When Jon Gomm’s parents split up their record collection broke up too. He had to decide blues or... Sting.
It could have all gone horribly wrong for the guitar virtuoso were it not for young Jon’s singular strength of mind in steering his path through the polar opposites of his parents’ taste (and otherwise) in music.
His dad, journalist Jeremy, was of sterner stuff, reviewed live blues and other gigs in Blackpool for his Gazette column Blues Corner.
Jon got the pick of the vinyl and CDs that came in for review and joined his dad regularly to see and hear musicians and bands in action – as well as chat to them when they slept over at his father’s place, cash being too thin on the ground to foot a hotel overnighter bill.
Back at the home of his mum, journalist Elizabeth, former Gazette women’s editor, now Children of Watamu charity cooordinator, the musical pickings were not so rich.
Which makes one particular song Jon plays and sings resonate emotionally for him.
Message in a Bottle. Originally by the Police. The one song in his mum’s record collection that he actually liked and played relentlessly.
“A darkly isolationist anthem of despair,” he muses, tongue firmly in cheek. “And now look at me...”
Indeed. Acoustic singer-songwriter Jon Gomm is the musician of whom Stephen Fry’s one word tweet “wow!” racked up his youtube views to top more than two million.
There’s little of Message in a Bottle in Passionflower, the piece which provoked the reaction. Little of the blues beloved by his dad either. It is entirely his own work and to see him perform it really is – wow.
We have the chance to enjoy just that next month – when Jon plays the first UK gig of his autumn tour right here in his home resort of Blackpool.
“It’s great that it’s Blackpool,” admits the one man musical wonder whose guitar virtuouso skills have made him internationally acclaimed.
“It’s my first gig in Britain for eight months and I just couldn’t turn it down. Especially with Robin Ross behind it.”
Jon’s in the midst of a 10-date tour of China right now and plays The Theatre Bar at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, on Saturday, June 8.
It’s a one-off curtain raiser for the following weekend’s Sand Sea and Spray festival organised by former DJ now experimental artist Robin who co-owns the Old Rock Factory on Deansgate (behind Brightouse)on Abingdon Street, Blackpool, a new space for arty talent and base of Robin’s screen print business.
The festival features 43 Artists at locations across Blackpool with a live stage featuring street dance and fashion and returns to the resort from Friday June 14 to Sunday June 16.
When Fry, followed by almost four million, posted the link to Jon’s single Passionflower, it clocked up 2.5m views and another million plus on the Chinese equivalent of youtube. At the last count it stood at four million views.
TV and tour invites followed and his CDs found their way into mainstream markets.
Jon already had a cult following for his highly distinctive style which not only involves retuning his acoustic guitar while playing but hitting it for percussive effect, replicating bass drum, bongo, snare drum.
Not bad for a string instrument. Fans include elder stateman of acoustic guitar 60s guitarist David Crosby from Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Given the media coverage Jon could have pretty much named his price and picked and packed far bigger venues.
But he admits his style –and temperament – isn’t suited to bigger venues.
Take his current tour. Last week he played Beijing University’s 100 Years Honours Hall before moving on across China – Ji Jan, Shanghai. Su Zhou, Wu Xi, Hang Zhou and more.
After next month’s gig in Blackpool he’s off to South Africa to play Johannesburg and Capetown and then play Guitar Bootcamp in the Nockberge National Park, Austria, in July. He returns to the UK in September with gigs in Liverpool and Manchester, Preston in October, and then heads to Poland mid-October before touring Canada in November, and America in January.
It’s a far cry from the working men’s clubs, hotels and bars, he played in Blackpool as a teenager or while working his way through college, when he played anythinjg from rock to country music to jazz.
He averages more than 200 gigs a year and is still fairly picky where he plays.
“I get into places I could only dream of back then, Winter Gardens, the Grand. My hope is that 10 years from now I will have played every beautiful room in the UK. I’m working my way through them around the world. My favourite is Union Chapel in London – a beautiful church which seats around 1,000 people.
“Even though it’s fairly big it feels very intimate, you could hear a pin drop there, so the atmosphere was electric.
“I’ve played the Old Museum in Brisbane, a crazy place; The Basement, Sydney, which is such an iconic venue. James Morrison played the night before me. It was a good fit for us both.”
He feels at home in smaller settings – or in the open air. “I played Stanley Park and that was fantastic because it felt vast.
“That was the biggest thing I have done in Blackpool in terms of the biggest audience. There were loads of people there.
“You worry in case no one turns up but we had a great turn out.
“The Friends of Stanley Park were letting people use it. They are volunteers who do so much to keep the park vibrant.”
Jon and partner Natasha live in Leeds where he studied a jazz degree course ahead of his solo career taking off.
He started playing ukelele at two years old “the only instrument small enough for me to handle then.”
He was playing classical guitar as a teenager and picking up riffs and tips from some of the finest acoustic guitarists to put the blues into Blackpool.
“Dad used to write a column called Blues Corner and review gigs and CDs for The Gazette, and there was always something going on, or someone staying over with him, and I would often help out, especially with the CD or gig reviewing.
“Musicians used to stay over at my dad’s house so I was hanging out with musicians all the time, and those who were really quite well known in blues circles, big names in America who had hardly played in the UK and came here for the love of it
“A lot of people don’t think of Blackpool as having a musical heritage in that way.
“You hear about Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull or the one from the Pet Shop Boys who doesn’t sing but there’s an acceptance the culture is cabaret, end of the pier, when the musical heritage goes much further.
“There’s still lots of good stuff going on, open mic sessions and the like.”
He still loves pop – a legacy of his mum’s record collection – and has also covered (as well as Message In a Bottle) Chaka Khan’s dance floor classic from 1982 Ain’t Nobody.
“When I was a kid, I played gigs in pubs in Blackpool, and often my audience was mostly elderly ladies spending their pension money on Bacardi!
“They would tolerate my original songs and blues covers for only so long, and eventually a representative would be sent over to remonstrate with me.
“’Excuse me young man, please can you play something we can dance to?’
“So this is my emergency disco song. Every musician needs an emergency disco song.”
And he’s happy to continue doing what he’s doing – playing the music he loves to people who really appreciate it (and giving other guitarists master classes along the way).
“It never suited me to play bigger venues. You have to stop doing the music you love and change lots of things and it wouldn’t suit me.
I’m good at standing up for myself if I have to, but I’ve seen what’s happened to friends who fell in with record companies and fell out with them after they did awful things.
“I don’t want someone choosing my path for me, telling me where to work, what to play, how to sing.
“I’ve made a moral decision to play my music my way to my sort of audiences.
“The way the industry is run dictates the length of popularity – and it’s short.
“I can survive much better as an independent, in control of my own destiny.
“And something marvellous like China comes along...
“When you’re doing 11 gigs around a country in just a few weeks by plane, train and auto, it’s easy to get jaded.
“But China, that’s something else, and South Africa will be much the same.
“All that heritage. I don’t change my set for a different country but I try to find something relevant.
“For China I’ve added some stuff about an uprising, international news at the time, when a small town rose up in peaceful protest against the Government because their ancient families’ traditionally owned farms were being taken.
“I’m not sure how that will fit with Party members...
“Most people want to experience who I am, where I’m from and are there to see and hear me.
“And that’s the best feeling any performer could have. The feeling of truly being wanted.”