At only 20 years old and with the music industry at his feet in praise, New Zealand alt-pop prodigy Thomston is already ahead of the game. When most of his peers are still struggling through the awkward transition from teenager to young adult, Thomston – aka Thomas Stone – has just released his debut album Topography following a string of successful EPs.
Drawing comparisons to the likes of Frank Ocean and Sohn and grabbing the attention of music industry and critics around the world with his early releases when he was only fresh out of high school, you’d expect him to be a bit full of himself. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Down to earth and disconcertingly self-aware for someone so young, Stoneman is an artist dedicated to the craft and not distracted by the fame and adulation he’s enjoying. Which is good because with the album being red hot, he’s sure to only rise higher.
Speaking over the phone from New Zealand, we chatted about what inspired the album, how getting out of New Zealand and traveling helped him develop as a person and an artist and how he deals with being compared to his idols.
Music Feeds: You wrote the album over two years, some of it while you were traveling, can you tell us about that?
Thomas Stoneman: The first song that I wrote for the record was the final track Expiry Date, which I wrote that on the day that I released my first EP in 2014. I get really stressed out when I release stuff and my management knew that was going to happen so they booked me a studio and just said “turn off the wifi, keep your head down and just write something”. So I wrote Expiry Date and I thought “this is a statement and this is how I want to end my album”, and it all went from there and I ended up traveling around the world writing with lots of different people and sort of figuring out who I was.
MF: Do you think getting out into the world like that was important for you to develop as an artist?
TS: Definitely, I learned a lot about myself. I don’t know what the record would sound like if I hadn’t traveled. It put me in a lot of environments where I wasn’t in familiar territory, I didn’t have my support network around me like I do back here in New Zealand, and it brought some confronting things in my life to the forefront which meant I kind of had to write about them to deal with them.
MF: Can you tell us a bit more about that?
TS: The album is a very personal thing, and if you listen to it, you can tell. There are lots of sad things. But that’s at odds with my usual disposition. I’m usually a very happy person or very effervescent one would say. I feel like it’s when I’m away from home and away from my friends that these things that may affect me when I’m back in New Zealand I kind of push through them. So it’s when I’m away that they consume me in a sense. So there is a lot on the record about heartbreak and guilt and just weirdly navigating teenage love.
MF: There is a loneliness to traveling that can bring out a really introspective mood.
TS: Exactly, I think it’s a combination of that and writing with a new person every day. You know working with all these strangers in countries that you’ve never visited before is the perfect recipe for introspection.
MF: You’ve said the album is a map and each song is tied to a physical place. Was there any one place that stood out to you in particular?
TS: There is a track called Heart Is Cement on the record and the first verse is just me kind of describing the place. It’s this place out west of my house that’s by the coast in this place called Mercer Bay and it’s just the location of a particularly heavy moment in my life and I painted it in really vivid detail. I made a little trailer for the album and I shot some stuff there so people could see what it looks like, but that place is a place that I often go to clear my head and having a song that’s really special to me tied to that place was cool for me. I wrote a bunch of it there as well.
MF: The album was written over two years but there is a real consistency and cohesion to it, was that a happy accident or something you were mindful of when you were working on it?
TS: It was definitely a very mindful thing. I wrote with all these people but because I wasn’t really ready to write in that kind of environment – I think I’m a lot more comfortable with collaboration now – but at the time it was all very new to me so I ended up not using a lot of the songs that I wrote on that trip. And the ones that I did use I brought back to New Zealand and work-shopped them with my producer and co-writer Josh Fountain. Also, all of the songs were driven by me, and I never took the back seat in terms of production or writing lyrics or melody. So the consistency and cohesiveness was definitely the end goal of the record.
MF: Speaking of collaboration, one of the highlights on the album is Window Seat your collaboration with Wafia. What was that process like for you as someone who was unfamiliar with collaboration?
TS: It was definitely a really easy learning curve because I realised if I’m sitting at the desk, I’m much more comfortable letting someone contribute lyrically and melodically. And because Wafia was so good, and so in line with what I had in mind for the song, it just happened really easily and really naturally. So it was a pretty painless collaboration and I think it had a beautiful result. Plus after a month of traveling around and writing with people who I’d never met or worked with before and not being ready for that, fast forwarding eight months into the future, I realised I’d just reached such a different place and was able to co-write, which was quite a moment for me. It’s was like “hey, this is fun.”
MF: It must be very exciting for you to be able to look back on how far you’ve come and how much things have changed for you in the past two years.
TS: It really is. I was actually listening back to some early demos the other night because I’m already in album two mode now, and I’ve just grown so much as a writer and even as a vocalist. I listen to some of my early takes from back in 2014 and I’m like goodness gracious, what was I thinking. So I’m really proud, and I think the record is definitely the highlight of my life over the past two years in terms of my musical output, but I’m really excited about what comes next because I’m developing really quickly I think and it’s very exciting to me.
MF: Well you don’t seem to be slowing down at all either, already hard at work on the next album as soon as the last one was released. Are you that friend that puts everyone else to shame with their work ethic?
TS: I’m that friend that put no effort in, in high school and just scraped by and did well and then as soon as I got out of high school I realised what I really wanted to do and put all that effort I didn’t put into high school into this. I’ve been storing up my effort credits.
MF: People have certainly taken notice of that effort. You’ve got critic and fan attention on a global scale and have been compared to the likes of Frank Ocean and SOHN. How does that feel to be compared to artists like that? Have they influenced you at all?
TS: I listened to Frank Ocean pretty much the entire day today. I think he is incredible. I have no words to describe my love for Frank Ocean. And SOHN I also think is just immensely talented and I love his production. But I did struggle at the beginning of my career, when people were making these comparisons, to separate people’s opinion of me from my opinion of myself, and how comfortable I was with my ability as a writer. So I would hear someone compare me to an artist that felt different or felt unattainable or even who I felt influenced by and I would say things like ”that’s not fair” or “am I really that transparent” and things like that.
It kind of really gets to you. But once you figure out who you are and who your influences are and you figure out a way to use them in a way that you don’t just feel like you’re being derivative, like you’re letting them inspire creativity in you instead of just copying them, suddenly the comparisons won’t irk you. People can compare you to artists you hate. People can compare you to artists you love and you just kind of feel the same gratitude for people wanting to put you next to someone to put you in context and maybe let someone who hasn’t heard your stuff get a grip on who you are. And I appreciate that.
MF: It goes back to that quote from Picasso that “good artists borrow, great artists steal”.
TS: That’s totally it. When you borrow something it kind of has that premise of giving it back once you’re done with it. Actually, and this might be going on a bit of tangent but there is this thing called the Helsinki Bus Theory and it was invented by a photographer from Finland who basically had this idea that originality is a destination and that you must go through being compared to people and being derivative in order to get there. Like that’s all part of the journey to creativity.
He likened it to the Helsinki bus system which in the centre of the city has a lot of nearly identical routes that as they get further and further out into the city they diverge and split off. So the idea then is that you stay on the bus. Even if it’s someone else’s bus, you’ll eventually get to your own bus, but if you jump ship or get off at one of the early stops or one of the first sites of comparison, you are only getting back to square one and you have to get on a different bus. So there is no way to shortcut directly to originality and I firmly believe that originality is never a fluke, it’s always a destination you have to go on a journey to arrive at.
MF: Although that’s not always the way that creativity is presented in society, where we like to hold these people up as crazy geniuses.
TS: Yeah, people like to hide the process and only show you the end result and I think that makes it easier to sell it. You can’t really doubt something when you aren’t showing any growth or improvement. Like when I found Frank Ocean’s early demos, when he was writing for people when he first moved to LA, that humanised him so much to me, and he felt so unattainable before. He felt like he was this otherworldly being but now I know that he had to go through what everyone has to go through in order to reach his level of creativity.
And that to me is something that I am really conscious of and of letting people into my process and not hiding it and not being ashamed of being derivative in the initial stages because if it means some other kid who is making music and getting compared to other people, if it means they’re not going to get discouraged, if it means they’re going to be like “oh, Thomston sounded like that at the beginning and now he sounds like this, maybe I can do that to” that’s just the best result that I can hope for.
Thomston’s debut album ‘Topography’ is out now on Sony Music Australia.