How Southern went east to make it big
Feeling rejected by Belfast, Thom left for London in search of his big break. Now about to release an EP with his sister Lucy, the singer talks to Chris Jones about why it's proved such a good move
I always knew that I had something," says Thom Southern. "I always felt I could climb the ladder and get to the top."
Southern is a young man on a mission – an intense, focused individual whose every word drips with confidence and single-mindedness. While exciting young bands like Go Wolf, Girls Names and Little Bear are currently proving that you don't have to leave Northern Ireland to get noticed, Southern is a reminder that some of our young musicians still feel the need to go elsewhere to make it. So far, it's paying off for him.
Aged just 22, the singer and guitarist has gone from teenage busker to full-time, signed musician in just a few short years. At 16, he was singing on the streets of Belfast. Then he paid his dues on the pub gig circuit before moving to London with a week's worth of clothes, Dick Whittington-style, and never coming back. When we speak he's at a rehearsal studio in Liverpool, where he and sister Lucy (the other half of Southern, the band that takes their family name) are now settled with a backing band, management, label and press team in place, not to mention a new EP produced by Scouse indie legend Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds.
Southern credits his and Lucy's family, and particularly their mum, for lighting their musical fire. "We were brought up on Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Beatles," he says. "Our mum was very prominent in pushing us to have music in our lives. She was the one who told me to go out and busk, even though it was the most nerve-wracking thing I could think of to do in Belfast. She would stand on the other side of the street for hours while I busked, and then take me home."
That led directly to his first big break, the title of Belfast Busker of the Year, which he won shortly after his 17th birthday. The prize was a slot at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, where he performed alongside Raul Malo from The Mavericks. From there, things began to take off – Radio Ulster veterans Gerry Anderson and Ralph McLean took a shine to the teenager, regularly featuring him on their shows.
He played gigs in Paris and was flown to Los Angeles to record music for a software company. But his home town proved a harder nut to crack, to the point where he decided he had no choice but to leave for London.
"We played a lot of cool shows in Belfast, but we were never really part of the circuit," he says. "We always associated ourselves outside of Belfast because we had connections to Los Angeles and Paris. We always saw the bigger picture – we always thought international."
Speaking to him at length, it's clear that Thom still feels stung by a sense of exclusion that dates back to his and Lucy's time in Belfast, trying to make it in a scene that he feels never truly welcomed them. "I felt we were rejected a bit," he says. "We weren't friends with any of the bands. There are about eight different groups of friends that come together as one – they all post about each other's bands and they all wear each other's T-shirts. And the radio, papers and magazines focused on them too much."
He refuses to be drawn on specifics, other than to say he's referring to the city's indie and folk scenes. "It's not until the last two years that people have started to focus on artists that aren't part of those scenes," he says. "It's a lot better now from what I've seen, but that's why we were pushed to get to London, to get out of it. It was always a natural thing inside our heads that we needed to get out of Belfast. You can't just stay there – you're not going to make it from Belfast. That's not how Snow Patrol did it. It's sad to say, but you need to get out and go to London – that's where the record labels are, that's where the managers are going to see you."
And see them they did. At the beginning of summer 2012, Thom and Lucy decided to launch their single in London, despite still living in Belfast, and invited some press contacts along to the gig. "We brought a big crowd and got bands from London to come and support us," he says. "We knew we needed to do stuff like that. Labels came to that gig and we got such a buzz off it that I never went back to Belfast. I'd only brought clothes for a week. I just called my mum and said, 'I'm not coming back' and that was it."
After a successful year in London, Thom and Lucy moved to Liverpool to be closer to their management and because it was cheaper to live. They are now fully established as Southern – a band – with Lucy's vocals an important part of the mix. Thom recalls how she liked to harmonise with his songs at home while she did her homework. "We've always been really close, growing up," says Thom. "Last year we had to sofa-surf and live separately sometimes while we were trying to do the clichéd thing of get a team around us and 'break' London. There was a lot of pressure on us, struggling for money and getting by, but we always find a way to not let the fact that we know each other so well interfere with the band.
"We try to be professional and we've developed a way of keeping that separate. We're colleagues when we're in the studio, not brother and sister. It's nice, we both really like working together. We know how each other thinks and we're very similar. We listen to the same music and share all the same friends. But of course we do fight sometimes!"
The brother/sister combination, Thom and Lucy's striking looks and their blend of blues grit and pop nous have earned them comparisons to The White Stripes. True enough, Thom cites Jack White as an inspiration, while he also enthuses about Rory Gallagher and Jimmy Page and gets particularly animated when talking about The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street. However, he is keen to emphasise his own approach. "I try to mix different styles of guitar together, but with pop," he says. "I try to make blues modern, so it's not just loud, clichéd 12-bar blues like everybody used to do back in the day. It's more structured – pop songs layered on top of a really gritty blues guitar."
An album is planned for next year, with another big-name producer about whom Thom is staying tight-lipped. And, as he heads back into the rehearsal studio to prepare for the upcoming tour, he has this advice for any young Belfast musicians tempted to follow in his footsteps and try to 'make it' in the big smoke: "If you're willing to work on your songs and meet other good songwriters and develop your craft, I think London is a great place to be," he says. "Just go for it."
Oh brother ... fancy being in a band?
- The Undertones – the guitar-playing O'Neills have been at the heart of The Undertones since 1976, give or take a 16-year break. John and Damian liked playing together so much, they both featured in That Petrol Emotion too. Interesting fact: Damian was initially a replacement for a third brother, Vincent
- The Wonder Villains – the dayglo popsters have a tightly Coyled rhythm section – Eimear on vocals and bass and big brother Kieran on drums
- Mama's Boys – formed by Pat, John and Tommy McManus in Derrylin, Mama's Boys' celtic-tinged metal saw them support Thin Lizzy, Horslips and The Scorpions, and break the Billboard 100 in the States. Bet Mama McManus was proud
- General Fiasco – Bellaghy brothers Owen and Enda Strathern formed General Fiasco with school friend Stephen Leacock. Their star shone brightly among the new breed of Northern Ireland indie bands. Sadly, for fans of youthful power-pop, they've been on 'indefinite hiatus' (that old chestnut) since January this year
- LaFaro – the Belfast riff-rockers weathered the departure of bassist Anna Fitzsimmons by bringing in not one, but two Magees – Herb on bass and twin brother Dave on lead guitarNew horizons: brother and sister Thom and Lucy now work and live in Liverpool
Southern play McHugh's, Belfast, on Tuesday, December 3. For details, visit www.shine.net. The Southern EP will be out on December 9