Despite having released nearly 30 albums over his illustrious career, virtuoso guitarist Tommy Emmanuel still relies on pure originality to be able to write music that speaks to his audience. “Songwriting for me has to be inspired. I have to be in a place of being inspired to get my ideas flowing,” said Emmanuel in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes I watch a movie or feel transformed by what I’ve seen … or I may have met someone, and they may have told me a story, and it sinks into my brain in a way that I can write about it.”
His creative flow even pervades his live performances at times when he improvises while playing one of his regular songs — although it’s hard to call anything “regular” when he declines to play to a functional set list. “I write when I feel like writing, and I try to write in the moment,” Emmanuel said. “When I’m onstage playing a song, and I start improvising, I’m actually writing instantaneously … but I don’t remember it. [Laughs.] I improvise, and it’s gone.”
The 60-year-old is currently on tour showcasing his most recent work, with a string of West Coast dates bringing him to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on January 22. The past year saw him release two new albums: It’s Never Too Late and Just Passing Through (with Ian Cooper and Ian Date). The former represents a return to simplicity for Emmanuel as his first completely solo album since 2000. “I’d been wanting to do it for a long time; I just had to get all the songs together. It’s mostly all original stuff and me solo … nothing else,” he said. “When I go out to play a show, I totally represent the album.”
On certain tracks, such as the closing “Old Photographs,” listeners can discern a distinctive squeak of finger noise, an element that could be edited out with modern technology but Emmanuel chose to keep because of its inherent honesty. “[Honesty is] one of the most important things. You gotta be who you are and play from your heart and really mean it. People will feel it and believe you, so it’s important for us to project who we are and what we’re about through our music.”
In addition to his sincerity as a musician, Emmanuel has taken it upon himself to act as a mentor to the future generations of musicians. In the past year alone, he has formed his own record label called CGP Sounds, contributed instructional columns to Guitar World, and started a project with John Knowles called Young Thumbs. “I’m supporting a group we started to help and encourage young players who want to play the thumb-and-finger style … That really comes from Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Jerry Reed. There’s a lot of people, especially here in the U.S., who want to play that style, so we’ve set up a foundation for them, calling it Young Thumbs instead of Young Guns.” [Laughs.]
Emmanuel himself was a beneficiary of the tutelage of older generations of guitarists, with Hank Marvin as a mentor and Atkins serving as a major inspiration. So his contribution could be deemed a “passing of the torch” for musicians. “Chet was the man who showed us the way, a great leader in his own kind of quiet way. He showed us the things that were important, that we help each other and give on to others whatever we can.”
In his own right, Emmanuel has proved to be a model for the generations, having been honored in his home country in 2010 as a Member of the Order of Australia. And more than 50 years into his career, his devotion to his craft and open perspective set him apart from other musicians of his kind. “I try to keep everything open, open to whatever is going to come up in front of me. I can’t make interesting music any other way. I’ll stake my life on what I play.”
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Tommy Emmanuel Friday, January 22, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For tickets call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.