Dylan John Thomas: Inside the mind of a songwriter

THERE are a million ways to write a song. Consider all the elements a musician can call upon – to begin, develop, finish and then, of course completely re-write, a tune – and the scale of options can become immeasurable.

Many of today’s artists will simply opt for the tried and tested, without any real deviation. Time signature, song structure, even choices in chord progression and instrumentation has become reduced to only a handful of options.

Of course, when an artist does break from this mould they tend to stand out. It could be as simple as changing up the way in which a standard instrument is played or by introducing one that is seldom used. Expression is overlooked; the choice to switch from simple strumming to arpeggio can unleash a variety of textures.

Dylan John Thomas grew up with a songwriting brain. He was introduced to some of the world’s best-known artists from an early age and is well-versed in the exploits of classic acts such as Johnny Cash, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel and his namesake Bob Dylan. However, while many may recall only the big hits these acts put out, Thomas was always drawn by the minutiae.

Some artists may be blissfully unaware of the range of musical concepts that can be used. Fewer still are aware but, perhaps, struggle when trying to incorporate them. Thomas has been slowly introducing more and more elements into his work. He has released three tracks thus far – including Lost Without earlier this month – and they have been well-received for his unusual sound. As he progresses, it is likely that he will begin to delve a little deeper by experimenting with more complex ideas.

Someone told me that acoustic guitars were not designed to have a cut-away so that you can play higher up the frets. My response was: ‘Aye, nae worries’.”

Thomas is self-taught but is already an accomplished guitar player. What’s more is that he realises there is so much more he still can learn. But his dedication has already paid dividends and his current output may prove to be a precursor to greater things – with time and some more experience he could well write a masterpiece of his own.

“The way I see it,” the singer tells The Weekender. “What would 40-year-old me look back on those tunes and say? Would I say that melody was a bit boring, or could that other part have been better or more interesting?

“There are simple songs that are brilliant and sometimes that is what you’re wanting. But then you listen to the greats – the type of people who can make a song sound simple but beneath that simplicity, there are layers and layers of complex ideas.

“Most listeners might listen to a song like that and just hear a simple tune, but when a musician listens to something like, for example, All You Need Is Love [by The Beatles], you start to dissect everything going on in that song you see that it’s a masterpiece.

“Sometimes a simple song really is complex, and the other way around. But you need a find a balance where you are not trying to be too smart with it and you don’t lose the reason why you are writing a tune in the first place.

“You don’t want to cross the line where it doesn’t make any sense,” he adds. “It’s happened to me, even with Lost Without. I had that demo sitting with me for a couple of months. At one point, there were horns and trumpets on it – so many instruments: trombone, violin, cello. It was too much and it got to the point where I was just taking everything off of it. At that point, the only way to make it better was to take things off the track, rather than adding.

“Sometimes I like to get overcomplicated and just put every idea I have on it, before I go back and just take things away until I find what I want.”

Thomas is certain to go his own way, uninfluenced by what is seen as the norm for a young artist these days. If he wants to add a marimba into the chorus of this song, that’s what he will do.

Glasgow Times: Picture by Anthony MooneyPicture by Anthony Mooney

Unusual instrumentation was just one of the ways those great former artists were known for – at least in some instances. No one is going to direct Thomas on how or what to play.

The singer recalls: “Someone told me that acoustic guitars were not designed to have a cut-away so that you can play higher up the frets. My response was: ‘Aye, nae worries’. The three songs I’ve released have been played there. I’ve just always liked playing way up the strings.”

He adds: “I like the idea of having a constant throughout songs that stand out. If you listen to Sgt. Pepper’s… for instance, you can hear that had a few instruments lying around that they put on a few tracks.

“That’s what I have done with the three singles I have released – there’s always been a wee marimba in there. I don’t know what attracts me to it – I know I’ve always liked wee high ‘bell’ melodies and they’ve always caught my ear. And so, when I am writing now that if I can fit a bell around the melody that it will resonate with people a lot more than just something on the guitar.”

His love of music goes back to his childhood and has only grown since then. Thomas recalls when his brothers would be playing the PlayStation and hearing Ring of Fire coming on the Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 soundtrack.

“That was my first memory, really,” he goes on. “I just remember us jumping about every 15 minutes when that song came on.

“I ended up getting my first guitar – it must have been £10 out of Argos. I look back now and I see how no one was going to buy me a £500 if I wasn’t going to play it. But it ended up that I played that £10 Argos guitar until my fingers bled.

“I got that guitar for Christmas when I was 10. My brother showed me how to read TAB and then I went to the library and printed off about 100 sheets of paper with all these melodies on it before I started playing chords and then songs.

“I’ve got recordings from when I first started singing and I look back on them thinking: ‘Oh, my god, what is going on there, man?’ It’s ridiculous.”

Thomas has a real affection for the work of the greats, and it has never wavered in his time of learning about how to compose. But his journey is of his own making. He has taught himself how to play, what to study, where to follow and when to innovate.

“I ended up getting my first guitar – it must have been £10 out of Argos. I look back now and I see how no one was going to buy me a £500 if I wasn’t going to play it. But it ended up that I played that £10 Argos guitar until my fingers bled.”

“I’m quite unorthodox in the way I play the guitar and the piano. I play the guitar like someone who has not been taught to play, and I play the piano like someone who can’t play the guitar.

“But I suppose that’s something that’s made me develop my own style on the guitar, where I am utilising my own way of doing things.”

There started a period of sheer absorption. Everything that he could get his hands on – every new idea he could fill his head with – was highly coveted.

“I’ve always wanted to know everything about every artist,” Thomas says. “As soon as I would hear a new name, I’d be asking who they were and wanting to know everything about them.”

All musicians have hit a wall in their writing at some point, whether that manifests as writer’s block or by some other means. It can be crippling, and it tests the armoury of knowledge for many. For Thomas, there is not so much a wall to climb, but a fork in the road. Loading up with all the information that can be drawn from analysing other songwriters has been his way out – though he has no problem with stepping away from the coalface from time-to-time.

He said: “I’m a firm believer in energies – such as creative energies to help you sit down and write. But if that dries up a wee bit then I’ll just go sit down and learn a new song or listen to a new album. I don’t see it as writer’s block or anything, I just feel it’s a different energy and I have to go and learn a little more.”

The current coronavirus situation has led to the cancellation of all traditional live shows in the country. For Thomas, that amounts to a huge blow. The singer was due to appear at no fewer than 10 festivals over the summer – including TRNSMT and Isle of Wight. It has also meant he will have to hold back on recording more material. He still has hopes of releasing an EP sometime after the lockdown eases as he eagerly awaits a return to gigging by the end of this year.

Thomas remains philosophical, however. “It does give me more time to write,” he says.

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