Lyrics Inspired by Loss and Triumph

Tom Andersen’s new CD is a testament to his mature story-telling prowess

As a performer, Andersen has an easy style, abundant wit, and wonderful voice that enliven his songs. As a songwriter, he is a superlative storyteller, looking for the kernels of human truth in the tales he recounts, and, like the best storytellers, Andersen excels at the seemingly dichotomous feat of being at once present and in the background, allowing listeners to have their own experience and responses to songs.

“Who Knows?” is Andersen’s third album and perhaps his most thoughtful, as well as being richly entertaining. As in earlier albums “Far Away Places” and “The Journey,” Andersen fluidly mixes rock, pop, jazz, show tunes, and country. There are few performers willing to risk such an eclectic mix, but for Andersen it’s about what “I like to sing, the things that resonated with me.” He acknowledges that this makes it difficult to pigeonhole him, which is what the mainstream music business wants, but which he feels is at odds with his growth as a creative artist.

What comes through in a conversation with Andersen is exactly what comes through in his new album—a relaxed, confident man who has yet to lose his boyish sense of fun and wonder with the world. It’s a quality that in this age of increasingly jaded and “edgy” entertainment is particularly refreshing.

Talking about the title track, Andersen said he had originally thought that it would be more of a novelty number, like the bubble-gummy “Words” on “The Journey.” In recording the song, he did several versions, and when it came time to master the recording, he said the current version came up first and he thought, “That doesn’t sound too bad.” So that’s what went in, and it became the title of the album because, as Mr. Andersen says, he never has any idea of how people are going to respond to his music.

“It’s not my business to know,” he said.

The resulting song is light without being superficial and embodies the message that much in life is out of one’s control, and if we can accept that, we pave the way to greater happiness and more peace of mind. The first verse ends with the wry, but heartfelt lyric, “This beautiful mess called life is a guess. /So have fun, don’t obsess./ ‘Cause who knows?”

Within the context of the entire album, the song becomes even more poignant because the ballads—“Ghost in This House,” about a relationship that has ended, and “Another Tuesday,” a piece about an adoptive child finding his birth mother—are counterpoised against the more whimsical songs, including a 1920s-like rendition of “A Lovely Night” by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The result is an overall emotional journey that is rich and honest, without being maudlin, lightened by the ability to laugh at one’s foibles.

That amounts to emotional maturity.

I asked Andersen how he managed to make so approachable these complex themes.

“I’ve learned you just have to surrender,” he replied. “In part, I look at it in the context of the impact of AIDS and the onslaught of it was so big and so dark for so long. Finally, there’s a little bit of buoyancy, a little bit of hope where there was none. And you don’t know how to react to this. You don’t know, and you have to slowly figure it out.”

This process, immortalized in his song “Yard Sale” about a man in San Francisco––where Andersen lived from 1979 through 1981 and was, among other things, a star of “Beach Blanket Babylon”––who stumbles onto a yard sale for a man afflicted by AIDS and comes face-to-face for the first time with the disease. These experiences and others have shaped the songwriter’s outlook, which is both artistically and personally very much about the process of discovery, which is one reason he says, speaking of his CDs, “I’m sorry we don’t call them ‘records’ any more. An album really is a record of a specific time and who I was working with and what was going on.”

It is his willingness to be present for life’s challenges that shows up in his songs and has earned Andersen a global following. He credits that to the Internet, saying that he has a large number of fans in Australia, a nation where he’s never performed, yet people eagerly buy his albums and pepper him with e-mails asking him to come Down Under.

Now that the new album is out and selling, Andersen is looking to the future, and he’s talking a lot about musical standards.

“I want to wrap my brains and my vocal chords around some of them,” he said. “They’ve been a big part of my life, and I want to see where that goes. I’ve been writing songs, and it takes a lot to do that. With standards, I can really focus on being a singer.”

For his loyal audiences around the world, as long as he keeps singing and exploring, one thing is for certain: we’ll be eagerly looking forward to whatever Andersen does next.

“Who Knows,” “The Journey,” and “Faraway Places” are available through amazon.com and footlight.com. Find out more about Mr. Andersen at tomandersen.com

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