Interview with Tom Sharpe

October, 2014


Tom Sharpe

DDY Talk:Tom I would like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to discuss performing with two nationally known artists, as well as your own music, and your new release Lifting the World.
Tom:Hi Ron, you're welcome, but don't thank me too much. I am sure that most people in general, not just artists, would be willing to take time out of their day to talk about themselves. It's everyone's universal favorite subject!
DDY Talk: First I have to ask: Where do you find the time to compose and record your own music when you spend a good bit of time touring with Dennis DeYoung and Mannheim Steamroller?
Tom:Well Ron, I have two things that are on my mind constantly - family and music. So even if I'm on the road, I am still thinking and creating. This symphony Lifting the World began life in the early 2000's, so It's been a labor of love for a long time
DDY Talk:It's been 12 years since the release of Like Setting Myself on Fire, your first album. How do you think you have grown as both a composer and a musician since then?
Tom:

I look back on my first album, and I have to say, I am still very proud of it. I think that says something. I mean, anytime you can look back at your younger self and not cringe, it's a good thing. I put a great deal of care into that album, and I think it shows, and holds up. It was really the start of my post college career as a professional musician. When Like Setting Myself on Fire won the John Lennon Songwriting contest, it was a way to separate from the countless musicians trying to book performances and get recognized. My phone started to ring, people wanted to hear my work. Even today, that title track receives some of my biggest applause. I still perform many works from that album.

I think my evolution from the composer I was then to this current release, Lifting the World, has a lot to do with the patience to explore themes more to their full capability. Also, Like Setting Myself on Fire is definitely a studio created album, where as Lifting the World, while there are plenty of studio tricks, has a much more real, symphonic/orchestral feel to it, with real strings, reeds, guitars, drums, piano and a full choir recorded on location in a large chapel. It is much more layered and involved. I believe the listener can peel this back so many different ways, and hear something new every time. When I recorded Like Setting Myself on Fire, I thought I was writing a lot of parts. I had no idea what was in store for me next with Lifting the World. There are literally over a hundred parts on some of the larger pieces. Each instrument is written out and performed, not a keyboard playing a lot of fill in chords. When you hear two violins play a melody and a counter melody, that is two violins, not a keyboard patch playing two parts at once.

Like Setting Myself on Fire is now fully scored for orchestra as well, but it was after I released the album and started to get opportunities to perform the work that I set out to score it. Lifting the World was conceived as a large ensemble work - orchestral, choral, percussive, ethnic, symphonic - I set out to create it this way. There is so much to explore if you dig deep. I hope that it's an enjoyable listen on the surface as well, but I will never know because I'm too close to it.

DDY Talk:How has working with Dennis DeYoung and Chip Davis influenced your composing and performing?
Tom:

Dennis and Chip have influenced me in many more ways than composing and performing. I am sure that subconsciously there are elements of their amazing catalogs that have snuck into my writing, but really, I look at these legendary artists on a larger scale. They both have inspired me how to have a sustained and successful career in music - the right way, and how driven and focused you need to be. They are both visionaries - pioneers of styles of music that stand the test of time - filling large venues 35 - 40 years later. Is my work unique like that? Is it innovative, creative, leading the way? I would love to think so. Hopefully it is. I don't know anyone else that writes and performs the same way I do. Being an innovator is something I strive for and look to Chip and Dennis as mentors. Perhaps this is one of the biggest ways they have influenced me. I'm so motivated to inspire younger generations, it's been wonderful for me to have role models myself, artists that I look up to, not from afar, but from a working and personal relationship. These are the guys that have done it right.

But no one has been a bigger influence or inspiration on me than my own mother and father. They have always been my biggest support not only in music, but in life. Leading by example of how to do things the right way. My work ethic, strength, desire to help others, to give, and to make a difference, all comes from the way I was raised and the sacrifices they made to provide me with opportunities.

DDY Talk:You call Lifting the World a symphony. When you started writing for what would become this album, did you originally plan to compose a symphony? If not, how did evolve from writing individual songs to one connected piece of work?
Tom:I didn't plan on writing a symphony. Honestly, I don't really even know how I wrote this. I didn't have a formula. I didn't calculate and map it out. Sometimes I feel like I don't really even write this music, I'm just the vehicle for it to have a life. Of course it's written from my background and education, but I don't know. I look back on these works and scratch my head. I'm just a simple guy. I like sports and pizza and cars. Then, here is this dramatic work of tragedy and triumph, richly layered, interweaving themes, choirs singing in Hindi. How did that happen?
DDY Talk:Do you have any kind of plot or storyline that accompanies the flow through the entire composition?
Tom:I do, but I want you to have your own. I love it when fans tell me Lifting the World is a personal soundtrack to their own movie. Music can have (not always does, but CAN have) a very personal connection with your inner self. This is why I use voice as an instrument and not as a story teller. As soon as you hear lyrics, you are hearing a story someone is telling you. My music allows you the opportunity to connect deeper. To use the music to further explore your own feelings and emotions and not just hear mine. I will often get people coming up to me after a concert and telling me that my music spoke to them on a higher level. They were having a bad day, something happened, they've suffered loss, and this music ministered them and helped them heal. Now, I think it's a little much to say that about my own work, so I don't. HOWEVER, if someone says that TO me, I think "YES!" This is what I want. This is what I'm after. To help. To heal. To create work that is larger than me. To use music and any gifts that I've been given to somehow make a difference.
DDY Talk:The song titles indicate a spiritual connection. Does the composition represent some kind of spiritual journey?
Tom:Absolutely, but again, it depends on how deep you want to go. I hope that it's a nice pleasant listen while your in the car, mindlessly driving and killing some time, but that is not what I intended it to be. This is a - put headphones on, listen to the WHOLE THING, and allow yourself to be open with your emotions - kind of album. I want you to get something out of it that you can use.
DDY Talk:Do you have a favorite track on the album? What track means the most to you?
Tom:Bloodline is a favorite because it recaps the themes of the first part of the album and foreshadows the themes of the second half. The Cathedral Is Where You Are, beautifully played by the strings, is another one I love. Though a lot of what I do is drum orientated, I guess I lean towards my peaceful and reflective compositions as ones I enjoy creating the most. I don't know. Again, I'm too close to it. I would love to know what others favorite tracks are and why. That is more important to me.
DDY Talk:What motivates you as a composer? As a performer?
Tom:

My biggest motivation is looking at something I've written and feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride. Composing a work like a symphony is a life goal. It's like running a marathon. I've actually always thought I would run a marathon. I'm an avid runner. I get my miles in every day. But, as I go, I'm realizing I might never have the time to train for that long of a distance. But hey, I wrote a symphony, and very few people will ever say they did that!

With Dennis and with Mannheim, it's about the legacy - protecting the legacy and approaching the position with great thought and care. I mean, this is music we grew up with. The first words I ever heard Dennis sing as a 10 year old boy were "Tonight's the night, we'll make history". I can't even tell you how many times I dropped the needle on that record on my dad's stereo. Then the first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album came out a few years later, and, who was doing music like this? No one. Now, everyone has a Christmas album, but think back to 1984, close your eyes, and listen to Mannheim Steamroller's Silent Night like it was the first time. It's ground breaking. No wonder it won a Grammy! So now, to be a part of the other side, to be on stage, to be a part of what the applause are for. It is special, and I don't take a second of it for granted. It is a long day for those two hours or so, and I'm awfully sure to make it count. I leave it all out there. Nothing left in the tank after ANY performance.

With my own music, it's the chance to break new ground. It's the excitement of seeing people come in and get their seats, because I know they really don't know what's coming. I can't wait to get to them and share this music and style of performing that is all mine. It's about being energized to put myself out there and not worried. I always say that all I need is an audience and I'll do the rest. They don't need to be sold before they get there, they will be sold when they leave. I've grown to be confident in what I do. I don't look at being confident and being humble as opposites, being arrogant and being humble are opposites. Being confident just means believing in what you do. I do a lot of public speaking/performing, and I encourage students and conference attendees of all ages to believe in themselves first. If you don't, how can you expect others to believe in you?

DDY Talk:Would you like to share the memory of anything special that happened when you were performing? Do you have a favorite memory from being on tour?
Tom:This is hard to say. I just love the smiling faces. I love seeing people get emotional. I love feeling like I've made a difference. When someone comes up to me after a concert and they are crying, that impacts me. That is pure heart. I've done something good. I keep telling myself - "Make a difference Tom, keep trying. Don't ever give up. You are here for a reason." And when these things happen after a performance, it's the best. There are fun things too, that are special. It is always great for me to go home to Detroit and play the venues there. Pine Knob was a personal triumph, and the Fox Theater is my personal favorite tour stop. Last year on the Mannheim tour, I held up a Red Wings jersey when I was announced. The place went up. It was special.
DDY Talk:What do you feel is your greatest professional accomplishment (so far)?
Tom:Oh, wow, just one? Lifting the World is my biggest achievement because it is mine. It is still very early, so I don't know what kind of success it's going to have. I more think of it as my greatest personal musical accomplishment. Of course being on recordings with Dennis and Mannheim are reaching the masses, so those are great accomplishments as well, just different. I'm proud of my tours, recordings, TV appearances - it's all special to me. I look at my accomplishments, and I am extremely grateful and fortunate. Determination, drive, a balance of patience and persistence, never giving up, believing in myself - these are the things that got me where I am and will take me where I'm going next.
DDY Talk:Are you working on scheduling some live performances of your new album in the coming year?
Tom:I am sure there will be some. Right now my professional focus is on my two national tours, and I have no regrets. I know there will be in a time in the future where my own work takes a larger piece of the pie, but for now, I am fitting it into the cracks, and there aren't many cracks. I would love to find a really great booking agent that would be aggressive. For me at this time, when the phone rings, I answer, but it's hard for me to actively pursue my own opportunities because of the tours.
DDY Talk:How are you able to adjust to the different types of performances that you play? For example, when you have both Dennis DeYoung and Mannheim Steamroller shows (or back and forth) within the same week?
Tom:I don't know - I just do! I think that's why I have the career I have. I know that I could walk into many people's work environment and have no idea how they do what they do. It's like that. Your life and career usually leads you to the things you are good at doing. It's only hard if you can't do. If you can, it's very natural.
DDY Talk:What do you find the most gratifying about performing? About composing?
Tom:Connecting with people and the opportunity to make something special happen. It's setting goals, looking back and being proud of what you've done. I think there is a misconception that having this kind of lifestyle is a big party, and honestly it's a lot of hard work. I take words like "fun" and replace them with "accomplishment". Finishing a concert drenched in sweat and limbs aching? Pride. Pride because I look out and I see happy faces, faces that need this, and pride also because I am performing music that has spoken to ME through the years. Often as a musician, even when you are successful, you have to perform music that maybe you don't particularly like. What happens, say, if your doing a musical or something, and you have to perform the same music night after night but don't really like the music you're playing? That would be rough. I'm proud to say that all the music I'm playing right now, I love. That is very gratifying.
DDY Talk:What composers/artists influenced you as a musician?
Tom:With my orchestral background, I feel that I'm very influenced by composers of the Romantic period - Mahler, Dvorak, Saint-Seans, Rimsky Korsakov, as well as 20th century composers like Bartok, Stravinsky, Copeland. Mix that with some Peter Gabriel, Lorenna McKennit, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and there you go. And, of course, Dennis DeYoung and Mannheim Steamroller!
DDY Talk:Lifting the World has a strong sense of flow throughout the entire album. There were points that I felt like I was listening to a movie soundtrack, and the music was being reflective of what could be happening on screen. Have you ever thought about trying to get hired to write a music score?
Tom:I would be honored. But what I really want to do right now is keep writing my own music based on what is in my heart. If a director wants to use something I've written, I would love that. But at this point in my life I don't know that I'm interested in writing music to a formula. Of course, things can change!
DDY Talk:Are there any thoughts or ideas that you might have for what you would like to do for your next project? (It's not going to be another 12 years, I hope)
Tom:One of the great things about Lifting the World being released is that it is freeing. Lifting the World will have a life. It is free of my never-ending studio tweaks and additions. Whatever Lifting the World is meant to do, it finally has the opportunity to do just that. At the same time, it has freed me to move on as well. Yes, I have plenty of ideas for another project, and probably several projects! Some I already perform live, some are stand-alone works and there is another larger work that I've started to let fill my conscious thoughts. I'm wondering, do I have Symphony #2 in me?
DDY Talk:Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I would also like to thank my daughter Elisabeth who helped with the writing and inspiration for several of them. I look forward to seeing you soon.
Tom:The Mannheim Steamroller show is brand new. You will love it.
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updated 11/21/2014