Are We Still In Orbit? Tom Freund Reflects On ‘The Year I Spent In Space’

[Cover photo credit to Natalie Ford]

Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Tom Freund released his album The Year I Spent in Space last autumn taking a relatively early look at some of his experiences of isolation during the pandemic, but also bringing some other songs with similar feelings into the album’s orbit, particularly those that spoke to the times, like a new rendition of “Fallen Angel” and a cover of Graham Parker’s insightful “Disney’s America.”

The album was co-Produced by both Freund and Sejo Navajas (Vintage Trouble, Weezer) with Freund working mostly from a home studio where he continued to turn to music to process a great deal of upheaval. Though the theme of the album is distance, Freund drew on his deep well of musical friendships to bring scope to the collection.

I spoke with Tom Freund about the “then and now” situation of looking back at the early days of the pandemic and the time in which he worked on this album. Are we really living in a different world today or have things achieved normality? Freund has some observations to share now that we are out of our space suits.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that to some extent the title and idea of The Year I Spent In Space was inspired by the early part of the pandemic. To what extent do you think this is still the world you’re living in, or is it a record of a distinct time for you?

Tom Freund: The music business is certainly still strange and tough. It came back spasmodically. We were trying to come back and do our thing, but everyone was out doing things at the same time, so it was a little rough and gnarly. Of course, there are still health concerns. I’m playing soon at McCabe’s in LA, and they are still saying it’s a masked up event. I’m cool with that, it’s just interesting to see. Everything got different, let’s put it that way. Even if the virus is not what it was, humanity are still pretty weird. Everything got more expensive and the music business didn’t get more affluent. We don’t get more from a stream on Spotify now. That’s tricky.

HMS: A lot of that squares up with my observation of going to events and seeing how musicians are doing. It’s the aftermath. We’re still not where we were, economically, before this.

TF: I feel that. There’s a recovery of that business-wise, and also in peoples’ social skills. People still want other people to stay the fuck away from them because they had to do that for two years in a row. We kind of knew that it would be the roaring 20s when things came back,  but it’s not all fun and goofy. It’s weird.

HMS: There are some things in human beings that surge back and can’t be constrained, and sometimes that’s good. We need life energy to rebuild and come back. And a couple of your songs on this album reminded me of that. It’s a hopeful album anyway.

TF: Yes, even if I go deep, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. I’m a believer in that. I never just go down the drain. There are also a couple of love songs that show some longing, wondering, “Where did everyone go?”

HMS: Do you think there are any positive things to take away from such a harsh experience of being that alone and that isolated, as you were during the early pandemic? How do you see that?

TF: I think that’s always true because I’m a firm believer that if you know yourself, and are comfortable with yourself, you’re going to be your best with anyone else. I do believe all that. Obviously, during a time like that, I didn’t mind going deep into composing. Basically, my place is a studio with two small bedrooms, so I was doing a lot of recording for other people. I was also doing a weekly podcast which people have really commented on, which was sweet. They feel I helped them get through that time, which was good to hear. There was a little bit of “Why would this happen now when I happen to be not with my daughter and not with a partner?” It was “batten down the hatches.”

HMS: I imagine it has a more apocalyptic feeling to be by yourself when all that strange news was breaking.

TF: Absolutely, and that’s where I got the title and the idea for the album. I had my computer and I felt like I was floating around the earth. It was all screen and text.

HMS: What we’re talking about is all organic. It’s about what human beings are useful and what humans can endure. Did you come out of this with any resolutions, like one might come up with New Year’s resolutions?

TF: One of the big things that came out of it was deciding who my real friends were. Who are my peeps? That was a part of it. I feel like when the pandemania hit, there was a hopeful feeling at first, like maybe the world will learn something, maybe it’ll learn to slow down. I was already decent at those things, but I took it to heart. But I was disgruntled to see that there was no communal effort from the world. I remember when it seemed like we might need to learn something but it was pretty obvious that it was not the case that people were learning.

HMS: There was a sense that maybe this showed us what the environment needed from us, to back off.

TF: That was huge! There was a lot less traffic. I would go on hikes. I would go down to the beach and take walks, just between me and the ocean. Those were great things and the air was better. We could have learned from that, but it didn’t stick. [Laughs]

HMS: I’m aware that some artists aren’t at the place where they can talk about their experiences with the pandemic, particularly in their work. But you were writing about it right away. Why do you think that came naturally to you?

TF: Certainly, it was just something so big. I was joking that no one told us in third grade that someday the world would shut down. For me, it was good to get creative and teach myself things, to follow self-learning. It does help me to go to an instrument like guitar, bass, or mandolin, and just start writing and let it flow. I take music however it comes. If I get some lyrics in a journal late at night, sometimes the next day, I’ll be writing music to it. But sometimes I’ll just be riffing on something, and lyrics will pop out.

HMS: I noticed that you included the song “Fallen Angel” in a new version on this album. What led up to that?

TF: “Fallen Angel” was retrospective. That was a song that I wrote a long time ago that had to do with Rodney King and the LA riots. I had only done it with a band I was in called The Silos where we had adjusted the lyrics to fit a band member who had passed away on the road. It was a very hard time. Now, it became about George Floyd because it felt so similar, in a way. So I called it “Fallen Angel 2020” since the world hasn’t learned anything since then. That one I just recorded from my house and I had two friends of mine play and send me their parts.

HMS: I really like this version a lot.

TF: It was a little more broken down and at home sounding, but sometimes that hits people more. It’s interesting.

HMS: It felt very earnest but the feeling of it also felt familiar. I feel like I understand why you included the cover of “Disney’s America”, but I’d like to hear from you why you included it.

TF: For one thing, the time just felt ripe. I just wanted to do that cover. Graham Parker and I have known each other a long time and I always told him that I would do that one. He was excited and when he heard the recording he said, “Tom, I’m well chuffed!” He’s one of my heroes, so hearing him say that blew me away. It fit really well with the other songs. The world felt a little fake at that time, a little Disney-ish, corny, and business-oriented. Maybe flashy.

HMS: I like those words, “business-oriented” and “flashy” since that’s how it felt to me. In some ways, that’s what people want normality to be. They want to get back to that. The song also gives a strong sense of a before and after, a retrospective sense of something lost. With the pandemic, there’s definitely a before and after and things don’t feel the same. In some ways, finding a way to relate to that is a first step to better things.

TF: Most people know Graham’s early stuff more, but I chose that from one of his mid to later records. We were on a songwriter’s tour when I put out my first album and I was on the bus with one of my heroes. When I heard him play that song, I said, “I’m gonna cover that one day.” I sometimes do covers, and I put out one during the pandemania that’s not on this album called, “He Was a Friend of Mine”, with Ben Harper. It’s an old, classic song. That one kind of blew up and was fun.

HMS: What prompted that song choice for you?

TF: We were both talking about the road and people we’d lost on the road. Also, someone was asking if I’d do it for a release for a book relating to Bob Dylan since Dylan recorded a very famous version of it. It was great to do a duet with Ben.

HMS: Collaboration gets you out of your space suit. Some of these songs are geared more towards relationship stuff.

TF: That tends to be my thing!

HMS: I liked the song “Rebound” since I haven’t come across songs where someone is so open about wanting a real relationship, and not just to be a rebound. There’s a little bit of criticism there from the speaker, assuming that they could be treated as a rebound by this person.

TF: That’s all correct. That song wasn’t written during the pandemic. It was a little earlier. But it felt like a valid relationship song to include. Tom Freund’s school of relationships where I speak my mind. [Laughs]

HMS: Was it hard to express those ideas briefly in one song?

TF: It felt like the right amount of language, just enough. The songs on this album are a bit lengthy, actually. [Laughs]

HMS: One thing that stood out to me about this song is that sometimes if you reveal someone’s fears to them, it can go very badly, but sometimes it can also be a potential way to get through to them. So the outcome of this song could be disastrous or helpful. You decide! It puts things on the line.

TF: What I realized in this song is that the chorus is saying not only, “I don’t want to be one of those guys.” But it’s also saying, “I want to be with you.” So it’s expressing both sides of it and asking to talk about this openly. That’s the trick.

HMS: At least you know at that point, one way or the other.

TF: Exactly!

HMS: What’s the history of “Show on the Road”?

TF: That song is a little different because I did it with different people. That one had been recorded earlier but I decided to put it on this record because it felt like the mood of everything else. It’s another Tom relationship song. It’s a little “Rebound-y”.

HMS: It is. But even when you look at these relationship songs, if you step back and think about it, they are talking about getting stuck and needing to find a way to keep moving. That really fit the times and still does. It’s what everyone’s been through. And of course, relationships have been very strained.

TF: Good point. I’ve heard that. I would say to friends, “What a time to be alone”, and they’d say, “But it did us in.” I heard a lot of that, that the time made relationships strained.

HMS: There was the occasional happier story where people who had broken up spent alone time rethinking things and actually got back together.

TF: That might the subject of “Don’t Wait (Back Home)”. [Laughs] It’s about trying to reconnect during a strange time.

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