Tom Freund’s life can be summed up, oddly enough, with a few lines from a Mamas & the Papas song, “You’ve got to go where you wanna go, do what you wanna do.”
The New York native, a former Music & Art High School student, uprooted himself to Los Angeles in the early 1990s in pursuit of a music career and eventually wound up a full-fledged member of the Silos. He then moved to Austin, Texas, where later he did his tour of duty of Sixth Street saloons as a solo artist, but it quickly became apparent: He had to go home again.
“It was great to leave L.A. and be in a creative writing community like Austin,” Freund said recently. “I was living on a farm and had an old 19th century piano. But then I felt like it was still Texas, like when it came down to ‘Okay, how am I going to get this out to the world?’ I guess a little voice in me said ‘You have to go up to the big city again and get with it.’ I came up to New York, which is incredibly hard and nerve-wracking; it’s such a tense place at times. I sort of went into a slight battle mode, got a band together and did some demos and played all over town.”
Word spread within the halls of record companies that this unsigned, burgundy-voiced singer, who cites Bob Dylan, Rickie Lee Jones and Randy Newman as influences, was full of acoustic fire and raw honesty.
“I hooked up with a music lawyer here, a good friend of mine,” Freund said. “That’s how I got my music out there, through him. It serves as a two-in-one deal, you know, like if anything happens, he’d be there to do the legal work. That was exciting. It felt exciting to be in New York for that. I definitely had a nervous stomach for quite a few months, but I kept on with what I was doing and stayed true to what my music meant. I was happy to see people pick up on it.”
Red Ant signed him, and in turn, Freund and producer Marvin Etzioni (Lone Justice, Toad the Wet Sprocket) assembled an impressive group of session players behind him. His debut album, “North American Long Weekend,” was released Aug. 25 to immediate rave reviews.
“I knew a few of these guys from my time with the Silos and solo pursuits,” Freund said, “and some guys I had met briefly, like Greg Leisz (k.d. lang, Beck), the pedal steel player. Also, through Marvin, we were able to get a lot of these folks, like he knew Jerry Scheff, a bassist who’s played with the Doors and Elvis. The biggest thing that happened was a joint effort between me and Marvin to get Jimmy Smith on the record, a legendary jazz organ maestro (for the opening track, ‘Digs’). That was a coup.
“I felt it was important, in this fly-by-night, flirty, touch-the-surface time, I wanted to do something that I felt could let me go a lot of ways, instead of jumping on any bandwagons. It was really about the songs.”
Two tracks, “Great Authority” and “Lady Jane,” took on new meaning during recording sessions after a deadly incident outside Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, Calif.
“There’s a wood fence right outside our studio in L.A.,” Freund said, “and my A&R guy, Jason (Bernard), takes a photo of me against this wood fence to document the record. It was day two in the studio. We go inside and I’m playing piano and literally a minute and a half later, I hear four loud shots and we go running out and right where I was being photographed, on the other side of the fence, there was a teenager shot dead right there. The impact was obviously really tremendous. That night, we actually didn’t know if we could keep going. We called in the Wallflowers guys to help and Jerry Scheff and did these two songs; it was pretty heavy.”
Freund dedicated the album to the unknown teenager, saying in the liner notes “Our heart goes out to his family and we ask the question, ‘Why?’ to this kind of violence.”