Thomas Dolby :: making music again (and on tour)
Innovative, thought-provoking and musically diverse in an enticing way, "A Map of the Floating City" marks the return of Thomas Dolby's talent for making music. It's been 19 years since his last CD and he embraced this opportunity to create new material... with open arms. The album is broken up into three parts and blends seamlessly together while Dolby explores his imagination and his life journey so far.
The 53-year old father of three, Dolby took his "science" hat into the arena of cell phone software over the past decade. His technology under the moniker of "Beatnik" is now utilized in two-thirds of the world's cell phones manufactured by Nokia. His polyphonic ringtone synthesizer software is now a hit! Now, that's truly "blinding me with science," don't you agree?
Here, Dolby elaborates on the songwriting for "A Map of the Floating City," shares a bit of tour news [and his own personal time capsule] and gets to the heart of what family means to him. He surely is a unique musical artist who shows that music will always be his first love.
EDGE: First off, I wanted to ask you about your decision to categorize "A Map of the Floating City" into three different parts. Was this intentional from the beginning of the process?
Thomas Dolby When I first started writing songs for the new album, I became aware that they were grouping themselves into three distinct categories. I think I’m very strongly influenced by the environment where I am. The group of songs under the "Urbanoia" section is really about cities. I have a love-hate relationship with them. Then, "Amerikana" was a fond look back to the 23 years that I lived in California. The last group "Oceanea" is really about returning to England... which is my homeland, and all the emotions that brought up in me.
EDGE: The first song "Nothing New Under the Sun" comes off as a bit cynical or frustrated, perhaps?
Thomas Dolby I think it basically means the opposite of what it says. When you’re a writer and you experience writer’s block, it’s the frustration that goes along with the creative process. It feels at moments like there is nothing new under the sun. Then suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, music is in love with you. So, it can turn on a sixpence. Although that’s the title of the song, the message is quite the opposite. Which I think goes on to prove with the subsequent songs on the album.
Working with David Byrne
EDGE: I read that you wanted to duet with David Byrne on this. I can definitely hear his influence in the song, "Spice Train."
Thomas Dolby Yeah, I had a groove and I had worked with David Byrne a couple of years ago. We became friends. So, I had a groove which I played him. He left a hilarious voice mail on my number. He was improvising a vocal melody of the song with the groove.
Unfortunately, it never came together for us to sit down and write the song together. But, I had him in mind when I finished that song myself.
EDGE: It’s really, really well-done. Please describe what it felt like to return to making music again.
Thomas Dolby It’s been delightful coming back to music. It’s my first love and I never expected to spend 19 years away from it. When I went to Silicon Valley, one thing lead to another and my company was unexpectedly successful... so yeah, it’s been really a joy to come back to music.
EDGE: Yeah... your "Beatnik" software for Nokia cell phones. It’s not like the record business I imagine...
Thomas Dolby Yeah, all things work a bit differently in the technology world. Though, eventually in the music business, it’s not quite as cut and dry as you might think either. Part of what sent the music business down the tubes really was the way the business was structured was just unnecessarily complicated. I wouldn’t say corrupt but just very wasteful.
Time capsule on wheels?
EDGE: Now, on your current tour, you have a time capsule on wheels, which is parked in front of each venue. That is so unique. How has the response been for that?
Thomas Dolby It’s been going great. We’ve recorded several hundred clips now. We started to edit them and put them up on my YouTube channel. People have responded very well to it and it’s a fantastic attention-grabber, as you can imagine... when we roll around the country with it. People are quite stimulated by the concept behind it.
EDGE: So, do you always ask people who do the 30-second clip inside the time capsule the same question, "If you had 30 seconds to explain to an alien visitor what went wrong with our civilization, what would you say?"
Thomas Dolby Well... it can be that, if you’re pessimistic about our chances of survival of our species, then leave a message to the future visitors of our planet. If you’re optimistic and you think we’ll still be here in a hundred or a thousand years, you could leave it as a message to your great grandchildren. What is something you’d like them to know about you?
EDGE: Nice. I can’t wait to check it out. You also have a new song called "Road to Reno." The lyrics on that are really clever and ultimately a bit sad. How did that song come to be written?
Thomas Dolby It’s a road movie; I guess I sort of wrote it through like the script to a "road" movie. It certainly has a dark side. I’ve only been to Reno once or twice. I don’t think I’ve ever driven there. I tend very much to write things from my imagination.
Dreaming of Billie Holiday
EDGE: My favorite selection off "A Map of the Floating World" is the song, "Love is a Loaded Pistol." Please share the back story on this song and your vision to write it.
Thomas Dolby All right. I do a lot of my composing on my solar-powered lifeboat in my studio; it’s in my garden at my beach house in the east of England. When there is not enough sun or wind for me to work, I get in my hammock and have a nap. I have very strange dreams and one of them was this dream about Billie Holiday. In the dream, she wanted to give me a line of lyrics for a song. Unfortunately, the line was a bit cliché, really (laughter). I felt torn. I didn’t want to dish the great Billie Holiday. So, I wrote a song that included her line of lyrics in it and that’s how it came about.
EDGE: Finally, there is another beautiful song called "Simone" and this one has a personal connection for you. Please tell me about that.
Thomas Dolby Yeah. What you’re referring to... is I have three kids. One of whom is transgender. The oldest one, Harper is a biological female and has been living as a guy for the last three or four years. Harper actually came out to his mother and me... after I’d written the song. I suppose I may have been subconsciously aware that there was something going on. Harper is much, much happier now as a guy and it’s a really good outcome to the story.
Out of my three kids, Harper is transgender and my second oldest, Talia is gay. Talia is now at a university and she’s a very powerful activist for LGBT rights. So, we’re quite a "rainbow" family with one thing or another. My wife and I give the kids a lot of support. It’s been quite an experience as a parent to go through all that. But, everybody is happy and I think life is good.
EDGE: I’m glad. It sounds like you’re a good parent.
Thomas Dolby Yeah, it’s amazing... the kids these days are a lot more blasé about your orientation, your self-identity then maybe our generation was.. so, it’s like somebody changed their settings on their Facebook page... what’s the big deal?
EDGE: Thank you Thomas... and continued enjoyment on your tour. I’m looking forward to catching your show at Anthology Nightclub in San Diego.
Thomas Dolby Very nice talking to you.
Remaining dates on Thomas Dolby "Time Capsule Tour" are: Tues., April 10 VANCOUVER, BC Rio Theatre; Wed., April 11 SEATTLE, WA Showbox at the Market; Fri., April 13 SAN FRANCISCO, CA Red Devil Lounge; Sat., April 14 SACRAMENTO, CA Harlows; Mon., April 16 SAN DIEGO, CA Anthology; Tues., April 17 LOS ANGELES, CA Largo.
For more on Thomas Dolby, visit his website.