vision, in an industry that is filled with opinion?

Firstly, I only listen to opinions if I’ve asked for them. Opinions are like rear ends… everyone has one! What you need to focus on is getting good at what you do and finding your strengths and figuring out what turns your audience on. You need to show up, dress up and do your best.

What does the day of a gig right up until stepping on stage look like?

A normal day for me is travelling to where I’m playing, and getting to the venue just prior to soundcheck. I walk into my dressing room, hang up my clothes, get my guitar out and start playing. Soon, I’m on stage checking that all my equipment works and all my guitars are in good shape. Then I soundcheck for about 45 minutes. I play all three guitars as if the audience is sitting in front of me. I try never to waste time at soundcheck. Then we eat dinner and catch up.

After a nourishing meal, I’ll change my strings and spend time stretching them in and tuning. Then I get dressed and put a little make-up on my face and go to the meet and greet which is one hour before the show. I meet people every night before the show and enjoy the enthusiasm and sap the room of all the mojo so I can give it back to them from on stage. I play to the best of my abilities every night and go looking for ways of pushing myself musically every time.

After the show, I will sometimes go out to the foyer, meet people, sign autographs, take photos etc. Then it’s back to the hotel or on the bus and sleep ’til I wake. 

What tips do you have in balancing family with music life?

I think the only thing you can do is try to plan to see your family as much as you can, but you need to be honest and open and say “I’m a touring musician, this is not only how I make a living for us, but it’s what I have to do in order to try to get good at this.” [Then] Call and Skype as much as you can.

What do you do to stay physically and mentally balanced? (on and off the road if you are a touring artist)

I think it’s important to look after yourself and eat well. It’s easy to get into eating junk food because it’s quick and easy, but it’s not worth it. Always look for fresh food and eat small meals – you don’t need to be eating as if you’re working on a farm! Drink lots of water and the rule on the road is: if you can get a nap, take it!

On the mental side, take one day at a time. Don’t keep looking in the rearview mirror, you can’t change anything. But you can make better choices for your future.

How do you carry out the roles of a performing artist during times when you’re feeling sub-par? Be it unwell or emotionally unstable. 

If I go to the stage with all the right preparation and attitude and I’m really going for it and I’m still not reaching the level I know I can, it can really bring me down if I let it.

I have learned to step back, look at it and say, “I’ll have another shot tomorrow.” Even if I don’t reach the magic level, at least I know I did my best and the audience is usually happy even if I’m not.

What epiphany(s) has altered your approach to music/life?

I think relaxing and just being happy with who you are and what you do is the biggest hurdle to get over. I also have a secret weapon: I am myself on and off stage all the time. I enjoy being an entertainer whether it’s on stage or in the dressing room.

Have you ever experienced anxiety/depression/nervousness around a tour? If so, what are (were) the triggers and how do (did) you manage it?

No, I haven’t. I have had some tours which ended up costing me a lot of money and took a long time to pay off. But I learned from those experiences and have moved on from feeling lousy about it. It’s about planning and the right agent and the right promoters. If you have all the right people around you, you can’t go wrong.

Can you trace your current successes back to any big risks or leaps? If so, what were they?

I have started my career over many times. Usually, from nothing but my songs and my playing ability to get me through. I left Australia in 1998 and moved to England where nobody knew me, and I started in very small venues to very small crowds. There were times when I had to sell some of my guitars to feed my family and pay the bills, but I’d do it all again if I had to.

Help those who are falling and relay an experience you’ve had that landed you flat on your face.

I think the only times I’ve landed at rock bottom are self-inflicted drug and alcohol-induced periods of self-destruction. I sought help and got my life turned around. Being sober and clear is the greatest feeling right now. I enjoy every day and I don’t have to be thinking about drugs or drinking. Addictions only have one purpose and that is to destroy you and everybody around you. I think the only way to defeat addiction is abstinence and to feel the joy of freedom from its power.

What is your philosophy on fear? How do you deal with it?

I always tell people to reveal to the audience that they are nervous or afraid and then say, “I’ll do my best.”

If you were to wave a magic wand, how would you like to spend your time in the future?

Life is such an unpredictable adventure that I wouldn’t dream of interfering with it with my magic wand!

Is there any other wisdom you’d like to share?

Everybody is looking for the shortest path to success and there isn’t one.


Click here to head to the start of my Q&A series 

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