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An interview with Thomas Corneill from Young Martyrs - navigating life as a full-time musician
Hi Tom! Thanks so much for talking to me today! Your band Young Martyrs released an album at the end of 2020 of the same name – having recently become a full-time musician how does it feel to have put this album out?
It feels amazing. It’s something that all musicians want to do. Recording an album is really hard, it takes a lot of work and time, and in most cases a lot of money; at least to do it to the quality you would like it done. I’ve been a musician since I was a child, I’ve recorded a couple of things solo that weren’t really at the quality I’d have liked; the reality for most musicians is to record a full album is something a lot of people don’t ever get around to. We managed to do it and it has songs that were hugely important to me; I hadn’t yet found the musicians to make it sound the way I’d envisioned it and the guys really brought it to life. I couldn’t be more happy with it and I’m still excited now. We are really pleased with it and proud of what we did.
What is the impression you hope that the album gives anyone who hears it?
I hope what they take away from it is the love that went into it. I have spent time in lots of different musical projects over the years trying to achieve different types of outcome; whether a sound or audience we were aiming for. The point of this album was to not have any of that – we weren’t aspiring to any specific themes or sounds. It was just to take the songs I’d written and ask the guys to put their own parts to it and make it sound as fun as it was playing the parts. We just put tonnes and tonnes of love into it and thought, ‘Can we make the best version of whatever this will end up sounding like?’. I think that’s what we achieved, there’s no part of me that listens to it and thinks we could’ve done that better. In an ideal world when people hear it, they’ll be able to recognise the love that went into it.
You’ve just mentioned there that you write the songs and get input from the rest of the band for their parts. A song can be a very personal thing, do you find it easy to welcome that creativity from your bandmates or can it be difficult to let go of the reigns sometimes?
Great question – I actually was in a band for about thirteen years that split up at the beginning of the pandemic. Even though I loved it and I loved the guys I had realised that with the collaboration of three of us writing the songs we were all pulling in slightly different directions. There was a long period where that had been fun and that was what made the band great. I’m still super proud of it but I had to be honest with myself about what I wanted out of it. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be writing and making my songs, I had to be honest with myself because that was the only way I was going to love this particular project. In terms of bringing the guys in for this one; I told them that I had these songs, I had a strong idea for the feeling that they should have but I don’t want to write their parts for them. I said, ‘Let’s give it a go’, but I did ultimately reserve the right to ask if I wanted them to do things slightly differently because ultimately, they’re my songs. The outcome that I wanted wasn’t for it to feel like it was my project and they were the other guys; I wanted a band and it can be a really difficult balance to strike. Ultimately, I asked three guys that I knew could do it brilliantly so it was easier to hand it over to them; I listen to it now and I don’t hear me; I hear what they’re doing. It’s very much their album. I had the spark of the idea and they helped me complete it.
What was it like as a group pulling together such a big project while trying to navigate a pandemic?
It was really difficult. There were times last year that felt like a gift in terms of what we wanted to achieve. The other guys in the group currently have full-time jobs and children and I have no children and I left my job and made the decision to go into music full-time. I now have the time I never had before to start coordinating things; booking the rehearsals, doing all the logistical things that don’t sound like a lot but added up, and they’re all the reasons why nothing gets done in a band! The other side of that is that there were pockets of time last year where we weren’t in total lockdown where we could find some wide-open spaces and do the whole thing socially distanced; that was great. It was weird that we’ve gone through this whole process; starting a band, releasing an album, and I’ve never hugged or shaken hands with any of those guys since we started. I’m a hugger so that’s a big thing for me! Obviously, there were massive challenges because there have been periods where we have been in proper lockdown, and we are all taking it super seriously. I haven’t seen the other guys properly since September and that’s half a year ago! That’s weird.
What can you tell us about your journey and decision to pursue your dream as a musician full-time and what can you tell some of the people reading who may be hoping to do the same but are anxious about doing so?
This question really resonates for me because it’s actually the second time in my life that I’ve tried to do this. This time we are sort of still at the start of my journey but I can tell you big lessons I learned from the first time. I studied commercial music at college and university, and I’d say to anyone looking to go full-time get really clear in your head about what success looks like to you. The reason I say that is because when I tried to do it the first time I was in my early twenties and I thought that in order to be a ‘full-time musician’ I assumed that equated to fame and fortune; vidoes on MTV and millions of pounds! I thought if those things weren’t happening then you weren’t a successful musician. The reality of it was I was travelling around the country, playing lots and lots of gigs and actually making pretty good money, but I felt the whole time like I wasn’t actually successful because I was playing in pubs to strangers who may or may not have been listening. I began to feel lonely and tired and I felt like it was never going to happen – what I didn’t realise was that ‘it’ was actually already happening, I was already doing it! Looking back on it now as someone who has become a full-time musician in a pandemic when gigs aren’t possible, the idea of what I was doing back then in my early twenties; that was success, it was great! I’m hoping the whole band get to a position where they can quit everything else that they’re doing and we can all live full-time from the music. I realise now that it’s doable but you must be careful about what your assumptions of success are because you can scare yourself out of doing it. Making a living out of music is not easy but it’s certainly possible.
You talked there about your own perceptions of what the industry and success looked like and how that affected you. What about those perceptions from people around you like your former colleagues, friends and family who saw you leave a ‘stable’ job to pursue this dream?
That’s another really good question! The pressure was mostly in my head and I suspect still is! The reality is that I can remember being fearful of making the decision because I would have to tell my family that I was leaving this ‘secure’ job to become a full-time musician, which is a major change and there’s so little security and so few guarantees. I thought people would think I was mad but actually everyone I spoke to was beyond excited for me. I was doing something that a lot of people would like to do. Also, I was on the cusp of making this decision when this company I had been at for a decade had a non-pandemic based re-structuring and lots of people were made redundant. It was actually perfect because it was the lesson I needed that there’s no such thing as ‘security’; no job is as secure as you think. I was doing great but decisions were made that meant I was surplus to requirements. So, if you can do it affordably and find a way, I urge people to give it a go; and not just specifically music! The real test for me will be if I can go and busk in the city centre during the day where all my former colleagues will walk past. That’s a strange concept for me because I was always historically squeamish about doing this as a musician, because as someone who was earning a wage from a big company, the idea of hoping that people would put a couple of quid in your hat or guitar case was a world apart, and I wonder if I’ll be brave enough to do it! I met this busker once; he’s an amazing singer and a great guitarist. I got talking to him and asked him if busking was what he did full-time, and it was! He even goes over to the States and plays over there at festivals in the Summer! The money he was making too was actually really good! Again, it comes back to that perception that success means you’re making millions of pounds; it doesn’t have to be. This guy was making a more than comfortable living because he was brave enough to go and do this thing he loves doing. I am even now still nervous to fully commit to that so when normality resumes that will be an interesting test for me!
As well as navigating the pandemic when creating the album, it’s also been a big issue since its release as you’ve not been able to play gigs - how have the band worked to get the word out?
That bit has been really tough. Social media is the only obvious output that anyone has for anything in terms of promotion right now and most bands have a following; not because they’re great at social media, but because people see them at gigs or on the radio and fall in love with what they’re doing. We never had that chance. It started as just having to call upon our friends and family and we did that. I, because of my decision to do this full-time, finally had the time to call and email every radio station I possibly could and get us played which is great. It was all done very organically, it’s all been word of mouth and that’s all we can do right now. In the grand scheme of things our following is tiny, but I’d also say that they’re incredibly loyal because of the way we’ve had to fight to build a relationship with them and keep them posted and talk about the songs, because we didn’t have anything else to give them yet. We get so many lovely comments and people share our album; we never asked for that! People have been really kind and that tells me that hopefully we did what we wanted to in making an album that people love! It’s been hard work; we’ve been committed to promoting it any way we can really. It’s hard because if you can’t put yourself in a place where people who don’t know you will see you, the idea of expanding a following is really small. We’ll see what happens but for now we do everything we can to try and make what we do good enough so that other people are kind enough to share it.
What advice would you give to other artists looking to survive this difficult period and to their fans who want to support them?
I think the important thing for the musicians out there who are struggling is there are income streams out there. Ultimately, it’s about surviving. One thing about this period we have found is to try and learn other ways to make income, because when things go back to normal we don’t have to stop doing these things; we learn all these new skills and we can still be doing that when we get back to doing gigs. For us it was to build an online shop and to put cool things in there that people will hopefully want to buy; that’s a very new and recent development for us. The other thing is there are lots of websites and mechanisms in which musicians can ask people to support them. I know lots of people have done online gigs with a link where people can tip money while they’re playing and there’s Kickstarter type things. Young Martyrs are supported through my Patreon page and on that page it talks about the various creative pursuits I’m working through – I run a podcast and am writing a book which are both heavily tied in with mental health. One of the things is obviously music. Through websites like that it allows fans to show their support by donating a little bit and it also allows musicians and artists to think of ways to create rewards for their supporters. We have different levels of support so people who can only afford or want to donate a small amount each month might get some exclusive blog posts, this is an example and not specific to our page necessarily. It ranges right up to people who, when we can gig again, we can go do personal gigs at people’s houses, and in other tiers there is free merchandise and things like that. I urge musicians to get creative. What can you do to give something to your fans right now that they would be willing to pay for? For fans – find out what pages your favourite musicians have, are they doing online gigs with tip jars? Do they have an online shop with cool stuff to buy? When you buy that stuff you aren’t just showing your allegiance by wearing that cool hat or whatever, but you are also paying into a really vital income stream.
You mentioned there is a book you’re writing, can you tell us a bit more about that? What can we expect in it and what was the inspiration behind it?
I’ve written a book about the last ten years of my life. The book is about a guy trying to survive in a culture where he feels totally out of place. I worked in the investments industry for twelve years, ten of which were with the same company. There were lots of good times, lots of funny memories and lots of wonderful people. Ultimately, I was there because I felt that it was expected of me in society to be making ‘x’ amount of money as a person with my education and privileges. I didn’t believe that I was capable of surviving doing the things I loved that I studied so long for, so I went into something where I was completely out of my depth, actually ended up making a great career out of it, but by the end I was completely drained. I didn’t know myself anymore and felt like I’d had a total loss of identity. It had led a few years prior to that to some scary stress related injuries – I actually climbed out of a window during a sleepwalking episode and broke my back and shattered my heel. It was all attributable to stress and not dealing with the situation I was in. It’s a book, if I’ve done a good enough job, that offers hope and inspiration to people that you don’t have to do something you hate or that makes you uncomfortable. There are alternatives out there, you just have to be honest about what it is that you want to do. It’s important to say though that no one should feel pressure that just because you love something, you have to make money out of it. I don’t believe in regrets and when I look back at the time I spent in that career it was massively important to me. If I’d have done what I wanted when I’d left Uni; I was not a fully formed adult by that point I wouldn’t have coped. I wouldn’t have been able to be a full-time musician; it wouldn’t have been good for me. In spite of where I eventually got to with stress and depression in my job, it provided me with an income that allowed me to do so many things that I’m proud of, and I met really great people that now support me in the things that I’m doing. I think things happen for a reason and no one should feel ashamed of what they’re doing, but equally no one should feel forced to do something that is making them unhealthy or unhappy.
Finally, one thing we ask all of our interviewees is to name their top three songs that relate to mental health. What would be your top three?
1. Vincent - Don McLean
2. Black Star - Radiohead
3. Nowhere Man - The Beatles
If you want to support Tom, Young Martyrs and the fantastic work they’re doing – check out some of the links below!
Young Martyrs online shop - www.youngmartyrs.com/shop
Tom’s podcast - Everyday Problems - https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-everyday-problems-podcast/id1524525169
To support Young Martyrs, Tom’s 'Everyday Problems' Podcast, his book and any other projects head to www.patreon.com/tomcorneill
Go follow Young Martyrs on social media! Instagram: @young_martyrs Facebook: @youngmartyrsband
Buy print editions of Mindful Melody Issue 12 below!