By Sean Tuohy
The best singer-songwriters are fearless types that wear their hearts on their sleeves and throw the rules out the window to express true emotions. Jeff Tuohy (no relation) is a standout musician that is making a name for himself by adding heartbreaking truth to each song. Tuohy bounces from poppy fun to dark depths with each changing of the track. We’re comfortable saying that Tuohy is one of the best up-and-coming singer-songwriters in North America. I got lucky enough to ask Tuohy a couple questions about songwriting, the creative mind, and how he develops his truthful lyrics.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you were going to be a musician?
Jeff Tuohy: It was apparent from the start. Allegedly, I would hum and sing gibberish in the crib. Hours were spent dancing and singing along to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Michael Jackson, ABBA, and Neil Diamond in the basement of our first home. At age three, my parents enrolled me in a Dalcroze program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The following year, I was studying cello via the Suzuki method.
ST: At what age did you start writing your own music?
JT: My mother recalls a particular instance when I was a toddler: I was in the back of our 1984 Toyota Camry Wagon improvising a song about her attending craft fairs.
In middle school, I recorded melodies with lyrics onto cassette with a player I received for my First Communion. The songs I remember were called "Shedding a Tear For You" and "It Is The Thought That Counts."
By high school, my friend Colin and I started dabbling with 8-track recorders. My first "real band," Little Rich Boys, recorded a six-song, studio album called “The Man Responsible” sophomore year.
ST: You have wonderful lyrical expression. Was this something that came naturally to you or developed over many years?
JT: Thank you. Looking back, my early, lyrical work was pretty general. Its greatest attribute was honesty. I've dived into specifics as I’ve matured: imagery, synonyms, alliteration, playing with verse, not rhyming, etc. I'm not above using a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary.
Natural talent only takes you so far. You need to take the gifts with which you are born and refine them. Inspiration is a gift. Manifesting and making it accessible is a cultivated craft. It's a constant work in process.
ST: “Bourbon Street” is such a rewarding song. What is the back-story behind it?
JT: There is a question often asked of composers as to whether they believe songs come from themselves or somewhere else. “Bourbon Street” felt like the latter. It had an immediate, blatant attitude and was the boldest move I had made following my instincts.
I debated releasing it because its style was such a contrast from the rest of my catalogue. Oddly enough, it’s the direction in which my new music is going. It complements my theater background, influences, and overall demeanor as a performer.
ST: What is your writing process for a song? Do you start with a beat or the lyrics?
JT: The concept typically comes as a package—melody, rhythm, and words.
The initial lyrics provide a way to retain the idea, but frequently indicate the direction of the composition's story. Then the distillation begins. Melody is of the upmost importance to me. There’s an epidemic of its non-existence in mainstream music.
After that, it's free play. Discipline has been a weakness. I've read stories about songsmiths like Leonard Cohen waking-up at 6:00 a.m., showering, dressing in a suit, brewing a cup of coffee, and going to it as a day job. That would send me off my rocker. I'm a token extrovert. Solitude sends me climbing the walls. However, it is such an integral part of the creative process. I have to work myself up to sitting down and “diving in,” which is strange because as soon as I do, it’s fruitful.
ST: What are the most difficult moments of being an artist? At the same time, what are the most rewarding moments?
JT: The business aspect used to be the hardest part. Creators have a burning desire to share their talent and there are people who take advantage of that. They will offer "exposure" or let you know how many people are out there doing the same thing. Don't put up with that bullshit. Educate yourself about the business. Don't assist in perpetuating opportunists—if it’s not a mutually beneficial relationship and sharing in the risk-reward cycle, then it’s not worth it.
The best part is connection: relating to others and providing a fulfilling experience. True communication.
ST: As an artist what changes have you gone through since your first album, “Breaking Down The Silence,” and do you think they reflect on your second album “Cocoon?”
JT: I just finished Iron John by Robert Bly. It’s a brilliant book. There’s an excerpt discussing how young artists have a habit of “showing their gold too early.” “Breaking Down The Silence” had some of that going on—the notion that everything I produced was worth sharing. Some things are best kept under wraps.
With “Cocoon,” I held myself to a higher standard: considering if what I was “saying” was worth audiences hearing. Inherently, new experiences begin to stimulate your work and psyche, which hopefully makes for more interesting content. I think that happened on “Cocoon.”
These days, I’m striving to go a step further: developing a distinctive sound. Miles Davis said, “Man, sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself.” For me, this is true. It’s tempting to emulate composers and performers whom you admire. Finding your own voice takes diligence and courage.
I plan to continue writing in various genres. I don’t like discarding ideas that have potential. That having been said, I’m aspiring to be more selective with what I present in performance.
ST: Given the chance, which singer-songwriter would you love to work with?
JT: Danny Elfman would be a solid choice given my current direction. Tom Petty is someone for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect. I could learn a lot from him.
Producer-wise: Questlove or Mark Ronson. Their beats and organic production technique put modern spins on classic, vintage vibes.
ST: What advice would you give to up and coming singer/songwriters?
JT: Talent is half the battle. Perseverance and work ethic are equally important artistically and economically. If you’re in it for accolades and money, pick something else. Do it because you love it and are moved to create. Then, go out and share it with the world.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
JT: I’m a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, member of Actors’ Equity, and have loved the distant smell of gasoline since childhood.