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Sandi Thom effectively uses the Internet to advance her career

Sandi Thom.jpg

There are hometown shows, and then there are shows in your home.

In February, Scotland native Sandi Thom began a 21-night run of performances in the basement of her flat in Tooting, South London.

People were welcome to watch in person or via Webcam, and the success of her 21 Nights from Tooting “tour” –which reportedly attracted 70,000 viewers by the last night — led to a multi-album deal with RCA in England. Columbia released the singer/songwriter’s debut disc, Smile . . . It Confuses People, in North America on Sept. 12.

The 25-year-old Thom recently spoke about her days as a session singer, attending the Liverpool Institute of the Arts and the aforementioned Webcam experience, among other subjects. You admit to taking more than a passing interest in your parents’ record collection growing up. What was the first album of yours that you bought or someone bought for you?
Sandi Thom: “I’m not really good at remembering the first things of everything. It was probably Bryan Adams or Kylie Minogue. I was totally a child then. It wouldn’t have been any singer/songwriter.

“The stuff I bought in my teenage years was more significant than anything I bought when I was really young, [such as] Nirvana. And then when I joined my band [the Residents] when I was a teenager, they got me into Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Eagles — all these other ’70s bands that I never really would have been interested in had I not been in that band at that age in the ’90s.”

Were you aware back then that there was an American band also known as the Residents?
Thom: “No, but I am now (laughs). And I hear they’re quite different from what we did.”

Around the time of your Residents days, you colored your hair quite often. What was the most unusual color or color combo that you ever sported?
Thom: “Blue — electric blue: Blue with white bits at the front. When I was 12 or 13, I was going through this grunge phase, and all the colors of the rainbow were in everybody’s hair: blue, pink, white, black, blond, everything.”

Talk about your years in Liverpool, England, when you were studying at the Institute of Performing Arts.
Thom: “They were probably the most significant years in terms of me becoming a professional musician. I spent three or four years studying there; I still lived there up until a couple of years ago. I met my [current] band there, so quite a few things came out of there. I got used to playing gigs and playing gigs with my own material.”

Are there tons of Paul McCartney pictures all around the school?
Thom: “There are a lot of Beatles pictures . . . there are pictures of [Jimi] Hendrix and Neil Young. There is a lot of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia.”

What lessons did you learn from your time as a session singer?
Thom: “I seemed to realize that I was able to sing in lots of different styles. I have the ability to sing folk or soul or pop or whatever. It was good to be able to sing all of those styles, and it probably had a lot to do with how I ended up singing because I was getting used to all this different stuff.”

What was the strangest session project you ever did?
Thom: “To sing deliberately out of tune. [It was for] a timber company. It was really, really bad. It was a radio jingle, and I had to deliberately sing out of tune because the [gist of it was] ‘We’re terrible at making jingles, but we’re great at building.’ ”

Talk about the technical aspects of putting together your 21 Nights from Tooting tour in your basement.
Thom: “There were a lot of things that went on. The camera wasn’t steady and it would do this thing called ghosting and the screen would appear as a blur. And then of course there was the sound because the only thing that picked up sound was the microphone from the Webcam, so it was difficult to get the balance right.

“So there was a good three-night trial of getting things right. . . . By the fourth or fifth day, it was all right. We solved one of the problems by taking the Webcam and standing it on top of a lamp and using masking tape so it wouldn’t move.”

What or who inspired the title of your album?
Thom: “I came up with it, walking [in] London. It was just a human observation. I was probably having a particularly difficult day, and I decided that the way I was going to deal with it was smile at people.”

In the song “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in my Hair),” are you singing in character, or do you genuinely wish you could have lived through the peace-and-love times and the punk era?
Thom: “I think that it’s quite exciting living through this time. . . . If I could go back and live in a different revolution, then I would go back and live through that. It’s all about communication right now, isn’t it? The way we communicate, there’s so much you can barely escape. You’ve got so many forms of communication on your person at any given time, it’s almost impossible not to be able to reach someone. But back in the ’60s and the ’70s, the hippies and the punks were both trying to voice some sort of opinion to the world; they were communicating a message, but not through technology.

“I wrote that song because I lost my cell phone. I cried about it because there were a lot of things in there — people’s pictures and numbers. It really hurt me; I was really distraught. And in hindsight, I find it quite ridiculous that I was so upset about a piece of metal. And I thought, ‘Well, if I lived back then, I wonder what life would have been like when there was a whole other vibe going on?’ ”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Sandi Thom concert dates (schedule subject to change):

* Nov. 2: Mercury Lounge — New York
* Nov. 3: Hotel Café — Los Angeles
* Nov. 4: House of Blues — San Diego
* Nov. 6: Café du Nord — San Francisco
* Nov. 7: Lola’s Room — Portland, Ore.
* Nov. 8: Crocodile Café — Seattle