Behind The Music: Tom Colborn's Big Smoke Blues by Toby Venables, 9 Feb 2007

Behind The Music: Tom Colborn's Big Smoke Blues by Toby Venables, 9 Feb 2007
Local Cambridgeshire Artist
Blues guitarist and singer Tom Colborn (pr. 'Coburn') has built quite a following in Cambridge for his raw, gutsy mix of Delta blues standards and self-penned material. At the end of 2006, like so many Delta bluesmen before him, he upped sticks and headed for the big city. Toby Venables talked to him about the reasons behind the move, why he'll always have a sweet home in Cambridge and how a jobbing musician keeps body and soul together (or not...).

Tell us first where you're at just at the moment...

I've got a live album coming out which was recorded last summer at the Elm Tree, Cambridge, I'm currently doing a stint in London and living a slightly odd half-life between doing bookings here and doing appearances in London. I've played places like the Harrison in King's Cross, Princess Alexandra in Crouch End, the Salisbury in Haringey - mainly north London circuit places, but I'm interested in getting into Folk clubs and blues clubs in the middle of town. I'm not really in London to do pub gigs. Pub gigs great, but I'm in London to move forward the gigs in other venues. You have to travel to where the work is as a musician, and I often do stage crew work to make ends meet and have just done quite an interesting stint of work in the West End - at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and am doing some stuff for Sadler's Wells next week - so it's been a very interesting and very busy few months.

The problem with stage crew work is the flexibility isn't really there to push music as hard as I'd like, because when there's a job on you're working six evenings a week, so it doesn't leave you much time, other than for a frazzled appearance at an open mic night... But I'm very clear about getting out there and being active as a musician as much as you can on a workaday basis even if it doesn't pay very well,. Not preparing for that big gig two months down the line - that's just not the way it works - but getting out and lubricating the machinery, so to speak, all the time.

So, what do clubs open up that pub gigs don't?

It exposes you to promoters, and venues that have a formalised system of promotion. Then if you get a support slot for a touring act, there's the possibility of a tour. They may not be the promoters that you need to be exposed to, of course - they might not be the promoters who are interested in you and they might not be any good. But you need to be there to find these things out. You're auditioning the venue as much as the other way around. That's not to sound arrogant, it's simply that regardless of how good you are as a musician, you're not going to do any good in the wrong place, because the wrong people will see you who perhaps aren't interested in the kind of thing you do.

The problem is, it's quite time consuming finding out which venues to target. I'd rather hit two or three venues hard - when I first got to London there was information overload and I had this kind of scattershot approach, because there was all this amazing stuff to do every night of the week. But you don't want to spread yourself too thin.

What initially prompted the move?

Wanting to expand and explore and see what was out there, and at least live there long enough to understand the way it works and how the various music scenes function. But also a job came up. So it was actually quite simple, inasmuch as the stage crew work was the facilitator. It wasn't the impetus, but it made it possible. I'd already made a few contacts on the north London circuit, having done the odd cabaret gig in places like the Vine Lounge in Kentish Town and the Bordello Club - various places around the Hornsea, Haringey, Stoke Newington kind of area. I'd met a few people from sharing bills with them (not in restaurants, I hasten to add...) Then a place came up in a flat, a job came up, and I thought, well, give it a try.

Were you feeling at all frustrated with Cambridge?

I needed to get some perspective on what was happening in Cambridge and what wasn't happening in Cambridge. The nice thing about moving somewhere is that it shows you the problems that you leave behind and the problems you carry with you. So it's helped me a lot to appreciate the fact that the work in Cambridge - the years of doing the gigs to build up a following - has had its effect, with gigs like the Elm Tree which are consistently busy. So its certainly helped me distil that. Because it isn't going to apologise to you and isn't going to go easy on anybody, London really does force you to address things about the what you're doing. But I wouldn't say it was frustration with Cambridge. I may have imagined I was frustrated, but I don't think it's really that.

So you haven't been lured away by the bright lights of the big city just yet then?

No! There'll always be a little bit of the Fens in me... And Cambridge has changed and improved vastly as a live music town in recent years. Around the turn of the century when I started it did seem a bit bleak, with the Boat Race closure and stuff like that. The situation's very different now - you've got the renovated venues at Angli Ruskin University, places like The Loft, and the Shed at The Junction, which is a magnificent venue. I played support for The Shivers there in the summer - they're a cracking band who are getting some bookings in London now, and good on them. But time and again now in London I'm encountering acts who have been booked to play several places in Cambridge. Any jobbing musician would tell you it's on the up. Standards have been raised. Cambridge has always attracted interesting people. I've met fascinating, intelligent, wierd people in Cambridge - you can't beat it. And it isn't enough to say it's just the University. I think it's a whole load of things that make the city what it is.

Would you say it was tougher getting on as a solo artist?

Yes, I think so. But for practical reasons. It's tougher because you have to do everything yourself. You have to work out where to be, you have to be there, you have to publicise it, you have to try and get your friends down there, you have to meet the promoters. And somewhere in all that crap you have to rehearse some music!

What's the next thing for you?

Streamline the operation. Sack a few staff members... Get some wheels. Concentrate on opening up on some new circuits. I've got some gigs coming up on the south coast - Brighton, Deal and the Kentish coast area. And consolidating the base and following up in Cambridge. And hopefully recording some more stuff. I've got the live album, plus a number of recordings for a studio album, so there are two albums there. But basically just keep on pushing it.

And finally, the question that has to be asked. Did you sell your soul to the Devil at a crossroads?


You don't think you might have need of it then?

Not living in North London.